With no fewer than 85 people killed in violence traced to cultism, sea piracy, politics, kidnapping and illegal bunkering (oil theft) within the last one year, Rivers State has become one of the most notorious states in Nigeria with respect to deadly crimes and youth related violence.
Though the Rivers State police command says the command is tackling the menace, findings by National Point indicate that the cases have continued to rise as criminal cult, kidnap, piracy and bunkering gangs are spreading.
The situation has been giving residents, visitors and people doing business in the state, good reason to worry. Even foreign missions in Nigeria are also troubled about the situation. The United States government in its travel advisory to its citizens in January listed Rivers State as one of the states with high security risk especially in kidnapping, and maritime crimes.
The advisory said, “There is civil unrest and low-level armed militancy in parts of Southern Nigeria, especially in the Niger Delta region. Armed criminality, including kidnapping and maritime crime, is also pervasive in this region.”
The advisory categorically urged citizens not to travel to any part of Rivers State except Port Harcourt. Curiously, most of the recent cult and political related violence, and kidnapping had occurred within and around Port Harcourt.
Some observers have placed responsibility for the situation on politicians, who play godfather roles to members of the criminal gangs and protect them from security agencies. Another school has also pointed high youth unemployment in the state. The Coordinator of Eastern Zone Parliamentarians of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Comrade Gilpin Okesiyesuma, said if youths were meaningfully engaged, they would have no time for violent criminal activities.
Rivers State Police Public Relations Officer, Mrs. Grace Iringe-Koko, who has on several occasions acknowledged the increased incidence of violent crimes in the state, has however consistently reaffirmed the commitment of the command to rid the state of violent gangs and criminal elements.
Rivers State is Nigeria’s ‘Treasure Base’ with massive oil and gas deposits and investments. The state, which is a choice destination for local and international visitors due to its strategic economic and political importance in the comity of states in Nigeria, is also host to Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG); a multi-billion dollar gas processing investment.
Despite these lofty attributes, the state is regarded as one of Nigeria’s most volatile states, due to its unpredictability in youth restiveness. In 2003, the state became a theatre of violence after armed gangs engaged each other in battles of supremacy. The violent unrest was also induced by politicians from within and outside the state who empowered youths with sophisticated weapons. Although calm eventually returned after the federal government’s amnesty programme, the state’s fragility index rating is still ranked high by security watchers.
Chief amongst the major reasons for the fragility rating is linked to prevailing cultism violence in the state. Other major criminalities that have steadily defined the insecurity profile of the state include political violence, sea piracy (robbery), kidnapping, and oil theft. Casualty figures from these challenges have also continuously evolved steadily.
Over the years, the state has witnessed a systematic spread in cultism related violence which often leaves takes of woes behind. Young people in search of clout and protection from peers, have consistently enlisted into violent cult gangs with hopes that someday they can become conflict entrepreneurs that will enjoy government patronage. The various gangs which enjoy the backing of top politicians in the state have also balkanized the state into economic fiefdoms.
In recent times the Rivers State Police Command has recorded strings of successes against notorious cult kingpins and kidnappers in the state. At the last count, the police have eliminated four notorious cultists including a most wanted cult leader and six other suspected kidnappers terrorizing the East-West Road. Despite these efforts, the state still ranks as one of the states with relatively high security risk especially in cultism related killings, maritime crime, kidnapping and political violence.
In a bid to ascertain the human cost of insecurity in the state, National Point did a year-long conflict mapping which looks at recorded killings from June 2022, to June, 2023. We curated secondary and data mined from early warning structures to determine the average number of deaths that had occurred directly from cultism-related violence, kidnapping, illegal oil bunkering, sea piracy and political violence.
Our findings indicate that major flashpoints of the security risks include Ahoada East, Ahoada West, Asari Toru, Emohua, Khana, Eleme, Gokana, Obio Akpor and Port Harcourt Local Government Areas. Most of the violence spiked in the months leading to the just concluded 2023 general elections. Beyond the elections, the state has increasingly come under intense tension, as a result of unending political squabbles. Politicians in the state have also been repeatedly accused of sponsoring most of the violent gangs.
Between the 2014 and 2019 election cycles, the state recorded unprecedented violence leading to the death of scores of party members, security personnel and non-partisan citizens.
A disaggregation of the recorded casualties from the period under review shows that the state witnessed 12 reported cultism related violence cases in Ahoada East, Ahoada West, Emohua, and Port Harcourt Local Government Areas. The cases, which resulted in no less than 46 deaths, were mostly between the Deygbam and Icelanders cult groups who engaged each other in premeditated and reprisal attacks. All the attacks were also acknowledged by both community sources and the Rivers State police command through the Police PRO, Mrs. Iringe-Koko.
While Ahoada East and Ahoada West recorded 19 and 11 killings respectively, Port Harcourt recorded 10 deaths respectively. Emohua recorded four casualties. Thirty-five out of the 46 deaths however occurred in the last six months of 2023.
Mrs. Iringe-Koko regretted the violence and reaffirmed the commitment of the security agency to rid the state of violent gangs and criminal elements. When contacted for response on the aggregated number of deaths for the period under review, she however declined comments saying that she needed time to reflect on the data. “I can’t give you a response now; you know such data is something that the world will see including the IG,” she said. When reminded that she had already made series of responses to the individual incidents, and that all she needed to do was to comment on the many deaths and frequent cult violence, she however promised to get back. She never did.
A member of the Community Development Committee (CDC) in Ogbele community in Ahoada East LGA, who preferred his name not to be mentioned, accused some politicians in the area of sponsoring the violent cult gangs. He said, “My brother, I will not pretend to you, we know those who are sponsoring them. We have also told the police but they can’t arrest them because these are very powerful people in government.”
When asked if the traditional council was also aiding and abetting the cultists, he declared: “Our chiefs are helpless. They too are not safe. So, everybody is just careful.”
The state also recorded several cases of political violence which resulted in 21 deaths within the period under review. Fifteen deaths occurred in Eleme, Gokana, Khana, and Tai, while three deaths occurred in Emohua Local Government Area. Ahoada West, Abua Odua and Port Harcourt, recorded one death each. Out of the 21 deaths, one was a police officer attached to the Rivers State APC Deputy Governorship Candidate who was killed May last year. A disaggregation of deaths according to period of occurrence shows that while 20 deaths occurred during the just concluded elections, one death however occurred in May 2022.
Political and election related conflict in the state is usually rife with maiming and killings. Most of the conflicts are also driven by party thugs and cultists, who are often rewarded with political appointments at the local council level. Official sources indicate that death toll from election related violence between, 2014 to 2019 peaked at 105 casualties in the state.
An analysis of the death ratio in the past four election cycles shows that apart from the 2015 election season, which recorded 94 deaths, the 2023 general election in the state was the bloodiest as indicated in the casualty figure. This was anticipated due to the risk factors that characterized the pre-election process. The dynamics that contributed to the risk factors include executive high-handedness, lack of internal party democracy, unfair candidate nomination processes and the structural exclusion of candidates from nomination due to the high cost of party nomination forms. The executive high-handedness which was orchestrated through executive orders 21 & 22 resulted in policy threats that violated the suffrage rights of opposition party members.
In addition to the pre-election risk factors, many voters especially in opposition strongholds were prevented from voting if they were not going to vote for the candidate of the ruling party in the state, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. In some areas, while some voters were flogged and chased out of polling units, others who were unlucky paid the ultimate price.
Reacting to the number of deaths in the Ogoni axis, the President of the National Youth Council of Ogoni People (NYCOP), Barinuazor Emmanuel, alleged that what happened on the March 18, 2023 election “was a rape on our democracy.” He said, “Over 15 youths died in the election. But the casualties were not reported in the media. We saw political thugs connive with INEC and hijacked voting materials, denying us our votes. Yet, we saw votes declared for some people.
“INEC and some political parties denied us our will to vote. We voted in some places, but our votes did not count. Where we did not vote, they also manufactured votes for them.
“Our grandmothers, traders and youths that we suffered to register for their Permanent Voter’s Card (PVC) suffered to also collect our PVCs. We paid transport fares from our respective homes to go to our polling units to vote. At the end, what we saw was death.”
Within the period under review, the state also recorded a total of 16 attacks by unknown gunmen. The gunmen attacks resulted in 12 deaths and several injured. The period further witnessed six casualties attributed to activities of sea pirates.
Prior to the emergence of unknown gunmen attacks in the neighbouring South-East states, major conflict challenges in Rivers State were often attributed to cult groups and militant gangs fighting within the creeks. However, the challenge of gunmen attacks which majorly target security personnel was relatively new in the state.
The attacks, which most times occur at security checkpoints or on convoys, often remain unresolved even as the casualty figures continued to spike.
Commenting on the gunmen attacks, an Assistant Superintendent of police attached to the defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), who pleaded anonymity, said gunmen attacks on security checkpoints in the state, are either orchestrated by elements of the Eastern Security Network (ESN), high profile kidnappers or drug lords.
He said, “We have ESN cells in Port Harcourt. These people believe that Rivers State is part of Biafra; that is why they are extending their attacks to the state.
“Majority of the attacks, if you check well, are products of ESN or kidnappers who trail their victims into the state. Sometimes too, drug lords attack convoys of other drug lords who compete with them.” ESN is the militant wing of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB). Security agencies have also attributed most of the gunmen attacks in the South-East to the group.
An eyewitness of one of the major attacks which claimed the lives of three police officers, while speaking to Channels Television on the condition of anonymity, said, “The perpetrators were dressed in military camouflage and had been loitering around the area, apparently waiting for their target before attacking.” The attack which occurred at Rumuokoro flyover in Obio/Akpor Local Government Area on November 24, 2022, had a signature of other similar attacks in the state.
A disaggregation of the identities of casualties from sea piracy attacks however shows that a total of 11 attacks occurred within the period under review, with six deaths. However six out of the 11 incidents were not reported in the media. The attacks occurred in Abisa, Bonny, Bille, Ke, and Kula waterways. Due to challenges of logistics, most of the maritime crimes that occur on the waterways of the Niger Delta are either under-reported or unreported by the mainstream media.
Confirming the incidents, the Chairman of the Nigeria Maritime Union Workers in Rivers State, Nigeria, Israel Pepple, expressed worry that attacks along the waterways have resurfaced. The chairman called on the “state government and security agencies to boost security on the waterways to prevent further attacks.”
Also speaking on the frequent attacks, the Coordinator of Eastern Zone Parliamentarians of IYC, Comrade Gilpin Okesiyesuma, said the criminality along the waterways could be attributed to lack of employment and meaningful engagement of youths by government and other stakeholders. He also accused international oil companies of “paying lip service” to the empowerment of youths in the Niger Delta.
He said, “It is not by giving money to people; you need to build the capacity of the youths to be self-sufficient. When you engage the youths adequately, everywhere will be calm.”
On what the IYC is doing to make the waterways safe, Okesiyesuma said, “We are engaging the youths in advocacy. Remember that the IYC is not a security outfit, so the only thing we can do is to talk to the youths and also collaborate with government and security agencies to address the problem. We are also talking to the locals to secure their waterways.”
Speaking on the general insecurity challenges in Rivers State, the National Publicity Secretary of the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), the apex socio-cultural group of the Niger Delta, Dr. Ken Robinson, stated that there is need for wider interrogation of the latent factors that promote the various insecurity challenges in Rivers State. He also noted that an investigation of most of the cultism and political violence in the state would reveal that the key drivers are politicians.
On why there is a high prevalence of cultism and political violence in the Ahoada and Ogoni axis, Dr Robinson attributed it to the absence of key figures in the mould of Alhaji Asari Dokubo and King Ateke Tom in those areas. He said in Ogoni axis for instance, there is a proliferation of cultism groups with links to certain political elements.
He said, “If you look at the Okrika and Kalabari axis, there is an Ateke who ensures a forced peace in that area and an Asari whom other leaders in the area defer to. But in Ogoni and Ahoada, you don’t have any clear leader with such influence.
“In Ogoni, you have high rate of cultism because there is a proliferation of cult groups. You have many splinter groups that break away from other groups almost every day. This is the major challenge.