I still remember that day like it was yesterday. General Felix was dressed in complete military fatigues, a camouflage shirt and trouser, leather combat boots and an oversized red beret hanging loosely over his small head. He held a staff with shiny insignia at the top on his left hand and, on his right hand, he held a roll of marijuana, its unfiltered ash burning its way slowly to the butt. “General Felix” was the Commander of the Niger Delta Red Squad, one of the two militant groups operating in Awarra community in Ohaji Egbema local government area of Imo State. We were sitting in front of his house, located right in the middle of a farm surrounded by menacing looking young men toting machine guns. He leaned towards me, baring his brown teeth in a half grin, wearing dark sunglasses, his left foot on top of a human skull and asked me “do you know Don Waney”? The question, a reaction to his finding out for the first time that I was from Rivers State.
It was more a challenge than a question. What he was really saying was, “since you claim you work in Peace and Security, and you are from Rivers State, let me see if you know one of the deadliest militants operating in that area”. Fortunately, I had heard of the dreaded Don Waney, the atrocities he had committed and his growing legend in Ogbaland and beyond. So I kept a straight face and replied in the affirmative. He gave a toothy smile like a Police Officer that has confirmed that your credentials are in fact legitimate and said “I learned under him’.
It was the 15th day of August 2016, we had set off early in the morning for Awarra Court area, one of the autonomous communities in Ohaji Egbema local government area of Imo State. Our mission was to visit the leaders of two rival militant groups; the Niger Delta Red Squad and the Niger Delta Rescue Force to monitor the sanctity of a peace pact initially brokered between them on the 1st of August on the need to cease hostilities. Prior to that pact, most of the area had been embroiled in severe inter-communal crisis that had dovetailed into violent clashes between the two armed groups, resulting in residents fleeing their homes to neighbouring villages or, in some cases, to the state capital of Owerri. It took the Intervention of the Partners for Peace (P4P), a network of peace actors and a grassroots-led initiative, to get the rival groups to agree to a cease fire so that residents could begin to pick up the thread of their lives again. The said ceasefire brokered was becoming fragile (as these things often are, being essentially no more than gentleman agreements) and we headed to have a chat with both leaders again to extract more promises of keeping the pact.
A detailed look at any literature on the history of armed groups in the Niger Delta will show you that Rivers State has been at the epicenter of militancy and cult activities in the region. Sofiri Joab Peterside notes the role of ethnic militia in prosecuting the wars between the Elemes and the Okirikas in the 1990s. As the militias grew more powerful they began to be used as tools to rig local Politicians into power and to offer protection for oil bunkering activities. As Asuni noted, interethnic warfare provided a convenient cover for illicit activities. Bunkerers established armed groups to stir up ethnic discord, creating an atmosphere of chaos that diverted attention from their operations. Against the background, the reputation of Rivers State as breeding ground for some of the infamous ex-militant leaders the region has ever known began to grow.
In her 2009 Council of Foreign Relations working paper titled ‘Understanding the armed groups of the Niger Delta’, Judy Asuni showed how “the emergence of heavily armed groups in the Niger Delta has often combined longstanding ethnic rivalries and competition over resources to form a volatile mix. Their malevolent influence contributed to a particularly serious spate of violence in Warri, in Delta State. Here, three ethnic groups— the Urhobo, the Itsekiris, and the Ijaws—were already engaged in a deadly struggle for the right to win contracts, rent, and employment from the local oil companies. Rival ethnic groups armed and trained the militants and set them loose on their enemies”.
Judy Asuni also traced the progression of armed groups from University Confraternities that initially started out as social groups in the early 1950s to 1970s.
According to her, “The tenor of these groups began to change in the mid-1980s as they shifted from respectable social clubs to belligerent gangs that terrorized their campuses, a transformation that reflected a wider breakdown of traditional values in society. While the members still referred to their groups as confraternities, outsiders preferred to use the word cult, a term intended to signify the secretive nature of these groups, with their oaths and rituals and behavior, which often strayed outside accepted social norms”.
In Nigeria, politicians need armed groups to win elections, so any progress made in addressing armed violence is often thwarted by the same government or the opposition during the election cycle, leaving the people of Rivers State in a horrific merry-go-round of violence in spite of who is governor or what party acronym he identifies with. According to Asuni; “Unscrupulous politicians were quick to spot the usefulness of having hired muscle to further their ambitions. Armed men were employed to interfere in the 1999 elections in Rivers State, helping to rig the vote. By 2003, their influence was clear for all to see. Rivers State politicians belonging to all parties hired armed groups to intimidate and sometimes kill political opponents, deter voters from going to the polls, steal ballot boxes, and deliver the result their sponsors demanded. In return for their assistance, militias received weapons and money”.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I would not blame you if you thought she was describing the 2015 elections in Rivers State.
Due to these dynamics, we have witnessed an increased proliferation of armed groups in Rivers State, with each generation of armed groups trying to outdo the previous one. Beyond election-related violence, these groups unleash mayhem on citizens in form of kidnapping, robberies, rape, and other forms of violence, while recruiting local youth into illegal activities. Yet, very little is done by the government security institutions to address this issue. Even in cases where arrests have been made, prosecutions are stalled until the issue is swept under the carpet and the perpetrator released back into the community to continue his atrocities. How else can we justify the Don Waneys of this world having access to powerful politicians and even integrated into the fabric of traditional leadership in their communities?
What do we need to do differently, to effectively drive this menace from our borders? How do we reduce (if you are a pessimist like me) armed violence in Rivers State? It should be noted there are a combination of factors that contribute to the blossoming of cultism in Rivers State; the proliferation and availability of arms, the lure of economic gains from bunkering, drug trade and political patronage, a long and delayed Judicial process, an ineffective security system and increased rates of youth unemployment.
To paraphrase the Learned Peace Scholar Johan Galtung, it is important to not have a narrow view of reducing violence, but rather to seek a more comprehensive and longer term means of achieving peace. Any solution that isn’t holistic and robust enough to address these factors will be merely scratching the surface and will be akin to cutting down the branches of a tree in the hope that the tree will die. In the past, both the State and Federal Governments have offered Amnesty as a means of incentivizing perpetrators of armed violence to lay down their arms. As precedence has shown, this tactic has only led to beneficiaries of respective amnesty programs going back to their life of crime and violence. In most cases, the amnesty offered to them had given them impetus to conduct their criminal ventures in broad daylight, under the noses of governments and security forces.
As long as arms are freely moved within and into the state, as long as unemployed young men know they stand a lot to gain economically from oil bunkering, drugs or political patronage, the allure of becoming involved in armed groups will always be strong. Until this is done, we will continually many more Don Waneys in Rivers State.
Nkasi Wodu, a Lawyer and Peace Practitioner writes from Port Harcourt.