In flip-flops and shorts, the five youths looked like any other fishermen. Only after pulling away from the jetty did they retrieve the machine gun and Kalashnikovs from under the seats. Suitably armed, we raced off through channels so narrow that mangrove trees scraped both sides of the speedboat, heading for one of the militia camps hidden in the swamps of the Niger Delta.
”The navy’s boats cannot fit down here,” explained Alhaji Dokubo Asari, president of the self-styled Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF).
”Sometimes they come with helicopter gunships but we have many different camps and move around a lot. I have many friends in the government who warn me when this is going to happen.”
Sure enough, his six phones — one of them playing a funky hip-hop tune — went off several times during the interview, warning him where Nigeria’s feared Mobile Police are planning to attack in the next few days.
Only Asari, a university graduate clearly versed in public relations, refers to his force as the NDPVF. The youths call themselves the Egebesu Boys after the Ijaw god of war, and tie scraps of red cloth to their rifles and heads to make themselves bulletproof. Their battles with other colourfully named local gangs — the Greenlanders, the KKK and the all-female Black Bras — are responsible for the recent explosion of violence in Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s premier oil-producing city.
Once known as the ”Garden City”, residents have changed its nickname to the ”Garrison City” after street fights between gangs left dozens of people dead this month.
Even in the turbulent Niger Delta, the ferocity of the attacks is astonishing. Rockets, grenades and dynamite are used to destroy dwellings made of a few planks and sheets of corrugated iron. Two weeks ago an attack by gunmen on a restaurant left seven people dead. The following weekend several boats of armed youths attacked the suburb of Marine, a five-minute walk from the city’s police headquarters.
Residents were unable to leave their houses for seven hours as gun battles erupted and shops were burnt and looted. Several deaths were reported.
The government’s response has been a massive influx of firepower. On September 1 Governor Peter Odili returned home early from annual leave, fired his Cabinet and ordered 24-hour police patrols. Asari says the air force attacked three of his camps last week.
Officials insist that the situation is now under control but local human rights activist Annkio Oporum Briggs doubts that increased militarisation is the answer.
”The government is not a disinterested party in these problems. They armed these gangs during the last elections to ensure that they won the vote. This thing is a political issue and needs a political solution,” she says.
”Part of the problem is that there is no money here, no jobs, no infrastructure. All we have is bored, unemployed youths — and the government’s response is to arm them?”
Arms originally intended to intimidate political opposition are now being used for criminal activities, says Briggs. The gangs, known locally as ”cults”, are frequently involved in the theft of crude oil.
The oil is loaded on to barges and towed out to sea, where huge tankers wait beyond the territorial limit of Nigeria’s waters. The crude is exchanged for weapons and cash. The Nigerian government estimates the practice is costing the country about $10-million a week.
Even the authorities are implicated. Last month a Russian oil tanker, arrested with a cargo of 11 300 tonnes of stolen crude on-board, became the latest vessel to ”vanish” from police custody. Several locals living near oil installations swear that armed, uniformed police accompany the tankers making midnight visits to well heads.
”It is like Prohibition-era Chicago, except they are smuggling oil instead of alcohol,” observed one industry executive. ”If this trend continues, the Niger Delta will be a war zone during the next elections.”
Asari himself admits stealing oil, although he claims it goes to a primitive refinery hidden in the swamps instead of out to sea. ”That would take a navy escort,” he said.
However, like many militia leaders, Asari has plenty of links to the government. Before last year’s elections, he was very close to Odili. Several sources, including Asari, say Odili provided him with cash to run for the president of the Ijaw Youth Council, a powerful organisation representing the country’s fourth largest ethnic group.
Asari fell out with Odili after publicly criticising President Olusegun Obasanjo. Now he claims that he is leading a political struggle to reclaim the people’s oil resources and Odili is trying to assassinate him using a rival gang called the Icelanders, led by ”Godfather” Ateke Tom. Locals say that the feud between Asari and Ateke Tom is responsible for much of the bloodshed.
A recent report by the International Maritime Bureau says such gangs already make the Niger Delta waterways the most deadly in the world. Further violence may push global petrol prices even higher. As unrest in the Middle East continues, the strategic importance of West Africa as an alternative source of oil is increasing. Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer. Its sweet, light crude is relatively easy to extract and the cheapest type of oil to refine into gasoline. However, violence frequently halts production; at the height of the crisis last year, Nigeria lost 40% of its output.
Such subtleties are lost on the rifle-toting youths in the mangrove swamps.
Most are there because they have nowhere else to go.