Background Briefing

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Criminal Violence and Human Rights Abuses Against the Local Population in 2004

Nigerians living in and around Port Harcourt have borne the brunt of the violence between Asari’s NDPVF and Tom’s NDV. Townspeople and villagers have experienced unprecedented levels of insecurity as armed groups fought around their homes and communities. Since late 2003, tens of thousands of Nigerians have been driven from their homes, forced to flee in terror to live with friends or relatives in neighboring towns and communities. Daily life has been totally disrupted -- schools have been forced to close down, economic activity has all but ceased and the homes and property of already desperately poor Nigerians have been destroyed. People have been left homeless and destitute and are yet to receive promises of financial assistance from the state government. Peoples’ reluctance to return to their communities and unwillingness to take steps to seek justice for the crimes committed indicates their level of fear of the armed groups. In this environment Human Rights Watch researchers found it difficult to locate eyewitnesses or victims prepared to talk about their experiences. Although the high number of violent incidents between October 2003 and October 2004 makes it difficult to be precise on the number killed, Human Rights Watch estimates, based on interviews with eyewitnesses, victims and participants in the violence, that several dozen local residents as well as hundreds of fighters were killed during this period.

The escalation of violence between Asari’s NDPVF and Tom’s NDV in and around Port Harcourt, which began in late 2003 and continued through 2004, appears to have been precipitated by a fallout between Asari and his former supporter, Rivers State Governor Peter Odili, in the wake of the April 2003 state and federal elections. Asari’s public criticism of the conduct of the elections lost him political patronage and, according to Asari, led the state government to launch a violent campaign against him, primarily through Tom’s NDV.33 The pattern of violence in the villages near Port Harcourt between January and June 2004 suggests it originated as a battle between the two groups for control of access to bunkering routes. However, with Tom favored by the state government, Asari increasingly framed his actions in popular rhetoric -- demands for resource control and self determination, which have long been articulated by local activists, including the Ijaw Youth Council. From June 2004 onwards a state level security task force of police, army and navy was deployed and carried out operations, primarily against Asari’s NDPVF in riverine towns and villages. 

The August 2004 armed clashes in Port Harcourt, several of which were in close proximity to the headquarters of the Rivers State Government, targeted members of Tom’s NDV and shocked local, state and federal government officials. The brazen nature of these attacks caused President Obasanjo to deploy the armed forces in September 2004 in an attempt to quell the fighting. Asari responded with the threat of “all out war” against the Nigerian state,34 prompting an immediate response from the President, who brought the two leaders to the federal capital Abuja to broker an agreement.

Tombia, Buguma and Bukuma  

Some of the most intense fighting between October 2003 and October 2004 centered around villages located on tributaries about twenty to forty kilometers southwest of Port Harcourt, including Buguma, Bukuma, Tombia, and Ogbakiri. This is Asari’s home area and the site of several oil wells, flow stations and gas gathering projects operated by Shell Petroleum Development Company in the Cawthorne Channel.

The violence in Tombia and Bukuma (which are a few kilometers apart) escalated in October 2003 when members of the Germans “cult” group killed a leader of the Dey Gbam “cult”. Both sides claim that after this incident, members of their group were forced to flee Tombia and Bukuma, seeking refuge in Port Harcourt. In late 2003 Dey Gbam formed an alliance with Asari’s NDPVF and the Germans formed an alliance with Tom’s NDV. Although members of Dey Gbam and the Germans sought assistance to facilitate their return to their villages, Asari and Tom were most likely interested in manipulating a local dispute to gain control of Tombia and Bukuma because of their proximity to lucrative bunkering routes in the Cawthorne Channel.35 According to fighters interviewed by Human Rights Watch, both Asari and Tom armed their new recruits with sophisticated weapons and speedboats in late 2003.36

From late 2003, thousands of local people in and around Tombia, Buguma, Ogbakiri and Bukuma were forced to flee as Asari’s NDPVF and Tom’s NDV launched attacks and counter attacks. The fighting intensified between January and May 2004 and the majority of the population left during this period. When Human Rights Watch visited Tombia, Ogbakiri, and Bukuma in November 2004 researchers found substantial evidence of widespread destruction of homes, schools, churches, and other buildings dating back to this period between January and May 2004, as well as more recent damage. Of a population of approximately 15,000 only about 1000 people were present in Tombia when Human Rights Watch visited. Similarly in Bukuma, which is normally home to around 10,000 people, roughly 500 were left. Human Rights Watch estimates from interviews with participants to the fighting, villagers and local human rights organizations that dozens of people, primarily fighters, but also many bystanders, died in these raids.

Amadi Ama and Okrika

During the period from late 2003, violence between armed groups also escalated in Amadi-Ama and Okrika, waterfront areas south-west of Port Harcourt, killing several civilians and displacing thousands. The fighting in Amadi Ama and Okrika can be traced back to 1999 and has its origins in a dispute over a tribal leadership position and the use of youth groups by local politicians to consolidate their power, as previously described. From 2003 the fighting in this area became increasingly connected to events in and around Tombia and Buguma as a local youth group called the Bush Boys who had been pushed out of Okrika by Tom’s NDV, turned to Asari Dukubo’s NDPVF for support.37 Tom’s NDV began raids on the Bush Boys in Amadi-Ama. In one attack in early January 2004, members of Tom’s group arrived by boat in the middle of the night and began firing at several homes. A local business woman with four children who witnessed the attack described what happened:

At about 11.15 p.m., I heard gunshots coming from the sea and from the road. The gunshots lasted until 6:00 a.m. I didn’t know what was happening, there were gunshots everywhere. If you peep through the window it was like stars – the gunshots were everywhere - so we just sat in the house and prayed. That was all we could do.38

According to eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, one participant and as many as four bystanders were killed in the shootout.  One of the victims was Felix Olunwa a local factory worker in his thirties and a father of four, who died of gunshot wounds to his neck and chest.39  After the attack, hundreds of residents fled their homes and have only recently started to return.

As the fighting in the state intensified, members of Asari’s NDPVF, in September, launched large-scale retaliatory attacks on Ateke Tom’s village of Okrika, located about 20 kilometers southeast of Port Harcourt, which also allegedly served as his logistical base.40

Port Harcourt

In late August 2004 Asari’s NDPVF stepped up its attacks, launching raids on several areas of Port Harcourt, including Njemanze, Marine Base, Sangana Street and a restaurant on Warri Street. Bringing the fighting to Port Harcourt, whereas it had previously been confined to the riverine communities, was a brazen gesture by Asari. The state government found itself confronted with violence on the doorstep of the oil capital of Nigeria. The violence sent shockwaves through the oil industry and the international community. According to NDPVF members interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the NDPVF attacked these locations to either eliminate specific members of Tom’s NDV or kill members of his group more generally.41

Human Rights Watch researchers concluded that these attacks led to the deaths of at least sixteen people, the widespread destruction of homes, shops, and property, and the displacement of several hundred local residents.

Njemanze waterfront

On August 22, 2004 at around 11:00 p.m. about fifty members of Asari’s NDPVF attacked a densely populated slum settlement called Njemanze on the Port Harcourt waterfront. At that time the area was controlled by an armed group called the Njemanze Vigilante Service. Asari’s fighters first fired gunshots around the settlement and then set fire to about 30 homes. The Njemanze Vigilante Service told Human Rights Watch researchers they were not affiliated to Ateke’s NDV but according to a member of Asari’s group who participated in the raid:


We burned Njemanze down to make sure our boys can stay there. We attacked the Ateke boys [members of Tom’s NDV]. They shot against us, but we shot and killed them. We burned the whole place down.42

About five fighters from both sides died from gunshot wounds during the clash. Although members of the Njemanze Vigilante Service claim seven bystanders died, eyewitnesses put the numbers at up to four.43 A large area of Njemanze was completely razed during the attack; over thirty homes were destroyed resulting in the displacement of several hundred people. Residents interviewed at Njemanze told Human Rights Watch how they had lost their homes and all possessions and, months later were still too afraid to return permanently. Several survivors told Human Rights Watch how they managed to escape. According to one woman:

Around 11p.m. I was sleeping in my house and I heard gunshots. They came down the stairs and started shooting…They started burning houses. I could smell the fire. I tied a wrapper around my chest and ran out. All of us here ran out. We were women and children. We ran up the stairs to the street. As we were running we saw four dead bodies. …I ran to the Deeper Life Church and stayed there all night. I still live there because my house was burnt down.”44

Another woman described:

Around 11pm I was inside my house and I heard gunshots. I lay down on the floor with my four children and husband. Then they threw dynamite, not on my house, but on my neighbor’s house. We lay on the floor for about 15 minutes before we heard someone shout: “Fire, Fire!” I carried one child, my husband carried two, and my sister carried one. We ran out of the house. We ran up to the street and stayed there for about two hours. When I came back down everything was burnt. My house was burnt down. On my way down I saw two okada [local motorbike taxi] drivers who had died. They were lying up by the stairs.45

Marine Base waterfront

In another attack on August 29, 2004 at around 5:30 a.m. approximately fifty well armed members of Asari’s NDPVF  arrived by speedboats at Marine Base, a waterfront area in Port Harcourt where several members of Tom’s NDV resided. One resident, a twenty-three year old student described what he saw:

I was in the house and I saw them through the window. They were many, between 40 and 70 men in ten speedboats. They were wearing white or yellow shirts and tied white bands round their head. They were shouting “Asawana”, a war cry, so that bullets won’t harm them. Only Asari’s men say this. They were carrying guns, big guns. They entered the area and started shooting and looking for their enemies. They shouted “Where are the Ateke boys? Where are the Icelanders?”46

The two groups fought each other on the streets for nearly four hours while civilians mostly remained inside their homes or places of worship. According to a member of Tom’s NDV who participated in the fight, the attack occurred because of a “misunderstanding about power and who ruled the place.”47 According to eyewitnesses the security forces didn’t arrive on the scene until 9 a.m. and appeared unable to contain the violence or match the firepower of the NDPVF. Residents described to Human Rights Watch how the police ran away leaving residents defenseless. The fighting led to the deaths of four people as well as the destruction of several shops and cars.48

Sangana Street and Warri Street

On August 31, 2004 Asari’s NDPVF perpetrated a similar attack on Sangana Street in the Diobu area of Port Harcourt where they opened fire indiscriminately, killing three civilians and injuring at least nine adults and one six-year old boy. A woman trader described the attack:

I was outside selling. It was after 9:00 p.m. when they came in a bus. There were many—it was a full bus. I ran into my house. We were lying on the ground near the bed. It was me, my six year old son, my daughter, and my sister’s two children. They entered the yard and went to my neighbor’s house and started shooting and shot his window. Then they came over here and started shooting. They shot the walls, they shot all over. My son was shot twice—in the jaw and in the wrist.49

Minutes after this incident, at approximately 9.15 p.m., an NDPVF gunman, opened fire on customers drinking at the Platform Restaurant on nearby Warri Street. Eyewitnesses describe how a dark red Mercedes first drove up outside the restaurant. Then a man in a trench coat stepped out, pulled out a gun and sprayed bullets at the customers. Two women, including a waitress, and two male customers died instantly, while another male customer died on the way to the hospital.

A member of the NDPVF interviewed by Human Rights Watch admitted involvement in the shootings on Sangana Street and Warri Street: “I was there on Sangana and Warri Street. We shot eight people, just eight in number. We know where they stay. One girl in the restaurant died by accident, she was hit by a flying bullet.”50 Asari himself claimed responsibility for the attack on Marine Base and subsequent attacks on areas in and around Port Harcourt including Borokiri and Isaka Island.51

Response of the Nigerian Security Forces

During the course of the 2004, violence in the villages in and around Port Harcourt, the police army and navy failed to take sufficient action to secure the lives and property of the local residents. In almost all areas, local people reported to Human Rights Watch the absence or inability of the security forces to deal with the violence. Several participants and eyewitnesses to the clashes in Port Harcourt told Human Rights Watch that although they attempted to contact the police during the clashes, they arrived on the scene well after the attackers had left, if at all. When questioned about this the State Commissioner of Police told Human Rights Watch, “the police don’t have the fire power in comparison to the militia.”52 Several members of Asari’s NDPVF described to Human Rights Watch how the police, rather than act to stop the clashes or protect lives and property, stood by while Tom’s NDV attacked during clashes between the two armed groups.53 One NDPVF leader from Tombia told Human Rights Watch that during January 2004 clashes “the MOPOL [mobile police] in this town protected them [Tom’s NDV]. MOPOL shot at us.”54  A junior NDV fighter interviewed by researchers described how the NDV “worked with MOPOL” to repel a NDPVF attack on Tombia in February 2004.55

Moreover, very few individuals responsible for organizing or carrying out the attacks appear to have been arrested or prosecuted.  Although the State Commissioner of Police told Human Rights Watch that over 200 people had been arrested and charged since the passage of the “Secret Cult and Similar Activities Prohibition Law” in June 2004, local NGOs and members of the Port Harcourt communities affected by the violence in August 2004 reported to Human Rights Watch that very few people had been arrested in the aftermath of those attacks.56 From interviews with members of both the NDPVF and NDV, Human Rights Watch concludes that of the few arrests made during the clashes, most were of low-level fighters or, in some cases, those unconnected to the incidents, seemingly in an attempt to show action was being taken. In other cases, members of the armed groups told researchers how their fellow fighters were released shortly after arrest or following the payment of a bribe to police officers.57 Human Rights Watch in December 2004 asked the State Commissioner of Police and officers of the High Court to provide a list of suspects arrested following the August 2004 attacks in Port Harcourt; to date Human Rights Watch has not received a response, despite numerous inquires.

In May 2004, the state government constituted a joint internal security operation, involving the army, navy and police in response to the rising tide of violence in the state. As fighting between Asari’s NDPVF and Tom’s NDV, intensified, security forces carried out operations in Ogbakiri, Buguma, Tombia and Amadi Ama between June and August. The objective of the operation, under the overall command of the police, was to “maintain law and order and ensure the militia members were brought to book.”58  On July 8, 2004, in the early hours of the morning, over fifty soldiers entered Amadi Ama in search of NDPVF supporters. They exchanged fire with fighters for over two hours, raided homes and threatened local people. At least four bystanders and one participant were killed during the operation. The victims include a seven-year-old girl called Ngozi, twenty-one-year-old Kuluma Koko and his younger brother Godswill Koko.59 One resident, a twenty-seven-year-old man, described what happened:

At 7:00 a.m. I heard a knock on the door. The Army banged on the door and I told my sister not to be scared. I came out and they pushed me outside. They called me a criminal, and said we were harboring criminals. They took me to the back of the house and asked me to dig for weapons. But I have nothing incriminating so they shot at the ground close to my leg. I kept saying I know nothing about what they are saying. They left but came back later and flogged me with a horse whip. They pulled me out and said I should carry dynamite. They had found dynamite in an unoccupied building and ordered myself and my uncle to carry the dynamite. They threatened to shoot us and flogged us again.60

National and international press at the time reported the death of scores of people killed by Nigerian security forces, in particular during operations in Ogbakiri at the beginning of June 2004.61 The difficulty in locating villagers who witnessed these events and, given their fear of the armed groups, prepared to talk about their experiences presented a challenge to Human Rights Watch researchers to confirm the precise nature of these incidents and the number of people killed.

Following the attacks by Asari’s NDPVF on Port Harcourt at the end of August 2004, Rivers Governor Peter Odili requested the intervention of the federal government. On September 4, 2004, President Obasanjo approved Operation Flush Out 3, a joint operation comprising the Nigerian army, navy, airforce and police. According to an army public relations officer, Captain Onyema Kanu, the operation’s objective was, “to cleanse the state of illegal weapons.”62 Around the same time, the governor’s chief of staff, initiated a behind-the-scenes effort to forge a peace agreement among several of the “cult” groups affiliated with Asari’s NDPVF and Tom’s NDV in 2003.

During Operation Flush Out 3 in September 2004, troops and police were again deployed to Amadi-Ama, Tombia, Okrika, Buguma, Bukuma, Ogbakiri, and several other areas. Asari and other NDPVF fighters accuse the government of launching air raids in Tombia, Bukuma, Ogbakiri, Buguma, and Oru Sangana, leading to widespread destruction of homes and the death of local people and fighters. Army Spokesman Captain Kanu denied these allegations, admitting the use of helicopter gunships only once, in an attack on Asari’s base, described by Kanu as a “military installation” and located on a remote riverine island close to Harry’s Town. Although local NGOs reported the destruction of several fishing villages during these raids, Human Rights Watch was unable to visit the area to confirm the reports. During Human Rights Watch’s visit to Tombia, Bukuma, and Ogbakiri, NDPVF members, who at the time controlled access to these villages, gave differing accounts of attacks by the military. In addition, most of the destruction they showed Human Rights Watch researchers appeared to have occurred well before September and October 2004—there was significant growth of vegetation around many of the buildings—and probably occurred during the clashes between the armed groups from January to June 2004.

Asari’s September 27, 2004 threat to launch a war against the federal government and oil companies appears to have been provoked by the government’s attack on his base.63 His decision was probably also shaped by his recognition that the state government’s behind-the-scenes diplomatic effort to resolve the crisis threatened to marginalize him. His threat immediately generated tremendous international publicity, primarily because of its impact on global crude prices. Asari proved adept at using the international media to buttress his domestic power. He issued several statements where he claimed that the NDPVF was fighting for the “self-determination” of the Ijaw people in the Niger Delta and their right to control--or at least benefit from—the vast oil resources near their homes.64


Asari’s attempt to cast his struggle in pan-Ijaw nationalist terms does not fit with the evidence presented by the violence in and around Port Harcourt in 2004. It is more likely that Asari is seeking political and economic power for himself and his allies. The violence between Asari’s NDPVF and Tom’s NDV resulted in the deaths of hundreds of young Ijaw fighters, the killing of dozens of largely Ijaw local people and the destruction of several Ijaw villages. Regardless, Asari’s rhetoric of “resource control” no doubt resonated with thousands of other young, unemployed Ijaw men, providing him with an effective recruiting tool.

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

[34] See Tom Ashby, “Nigerian oil security raised amid rebel threat,” Reuters, September 28, 2004.

[35] Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt, November 19, 25 and 28, 2004.

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

[37] Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt, November 28, 2004.

[38] Human Rights Watch interviews, Amadi Ama, December 1, 2004.

[39] Human Rights Watch interviews, Amadi Ama, December 1 and 2, 2004.

[40] Human Rights Watch interviews Bukuma, November 25, 2004 and Ogbakiri, November 26, 2004 and Port Harcourt, November 28, 2004.

[41] Human Rights Watch interviews with members of the NDPVF, Port Harcourt, November 20, 21, 2004 and Bukuma and Tombia, November 25, 2004.

[42] Human Rights Watch interview, Bukuma, November 25, 2004.

[43] Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt, November 22, 2004.

[44] Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, November 22, 2004.

[45] Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, November 22, 2004.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, November 24, 2004.

[47] Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, November 23, 2004.

[48] Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt, November 24, 2004.

[49] Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, November 23, 2004.

[50] Human Rights Watch interview, Bukuma, November 25, 2004

[51] Human Rights Watch interview with Asari Dukobo, Port Harcourt, November 21, 2004 and other interviews with members of the NDPVF, Tombia, November 21 and Bukuma, November 25, 2004.

[52] Human Rights Watch interview with Sylvester Araba, Rivers State Commissioner of Police, Port Harcourt, December 1, 2004.

[53] Human Rights Watch interviews Tombia and Bukuma, November 25, 2004.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview Tombia, November 25, 2004.

[55] Human Rights Watch interview Port Harcourt, November 26, 2004.

[56] Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt, November 22 and 23, 2004.

[57] Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt, November 21, 22, 24 and 26, 2004.

[58] Human Rights Watch interview with Sylvester Araba, Rivers State Commissioner of Police, Port Harcourt, December 1, 2004.

[59] Human Rights Watch interviews, Amadi Ama, December 2, 2004.

[60] Human Rights Watch interview, Amadi Ama, December 2, 2004.

[61] For example see, “Nigeria: At least 50 die in battle with Ijaw militants,” IRIN, June 7, 2004. 

[62] Human Rights Watch interview with Captain Onyema Kanu, Public Relations Officer, 2nd Amphibious Brigade and Joint Task Force, Port Harcourt, December 1, 2004.

[63] See Tom Ashby, “Nigerian oil delta rebels say "war" starts Oct 1.” Reuters, September 27, 2004.

[64] See Tom Ashby, “Nigerian oil security raised amid rebel threat,” Reuters, September 28, 2004 and “Nigeria Delta rebels agree truce,” BBC News, October 2, 2004.

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