Port Harcourt - Nigeria is expected to begin rehabilitating hundreds of former militants in the Niger Delta this week, raising hopes for improved security in the oil-producing region, organisers said on Monday.
President Goodluck Jonathan has made a priority of reviving a post-amnesty programme for thousands of former gunmen who surrendered their arms last year in return for the promise of stipends, education and job opportunities.
The first batch of 2 000 ex-rebels started arriving at the amnesty centre in Obubra in Cross River state on Monday, where they will undergo a four-week course aimed at reintegrating them back into society after years living by the gun.
The Opec member wants to rehabilitate more than 20 000 former gunmen by the end of the year.
"This gives the boys hope for a better future. This is the opportunity we have all been waiting for and we pray that none of us miss it," said Selekeari Victor Ben, co-ordinator for ex-rebels from Bayelsa state.
A former rebel leader told reporters this month he would abandon the amnesty programme if the government did not quickly deliver its promises of jobs and development in the impoverished region.
Classes, which will involve instructors from the United States and Europe, are scheduled to start on Thursday.
"The first phase of this training is the transformation of the minds of the former fighters, which is to make sure these people are re-orientated to conform to normal social lifestyles," said Richard Akinaka, the co-ordinator for ex-militants from Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Cross River states.
Nigeria's post-amnesty programme has been delayed for months since President Umaru Yar'Adua became ill last November.
Yar'Adua died last month and was immediately replaced by Jonathan, who has promised to revive the programme and improve security in his native Niger Delta. Militant attacks, which were particularly intense in 2006, significantly disrupted Nigeria's oil industry, preventing it from pumping much more than two thirds of its three-million-barrel-per-day capacity. Output has never fully recovered.