Nov. 2 (PREMIUM TIMES) – The tale of disappointed Niger Delta ex-militants who had come to Lagos to train as Marine Engineering Assistants.
On a recent afternoon in Lagos, two half naked, barrel-chested men on the second floor of an hotel, in Lekki, leaned out from their window.
The shorter of the duo inquired from another fellow who was making his way towards the hotel’s gate if he had received any notification on his mobile phone crediting his bank account.
The fellow replied in the negative, releasing a thick cloud of smoke from the mouth, as he strolled out of the hotel.
All three men were among the 153 former militants from the Niger Delta region who arrived in Lagos, last June, to begin a 22 week training as Marine Engineering Assistants.
The programme was bankrolled by the Post Amnesty Oil and Gas Industry Foundation, a consortium of 14 oil exploration companies, set up in November 2009 to support the Amnesty Programme of the Federal Government through the funding of projects and programmes for the rehabilitation and re-integration of the transformed former militants.
Lost in Lagos
On June 3, about seven buses bearing ex-militants from Delta, Rivers, and Bayelsa States arrived in Ajegunle, an overcrowded Lagos suburb.
“That day we came to Lagos, we suffer better suffer at Ajegunle. No previous arrangement for accommodation. We slept in the buses,” recalled James Odion (not his real name)
“When you travel for a long distance, you have to rest. All the hotels, we didn’t like anyone. Till 4 o’clock the next day, we were still looking for where to lay our head.
“Just because we are used to the system of hard life, it was not new to us,” Mr. Odion said.
Finally, they settled for five hotels including New Arrivals, Comfort, and Chop Life Hotels all in Ajegunle.
Mr. Odion said that they lived in the hotel for weeks “without doing anything.”
Weeks later, they were conveyed in a convoy of buses to the Federal College of Fisheries and Marine Technology, in Victoria Island, where they were put in two classrooms to begin their lessons.
“The first day we go school, we agitate say we no go fit learn under this kind of environment.
“To worsen matters, our Coordinator come bring letter, that we need to sign an agreement of good behaviour,” said Mr. Odion.
“They think say we come beg them to teach us. It is their right for them to teach us,” he added.
The students’ ‘agitation’ disrupted lectures for one week; and then they returned to their classes.
But the lecturers weren’t showing up for their lectures, according to the students.
“After we resolved the problem, we agreed make them learn us, we were willing to learn, we bring down our pride, we begged,” Mr. Odion said.
“It’s only one man that is always punctual.”
In addition to the overcrowded classrooms, the former militants had other complaints – they had expected to be separated into various groups as well using modern learning equipment.
“We have people among us who cannot read and write. At least, you would have made an atmosphere for those people to gain something,” Mr. Odion said.
“We were even expecting them to be playing us videos, after the video, you’ll explain. When they teach you like that you must understand.”
Instead, on the day they had a practical class on fire fighting, according to one of them, the lecturer brought a metal bucket, torn blankets, and gallons of water and fuel to the class.
After explaining the three component elements of fire, he poured the water and fuel into the bucket, lighted it, and asked them to use the blanket to snuff out the fire.
“We were expecting the Western world kind of teaching,” said Mr. Odion.
Enter the militants
The former militants said that their Coordinator, whom they identified simply as Barrister Nathaniel, was never around to receive their myriads of complaints.
Instead, Mr. Nathaniel brought a lady, whom they identified as Mrs. Lillian, to oversee to their well being.
Ironically, Mrs. Lillian’s arrival burst the bubble, according to them.
Their “comfortable” stay in Ajegunle came to an abrupt end after the lady reportedly brought her own ideas.
“She imposed herself on us. She said that if you want to change somebody, that it is not by bringing the person from a village and dumping him in a ghetto area,” said Mr. Odion.
So after about two months Ajegunle, where their air conditioned hotel rooms cost between N3,600 and N6,500 per night; they moved to the more ‘posh’ hotels in Lekki.
On arrival at Lekki, they were checked into three hotels – Home Sweet life and Best Southern in Lekki; and Wadbash Hotels in Ajah.
At Best Southern Hotel, lodging costs between N10,000 and N21,000 per night.
“The hotels here are much worse than the ones in Ajegunle,” Mr. Odion said.
The change in environment seemed to precipitate a hitherto suppressed violence in them.
In the first month of their stay, some police officers flagged down their buses at a Zebra Crossing in Victoria Island, the boys came down from their vehicles, attacked the police officers, tore their uniforms, and chased them away.
A police officer at Maroko Police Station confirmed the incident but insisted that further inquiries should be directed to the Police Public Relations Office.
The former militants also reportedly engaged in a fight with some cultists near the school after they refused to pay for the Indian Hemps they smoked.
One day, when a lecture was in progress, one of the boys reportedly tore a bible – after asking if it was a marine bible – into shreds. When the lecturer accosted him, he told him off, reminding him that he had used the part where Psalm 23 was written to smoke Indian Hemp in the past.
Mr. Odion admitted that there are some people in their midst who are “very difficult to understand” because everybody sees himself as a “god.”
“Some people when they see something, they’ll say ‘this people have come to marginalize us, let us spoil something.’
“But you have to tell yourself that you have gone through this training and you are supposed to change, you are supposed to develop some diplomacy in your way of addressing issues,” he said.
‘We did our best’
By 2011, the main focus of the Foundation shifted to short term, quick impact activities to increase the overall employability of those participating in the programme.
Sule Abiodun, the former militants’ coordinator in school, said that the school did her best for the students.
On the claims that lecturers weren’t coming to teach them; Mr. Abiodun, who quickly debunked such claims, said that the students deserved whatever they got.
“How will you comprehend a student coming to class and start smoking Indian Hemp? And yet we tolerated all these things,” said Mr. Abiodun, Deputy Director, Academics, at the institute.
“They fought with one another to the extent that they were using guns to pursue one another.
“I took major courses with them, I’ve been in the classroom where they’ll bring goat and tie beside a chair,” Mr. Abiodun said.
Mr. Abiodun also faulted claims by the former militants that “they did not learn anything” saying that the institute has adequate capacity to train them.
“We have about 2,000 students here studying higher courses. How can the college not be able to train 153 people in something as basic as Quarter Master?” he said.
“What they are agitating for is three months extension because of the money they are getting.
“If you are here to do a 5 month course, which is Quarter Master, if we extend it by three months, which certificate are we going to give you when you leave?
“They haven’t learnt anything but they can take boats out, and each one of them can berth a vessel,” Mr. Abiodun said.
“And meanwhile, the regular students, they did not see vessel throughout their lives,” he added.
Officials wont own up
All the officials named by the former militants to have been part of their stay in Lagos refused to comment on their claims.
When he was contacted, Larry Pepple of the Post Amnesty Office declined to state the reason for shutting down the Lagos training centre when the students have not sat for their examination.
He also refused to comment on the claims that the former militants had been asked to collect their certificates without being examined, adding that he doesn’t talk to media houses “he doesn’t know of.”
Mrs. Lilian, who allegedly engineered their move from Ajegunle to Lekki and handled the boys’ accommodation and other welfare matters declined to comment on her role.
Mr. Odion had said that they did not know if she was the “spokesperson” for the Oil and Gas Industry Foundation or the Post-Amnesty Office.
When contacted, Mrs. Lillian told PREMIUM TIMES to disregard whatever the former militants said, warning that we “should not write anything about her in the newspaper.”
Asked who she worked for, Mr. Lillian simply said that she does not have any relationship with anybody.
“If they tell you I’m the one taking care of them, take it like that,” she added.
For Barrister Nathaniel, whom they said was their overall coordinator, phone calls were not answered.
However, after a text message and a follow up call, a lady picked to say it was a “wrong number.”
The former militants also named one Owei Opreye as a representative of the Foundation.
When contacted, Mr. Opreye asked for the nature of PREMIUM TIMES inquiry and hung up immediately after he was told.
Subsequent calls were not answered.
Penultimate Thursday, the former militants embarked on a protest to express dissatisfaction with the ‘treatment’ meted to them.
Their destination, the Chevron office in Lekki where they hoped to picket, was deserted as it was a public holiday.
So they marched to the head office of Silverbird Television, nearby, where they voiced their discontent.
Two days later, a reportedly embarrassed Mr. Pepple arrived Lagos to announce the closure of the Lagos training programme for the former militants.
“What they are even doing is against amnesty rules, to go to the press,” said Mr. Abiodun.
Their stay in Lagos officially expired last Tuesday. While some have left, some have stayed back “at their own expenses”, according to Mrs. Lillian.
Mr. Odion said that everybody would eventually return to the Niger Delta and await the Post-Amnesty office to reabsorb them into the federal government’s programme.
“Absolutely nothing we have achieved here,” Mr Odion said.