Despite heavily armed government troops manning roadblocks and patrolling the streets of Nigeria’s main southern oil city Port Harcourt, many locals say the militias which the troops have been fighting, are still located in and around the city and that the current peace is temporary.
“What we have here is a war over who controls the various rackets that are going on in this city,” Abel Wogu, a Port Harcourt resident and businessman, told IRIN.
“Every evening you have people representing the most powerful gang leaders going round the filling stations to collect payments,” said Wogu, alleging that the owners of a large petrol station destroyed in August had either failed to pay one of the armed groups or had come under the control of a rival group.
Analysts and human rights activists say the violence that has constantly threatened Port Harcourt in recent years has been perpetrated by militias competing for control of the illegal sale of crude and refined petroleum products, who are also involved in gun-running, kidnapping and narcotics trafficking.
In the latest round of violence, which broke out on 11 August, fighters armed with automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and dynamite, launched attacks on various buildings. The violence has claimed at least 32 lives, according to the Rivers State government located in Port Harcourt, the state capital.
Behind the violence
The army said the fighting has been largely between supporters of the two biggest militias operating in the vicinity of the city, one led by Ateke Tom, the other by Soboma George.
The most ferocious fighting occurred on 16 August when troops besieged a hotel where George and his supporters were believed to have been hiding. The troops razed the hotel.
Maj. Sagir Musa, spokesperson of the joint military task force charged with security in the Niger Delta, later told reporters that George had been killed in the attack.
However the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a shadowy militant group that purports to be fighting to win more local control of oil wealth for the impoverished inhabitants of the oil region and claims George as an ally, denied the army’s claim.
MEND said that those killed in the assault on the hotel were mostly innocent civilians. “The army fired rockets into a hotel where Soboma (George) was suspected to be hiding, disregarding the safety of other guests,” MEND spokesman Jomo Gbomo said in an emailed statement.
“Soboma is alive and well and will speak whenever he chooses to,” he added.
The price of elections
MEND denied it was directly involved in the fighting and attributed the violence to rivalry between politicians who had funded different armed groups during Nigeria's general elections in April.
That view is supported by the Niger Delta Civil Society Coalition, an association of civic groups. The militias were originally armed by politicians to help them win elections but have since turned their weapons to criminal activities, according to a statement on Sunday by the coalition chairman and human rights lawyer Anyakwe Nsirimovu.
“Wiping out Soboma George and his followers cannot return peace or normalcy in Rivers State,” said the statement. “Dealing equally with the power holders who aid, abet, appease, motivate and - most of all - pay and benefit immensely from them, would”
The statement urged President Umaru Yar'Adua to crack down on local politicians linked to the various armed groups.
Rivers State Governor Celestine Omehia has not directly admitted to having dealings with armed groups but has acknowledged politicians’ efforts to engage militia leaders in the past.
“It is like the carrot and stick,” he told reporters after a meeting with top army and police officials in Port Harcourt on 18 August. “We gave [armed gangs] the carrot and they never changed. Now we are giving the stick and we will continue with the stick and it is going to be permanent.”
Omehia, who declared a night-time curfew during the fighting last week, said the curfew would likely be lifted soon but he said he did not expect soldiers to leave Port Harcourt for another six months at least. “The peace in Rivers State is the peace in the Niger Delta,” he said.
Many residents say they take little comfort from statements by the state authority claiming that the militias have been routed. “Expect some random skirmishes throughout Port Harcourt environs,” according to a text message Port Harcourt residents have been sending each other by mobile phone. “Advised to limit all non-essential movements and remain in a secured location. Please forward this message to friends and family,” the SMS continued.
It is not known where the message originated.
Many people in Port Harcourt are relocating from districts where some of the worst fighting took place to areas considered relatively safe.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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