Background: Root Causes of Violence in Rivers State

The epidemic of violence that has plagued much of the Niger Delta in recent years has its roots in the corrupt, violent, and unaccountable nature of politics in the region. While much of the violence documented in this report was essentially a turf war between rival gangs, the spoils those gangs were fighting over included access to patronage dispensed by state government officials. Human Rights Watch has documented the broader links between politics, corruption, and violence in Rivers State and across Nigeria as a whole in greater detail in previous reports.1 

Politics and Violence in Rivers State

Rivers State is the heart of Nigeria’s booming oil industry, and its government is the wealthiest state administration in Nigeria.2 Due to rising oil prices, Rivers’ state government now earns roughly four times the annual revenues it saw in 1999, and at the local government level revenues have increased tenfold.3 Yet—principally because of official corruption and mismanagement—no meaningful progress has been registered in combating the state’s disastrous levels of poverty and unemployment.4

Many of the young men swept up in gang violence are acutely aware of the vast discrepancy between the wealth their communities produce and the near-total lack of employment and educational opportunities open to them. Many cite these obstacles as a justification for their own resort to violent crime. Ironically, and in a vicious cycle, those young men are fuelling the same problems that have denied them a stake in their state’s wealth by working as hired guns to the politicians most responsible for running the state into the ground.

Crime and political violence have both grown in stride with the Niger Delta’s colossal failures of governance. In Nigeria as a whole, national, state, and local elections since 1999 have been consistently rigged by means of violence and fraud.5 Polls in Rivers State have been among the most violent and brazenly rigged in the country.6 In large measure this is because Rivers’ oil wealth has increased the financial spoils of political office. One Port Harcourt-based academic told Human Rights Watch that Rivers State has developed “a political culture that views politics as a kind of war.”7

There is a direct link between gang violence and the corruption and criminality of many Rivers politicians. Many of the state’s disastrously ineffective political leaders have kept themselves in place by violently rigging their own elections, something they have in large part relied on gangs of armed thugs to achieve.8 The money they use to fund, arm, and support these gangs is generated by the corrupt practices in which these politicians engage. Once in office they either abandon the well-armed gangs to their own devices or continue using them to intimidate their opponents and carry out lucrative criminal activity such as oil “bunkering.”9

Residents of Rivers State are clearly aware of the dynamics at work. For example, community leaders in Ogbogoro—a town that has been devastated by abuses carried out by “cult” gang members against its citizens—blamed local politicians for the problems. One prominent local leader told Human Rights Watch:

We want to point our fingers at our ambitious Nigerian politicians who amassed weapons for jobless youth. Life in our community used to be very vibrant. This community used to be the pride of the Akpor Kingdom. Suddenly things started getting out of hand, just before the 2003 election. We saw signs of arms trafficking, arms flowed into the community. When reports of this were made to the police force they treated it with levity. They [the politicians] were above the law.10

The 2003 Elections and the Rise of Gang Violence in Rivers State 

During the 2003 election cycle, state government officials working with then-Rivers State Governor Peter Odili and then-Federal Minister of Transportation Abiye Sekibo armed and hired criminal gangs to ensure the successful rigging of Rivers’ polls in favor of the People’s Democratic Party.11 The two most prominent gangs armed by PDP politicians during the 2003 campaigns were the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), led by Asari Dukobo, and the Icelanders or Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV), led by Ateke Tom.12

Electoral violence in Rivers was so widespread in 2003 that one local observer group compared the campaign period to a “low-intensity armed struggle.”13 Not long after the polls, Asari of the NDPVF fell out with his sponsors in the Rivers State government. State government officials responded by encouraging Ateke Tom’s Icelanders to break Asari’s group by force.14 By late 2003, Asari’s and Ateke’s gangs were openly at war with one another.

The conflict between Asari and Ateke had a devastating effect on the residents of Port Harcourt and surrounding communities. In the fighting between their gangs, dozens of local people were killed and tens of thousands fled their homes.15 Hundreds of gang members were also killed.

By August 2004 this violence had shown such a crescendo that the federal government ordered the military to intervene and stop it.16 In September 2004 then-President Olusegun Obasanjo invited both Asari and Ateke to the national capital Abuja for peace negotiations, which resulted in a truce between the two gangs. But the underlying causes of the violence that their clashes represented were never meaningfully addressed. Neither gang made any good-faith effort to disarm, and none of the politicians implicated in arming the gangs and sponsoring the violence was held to account in any way. 

2003-2007: Proliferation of Gangs and Violence

In the years since the 2003 elections, gang violence in Rivers State has steadily increased. Gangs have amassed revenue through involvement in illegal activities ranging from the bunkering trade in stolen crude oil, bank robberies, and—since 2006—the kidnapping for ransom of more than 200 expatriate oil workers and locally prominent Nigerians across the Niger Delta.17 In almost all cases, the police have turned a blind eye to the activities of the gang leaders and politicians most responsible.

Nevertheless, in recent years a widespread sense of grievance has developed among many gang members who feel that their former political sponsors have reneged on promises of money, jobs, or education. Indeed most of the promises leveraged to gang members for help with rigging the 2003 elections were rapidly forgotten by the politicians who made them. But unlike those promises the gangs did not simply fade away once the polls were over.

A Gang Leader Denounces his Former Sponsor

Many of the young men who have participated in politically sponsored gang violence now feel aggrieved that they were “used and dumped” by politicians who did not fulfill the many promises they made. The following are excerpts from the personal account of a leading member of the Deebam cult group in the town of Bodo whom Human Rights Watch interviewed in September 2007. In 2006, Rivers State then-Commissioner of Finance Kenneth Kobani employed Deebam to drive Deewell gang members employed by his political rival, Gabriel Pidomson, out of Bodo. The community was devastated by the violence that ensued.

I can’t really say if I have killed anyone, but I have been shooting gun and when you release bullet you can no longer control it.

When we came [back] to this town we were prepared for war but there was no stiff resistance that night. But the next day Pidomson sent more arms to his boys, and the battle became very fierce. About 12 were killed on our side, and about 30 on the other side. Up until now there are times you still see corpses around in remote areas rotting from that time. There are some parents who do not even know that their children are dead; they think they have left the community.

He made all sorts of promises that if we worked with him then when things get better our lives will get better too … [but] Kenneth [Kobani] last came here during the April [2007] election—since then he has not been home again. Then we were seriously in touch then so there would be an election in this place. [During the election] the whole village is one party. If there were ANPP [All Nigeria People’s Party] or other parties, we forced them to vote for PDP. There was voting, but it was we who were thumb-printing18.…Now he is not picking [answering] my calls again.

There are times he will just send some money, ₦10,000 or ₦50,000. Maybe he will not ask us to do something but he has something bad on his mind and wants us to support him. But the last time he sent money it was two days after the election. Just ₦200,000 to share between 100 people. At the same time I lost my [cell phone]—my share would not even cover that.

He needs to empower us and rehabilitate us because we worked for him, or provide employment to us that can sustain us. He has been giving contract[s] to a lot of people—he can attach us to those contracts…

I have threatened to expose him to government, how I was used and so on, but still up until now there has been no rehabilitation or anything. Kenneth is such a person that if you ask him for something like N50,000 he will gladly give to you but he does not want you to be on your own, to be independent. So if you want to go and seek admission to university, he will just abandon you midway and you will be helpless … Sometimes he will ask you to write a proposal and then just dump it somewhere.…

You see … I come from a very piously Christian home and never wanted to kill anyone but now everyone sees me and says, “There is a cult leader.”19

The 2007 Polls and Their Aftermath: History Repeats Itself

During the 2007 elections Rivers politicians employed many of the same gangs that had been hired to rig the 2003 polls, and those gangs employed the same violent tactics to keep voters from trying to exercise their mandate. Groups of thugs chased away many voters when they did attempt to vote and interfered with the tallying of votes in other places. In some areas hired thugs stuffed ballot boxes, while officials fabricated results for some communities without even bothering to open up the polls.20 The result was another landslide victory for the ruling PDP, and elections that were even less credible than the fraudulent poll of 2003.

After the 2007 elections many local observers predicted that violent power struggles between armed groups would arise just as they had following the 2003 polls. Not long after the close of voting in Rivers State, one prominent activist said he expected a “state of anarchy” to follow the elections as gangs used their guns to secure their own “piece of the action” under the new dispensation.21 Events quickly proved such dire predictions right, as the aftermath of the 2007 polls was even bloodier than the mayhem four years prior. 

“Militants,” Cults, and Gangs in Rivers State

Beginning with the run-up to Nigeria’s fraudulent 2003 elections, Rivers State and other parts of the Niger Delta have endured a continual growth and proliferation of violent criminal gangs. The sheer number of actors involved—in Rivers State alone thousands of young men are affiliated with dozens of separate armed gangs—makes for a convoluted and complex picture.

That picture is clouded still further by the strange and at-times confusing mixture of purely criminal activity, state-sponsored violence, and anti-government militancy that many gangs engage in simultaneously. Groups such as Asari Dukobo’s NDPVF and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) have cast themselves as champions of resistance to federal government oppression and economic marginalization of the Niger Delta. At the same time members of these groups often act as paid political thugs for local politicians and engage in criminal activities such as bank robbery and kidnapping. Depending on which of these often contradictory roles a group assumes on any given day, its members may find themselves branded as gang members, militants, political thugs, or “cultists.” 

The term “cults” in Nigerian parlance refers to a kind of criminal gang with roots in the student populations of university campuses. Since the first cult was established in 1952 at the University of Ibadan the groups have evolved from benign campus confraternities into violent criminal organizations. These cults sow terror among the student populations of many universities and have emerged as the dominant criminal gangs in much of Nigeria, especially in the south of the country. Some cult groups have sponsored street-based offshoots without any connection to university campuses to bolster the muscle at their disposal.22 In many parts of Nigeria, including Rivers State, some leading politicians belong to cult groups themselves.23

Immediate Causes of the July and August 2007 Violence in Rivers State

The Rising Power of Soboma George

In the years after the 2003 polls, Ateke Tom’s Icelanders (also known as NDV) gang had prospered through a blend of lucrative criminal activity and political patronage. But by the time of the 2007 elections Ateke had been displaced as Rivers State’s most powerful and politically well-connected gang leader by Soboma George, leader of the Outlaws gang.

Soboma George, a young man who has been involved in gang activity for many years, had been a subordinate of Ateke Tom in the Icelanders gang until he was imprisoned on charges of murdering another prominent gang member in 2005. He escaped from jail under mysterious circumstances before a verdict was rendered in his case. By that time his relationship with Ateke, whom he reportedly blamed for his arrest, had turned irredeemably sour.24 A significant faction of Ateke’s Icelanders group broke away to join forces with Soboma when he emerged from prison. Those men formed the nucleus of Soboma George’s Outlaws gang.25

Between his 2005 jailbreak and August 2007, Soboma George—nominally an escaped prisoner wanted on charges of murder—became one of Nigeria’s most glaring and notorious symbols of impunity. He lived openly in lavish style and the police made no real effort to apprehend him even as his gang became plainly involved with oil bunkering, kidnappings, robbery, and other crimes.26 His only brush with the law during that period came in December 2006 when he was arrested and detained for a traffic violation, apparently by police officers who did not recognize him.27 Within hours heavily armed men attacked the police station and freed Soboma from custody, easily routing outgunned police officers who tried to defend the station.28 Soboma then resumed his public life without fear of the police, who made no further attempt to apprehend the twice-escaped prisoner.

By 2007 Soboma George was an openly cultivated ally of highly ranking state government and PDP officials, valued as a reliable source of muscle.29 During the 2007 elections some local election monitors reported seeing Soboma and several of his lieutenants traveling around Port Harcourt dispensing money to polling agents and PDP supporters.30 After the 2007 polls many residents of Port Harcourt half-jokingly complained that the administration of newly elected Governor Celestine Omehia had begun to rely on Soboma’s gang members to keep other gangs out of Port Harcourt to such an extent that Soboma had become the state government’s “chief security officer.”31 

Competition for Access to Illicit Government Patronage

As discussed below, Human Rights Watch believes that there was an established relationship between Soboma George and officials at the highest levels of the administration of Governor Celestine Omehia. And following the April 2007 elections Soboma George reportedly secured several lucrative sources of income, including contracts, paid out or facilitated by state government officials.

Civil society activists as well as members of rival cult groups allege that through front companies Soboma George was awarded a grossly inflated contract to rehabilitate a government-owned stadium, along with a handful of other more basic infrastructure and maintenance contracts.32 Soboma did not have any business experience or other expertise in carrying out such work prior to becoming a powerful gang leader. Many of the same activists allege that they regularly saw Soboma George’s gang members take up posts as touts at motor parks throughout the city, extorting money from commercial drivers while police turned a blind eye.33

Local residents, activists, rival gang members, and even some military personnel interviewed by Human Rights Watch widely believe that after the election Soboma George received a concession over one petrol pump at a busy filling station owned by the government-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).  All of the revenue derived from that pump’s sales—hundreds of thousands of naira each day—allegedly went directly to Soboma George.34 An employee of Rivers State’s Petroleum Task Force, a regulatory body, told Human Rights Watch that the concession was given to Soboma because “it keeps him from taking oil with gun[s] at loading points [in the creeks].”35

Human Rights Watch was not able to establish definitively that these allegations are true, but it is clear that the violence described in this report was primarily driven by anger rival gangs felt at Soboma’s perceived monopoly on state government patronage. The allegations regarding the NNPC filling station certainly provoked the August raid on the station by Soboma George’s rivals—one of the bloodiest events described in this report (see chapter “The Human Rights Impact of Post-Election Violence in Rivers State”).36

In the words of one member of the Deebam cult who was involved in some of the fighting, “money [was] coming from everywhere to Soboma” but not into the pockets of his rivals.37 That view was echoed by other current and former cult members as well as civil society activists, local journalists, and other sources. One Port Harcourt-based analyst told Human Rights Watch that by July 2007

[t]he cults [were] locked in contests for illegitimate business space.… They saw Soboma George as one who had several [government] contracts awarded to him and had a lock on government patronage and [they] were simply trying to dislodge him.38

By the end of June 2007 a coalition of gangs bound together by a shared desire to usurp power and wealth from Soboma George had emerged under the very loose leadership of Ateke Tom. Allied with Ateke were fighters from a diverse array of other cult gangs including the Axemen, Klansmen, Deebam, Bush Boys, and other groups.39 In some cases these alliances marked dramatic shifts in previously antagonistic relationships. Ateke’s Icelanders/NDV, for example, first gained prominence by driving the Bush Boys out of their stronghold in the nearby riverine community of Okrika to ensure that the area was rigged in favor of the PDP during the 2003 elections.40

1 Human Rights Watch, Criminal Politics: Violence, “Godfathers” and Corruption in Nigeria, October 2007, vol. 19, no. 16(A), http://, pp. 80-91; Nigeria—Rivers and Blood: Guns, Oil and Power in Nigeria’s Rivers State, February 2005,

2 In both 2006 and 2007 the budget of Rivers’ state government has exceeded US$1.4 billion. This is roughly five times the average across all Nigerian states. Both years’ budgets are on file with Human Rights Watch.

3 These figures are drawn from statistics published by the federal government’s Ministry of Finance in Abuja. For more details see Human Rights Watch, Chop Fine: The Human Rights Impact of Local Government Corruption and Mismanagement in Rivers State, Nigeria, vol. 19, no. 2(A),, pp. 24-28.

4 Ibid, pp. 15-24, 40-49.

5 See Human Rights Watch, Criminal Politics, pp. 10-28. See also Human Rights Watch, Nigeria’s 2003 Elections: The Unacknowledged Violence, June 2004,; National Democratic Institute, “Statement of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) International Election Observer Delegation to Nigeria’s April 21 Presidential and National Assembly Elections,” April 23, 2007, (accessed March 19, 2008); and Camillus Eboh, “No Confidence in Nigerian Election Result: EU,” Reuters, August 23, 2007.

6 “Nigeria: Polls Marred by Violence, Fraud,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 17, 2007,; Human Rights Watch, The Unacknowledged Violence, pp. 14-19.

7 Human Rights Watch interview with a Port Harcourt-based academic (name withheld), Port Harcourt, October 3, 2007.

8 Human Rights Watch, Criminal Politics, pp. 80-91; The Unacknowledged Violence, pp. 14-19.

9 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 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.

10 Human Rights Watch interview with local leader (name withheld), Ogbogoro, October 10, 2007.

11 See Human Rights Watch, Rivers and Blood, pp. 4-6; Criminal Politics pp.80-91.

12 Ibid. For more on these two groups see the annex to this report, “Partial Overview of Armed Groups in Rivers State.

13 Environmental Rights Action, “Election monitoring report on the ongoing Nigeria federal and state general elections, April/May 2003,” executive summary, reproduced in Nigeria Today, April 26, 2003.

14 See Human Rights Watch, Rivers and Blood; Criminal Politics,p. 83.

15 Human Rights Watch, Rivers and Blood.

16 Ibid, pp. 17-20.

17 See Human Rights Watch, Criminal Politics, pp. 80-91.

18 During Nigeria’s April 2007 elections, voters marked their ballots by thumb-printing a square next to their chosen candidate or party.

19 Human Rights Watch interview, Bodo, Rivers State, September 30, 2007.

20 “Nigeria: Polls Marred by Violence, Fraud,” Human Rights Watch news release.

21 Alex Last, “Elections Highlight Delta Woes,” BBC News Online, April 18, 2007, (accessed December 12, 2007).

22 For more discussion on cult gangs in Nigeria, see Human Rights Watch, Criminal Politics, pp.23-28.

23 For more on cults and their links with politicians in Nigeria, see Human Rights Watch, Criminal Politics, pp. 23-28, 80-91. Also see chapter below, “Looking Forward: Government Inaction and the Risk of Further Violence.

24 According to several sources, including one former gang member, Soboma George held Ateke Tom responsible for his arrest. Soboma was accused of killing a member of the Greenlanders cult named Minabo Fiberesima and was arrested after turning up for what he thought were negotiations with state government and police officials. While in jail Soboma George reportedly organized the murder of a subordinate of Ateke Tom’s named Golden Kalu, and in retaliation Ateke Tom reportedly ordered the murder of Soboma George’s younger brother. Human Rights Watch interviews with former gang member and local activists (names withheld), Port Harcourt, September 2007.

25 For more details see the annex to this report, “Partial Overview of Armed Groups in Rivers State.” See also James Briggs, “Guide to Armed Groups Operating in the Niger Delta,” Terrorism Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, April 12, 2007, (accessed December 12, 2007).

26 See chapter below, “Looking Forward: Government Inaction and the Risk of Further Violence,”section “The Nigerian Police.”

27 Soboma George was reportedly arrested for driving an automobile, the windows of which were tinted too darkly. Human Rights Watch interview with journalist (name withheld), Port Harcourt, September 28, 2007.

28 One nearby resident told Human Rights Watch that he had seen police officers fleeing from gang members wielding automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

29 See Human Rights Watch, Criminal Politics, pp. 83-89.

30 Human Rights Watch interviews with 2007 election monitor (name withheld), Port Harcourt, April and September 2007.

31 Human Rights Watch interview with resident of Port Harcourt (name withheld), Port Harcourt, September 29, 2007. The same complaint was made widely by other activists and commentators.

32 Human Rights Watch interviews with civil society activists, academics, and current and former gang members (names withheld), Port Harcourt, September and October 2007. The awarding of inflated contracts by government at all levels, often for work that is not expected to be done, is one of the most common modalities of corruption across Nigeria and in Rivers State. See, for example, Human Rights Watch, Chop Fine, pp. 28-31.

33 Human Rights Watch interviews with activists, academics, and local residents (names withheld), Port Harcourt, September and October 2007.

34 Ibid.

35 Human Rights Watch interviews with a Petroleum Task Force official (name withheld), Port Harcourt, October 2, 2007.

36 See below, chapter “The Human Rights Impact of Post-Election Gang Violence in Rivers States,” section “Ateke Tom’s Attack on the NPPC Filling Station.”

37 Human Rights Watch interview with a Deebam cult member (name withheld), Port Harcourt, October 5, 2007.

38 Human Rights Watch interview with a Port Harcourt-based analyst (name withheld), Port Harcourt, October 3, 2007.

39 In some cases different factions of these groups were reportedly aligned on both sides of the divide.

40 Also see the annex to this report, “Partial Overview of Armed Groups in Rivers State.”