Using the 2009 Amnesty in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, this paper explores youth manipulation of neopatrimonial systems of coercion and cooptation. It makes three arguments. First, the violence preceding the amnesty declaration was as much a youth-led insurgency to protest social and environmental justice issues as it was a crisis within Nigeria’s neopatrimonial system. Second, the amnesty programme was designed to re-constitute the collapsed neopatrimonial system, linking youth to patrons both within the Delta and in the broader Nigerian society. Finally, the paper argues that a counter hegemonic process through which youth express their agency by manipulating the amnesty in innovative ways is going on simultaneously. These arguments indicate a need to reconsider familiar tropes of ethnicity, culture and institutional deficits in the way we think about governance projects in post-colonial Africa and the tendency to exaggerate the relevance of the ‘bigman’.