The Men Behind the Trigger in Niger Delta
By Chris Ajaero
Sunday, August 24, 2008
They are mostly school drop-outs who joined the various cult groups out of frustration but have now made good money from bunkering and kidnapping for ransom
Gibson Kala alias Prince Igodo was one of the early leaders of the growing army of cultists and militants in the Niger Delta. He shared in the belief that his people have never had a fair share of the resources from oil exploited from the region. He also believed that the best way to effect desired changes in the attitude of the Nigerian government was violence.
So, he took charge of the Opuama and Bomo axis in the Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. As a militant group leader, Igodo had many fighters and experts under his command in the business of kidnapping for ransom. He made a lot of money and gained notoriety among fellow militants because of the reign of terror he unleashed on people, including the chiefs, elders and youths of Opuama as well as Bomo clan where he had his camp.
Last month, he became a victim of the militancy in the region. He was killed in the battle of supremacy among rival gangsters who claimed that Igodo derailed from the original philosophy of the struggle. He had become a chronic rapist and in the process turned the trigger against innocent women and others whose interests the militants claimed to be fighting for.
Igodo, who hailed from Opuama community in Bayelsa State is a tragic example of the uses and abuses of weapons by the men who constantly pull the triggers in the Niger Delta to tell the rest of Nigerians and the international community that they want nothing less than an equitable share of the oil resources from the region.
Newswatch learnt that Igodo whose mode of dressing, especially his unkempt beard portrayed him as a chief priest of a god derived the power which he used for militancy from the river. It was gathered that a few days before his death, a little boy had mysteriously appeared from the river with wine and hot drink. The boy was said to have gone to Igodo and told him that the river goddess told him to tell the warlord that because he had misused the power given to him, she would withdraw it from him and that his death was imminent.
A few days after the message from the river goddess was delivered to Igodo, a battle for territorial control ensued between him and Gumbos, a former member of his gang who broke away to form his own camp in Peremabiri. Igodo was said to have opposed Gumbos’ decision to establish another camp in Peremabiri as it would whittle down his influence and patronage from oil companies. Igodo was eventually subdued because three militant gangs who were not happy with his mode of operation teamed up to fight him.
The three gangs involved were led by Gumbos, Jarius Profit and Douglas. Their first target was his shrine in Opuama after which they laid ambush for him along the waterways and hijacked one of his speed boats. In the bloody battle between Igodo and the three gang leaders, he was shot at the leg and this incapacitated him. Since he was injured and power from the river goddess had apparently been withdrawn from him, his attackers caught up with him, tied him to a stake, cut off his two hands and left him to bleed to death. Newswatch learnt that there was jubilation in Opuama, Bomo and neighbouring communities when the people he had terrorised received the news of his demise.
Unlike in the case of the late Igodo who deviated from the original concept of the struggle by the Niger Delta militants, Government Ekpompolo, popularly called Tom Polo, leader of Camp 5 in Delta State is a focused, principled and a courageous warlord. He is one of the dreaded militant gang leaders who have kept security agencies in suspense with his mode of operation. Tom Polo who is in his early 30s in control of Camp 5 located close to a Chevron Tank Farm near Warri, Okrenkoko, Opuraza and the Ubefan axis of Delta State. His camp is said to be a Mecca of sorts for politicians who are aware of his influence among the militants. As part of the efforts of the federal government towards the restoration of peace in the troubled region, Goodluck Jonathan, the vice-president is said to have visited Tom Polo’s camp in June, last year. Edwin Kiagbodo Clark, former federal commissioner for information and vocal leader of the Niger Delta region, told Newswatch recently that Tom Polo, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari and Henry Okah were involved in government efforts towards finding a solution to the Niger Delta question.
The arrest of Okah made Tom Polo to beat a retreat since he felt that government was not sincerely committed to the peace process. Although Tom Polo has been pursuing the Niger Delta struggle with maturity, his camp boasts of sophisticated weapons such as AK 47 rifles, general purpose machine guns, GPMGs, rocket launchers and gun boats. Tom Polo is equally deadly, especially when he is provoked by security agents. It is also believed that Tom Polo’s camp has an anti-aircraft machine gun.
Dokubo-Asari confirmed Tom Polo’s interest in massing sophisticated weapons when he claimed that he (Tom Polo) gave him 50 AK 47s with which he (Dokubo-Asari) launched the first series of attacks on the stronghold of the Icelanders when he had issues to settle with the rival gang few years ago.
Tom Polo is said to be very confident that his camp has the capacity to counter any attack by the Joint Military Task Force, JTF, drafted to the Niger Delta region to crush the unfolding rebellion by the militants. He is also said to be one of the leaders of the Movement For the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, who believe that the only condition for peace is for the people of the oil-rich region to be allowed to control their resources. He is equally very rich as he enjoys patronage from politicians. However, Tom Polo is not quite known to the public as his creed seems to be "less talk and more action."
Victor-Ben Ebikabowei, a.k.a. Boy Loaf is another militant leader who is close to Tom Polo in terms of tactics and approach to the struggle. He does not believe in hostage taking. He prefers to bomb oil pipelines in the Niger Delta as a way of drawing the attention of both the government and the international community to the injustices meted out to his people. He operates three camps in Ezetu, Azuzuama and Agge, the border community between Ekeremor and Southern Ijaw council which was recently destroyed by the military. His gang is reputed to be one of the most organised and he has about 300 trained fighters under his control.
Before he formed his own gang, BoyLoaf was Dokubo-Asari’s protégé who operated in the Port Harcourt axis along with Dagogo Farah, another militant groomed by the NDVPF warlord. BoyLoaf was a trusted ally of Dokubo-Asari because of his expertise in the act of trigger-pulling and his bravery. It was when Dokubo-Asari was incarcerated by the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo that BoyLoaf decided to form his own gang.
He is known within the military circle as the "most organised militant boss in Bayelsa State" According to the JTF, BoyLoaf has in his camp 15 general purpose machine guns, 120 AK 47 rifles, 15 long range BMGS, three rocket propelled grenade launchers, RPGs, 17 new boats and 20 double 150 horsepower speed boats. The JTF security report signed by Brigadier General Lawrence Ngubare, former commander of the task force further stated that BoyLoaf was bent on becoming an illegal oil bunker and is known to have a violent disposition.
In the Niger Delta creeks where he operates as a lord, the heavily-built BoyLoaf is said to be always at alert because he knows the JTF sees him as one of the most dreaded militants who must be eliminated for peace to reign in the region. Another reason why the JTF wants BoyLoaf dead is because he has admitted openly that he is the arrowhead in the formation of MEND and is the deputy to Okah in this umbrella of all Niger Delta militants. It is believed that BoyLoaf spearhead in the recent bombing of the Bonga oil field. He has warned that the militants would continue with such actions in a bid to cripple the Nigerian economy if Okah was not released by the federal government as demanded by MEND.
A young man in his 30s, BoyLoaf is one of the few graduates involved in militancy. He said he decided to join the struggle because he felt frustrated by the injustices meted out to the Niger Delta people. He explained that he is not a criminal but a Niger Delta freedom fighter. "I believe that freedom is not free; you must fight for it and there must be sacrifices for freedom to be attained. There must be bloodshed in one way or the other. Even in the Bible, it was made clear that the kingdom of God will suffer violence upon violence until it is taken by force," he said.
Shortly after the bombing of the Bonga oil field by the militants, there were reports that President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua had sought military assistance from G8 countries and Britain to curb the rising militancy in the Niger Delta. But BoyLoaf said that the militants were not afraid to confront a combined team of the Nigerian military and British soldiers. He said: "We can assure Mr President one thing: that on the same day that the United Kingdom soliders shall set their foot on the Niger Delta, the country shall witness uncontrollable violence, and we have been praying for such a day. We must keep fighting against injustice and insist that Niger Delta must develop."
He explained that he was always bitter about the injustices done to his people and wondered if "Nigeria is not a funny country where people who do not know what the creeks look like own oil blocks, yet you have those who live in the creeks, earn their living in the creeks and die in the creeks, but do not know what oil blocks look like."
Some of the groups who are involved in the process of restoring peace in the Niger Delta are quite aware that BoyLoaf must be involved to achieve desired result. This was why Ebiakpo Tubolayefa, president of the Niger Delta Riverine Peace Campaign Movement recently visited him in his camp and pleaded with him for a ceasefire to create a conducive atmosphere for the on-going dialogue between the government and Niger Delta to achieve the desired result. "We, as a peace advocacy group, in our recent visits to these camps urged the militant leaders, especially General Boyloaf to cease fire and give the federal government a chance to address their demands as vandalisation of oil pipelines would rather multiply our problems instead of solving them," Tubolayefa said.
Despite the appeals made to BoyLoaf to stop his gang from blowing up oil installations, he appears not to be ready for a ceasefire. He insisted that the next action of the militants would be worse than what they did to the Bonga oil field unless concrete steps were taken to stop the continuous trial of Okah in camera. "We resisted the temptation of mass murder in the issues of Bonga field out of human sympathy against the principles of natural justice but our next action would be more deadly," BoyLoaf warned.
Africa Owei, who leads another militant gang in Bayelsa State, is also as deadly as Boy Loaf. There are insinuations in some quarters that he is an ex-prisoner who started out as a a political thug before his transformation to a militant leader.
He has his camp in Osiaperemo, near a creek along the waterways in Korokorosei community, in Bayelsa State, Owei is said to have under his command more than 400 trained fighters whom he has armed to the teeth with not less than three general purpose machine guns, 50 assorted riffles, AK 47, and pump action guns as well as dynamites with which he blows up oil installations. His gang sometimes engages in illegal oil bunkering to raise funds with which to acquire more sophisticated weapons. After each operation, Owei usually takes refuge at Azuzuama community which serves as his hide out.
Like Owei, Joshua Mackiver is believed to be another ex-prisoner involved in militancy. He was alleged to be one of the prison inmates who escaped from the Port Harcourt Prisons during the 2006 jail break. Mackiver has his camp in a fishing port around the Olugobiri community in the Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State.
In Rivers State, one militant who is respected because of the maturity with which he has handled the struggle for the emancipation of the Niger Delta people is Alali Horsfal, chairman, Ijaw Youth Council, IYC, Eastern zone. Horsfal who hails from Bille community in Degema Local Government Area of Rivers State, used to be an ally of Dokubo-Asari in the NDPVF. It was during Dokubo-Asari’s arrest and trial for treason that Horsfal formed his own gang. He has his camp in the Port Harcourt axis and he is one of the militants who are opposed to the unwholesome activities of some groups who have deviated from the concept of the struggle.
In a bid to install sanity in what he calls their legitimate struggle for "economic justice and greater economy," Horsfal recently organised a consultative meeting of the IYC in Port Harcourt. During the meeting, Horsfal prevailed on Ijaw youths involved in militancy to stop the hostilities of armed groups that have threatened peace and the conducive business environment in the region.
Horsfal, who is 46 years old and the son of Blessing Alali Horsfal, a retired inspector in the Nigerian Police Force, NPF, told Newswatch he joined the struggle because Bille, his community, has been marginalised over the years. Horsfal is not well educated and in the 1970s and 1980s, he used to be a lorry driver involved in loading oil from the Kaduna refinery. He said even at that time, he felt marganised because the business was dominated by the Northerners while the Niger Delta people remained in perpetual poverty.
Horsfal said although Bille, is one of the highest oil producing communities in Rivers State, his people have remained poor. "I got involved in the struggle when I noticed that successive governments in Nigeria have always enslaved the Niger Delta people by using the land use decree. For instance, in Bille community where I come from, there is no cottage hospital, government presence is not felt at all," he said.
Horsfal, who regards himself as one of the core freedom fighters, told Newswatch that although he is opposed to hostage taking and the killing of innocent people by some of his fellow militants, it is imperative for the federal government to show greater commitment towards addressing the Niger Delta question. He explained why such a step must be taken and urgently too. "We have been telling them that the recruitment of boys into militancy is increasing in the Niger Delta. We get 100 to 150 new recruits into each camp everyday. Any jobless boy will always want to go to the creeks."
He recalled that before Dokubo-Asari was arrested about two years ago, he (Horsfal) was one of the militants who accompanied him to meet former President Obasanjo in Aso Rock with a view to resolving the problem. During their peace parley with Obasanjo, it was agreed that there should be disarmament. However, while the militants were ready to cooperate, the federal government was not sincere as Dokubo-Asari was arrested shortly after the peace meeting.
Horsfal told Newswatch that when the Yar’Adua administration released both Dokubo-Asari and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, former governor of Bayelsa Sate, the militants maintained a ceasefire. However, following the arrest of Okah and his trial in camera, the militants had no option than to resume hostilities. "It does not concern them if Okah is an arms dealer in Angola. Let them try him in the open. But I think that the release of Okah is the only condition that would convince the core freedom fighters that the federal government is genuinely committed to the peace process," Horsfal said.
Horsfal disputed the frequent claims by the JTF that they killed some militants. According to him, no bullet can penetrate the body of any core freedom fighter because Egbesu, the god of Ijaw people will always shield them. "It is the unseen spirit which makes it difficult for anybody who shoots at us to kill us. It is the criminals that the JTT kill and not the core freedom fighters," Horsfal told Newswatch.
The Rivers State born activist believes that the only condition for the restoration of peace in the Niger Delta is for the oil communities to be allowed to control their resources. "We have always insisted that we want resource control and self determination by any means necessary," he said.
Of all the militant gang leaders in Rivers State, Ateke Tom, leader of the Niger Delta Vigilante, NDV, is the most dreaded. Tom, who is in his late 40s hails from Okirika, Rivers State. As a young man, he used to be a fisherman and also helped people who wanted to build houses in the water front. He is, therefore, not educated. However, because he is stoutly built, he later joined the ranks of Okrika strongmen. But at a stage, there was a problem and the gang known as the Bush Boys sent him out of Okirika. Later on, Dokubo-Asari persuaded other young men in the group to bring Tom back to Okirika. Both Tom and Dokubo-Asari then joined the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and worked together as political thugs for the party.
But when Dokubo-Asari declared what he called Operation Fiberesma which entailed an all-out attack across the water fronts, there was a face-off between him and Tom. Tom later brought Soboma George, who is now leader of the Outlaws into his gang. It was Tom that groomed George and later made him his deputy. Both of them teamed up and took the offensive on Dokubo-Asari in their battle for supremacy.
But at the inception of the short-lived administration of Celestine Omehia, former governor of Rivers State, Tom and George were at daggers drawn over the scramble for patronage from politicians. Newswatch learnt that the two former allies quarrelled because Tom was not happy that Omehia was hobnobbing with George while the Tom was declared wanted by the police and chased into the creeks.
Tom has been involved in most of the violent activities by militants in Okirika and Port Harcourt. His gang ushered in the year 2008 in a trail of bloodshed that led to the death of many innocent people and four policemen in Port Harcourt. It was a reprisal attack by Tom against the JTF which had launched an offensive in his camp in the Okochiri Evil Forest, Okirika, in December, last year. Governor Chibuike Amaechi of Rivers State had visited the forest a few months ago and was shocked by the sophistication of the arms found there by the JTF. The arms were allegedly stockpiled by Tom.
In recent times, there have been calls for Tom to come and testify before the Rivers Truth and Reconciliation Commission but he insists that the commission should come to the creeks to hear his testimony since they went to Abuja for some top Rivers State politicians to give their own testimonies. Tom is very rich and rides a Hummer Jeep.
A few weeks ago, Tom reconciled with Soboma George, leader of the Outlaws. Newswatch learnt that George had to reconcile with Tom because he needed his support in the on-going supremacy battle between him (George) and Farah Dagogo, leader of the Niger Delta Strike Force, NDSF. George and Farah are said to be fighting over territorial control and the sharing of the N350 million their gangs allegedly received as ransom on some foreign nationals they had kidnapped.
Sources said George’s men, who were more in number and the architect of that particular case of hostage taking felt they should take the lion’s share of N230 million while Farah’s group takes N120 million. This did not go down well with Farah who teamed up with Soboma Jackreece, alias Egberi Papa to fight George. Egberi Papa who hails from Buguma is believed to be the militant who kidnapped the wife of Lulu Briggs, a prominent politician in Rivers State early this year. On the other hand, George teamed up with Tom. The hostilities among the militant gangs has resulted to the loss of many lives and properties in Abonema and the Dock Yard Area of Port Harcourt.
During the short-lived administration of Omehia, George was said to be close to government authorities. This was because he allegedly killed Prince Igodo, leader of a dreaded gang that operated in the Ogbakiri axis of Rivers State. It was the late Igodo who allegedly masterminded the abduction of Cecelia Omehia, mother of the former governor Omehia from her Omordu Ubima home in Ikwerre Local Government Area in May 2007. In sympathy with Omehia’s mother, George allegedly killed Igodo and this was his strategy to warm himself into the heart of Omehias. The late Igodo was said to be a one-handed militant as he lost one of his arms during one of the inter-cult clashes.
George who killed Igodo is not quite educated. He is about 27 years old. George is a secondary school drop-out. He was a student of Enitonia High School, Borokiri, Port Harcourt, who dropped out in class four. He hails from the Kalabari Kingdom. Newswatch learnt that as a teenager, he was a jovial, football loving young man. He was deeply religious. It is believed that George abandoned his religious inclination when he started mixing up with other cult members and was initiated.
Sometime in 2005 he was arrested and detained in the Port Harcourt Prisons but his gang members broke through the prison wall and released him. Although George was declared wanted, he moved freely and socialised. George is like a cat with nine lives. During the attack on his hide-out in August 2007, he was declared dead by the police but it was later discovered that he escaped following a tip-off by security agents
Two other warlords in the Niger Delta who have shielded themselves from public glare are Sunny Opuambe, leader of the Bush Boys and Prince Idolor, who leads the Aboyan Boys in Ondo State. Opuambe who hails from Okirika in Rivers State was formerly Dokubo-Asari’s ally in NDPVF. Horsfal, the IYC chairman who worked together with Opuambe in the NDPVF described him as a core freedom fighter who is hardly associated with kidnapping for ransom. Opuambe operates mainly in the Okirika axis, while Idolor operates in the creeks of the Ijaw speaking part of Ondo State. He is one of the militants who usually ties the Egbesu talisman on his waist and this makes it difficult for the soldiers to get hold of him. But, a few months ago, the JTF invaded his camp in Ondo State and destroyed it, forcing him to relocate.
The man whose name has become synonymous with militancy in the Niger Delta region is Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, leader of the NDVPF. A few years ago when he was deeply involved in the struggle, he lived in the creeks with members of his gang. But he has since undergone a lot of transformation. What has helped Dokubo-Asari and made him a militant with a difference is that he is vocal and fairly educated. Dokubo-Asari, who is 44 years old, was a law student at the University of Calabar, UNICAL, a few years ago but dropped out in his third year. His family background has equally enhanced his pedigree. His late father was a high court judge and he got exposure very early in life before he travelled out of the country for training in guerrilla warfare.
Since he was released from detention last year, Dokubo-Asari appears to have turned a new leaf as he has not gone back to the creeks. He now lives in Abuja where he is currently establishing an automobile engineering company. Sources said Dokubo-Asari prefers not to stay in Rivers State most of the time to avoid conflict with fellow militants. He now enjoys a flamboyant life style and rides all kinds of flashy cars, including a Hummer Jeep.
However, early last month, Dokubo-Asari stirred a controversy when he described the Northerners as parasites who depend on the oil derived from the Niger Delta for survival. This brought him on collusion course with prominent Northern leaders.
In October, last year, Dokubo-Asari caused a row among fellow militants when he described Okah as a "bloodthirsty criminal." The dust raised by Dokubo-Asari’s revelation on Okah’s mode of operation as an arms dealer is yet to die down.
It was, however, gathered that Henry Okah who is currently being tried secretly in a Jos High Court is well respected among the militants. He is believed to be the person who used the name Gbomo Jomo to issue press statements for MEND through the e-mail. The 43-year-old leader of MEND who was arrested in Angola last year for gun running had lived in South Africa with his family since 2003. He is a trained merchant mariner whose knowledge of the international marine business prepared him for a career as an international arms dealer. The federal government suspects that Okah is the major source of weapon to the militants in the Niger Delta. Hence, he is still being incarcerated. It was, however, learnt that his trial is in camera because some of the weapons he allegedly supplied to the militants were allegedly mopped up from the Nigerian Army armoury in Kaduna.
No doubt, the activities of these men behind the trigger in the Niger Delta have heightened tension in the region. The most recent action of the militants which jolted both the Nigerian authorities and the international community was the attack on the Bonga oil facilities located deep in the high sea. Worried by the state of insecurity in the Niger Delta caused by the militants, the Civil Society Coalition recently met in Port Harcourt to seek ways of reaching out to the militants to persuade them to adopt a non-violent approach to the struggle.
Anyakwee Nsirimovu, executive director of the Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, IHRHL, told Newswatch that the issue of militancy in the region is now complex and complicated because it is difficult to separate the genuine liberation fighters from the criminals who have infiltrated their ranks. "It is very confusing because what you see are groups emerging almost on a daily basis and the youths go to the creeks in droves to be recruited into the militant’s camps."
Onengiya Erokosima, former spokesman of Dokubo-Asari and president, Niger Delta Non-Violent Movement, told Newswatch that he is currently holding consultations with the militants to convince them to embrace the non-violent approach to their struggle for justice. He, however, said that the militants believe that the only condition for dialogue is if they are granted amnesty by the government. "I believe that if the militants are granted amnesty, I will convince them to embrace the non-violent approach to the struggle and I promise that within six months, they will drop their arms and peace would reign in the Niger Delta." Erokosima said.
Glory Chika Nsiegbe, a.k.a Anointed man of God in Grace and pastor of the Christ Mustard Mission, Port Harcourt, told Newswatch that the genesis of militancy in the region was the emergence of two cult groups in the 1990s known as the Deebam and Deewell. The two rival cult groups initiated some youths into their street and creek wings to consolidate their territorial control. When the politicians were looking for thugs to assist them rig elections during the 1999 and 2003 elections, they hired these cultists and bought arms for them.
Armed with these weapons, the political thugs later transformed into militant gangs and used the guns to kidnap for ransom. Nsiegbe had during his divine revelation on January 1, predicted that militanxy in the Neger Delta will be on the increase, this year. He advised President Yar’Adua to develop the Niger Delta and provide jobs for the jobless youths so as to reduce the growing army of the militants in the Niger Delta creeks.
Additional reports by Godfrey Azubike.