Background Briefing

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The Emergence of Armed Groups in Rivers State

Since oil exploration began in Nigeria in the 1950s, the nine states that constitute the Niger Delta have been sites of intense violence, from the Biafran war of succession in the 1960s to the Ogoni uprising in the early 1990s. From 1997, Delta State, primarily in and around the capital Warri, has been the main site of violence in the delta. In late 2003, the center of violence shifted to Rivers State, principally in and around the “oil capital” of Port Harcourt.

Although the violence across the Niger Delta has manifested in different forms -- in Warri it is seen as a conflict between Ijaw and Itsekeri ethnic militias, in Rivers State as a battle between Ijaw groups -- it is essentially a fight for control of oil wealth and government resources.  The violence in Port Harcourt has been perpetrated by two rival armed groups and their affiliates who battled to control territory and lucrative oil bunkering routes.2 Oil bunkering is the illegal tapping directly into oil pipelines, often at manifolds or well-heads, and the extraction of crude oil which is piped into river barges that are hidden in small tributaries. The crude is then transported to ships offshore for sale, often to other countries in West Africa but also to other farther destinations.

Both Asari’s NDPVF and Tom’s NDV are primarily comprised of young Ijaw men from Port Harcourt and nearby villages. In addition to these two groups, there are, according to the state government, more than 100 smaller armed groups, locally known as “cults.”  Many of these “cult” groups, with names such as the Icelanders, Greenlanders, KKK, Germans, Dey Gbam, Mafia Lords, and Vultures, were originally formed in the early 1990’s as university fraternities, but later largely evolved into criminal gangs.3 In late 2003, in an effort to increase their access to weapons and other resources, many of the “cult” groups formed alliances with either Asari’s or Tom’s armed group as the two leaders fought for control of oil bunkering routes.  Although the smaller groups retained their names and leadership structures, Asari and Tom assumed command and control responsibilities over the militant actions of these smaller groups.4

The militarization of what started out as non-violent youth and “cult” groups in the 1990’s and the later emergence of large, well organized armed groups like the NDPVF and NDV can be attributed to several key factors:

(1) The manipulation of youth groups by local politicians

The transition to democracy in 1999 exacerbated youth militancy as unscrupulous politicians used hired “thugs” to carry out violence to ensure their victory at the polls. Prior to the 1999 and 2003 federal, state, and local elections, all parties, but most effectively the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), recruited and armed members of youth groups to intimidate opposition politicians and their supporters. During the recent April and May 2003 state and federal elections, more than 100 people were killed country-wide in political violence, mainly by members or supporters of the PDP. Hundreds more were killed in political violence in the months preceding.5 According to a local non-governmental organization involved in monitoring the 2003 state and federal elections, the levels of violence in Rivers State during the elections amounted to “a low intensity armed struggle.…[W]eapons and firearms of various types and sophistication were freely used.”6 Other national and international monitors recorded high levels of violence, fraud and irregularities in Rivers State, leading European Union election observers to conclude “the minimum standards for democratic elections were not met.”7

Local leaders and individuals close to NDPVF and NDV leaders told Human Rights Watch that in the run up to the 2003 election prominent local politicians supported Asari and Tom.  These sources allege that as far back as 2001, the former Secretary to the State Government and current Federal Transport Minister, Abiye Sekibo, provided logistical support and political protection to local youth leader Tom to help counter the influence of the opposition All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP), particularly in Okrika local government area, during the 2003 state and federal elections. During this period, Tom was given free rein to carry out profitable bunkering activities in exchange for his group’s violent services during the 2003 elections.8 In an interview with Human Rights Watch, a local opposition party candidate alleged that senior members of the local PDP, including Abiye Sekibo, used members of Tom’s NDV, known at the time as the “Ateke boys,” to drive opposition supporters out of Ogu/Bolo and Okrika local government areas prior to the elections.9 A local resident told Human Rights Watch how in March 2003, one month before the elections, armed members of Tom’s NDV gunmen attacked  opposition party members who were putting up election posters in Amadi Ama.10


Local leaders and members of local non-governmental organizations told Human Rights Watch that Sekibo, whom they believe would have not acted without the knowledge of Governor Odili, used Asari to limit the growing influence of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), an organization formed in 1998 to articulate the aspirations of Ijaw youth in the Niger Delta.11 The IYC, whose demands include self-determination, resource control and environmental sustainability, was considered a challenge to authority in the state and the source of a potential Ijaw uprising in the Niger Delta. In 2001, with the financial support of the state government, Asari became president of the IYC and subsequently used this position to exploit divisions between the Ijaw in different states and recruit youths to help ensure Odili’s re-election in 2003. These reports of state government support for Asari and Tom, accord with numerous press reports and reports from local organizations.12

In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Governor Odili vehemently denied allegations that his government had at any time supported Asari or Tom. 13 When Human Rights Watch raised this matter directly with Asari and Tom, both disputed claims they were ever supported by the state government. 14 

(2) Payments made to communities by multinational oil companies and their impact on fomenting conflict over traditional leadership positions

To start oil exploration and production in rural areas, multinational oil companies 15 are required by law to make payments to the federal government. Customary and statutory payments are also made to “host communities,” or those who own the land and fishing grounds where drilling or other activities take place. Designation as a host community thus brings significant benefits in the form of compensation, community development funds and promises of labor and security contracts. The oil companies negotiate such agreements and contracts with individuals whom they identify as community representatives, notably the top traditional leaders or chiefs. These policies have fueled inter-communal conflict by funneling large quantities of money to the tribal leaders, many of whom fail to share the benefits with their community.16

As traditional leadership positions became more lucrative and the tribal elders more powerful, the competition to occupy them intensified.17 Beginning in the mid 1990’s, prominent local leaders competing to assume top chieftaincy positions in an area recruited youth leaders and provided them with money and weapons to assist in their often violent struggles to control villages Such violent clashes occurred in several villages about twenty to forty kilometers from Port Harcourt, including Buguma, Tombia, and Okrika. Both Asari, who is from Buguma, and Tom, who is from Okrika, played a prominent role in these early struggles.18 In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Tom admitted that a local chief from Okrika had supplied the NDV with weapons.19

Since the mid-1990’s, these youth groups have grown more powerful and resentful towards village chiefs. In some areas, youth groups who did not benefit from the largesse handed out, have increasingly accused local chiefs of working with both oil companies and the government to oppress, exploit and neglect them. As a result, the youth groups now compete with tribal elders for control of the cash fees and labor contracts that flow to the villages from oil companies.  Oil companies have in turn been forced to make cash payments to the youth for access to facilities or to ensure the security of their business operations.20 These problems are compounded by allegations of corrupt practices within oil companies. Communities have reported how some community liaison staff and contractors work hand in hand with local leaders to guarantee labor and security contracts in return for cash or other favors.21

(3) Poverty, underdevelopment and widespread youth unemployment

Both Tom and Asari were able to recruit from the large pool of unemployed youth, many of whom are university graduates, frustrated with decades of extreme poverty, underdevelopment, and the lack of job opportunities.  Although Rivers State receives the third-highest allocation of oil revenues of Nigeria’s thirty-six states, few see the benefits of Nigeria’s oil wealth. Seventy percent of Nigeria’s citizens live on below one dollar a day, the United Nations specified poverty line and the country ranks 151st out of 175 countries in the UN Human Development Index.22 Largely because of government corruption and the mismanagement of oil revenue, riverine villages near Port Harcourt lack basic amenities such as clean water, electricity, medical care and roads. Large slums within Port Harcourt are submerged under piles of waste. This gross underdevelopment in the midst of vast oil wealth has bred intense frustration and resentment among the youth in Rivers State.

(4) The use of youth groups by conglomerates involved in the illegal theft and sale of crude oil, or illegal oil bunkering

Highly organized conglomerates of oil bunkerers, reportedly comprised of expatriate and local businessmen, high-level politicians and military personnel, and even employees of the oil companies themselves, have also recruited youth leaders to help provide security for their criminal activities.23 Although the revenue from oil bunkering fluctuates greatly, it accounts for about ten percent of Nigeria’s daily production, earning those involved about between US$1.5 billion and US$ 4 billion per year.24

Illegal oil bunkering has fueled violence between armed groups and exacerbated human rights abuses in two ways. First, it has provided various youth groups, including Asari’s NDPVF and Tom’s NDV, with a lucrative revenue stream to purchase increasingly sophisticated weapons. Second, much of the violence in 2004 around Port Harcourt appears to have been motivated by struggles to control territory and thus bunkering routes. A state government spokesman told Human Rights Watch that the conflict between Asari and Tom was likely based on “disagreements over business transactions and contracts for protecting barges that lift crude oil.”25 When Human Rights Watch questioned Asari about his involvement in oil bunkering he stated, “I don’t engage in bunkering, I take that which belongs to me. It is not theft the oil belongs to our people.”26

The practice of oil bunkering has increased dramatically since 2000 as the syndicates involved have become better organized and used their profits to purchase more sophisticated weapons. This has been compounded by a lack of government political will to vigorously pursue those involved and the inability of the security forces to effectively police the waterways where the barges transporting the stolen oil are hidden. Oil companies say that they have frequently reported incidents to the authorities, which has prompted the government since 2003, to improve and expand its security patrols on the waterways, seize vessels involved, and more recently prosecute several naval commanders for their involvement.27 Despite these measures, however, bunkering remains a serious problem throughout the Niger Delta.28

(5) Widespread availability of small arms and other weapons

The conflict in Rivers State has become more violent as a consequence of the widespread availability of small arms throughout Nigeria, and in particular in the Niger Delta.  Small arms and other weapons are readily available for purchase particularly in Warri, the capital of Delta State. Fighters interviewed by Human Rights Watch admitted to possessing and using a variety of weapons ranging from machetes and cutlasses, to pistols, shotguns, semi automatic rifles, machine guns, and rocket launchers. According to their accounts, many of these weapons were provided to them by sponsors including members of the state government, political parties or individuals involved in oil bunkering.

Many of these weapons are also recycled from other conflicts in the region and imported into Nigeria via land or sea routes. Other weapons are stolen or purchased from the security forces. A 1998 arms moratorium agreed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS),29 committed states in the sub-region not to import, export or manufacture small arms or light weapons. Nigeria is a signatory to the moratorium and, in 2001, President Obasanjo established a national committee on its implementation. The federal government has also set up various presidential committees tasked with analyzing the causes and extent of arms proliferation in the country.30 Despite these measures, efforts to stop the flow of small arms lack a coordinated strategy or consistent implementation and have failed to make any significant impact on the proliferation of weapons in the country.

(6) The prevailing culture of impunity in Nigeria

The state government, which is responsible for criminal prosecutions, has not taken serious steps to investigate the crimes committed in the Port Harcourt area since violence between armed groups began in the mid-1990’s. Crimes associated with the armed groups have included numerous killings and widespread destruction of homes and property that have forced tens of thousands from their homes. Despite the state’s passage of a law banning militant youth groups in June 2004, there have been few arrests and prosecutions for these killings.

The weakness of law enforcement agencies in Nigeria exacerbates the culture of impunity from prosecution enjoyed by the armed groups.  The Nigerian Police Force suffers from poor training, lack of equipment, and corruption. A spokesperson for the state government acknowledged that widespread corruption in the force has also meant that even in those cases where members of armed groups believed to have participated in attacks were arrested many were released after paying bribes to the police.31 Several members of one armed group, the Njemenze Vigilante Service, told Human Rights Watch that rising crime and the current state of impunity underpinned their decision to establish an armed group to better protect their community.32

[2] “Bunkering” is a term used to describe the process of filling a ship with oil (or coal). “Illegal oil bunkering” is a euphemism for theft.

[3] University fraternities date back to 1952 when Wole Soyinka and six others founded the Pyrates Confraternity at the University of Ibadan with the aim of promoting social awareness and political freedoms. During the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of other fraternities emerged across university campuses but evolved into violent secret “cults”, engaging in increasingly criminal activities. Today, violence between campus cult groups is a serious problem throughout Nigeria.  

[4] Human Rights Watch interviews with senior members of NDPVF and NDV, Port Harcourt, November and December, 2004.

[5] For further information on election violence see Human Rights Watch, Testing Democracy: Political Violence in Nigeria, Vol.15, No. 8, April 2003and Human Rights Watch, Nigeria’s 2003 Elections:
The Unacknowledged Violence,
June 2004.

[6] Election Monitoring Report on the Ongoing Nigeria Federal and State General Elections, April/May 2003 (Executive Summary), Environmental Rights Action, reproduced in Nigeria Today, April 26, 2003.

[7] European Union Election Observation Mission Final Report.

[8] Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt, July 15, 2003 and November 2004 and telephone interview, January 2005, see also Christina Katsouris, “Nigeria: Gangsta power,” Energy Compass, October 1, 2004, Okafor Ofiebor, “Who is Alhaji Dokubo-Asari?,” The News, September 13, 2004 and Okafor Ofiebor, “Portrait of Ateke Tom,” The News, September 13, 2004. 

[9] Human Rights Watch interview Port Harcourt, July 15, 2003.

[10] Human Rights Watch interview Amadi Ama, December 12, 2004.

[11]  Human Rights Watch interviews, London, October 16, Port Harcourt, November 18 and 20, 2004 and telephone interview, January 2005. 

[12] See Sola Odunfa, “Nigeria’s oil capital under siege,” BBC News, September 8, 2004, Oil, Violence and Deadlock in the Governance of Rivers State, Centre for Social and Corporate Responsibility, September, 20, 2004 and  A Harvest of Guns, Niger Delta Project for Environment Human Rights and Development, August 2004.  

[13] Human Rights Watch interview with Rivers State Governor, Dr. Peter Odili, Port Harcourt, December 1, 2004.

[14] Human Rights Watch interviews with Asari Dukobo and Ateke Tom, Port Harcourt, November 21, 2004.

[15] Five major oil companies operate joint ventures with the Nigerian government. They are Shell, ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, TotalFinaElf and Agip. The largest joint venture is the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) operated by Shell and accounting for nearly 50 percent of Nigeria’s crude oil.  For further information about the joint venture agreement see

[16] For further information on the impact of the oil economy on community politics see The Price of Oil: Corporate Responsibility and Human Rights Violations in Nigeria’s Oil Producing Communities (New York, Human Rights Watch, January 1999) and Human Rights Watch, The Niger Delta: No Democratic Dividend, Human Rights Watch, Vol. 14, No. 6, October 2002.

[17] Chiefs are chosen differently across the delta, sometimes by inheritance, sometime for a set term and sometimes for life. Traditional leaders are recognized by the Nigerian government but operate in parallel with elected local, state and federal government structures.

[18]  Human Rights Watch interviews Port Harcourt, November 18, 19, 20, 28 and 29, 2004.

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with Ateke Tom, Port Harcourt, November 21, 2004.

[20]  See Shell Petroleum Development Company, People and the Environment, Annual Report 2003, pp 16.

[21] Peace and Security in the Niger Delta: Conflict Expert Group Baseline Report, Working Paper for SPDC, December 2003, pp.17, and Human Rights Watch correspondence with Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), October 21, 2004.

[22] United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report, New York: United Nations Publications, 2004 [online]

[23] Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt, November 23, and 28, 2004, see also Peace and Security in the Niger Delta: Conflict Expert Group Baseline Report, Working Paper for SPDC, December 2003, pp.46 and Report of the Special Security Committee on Oil Producing Areas, submitted to President Olusegun Obasanjo (unpublished), February 2002.

[24] Peace and Security in the Niger Delta: Conflict Expert Group Baseline Report, Working Paper for SPDC, December 2003.

[25] Human Rights Watch interview with Fred Alasia, Chief of Staff to Rivers State Government, Port Harcourt, November 23, 2004.

[26] Human Rights Watch interview with Asari Dukobo, Port Harcourt, November 21, 2004.

[27] Mike Oduniyi, “EFCC Now to Prosecute Oil Thieves Nigeria Loses 55,000 bpd to Bunkering,” This Day, July 19, 2004 and Shell Petroleum Development Company, People and the Environment, Annual Report 2003.

[28] “Nigeria: Conviction of admirals confirms navy role in oil theft,” IRIN, January 6, 2005.  

[29]  Fifteen states are members of ECOWAS. They are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d'Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo.

[30] Mopping Up Illegal Weapons, Vanguard, July 7, 2004.

[31] Human Rights Watch interview with Fred Alasia, Chief of Staff to Rivers State Government, Port Harcourt, November 23, 2004.

[32] Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt, November 20 and 22, 2004. For further background on impunity in Nigeria see Human Rights Watch, Military Revenge in Benue: A Population Under Attack, Vol. 14, No. 2, April 2002 and Human Rights Watch, The “Miss World Riots”: Continued Impunity for Killings in Kaduna, Vol 15, No. 13, July 2003. On vigilantism in Nigeria see Human Rights Watch, The Bakassi Boys: The Legitimization of Murder and Torture, Vol. 14, No. 5, May 2002 and Human Rights Watch, The O’dua People’s Congress: Fighting Violence with Violence, Vol. 14, No.4, February 2003.

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