Rumuekpe, one of the 14 wards in Emohua Local Government Area of Rivers State used to be a thriving community before 2005, when rival cults engaged themselves in a deadly war and sent everyone packing. During that period virtually every standing structure apart from the oil installations in the community was brought down. The schools were not only closed, their buildings were destroyed. Electricity cables were cut and carted away. At a time no one lived in the community.
Peace has returned to the community, but it still stands like a ghost town. Today, Rumuekpe is a shadow of its former self. Ruins of houses destroyed during the many years of the crisis take the mind back to those dark days.
Just outside Ovelle-Nvakaohia part of Rumuekpe community line the Trans-Niger Pipelines that take crude oil and gas to Bonny Export Terminal. On the alternate sides of the pipelines are mass graves of dozens of the victims of a tragic fire that broke out at that spot in the early hours of Friday, March 3, 2023. It used to be a busy spot at night before the disaster, as people came from distant and neighbouring communities to trade in crudely refined petroleum products illegally tapped from crude oil pipelines.
But all was quiet on the day National Point visited the spot. Many members of the community, mostly youths, had fled following an invasion of the community by soldiers that indiscriminately arrested young men as they searched for two military rifles snatched from soldiers in the neighbouring Rundele community. The few people left behind moved about looking over their shoulders and suspecting every strange face they came across.
For over 15 years, Rumuekpe did not know peace after rival groups engaged themselves in supremacy battles. The conflicts degenerated to the hunting down of family members of known rival leaders and members. Houses were burnt, people killed and livelihoods destroyed.
Before the crises, Rumuekpe enjoyed peace both among its people and with their neighbours. One of the leaders of the community, Chief Okwudu Chibuzor, told National Point, “If you come to Rumuekpe and you cannot find a wife, you might as well not find a wife anywhere else” to show that Rumuekpe was a friendly community.
The people, who were mainly farmers, lived happily together before the crisis engulfed the community in 2005. They had electricity, running water and periodic handouts from the oil companies.
But all that vanished when the struggle for supremacy among factional groups degenerated. For three years, the community was a no-go area as gang wars raged. Virtually every house was razed or vandalized; the power lines provided by the companies were stripped and carted away and the only secondary school brought down.
As peace returned to the community, the secondary school was rebuilt by the oil companies to encourage the people to return home with their children. But, the community they were returning to is still a ghost town shorn of all its former amenities. No more electricity, no pipe-borne water and no single health facility.
Ruins of buildings destroyed during the crisis period dot the community. Compounds are virtually empty. A few people could be seen fixing door or window panels or making benches just outside the home. The farm roads are lonely with one or two women seen straying in and out of farm paths.
Those who were able to stay took to subsistence farming. But a new business had come to town. Kpofire, the local name for petroleum business derived from illegally tapping and refining crude oil has become the succor from which the locals looked up to for sustenance. So most nights, men, women and children find their ways to sites where the refineries and markets were.
It was during one of those nights that a vehicle that had loaded products ignited fire and the whole place exploded in wildfire. Up till date, the full details of the casualties have not been known. Many of the victims came from other communities and because of the illegality of the business no one has taken time to take stock.
One woman told National Point that she travels to Rumuekpe from Port Harcourt on Fridays to resume the night business at the Kpofire sites. Initially she said she was helping out with tying the refined products in cellophane bags. But she later moved up to cooking the products.
She said to belong to this level one had to save enough money to buy crude oil in drums and then buy large cooking pots and secure a location for the refinery. Though she said men are in control of the crude, most of the processing – cooking and packaging – is done by women.
From time to time, security agents, particularly soldiers raid the sites and arrest the operators. At other times, they destroy the kpofire facilities. But the locals said such raids happen when the operators fail to bribe the soldiers.
One community member said each night that Kpofire operation is to take place the army formation in the area is bribed with N400,000 to look the other way. “It is when they refuse to give them money that they come to raid and destroy,” the source said.
The principal of the only secondary school in the community, Dr. Daniel Agenimo, sat with a few teachers that had turned up for the first day, the school opened. The school compound was overgrown and would require a lot of effort to clear the weeds and bush.
The principal told National Point that the school was rebuilt by the International Oil Companies, IOCs after it was destroyed during the crises. He said some of the facilities set up in the new school have been vandalized and looted already.
“We need the place to be fenced. Government has so much to do here. We will need a library, sports facilities and staff quarters,” he said. He said the Corpers’ Lodge which provided some form of security in the school was destroyed during the crises.
Dr. Agenimo was worried that the Kpofire business was disturbing the regularity of students of the school. “The students disappear sometimes to go and do Kpofire,” he said, however expressing gratitude that none of the students was killed in the recent fire disaster at a Kpofire site. He appealed to government to post teachers to the school whenever the ongoing recruitment of teachers is completed.
Mr. Jackson Robinson, who was seen repairing his motorcycle, told National Point that, though there is peace now in the community, lamented the mass arrest of members of the community by soldiers after the recent incident in the neighbouring Ndele community where rifles were seized from soldiers.
“The soldiers went to Rundele to destroy the camp of Kpofire. Our people are innocent. But they came here and arrested boys in this community. I escaped that day. Instead of going to the chief first, they resorted to arresting everybody.”
He said with the absence of a market, clinic and chemists, living in Rumuekpe was like living in hell. They have to travel to Elele-Alimini, a distance of more than five kilometers to buy anything they need. “If a woman is about to put to bed at night we will look for someone that could provide transportation to Alele Alimini,” he said.
Chief Okwudu Chibuzor of Rumuekerika family said though the oil companies had no hand in the crises that befell the community, the companies have not done enough to justify their presence in the community. He said even the federal government that is the ultimate beneficiary of the oil in Rumuekpe, ought to do something in the community.
He said the youths have not benefited from the operations of the oil companies. “We are hosting Total, Agip, Shell and Elf and their subsidiary companies. As per skills, our people have welders, operators, fitters and HSE (Health Safety and Environment) certified people. Yet there is no employment for them. The older people have nothing to eat. The companies can provide some stipends for them.
“Health has been a major issue from Day One. No health facilities. No hospital. We have to go to Elele-Alimini each time we have health challenges,” he said.
On the tragic fire incident in Rumuekpe, Chief Chibuzor said the fire occurred from a spill on the Trans-Niger Pipeline Right of Way which needed containment that was not done. He said the community had no problem with the soldiers however. “They are manning the facilities of the oil companies,” he said, admitting however that some people were arrested by the army after military rifles were snatched from soldiers in Rundele.
He said before the crisis the community had entered into an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the oil companies, which is not working. But because the people were just returning after the crises, nothing much is going on now. He said the companies are even now saying that the new Petroleum Industry Act has overtaken the MOU they signed.
The story of Rumuekpe is similar to many other communities in Emohua Local Government Area. “Rumuekpe is a microcosm of social, political, and economic issues that affect the Niger Delta at large, and therefore represent the extreme case of what can happen when conflict erupts in these conditions,” says Stakeholders Democracy Network, a civil society organization devoted to community life in oil communities in the Niger Delta.
Late in April, soldiers invaded Rundele community and burnt down houses of people they suspected to have seized guns from soldiers that raided a Kpofire site. The community itself has been divided by tragic crises that have led to many deaths and desertions.
Nyeche Ajuru, the commander of the local vigilance group, OSPAC in Rundele said the crises in the community started in 2016 when bad boys in the communities along the East-West Road started hijacking intercity buses and holding the passengers hostage for ransom. Anytime this happened, Ajuru said, “Government would enter this community and begin to do mass arrest; arresting innocent people. I took it as a personal problem.”
He said he took it up personally to stop the menace and rid the community of the bad boys. For his efforts, he said government failed to appreciate their efforts. So, they joined the illegal bunkering business to help themselves. Over time, the business began to attract interest including security agents sent to check the menace of illegal bunkering.
The stories are replicated in Obelle, Ibaa, Umudioga, Elele-Alimini, Rumuji, and many other communities in Emohua Local Government Area where rival groups fighting over control of illegal crude oil business and political patronage have divided the communities, collapsed their communities and destroyed lives and livelihood.
Many years before, it was Ogbakiri, also in Emohua Local Government Area. The community was completely deserted as rival groups killed, maimed and destroyed before normalcy returned to the community a few years ago.
In Obelle, members of the community had to cry out for help for the Federal Government to intervene in the crisis in the community. Cult groups took over the community early in 2022, unleashing terror on the once thriving community. The people had to abandon their homes and farmlands to neighbouring communities.
A former Deputy Chairman of Emohua Local Government, who is from the community said, “We have suffered much. Many have died because of frustration and many houses have been destroyed. The crisis has caused us to abandon the community, leaving our homes and farms.”
The real victims of the crises across the communities are the women and children, who have to beg to survive in foreign lands and who have to have their education cut short.
Who is really to blame for the crises?
The Chairman of Emohua Local Government, Dr. Chidi Lloyd blames international oil companies (IOCs) operating in the communities and the security agencies deployed to provide security in Emohua.
Lloyd in his response to the Rumuekpe fire incident, said, “It’s unfortunate that IOCs and security personnel are also involved in this. If they were not involved tell me how those who scoop this product manage to transport them out of here, considering the number of security checkpoints around here.
“There is an army formation very close to the scene of this fire outbreak, would they say that they don’t know that criminals are scooping petroleum products here ?.
“These days security personnel lobby to be posted to places like this so that they collaborate with the perpetuators, everybody want to be posted here to come and collect money.
“If officials of the oil companies are not involved, how do the criminals know when there is pressure in the pipeline?.
“You can see that there’s a very strong cabal who are benefiting from this, not these ones roasting in the fire here. Top officials of the oil companies release information on when there’s pressure in the pipe.”
But the Director of Army Public Relations of the 6 Division of the Nigerian Army, Lt. Col. Ikedichi Iweha, said soldiers deployed in the area have been conducting themselves professionally and there had not been any evidence linking them to unprofessional conduct.
Iweha said the army has a procedure for dealing with its men and officers that misbehave and would be ready to receive any evidence brought against them.
A human rights activist, Mr. Tony Nwegbo, attributed the situation in the communities to the absence of deterrence factors. He said a lot of the gang leaders in the communities had been allowed too much room to become notorious and have become law unto themselves.
He also attributed the situation to the influence of drugs. He said the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) had not done much in the area to stop the abuse of drugs by youths.
He also said security agents that collect money from criminal elements in the area have also helped worsen the situation. “Once the police and other security agencies compromise themselves to these people, they get emboldened and operate without let or hindrance,” Nwegbo said.