Nigeria has agreed a one-month ceasefire with militants behind recent attacks on oil facilities in its southern Niger Delta, a petroleum ministry official said on Tuesday, as efforts continue to end the unrest that has pushed crude output to 30-year lows.
Militants say they want a greater share of Nigeria's oil wealth to go to the impoverished Delta region. Crude sales make up about 70 percent of national income and the vast majority of that oil comes from the southern swampland.
The ministry official said the Niger Delta Avengers, who have claimed responsibility for most attacks in the last few weeks, were among those who have agreed to the truce. A second government official confirmed that a truce was agreed.
But militant groups including the Avengers, who last week told the government they would only agree to talks if independent foreign mediators were involved, could not immediately be reached for comment. The group, whose leaders are not known, mainly communicates via its twitter feed.
It may be difficult to implement a ceasefire in the hard to access swamps where militants are divided into small groups that tap widespread anger over poverty and oil spills. Leaders have little sway over unemployed youths willing to work for anyone who pays them.
Earlier this month, the government said the military campaign in the Delta would be scaled down as part of an attempt to pursue talks with militants, who laid down their arms in 2009 in exchange for cash benefits under a government amnesty scheme.
The petroleum ministry official, who asked not to be identified, said the ceasefire was agreed last week when a government delegation led by the oil minister, Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, held talks with community leaders and state governors.
"It was very difficult getting the Niger Delta Avengers to the negotiating table, but we eventually did through a proxy channel and achieved the truce," said the official.
"Government requested more than a month but since they insisted a month we have no choice than to oblige them. Government will use this period of respite to come up with a master plan for the region," added the official.
Nigeria, an OPEC member, was Africa's top oil producer until the recent spate of attacks pushed it behind Angola. Oil production has fallen from 2.2 million barrels at the start of the year to around 1.6 million barrels.
The impact on output has also helped global oil prices to rally.
NO OFFICIAL STATEMENT
Neither the presidency nor the petroleum ministry issued official statements on a truce. President Muhammadu Buhari has said the government wanted to hold talks with Niger Delta leaders to address poverty and oil pollution.
But his administration angered former militants when it cut by two-thirds the budget allocated for the amnesty programme set up in 2009. Ex-militants were paid stipends and given employment training from that programme.
A number of new militant groups have sprung up in the last few weeks, each with their own set of demands, which has made the insurgency increasingly fractured. It is not yet clear how many groups took part in the talks.
A Nigeria-based security expert, who did not want to be named, said he did not believe the government has been holding talks with the right people.
In a sign of apparent discord among groups in the Delta, former militants who were known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) have criticised the Avengers and urged them to negotiate with the government.
In the most recent statement posted on the Avengers' website, dated June 18, the group said of the ex-militants, "if you and your criminals want to resurrect the defunct MEND and negotiate with the Government that is your business".
"We once again, restate that we are not going to be part of any dialogue and peace that will achieve only 'the peace of our time'," it added.