Case Study C: Rivers State

They buy guns for our youths; destroy our schools and our amenities, and our communities. They ask our youths to kill one another and do others of their biddings…Most of these youths that the state had turned into cultists, hostage-takers, armed robbers, assassins, prostitutes and thugs would have been great and meaningful to this society, but today their future is rocked with violence and evil.
—Patrick Naagbanton, Port Harcourt journalist and activist.279

Rivers State is the unofficial capital of Nigeria’s booming oil industry and its state government is the wealthiest in Nigeria, with a budget of $1.4 billion in 2007.280 Unfortunately Rivers state’s relative wealth has exacerbated rather than solved its many problems. Not least, the state’s wealth has led to high-stakes political competition and a resulting level of political violence that considerably exceeds even the nationwide norm.

Sowing the seeds of Violence: The 2003 Elections in Rivers

Since 1999, the PDP has maintained a virtual monopoly on elective office in Rivers State and throughout the Niger Delta through rigged elections. The 2003 elections in Rivers were both more violent and more brazenly rigged than in most other parts of the country. One local civil society group compared the 2003 electoral period to a “low-intensity armed struggle.”281 Despite a widespread lack of voting, massive voter turnout was reported and the PDP swept elective offices across the state in landslide victories.282

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than a dozen people, including gang leaders, cultists and low-level thugs, who acknowledged having organized or carried out acts of paid violence on behalf of the PDP in order to rig the 2003 elections in Rivers. All of them said that they worked on behalf of the state government or PDP candidates for office to intimidate voters, attack their sponsors’ opponents or rig the voting directly in favor of then-Governor Peter Odili and the PDP.283

The PDP’s primary instruments in using violence to rig the 2003 polls in Rivers were two gangs that have since been at the forefront of violent crimes and “militant” activity throughout the state: the Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force (NDPVF), led by Asari Dukobo, and the Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV), led by Ateke Tom. State government officials have vehemently denied their sponsorship of these groups, but the activities of some officials have been documented by Human Rights Watch, Nigerian civil society groups and journalists.284 Ateke Tom himself acknowledged the role he played in the 2003 elections, telling Human Rights Watch that then-Governor Odili had promised cash and jobs in great quantities for himself and his ‘boys’ and that in return, “Any place Odili sent me, I conquer[ed] for him. I conquer[ed] everywhere.”285 Governor Odili has consistently denied any relationship with Ateke, Asari, or any other gang leader.

The Legacy of the 2003 Polls in Rivers

Much of the compensation that PDP politicians promised to the groups they helped finance and arm during the 2003 elections never materialized. Specifically, many youth recruited by politicians to carry out electoral violence complain that they were promised additional cash payments and, more importantly, government jobs after the elections. Many gang members interviewed by Human Rights Watch point to poverty and unemployment as the sole factors motivating them to participate in political violence and crime.286

There are widespread complaints among these youth and their leaders that rather than fulfill these promises, their sponsors including then-Governor Peter Odili simply “dumped” them once comfortably ensconced in office. As one civil society activist who works to discourage youth from participating in cult activities explained to Human Rights Watch, “The armed groups, particularly the youth, felt betrayed by the kind of contracts they made with the politicians in 2003. They felt that having participated in rigging the election, they deserved a stake.”287

The result of these broken promises was a rapid deterioration of relations between many armed groups and their former sponsors. Rivers State has been awash with guns since the 2003 polls, when politicians sparked the ongoing influx of arms into the region to arm their proxy gangs.288 Many groups subsequently moved into using their weaponry to spark an ongoing wave of violent crime, providing protection for or asserting control over oil bunkering operations and other criminal activities to make up for their loss of lucrative political sponsors.289 Local civil society groups, along with many current and former Rivers state government interviewed by Human Rights Watch, are unanimous in pointing to the mobilization by politicians of gangs—most of them linked to cult groups—to rig the 2003 elections as the beginning of the state’s current epidemic of violent crime and proliferation of unaccountable armed gangs.290

The trend towards armed criminality sparked by the emergence and political sponsorship of armed groups during the 2003 elections has now spiraled out of control in Rivers. Militias and gangs have proliferated, maintaining camps of fighters in the creeks that engage in oil bunkering and stage bank robberies and street battles in Port Harcourt. Some of these groups have turned kidnappings for ransom of expatriate oil workers, wealthy Nigerians and their family members into a profitable business. Kidnappings have become commonplace since the beginning of 2006 and armed gangs seized more than one hundred oil workers in the first six months of 2007 alone.291 In early 2007 the kidnapping epidemic took an even more disturbing new turn with the seizure of several young children for ransom by armed attackers.292

Turf Wars, Extortion and Impunity

Aside from overtly political violence in the months surrounding elections, insecurity for the residents of Rivers State has been worst when armed groups have turned against one another. This infighting is linked to claims on political patronage, competition over territory, oil bunkering networks, or other sources of revenue and influence.

Beginning in late 2003, a drawn-out armed conflict between the PDP’s erstwhile agents—Asari’s NDPVF and Ateke’s NDV—plunged parts of Port Harcourt and surrounding communities into a state of terror. Dozens of local people were killed along with hundreds of fighters, tens of thousands fled their homes and riverine communities along the creeks were devastated. Human Rights Watch documented the human rights impact of that conflict in detail in a 2004 report.293 That violence is generally acknowledged to have been sparked by a power play on the part of the state government. Having fallen out with former ally Asari Dukobo after Asari helped rig the 2003 elections, the Odili administration sponsored Ateke Tom in a failed and bloody attempt to crush Asari’s group.294

The spiral of violence that followed the 2003 elections repeated itself after the 2007 polls. In May 2007 gang members linked to another prominent militant, Soboma George, murdered armed group leader Price Igodo and as many as a dozen others. Numerous sources indicated told Human Rights Watch that Soboma was paid to carry out the attack by supporters of current Governor Celestine Omehia partly in response to concerns that Igodo was planning to disrupt the new government’s May 29 inauguration.295

Soboma and his Outlaws gang were reportedly hired by the PDP to help rig the 2007 elections in Rivers.296 One cult member described a meeting in Government House in Port Harcourt just prior to the April 14 polls during which he saw government officials hand out between N5 million and N10 million ($38,500 to $77,000) to several different cult groups in return for their assisting or simply accepting the PDP’s plans to rig the polls.297 Several other sources confirmed the substance of the meeting.298

In August 2007, Port Harcourt descended into chaos, with armed gangs waging ongoing battles in the streets of the city and wreaking devastation on the surrounding communities. Civil society activists in Port Harcourt described this fighting as being linked to struggles between various gangs to assert claims on political patronage including money and oil bunkering routes from the state government and anger on the part of some gangs at Soboma George’s preeminent role in securing such patronage. As one prominent activist put it, “It’s the same old story—people who were used for elections on April 14 and 21, having won the election are trying to establish supremacy against the other groups in the state.”299 And indeed the fighting bore a grim resemblance to the events that followed the 2003 elections in Rivers—not least because one of its central belligerents was none other than Ateke Tom.

After weeks of violence, the Nigerian military’s Joint Task Force (JTF) intervened, engaging in a bloody battle with the gangs in Port Harcourt. The JTF is comprised of forces drawn from different branches of the Nigerian military and is currently under the command of Army Brigadier General Yaki Sakin Bello. A tenuous calm was quickly restored after a street battle that reportedly saw dozens of gang members killed, including many killed by attack helicopter. The toll in lives exacted by the fighting was heavy: local civil society groups reported that dozens of innocent bystanders were killed or wounded along with unknown numbers of gang members. One MSF-run trauma center in Port Harcourt reported treating 72 gunshot wounds in July 2007—then its worst month on record—followed by 71 further gunshot victims during the first two weeks of August alone.300

Most of the wounded treated at the MSF trauma center were suffering from high-velocity gunshot wounds and most reported having been fired on at random by marauding gang members or caught in the crossfire between rival gangs.301 Days after the MSF’s numbers above were compiled, the military intervened in fighting that yielded still further casualties.302 Local newspapers reported roughly 40 dead during a day of heavy fighting between gangs and military forces in the densely populated confines of Port Harcourt.303 Local civil society activists estimated that the true number was significantly higher.304 A military spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that he could not offer any estimate of casualties on any side.305

Box 6: A Gang Leader Discusses his Role in Politics

The following is drawn from the testimony of a gang leader in Port Harcourt who was interviewed by Human Rights Watch on the eve of the 2007 elections. He, along with other youth who told HRW that they had worked to rig the 2003 elections, blamed broken promises on the part of the state government for much of the violence in which they had been involved:

In 1999 and 2003, [Governor] Odili called us and told us we should work for him. He called other faction leaders of different groups in Port Harcourt. He worked through Asari [Dukobo of the NDPVF]…They gave some groups N5 million, 3 million, 10 million…We disrupted the election in favor of our governor and his candidates—we stood at the election ground so people would not come. There was no election.

After 1999, we waited and waited and there was nothing. In 2003 they called us again and said we should work for them and again they broke their promises. They promised us opportunities, empowerment. Instead [after the elections] they started chasing us and calling us cultists…They declared me “wanted” on radio and television.

After 2003 they went and called Ateke Tom and said he should chase us and kill the members of our group. We were chased out of our areas by Ateke who was working with law enforcement groups. They killed many of my boys.

We went for a peace parlay with Ateke in Abuja. They government promised us employment, empowerment… They then said we should refund our guns to them. We did. But we kept some for ourselves because we knew we could not trust them. We have not had to acquire new weapons–we had enough arsenal.

The government people approached me to mobilize my boys for the elections [in 2007] but they are not sincere. They destroyed my house and killed many of my members with JTF [the Joint Task Force of security agencies deployed to combat unrest in the Delta]. They now approached us again and asked us to work for them but we said no, because they are not sincere.

There won’t be any problems here if they work with us. The message we are going to give them is, they should create employment, job opportunities and social amenities for the youth of the Niger Delta…In this area we have oil and gas in abundance but we are not being carried along.306

Impunity for Violence

Recent clashes with the military aside, for the most part armed groups in Rivers State have been left to operate with near-total impunity, even where they have evolved almost entirely into purely criminal organizations willing to work for the highest bidder or simply carry out violent crime on their own. Ateke Tom and his NDV is the most glaring example.

Human Rights Watch met with Ateke Tom along with several journalists the day before the first round of voting in the 2007 polls. On paper, Ateke has been a wanted man for several years, as he has been implicated in numerous murders and bank robberies, but the camp where the meeting took place was hidden in plain view just off a major waterway and a short boat ride away from Port Harcourt.307 Scores of armed men dressed mostly in plastic sandals and ragged but colorful t-shirts loitered about the camp, not bothering to seek cover even when a helicopter buzzed almost directly overhead.

Asked by Human Rights Watch to explain his primary aims, Ateke demanded that the government provide jobs to him and his “boys” and that he be repaid for property he alleged the Nigerian military had destroyed during a previous military operation to break the power of his armed group. “The weapons that are with us, we can use them for any fight,” he said.308 Several of the armed men present in Ateke’s camp openly bragged that they would travel to Port Harcourt the next day, the day of the gubernatorial elections, to “destroy.”309

The night before the April 14 elections, Ateke’s men attacked two police stations in Port Harcourt, murdering several officers and burning the police stations to the ground.310 The attackers reportedly locked one policeman inside a Hilux pickup and then tossed in a stick of locally-made “dynamite” that killed him and set the truck ablaze.311 In one press interview after the attack, Ateke said that he had no regrets for ordering the attack. “If you are fighting, people will die,” he said.312

Some reports indicate that the purpose of the attack was to free some NDV fighters who had supposedly been arrested; other sources believed the goal was simply to demonstrate Ateke’s capacity for mayhem in order to strengthen his bargaining position and extort some payment in return for refraining from causing any further disruption on Election Day.313 Later the same day Ateke reportedly reached a settlement with the local government chairman in his home town of Okrika to refrain from disrupting the elections there in exchange for an unspecified payment.314 The results in Okrika were then massively rigged in favor of the PDP.315

Since the August fighting between Rivers’ gangs and the military, Soboma George and Ateke Tom are, once again, being described as wanted men. A military spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that he “suspected” Soboma George was killed in the August fighting but these claims were widely dismissed by civil society activists. The same spokesperson affirmed that “God willing, we will catch Ateke.”316 As of this writing Ateke remained at large.

Impunity for the Sponsors of Violence in Rivers

One of the most notorious theatres of pre-election violence in 2006 and 2007 occurred in the town of Bodo in Gokana local government, where armed groups sponsored by two prominent Rivers politicians, including the current Secretary to the State Government, unleashed mayhem in the course of a long-running political turf war.317

The example of Bodo is by no means atypical. No government official has been held to account or even presented with criminal charges for having helped to arm the criminal gangs that have grown so powerful in Rivers State in the years since 2003, least of all former Governor Peter Odili. The impunity enjoyed by politicians is so widespread that some residents of the state are not even aware that their sponsorship of armed gangs is in and of itself illegal. One former gang member in Port Harcourt suggested to Human Rights Watch that, “If the government would pass a law preventing the politicians from giving arms to our people, it would help Rivers a lot.”318

Impunity and 2007’s Post-Election Crisis

Soon after being sworn into office in June 2007, current Rivers Governor Celestine Omehia announced a plan to award payments of N1 million ($7700) each to any youths in armed groups who agree to “renounce violence.”

The Rivers State government’s “policy” was harshly criticized by local activists who complained that it was unaccompanied by any measure to reintegrate members of cults and other armed gangs into society, did not spell out who or how people would qualify, and in fact did not appear to be part of any rational policy at all. The government also made no mention of any plan to hold accountable individuals responsible for large numbers of murders and other violent abuses, such as Ateke Tom, or their former political sponsors such as ex-Governor Peter Odili or some current government officials in the state.

In a July 2007 interview, Hassan Douglas, Chairman of Rivers State Niger Delta Peace and Crisis Resolution Committee—one of six committees announced under a federal coordinating committee—derided the plan’s critics and said that the program had already brought peace to the entirety of Rivers State. “Rivers State right now is a heaven for investors,” Douglas said to Human Rights Watch. “No panic, no more militias, no more hostage taking. No more fighting in any part of the state right now. Rivers State is now like it was before 1999, within the space of only one month our Governor has done this.”319 Weeks later, Port Harcourt was engulfed in the violent chaos described above.

Government policies, exemplified by the Rivers State Government’s “millionaires” program, have not only been ineffective but have largely missed the point. When the military’s Joint Task Force intervened in August 2007 to combat warring gangs, many Port Harcourt residents welcomed the move in principle but worried that the bloodshed would prove pointless unless the politicians who sponsored and helped arm those gangs were held to account. As one leading human rights activist put it:

What will this military intervention do to the whole idea of the politicians paying, motivating, recruiting and keeping and protecting these militants? That is the whole problem…The politicians just a couple of months ago paid these boys to win the elections for them- they paid them and also gave them the [unofficial] license to go and do oil bunkering. I don’t see anything coming out of this unless these politicians are dealt with.320

279 Patrick Naagbanton, “Funeral Song for Prince Igodo and Others,” The Port Harcourt Telegraph, June 6, 2007.

280 “2007: Assembly Approves N183 Billion as Rivers Budget,” Rivers State House of Assembly Press Release, (accessed July 13, 2007). This is roughly five times the national average across all state governments. See Human Rights Watch, Chop Fine, pp. 75-79.

281 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.

282 Governor Peter Odili reportedly won roughly 98% of all votes cast. Human Rights Watch interviews with member of 2003 election observer mission, Abuja, Februay 2007.

283 Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt, December 2005, August 2006 and April 2007.

284 Along with Governor Peter Odili, former Secretary to the State Government and Federal Transportation Minister Abiye Sekibo reportedly played a central role in sponsoring the violent activities of Ateke Tom’s NDV in particular. See Human Rights Watch, Rivers and Blood, pp. 2-3 and 4-6 ; Human Rights Watch, Nigeria’s 2003 Elections: The Unacknowledged Violence,pp. 14-19.

285 Human Rights Watch interview with Ateke Tom, Rivers State, April 13, 2007.

286 Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt, August 2006 and April 2007.

287 Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, April 11, 2007.

288 See Human Rights Watch, Rivers and Blood,pp. 4-6 and 9-10.

289 See Human Rights Watch, Rivers and Blood.

290 Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt, August 2006 and April 2007.

291 See “Foreign Hostages Freed in Nigeria,” BBC News Online, June 23, 2007, (accessed July 16, 2007).

292 As of July 16, 2007, three young children had been taken hostage and subsequently released by armed groups in the Delta. These included two children of wealthy Nigerians and the three-year old daughter of an expatriate resident of Port Harcourt. See “Nigeria kidnappers free UK girl,” BBC News Online, July 9, 2007, (accessed July 16, 2007).

293 Human Rights Watch, Rivers and Blood.

294 Human Rights Watch interviews with civil society activists and gang members, Port Harcourt, August 2006 and April 2007.

295 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews and email correspondence with civil society activists, journalists and former cult members, June and July 2007.

296 Human Rights Watch interviews with activists and cult members, Port Harcourt, April 2007. See also Patrick Naagbanton, “Funeral Song for Prince Igodo and Others,” The Port Harcourt Telegraph, June 6, 2007.

297 Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, April 16, 2007.

298 Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt and Abuja, April 2007. See also Robyn Dixon, “Niger Delta’s politicians ease way into office by using thugs,” Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2007, citing a member of the Buccaneers cult group claiming that cult groups were paid N10 million to help rig the elections.

299 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Anyakwee Nsirimovu, Port Harcourt, August 21, 2007.

300 Doctors Without Borders, “Field News: MSF Trauma Center Admits 71 Over Two Weeks in Port Harcourt, Nigeria,” August 13, 2007, (accessed August 21, 2007).

301 Ibid.

302 Ibid.

303 Voice of America, “Tenuous Calm Returns to Nigerian Oil City After Deadly Battles,” August 19, 2007, (accessed August 21, 2007).

304 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews, Port Harcourt, August 21, 2007.

305 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with military spokesperson, Port Harcourt, August 21, 2007.

306 Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, April 12, 2007.

307 Like other prominent militia leaders, Ateke and his militia have several different camps scattered throughout the creeks.

308 Human Rights Watch interview with Ateke Tom, Rivers State, April 13, 2007.

309 Human Rights Watch interviews, camp of Ateke Tom, Rivers State, April 13, 2007.

310 See “Nigeria: Polls Marred by Violence, Fraud,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 17, 2007,

311 Human Rights Watch interview with activist, Port Harcourt, April 14, 2007.

312 Robyn Dixon, “Niger Delta’s politicians ease way into office by using thugs,” Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2007.

313 Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt, April 2007; civil society activist reports on file with Human Rights Watch.

314 Human Rights Watch interviews with cult members and civil society groups, Port Harcourt and Abuja, April 2007.

315 See “Nigeria: Polls Marred by Violence, Fraud,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 17, 2007,

316 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with military spokesperson Major Sagir Musa, Port Harcourt, August 21, 2007.

317 Two prominent Rivers State politicians hail from Gokana— Kenneth Kobani, the State Commissioner for Finance, and Gabriel Pidomson, a member of the Rivers State House of Assembly. In what local analysts called a struggle for position ahead of the 2007 elections, gangs allegedly linked to the two politicians carried out a series of brutal attacks on one another in and around Bodo during August 2006. At least a dozen people were killed and the community was plunged into a state of insecurity and terror for several weeks. Apparently alarmed by the scale of the violence and worried that it might set a precedent for the 2007 elections, the federal government’s State Security Service took the unusual step of arresting both Kobani and Pidomson. After several weeks in detention, however, both men were released and left to resume their posts in government. Neither was charged with any crime or received any other sort of formal sanction. See Patrick Naagbanton, “The Bodo War of Attrition,” July 31, 2006, (accessed July 12, 2007).

318 Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, April 12, 2007.

319 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Alh. Hassan Douglas, Chairman, Niger Delta Peace and Crisis Resolution Committee, July 16, 2007.

320 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Anyakwee Nisirmovu, April 20, 2007.