NIGERIA: Guns, gangs, drugs feed growing delta violence
Youths armed with pistols and Kalashnikovs barricaded all approaches to Victoria Street in Port Harcourt, the main city in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta, when a funeral took place there recently. With bandanas tied across their foreheads they searched people for weapons before letting them through. The funeral passed off without incident.
“Their action was meant to deter possible attacks by rival gangs,” said Benibo Alabo-Jack, a resident of adjoining Aggrey Road, who watched the scene warily from his balcony.
Traditionally funerals have been big social events in Port Harcourt and surrounding districts, providing the opportunity for the wealthy to show off by sponsoring feasting, and singing and dancing sometimes lasting several days.
More recently, funerals have provided a platform for the manifestation of an emerging gun culture that has gripped Port Harcourt and much of the 70,000sqkm delta region where nearly all of Nigeria’s oil is produced, said Alabo-Jack.
“Most of those carrying weapons are youths aged 16-25,” he said.
A study in 2004 commissioned by Royal Dutch Shell, the biggest oil multinational in Nigeria, estimated 1,000 people, mostly youths, were dying every year in violence between rival militia groups in the Niger Delta.
More up-to-date figures are not available but violence in the region has worsened: It is dominated by hostage-taking targeting foreign oil workers who are usually released in exchange for a ransom, but has also sparked turf wars between rival gangs.
Worst violence since 2004
At least 20 people were shot dead on 1 July as rival gunmen went on the rampage in different parts of the city’s Diobu District. Many of the victims were innocent bystanders and included a 10-year-old girl who was helping her mother roast corn by a street corner, a pregnant woman hit by a stray bullet inside a church and three men shot dead while drinking at an open air bar.
This year has also seen the worst violence in the city since the first upsurge of militia violence in 2004, including two audacious attacks on police stations in which more than a dozen people were killed, including 10 policemen. In one of the attacks on the city’s police headquarters, assailants freed Soboma George, head of a notorious militia known as the Outlaws, (who had been detained by the police following a traffic offence) and 124 other prisoners.
Politicians armed gangs?
The year 2004 had provided the tipping point for worsening violence in the region. In June that year a funeral procession led by the delta’s best known militia leader, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, for the burial of his father, was attacked by a rival gang. While Dokubo-Asari escaped unhurt, more than a dozen people were killed. Scores were killed in subsequent gang violence in the city later that year.
The violence had stemmed from the 2003 general elections during which politicians were alleged to have armed gangs of youths to help them into power. Two prominent gang leaders acknowledged they had received funding and support from Rivers State governor Peter Odili.
With the election over, many armed groups in the region turned to the illegal trade in crude oil and refined petroleum siphoned from pipelines criss-crossing the delta, taken onto barges and sold locally or to foreign ships waiting offshore. The lucrative trade provided funds for the purchase of weapons that made the various groups even more lethal.
Drugs to the fore
While Dokubo-Asari turned political, and campaigned for more local control of Nigeria’s oil wealth by the impoverished inhabitants of the delta, other gangs became more deeply involved in criminal rackets.
Gunrunning, kidnapping and extortion of ransom from oil companies remain a staple of most criminal rings in the region.
However, local and foreign security sources say drugs are increasingly playing a role in the escalation of violence and widespread availability of weapons in the Niger Delta.
“We are getting information that a lot of the violence between rival gangs is over who controls the drugs that are now coming into the delta in growing quantities,” said an oil industry security expert who spoke on condition of anonymity.
West Africa’s stretch of the Gulf of Guinea has in recent years become a major transit zone for cocaine from South American drug cartels seeking narcotics routes into Europe and North America. Large drug hauls have been landed in remote air strips in places like Guinea Bissau, where they are broken up into smaller packets and taken to mules located in other places in West Africa.
An increasingly lawless Niger Delta has become an attractive route and many of the region’s criminal gangs are cashing in, said security sources.
“Some of the ransom payments have definitely gone towards satisfying some drug cravings and that’s why we’re worried the kidnappings will get worse,” said a senior Nigerian police official who did not wish to be named.
As foreign oil workers become ever more scarce on the streets of Port Harcourt and other Niger Delta towns and cities, kidnappers are now picking Nigerian targets. At least four toddlers, including a three-year-old British girl, have been kidnapped in the past month by gunmen demanding ransoms. Several Nigerian oil workers have also been taken hostage in recent weeks.
“What we are witnessing are some of the worst manifestations of a social crisis that has been festering in the delta and the country as a whole in the past three decades,” said Pius Waritimi, a sculptor and art teacher who runs a government-backed skills training scheme for youths in Port Harcourt.
With most families in the grip of abject poverty, and deep-rooted corruption and mismanagement in government frustrating social development, most youths without education and skills have become cheap recruitment targets for the militias and gangs, said Waritimi.
“What is even more worrying is that for many of these youths the drug of choice in no longer marijuana but crack cocaine,” he added.