The January 1 attack on Aligwu, a rural community on the outskirts of the oil rich Omoku town in Ogba-Egbema-Ndoni local government area of Rivers State became the waterloo for Igwedibia Johnson a.k.a Don Wanny, dreaded cult leader whose years of unchallenged reign of terror is splattered with hundreds of human deaths, forced migration, displacement, destruction of properties, kidnap for ransom and an overwhelming manifestation of gruesomeness. Don Wanny has been fingered in the killing of several Rivers indigenes, amongst them were, one Chief Adube and his three children; the beheading of Franklyn Obi and the killing of his wife and son; the murder of several APC Members and the arson on the home of Hon Vincent Ogbuagu; as well as several others in and around Omoku in Ogba /Egbema/ Ndoni LGA of Rivers State.
When the news filtered in that the larger than life individual who had effectively swapped the peace and vibrant economy that once pervaded the oil rich Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni and the surrounding local government areas of old Ahoada with an ominous cloud of gloom and despair had been gunned down in a joint military operation by the Nigerian Army and the Department of State Security most people living within his sphere of terror responded with cautious elation. After the earlier incidence when he was erroneously said to have been killed in an early morning raid of his mansion by the army and local vigilante, no one was prepared to risk any open celebration until they were cocksure.
The journey to the end for Don Wanny began with a false signal that he had been killed when the army in conjunction with the local vigilante (OSPAC) raided his palatial residence at Aligwu, his hometown on the 19th of November 2017. The story that the dreaded gang lord had been slain in that operation which happened around 11pm on a Sunday caused a gale of celebrations in Omoku and other places where his macabre influence had been felt. The excitement was however cut short when the military in their press release stated that the “main kingpin” was not at the location during the raid which lasted about an hour.
The New Year Day Massacre of 21 Christian worshipers returning home from the tradition New Year eve service was preceded by another attack at Egbeda, a town in Ikwerre LGA which sits on the boundary with Omoku by armed men believed to have operated under the command of Johnson Igwedibia. When the thundering sound of gunfire faded away, seven natives lay frozen in their own pool of blood.
The Grim Reaper harvests bountifully
Since 2014, the hooded vale of death has hung over the length and breadth of Nigeria’s Treasure Base in manner comparable only to the 1960-1970 civil wars. Several analysts and commentators have estimated that over 8,000 lives have perished through violence related crimes since 2014. The 2016 National Bureau of Statistics crime report stated that Rivers State, with an estimated population of 7.3 million, had the third highest total crime rate and the third highest property crime among six states.
Even though Rivers state has had its fair share of the wider Niger Delta conflict vortex beginning from 1999, the intensity of cult and politically motivated murders recorded from the time politicians began to mobilise for the present dispensation is unprecedented in the history of Nigeria’s “Treasure Base”.
As the 2015 elections drew closer, some prominent elders of the state had cried out against the massive arming of youths with sophisticated military weapons. Chief Anabs Sara-Igbe, a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party and former Chief Security Adviser to ex-Governor Peter Odili of Rivers State on several occasions raised the alarm over alleged infiltration of arms and ammunition to the state ahead of the 2015 general elections by desperate politicians.
On Thursday January 30, 2014, State Security Service (SSS) operatives intercepted high-calibre ammunitions in a 20-foot container at the Port of the capital city of Rivers State, Port Harcourt. The vessel identified as MV Iron Trader was carrying 2,700 anti-aircraft and anti-tank bombs, according to security sources. The interception of the ammunition raised fears of impending violence in the state ahead of the 2015 elections.
True to the fears of many, the 2015 elections in Rivers state has been documented as the most ruthless demonstration of political violence in this part of the world.
Dismissing the appeal filed by Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), against the relocation of the state governorship election tribunal to Abuja, the Supreme Court described the scenario of the 2015 elections in Rivers state with the most unenviable set of words:
“It is necessary to protect members of the panel by relocating them from the theatre of war to where their lives will be secured.”
In that landmark decision, all seven eminent jurists of the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that there was sufficient violence before, during and after the elections to justify the relocation of the tribunal to Abuja.
The Hollywood styled attack by unhooded gunmen who threw explosives and shot sporadically at an APC campaign rally in Okrika, on the 17th of February, 2015 leading to the death of one police officer, injuries to scores of party supporters as well as the destruction of properties amounting to hundreds of millions of Naira fits properly into the Supreme Court analogy of the security situation in Rivers state before, during and after the 2015 elections.
The Okrika incidence was not an exception. The daylight attack of some Northern governors on a solidarity visit to former Governor Rotimi Amaechi in on the 16th of July 2013 had raised the red flag on the coming elections. The four northern governors were held hostage at the Port Harcourt International Airport and prevented from entering the city for close to two hours.
As reinforced security managed rescue the situation, squeezing the four governors into in one car, the mob began to throw stones, bottled water and sticks at the governors’ convoy damaging one of the cars in the process.
Emboldened by impunity, the political violence continued to inch higher. The Buhari campaign was not spared a taste of the macabre trend. APC supporters from the Khana Local Government and those from Buguma in Asari Toru Local Government Area were waylaid and shot at by gunmen on their way to Port Harcourt to attend the Buhari/Osibanjo Presidential rally in January 2016.
The back and forth accusations between the PDP and the APC on who was responsible for the unbridled violence that was taking over the state like a wild fire did not in any way quell the ugly drift. From destruction of opposition billboards to disruption of rallies to savage wastage of human lives, the news from Rivers state both in the traditional and on the social media has not been much different from what comes out of the ISIS plagued parts of the world.
If the narratives surrounding the 2015 elections are ghoulish, the post-election situation in most parts of Rivers state appears grimmer. Armed groups emerging from the elections partitioned the state into personal territories and ‘gang-doms’ where they literally ruled with an iron fist- extorting benefits and dispensing terror to unarmed residents as they pleased. In areas where there was competition for political patronage or ‘superiority’ bloody wars have been fought and human lives wasted with a reckless abandon.
In a malevolent how of strength or in revenge for the death of one their own, armed cultists would just enter crowded places and mow people down like grass. In one swoop, 19 persons including a naval officer were killed when cultists stormed Aluu June, 4 , 2016 shooting at random. A bewildered eye witness told newsmen that:
“The boys operated in a very terrible manner. They went to a supermarket where people usually go to buy something and opened fire on over six people. Some people narrowly escaped with gun wounds. We do not know the cause of the killings, although we suspected that it is a cult war.”
Similarly on January 22, 2016 cultists acting under the command of one Igbudu (now dead) shot and killed nearly twenty persons Ula Upata community, Ahoada East Local Government Area of Rivers State,in one night alone. Many of the victims were beheaded.
An attempt to chronicle the heinousness of what has now been ingloriously dubbed ‘Rivers of Blood’ may be very daunting. However, the impact of this theatre has been captured in the Brand Spur analysis which declared that “Rivers state has the highest unemployment rate of 41.8% and a misery index of 79.87. The state’s economic activity is concentrated on oil and gas, which involves automated processes and requires low human capital. Taraba, which is dominated by agriculture, a labor-intensive sector, has the lowest misery index of 29.59 while Osun and Ogun both stood at 35.36 and 36.94 respectively.”
“The misery index is an economic indicator, created by Economist Arthur Okun measures the wellbeing of the average citizen. It looks at the purchasing power of income, the ease of getting paid work, and the quality of available jobs. Unemployment + Underemployment + Inflation = Misery Index.”
Within these three years of that Rivers state became a killing field, no investor found their way here even as existing ones relocated their investments to Lagos and elsewhere.
The Charade of an Amnesty Program
On the brink of a total breakdown of law and other, Governor Nyesom Wike set up an amnesty committee headed by his Special Adviser on Amnesty, Sir Ken Chinda with a charge to interface with different cult groups for the purpose of retrieving arms from them and to work out modalities to ensure the proper integration of cultists and militants who willingly subscribe to the amnesty programme.
The All Progressives Congress, APC was not impressed with the Wike amnesty program which was said to have been embraced by over 22,000 cultists in River.
Chief Ibiamu Ikanya, the chairman of the APC in Rivers state in a statement released to the press alleged that the amnesty programme is a ploy to shield thugs that were used in the 2015 general elections from arrest and prosecution.
“We are not deceived as we are aware that these cultists returning arms were the same group of young men equipped and empowered by the PDP leaders in Rivers State to intimidate, maim and kill opposition figures in the State.
“This unholy project has claimed the lives of some leading Rivers State politicians, including over 200 members of APC. With the main aim of employing violence to win the 2015 general election realised, they were asked to return their arms procured for them by PDP and wait for the 2019 general elections.
“Sadly, most of these cultists are now empowered through political appointments and elective offices to sustain the bloody nature of Rivers State politics that has turned the State into Rivers of blood and a laughing stock among civilised states in the world.”
Pictures of the amnesty exercise circulated in the media showed that the exercise was more of a joke. Apart from Don Wanny who submitted AK47 guns and ammunition, in most places the cultists displayed rusty Dane guns and grotesque objects they claimed were charms. No serious person would want to believe that the kidnappings, robberies, rape and arson were committed with such rusted guns.
Moments after the peace circus, some respite was found in certain communities that had already become skeletons, stripped of their flesh long ago by the war brought upon it by its own youths. It didn’t take long before the guns began rumble again making a mess of the time and resources invested in the peace effort.
As usual, the failure of the amnesty program elicited reactions from both ruling PDP and opposition.
Don Wanny May Be Dead But…
Many who understand the structure and nature of the ubiquitous violence in Rivers state may join others to heave a sigh of relief that a major player in the death enterprise has been eliminated, but would hardly accept that it is yet uhuru. Similar emotions swept through the state when Sogboma George, a dreaded militant was killed on the 24th of August, 2010.
As long as crime remains lucrative and the Nigerian state continues to show weakness towards enforcing law and order, it won’t be long before another, maybe more vicious Don Wanny emerges. The deepening cult culture in the state is a breeding ground for all kinds of mean individuals waiting for the right incentive to begin another round of mayhem.