Curbing The Menace Of Cultism In Rivers
THE recent shooting that claimed about five lives at Agbonchia-Eleme left people in Rivers State shocked, reigniting calls for government to tackle, head-on, the menace of cultism.
Shootings associated with warring gangs (popularly called cult groups) have become part of reality in Rivers. These groups have been linked with extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking, intimidation, protection rackets, armed robberies and political assassinations.
On the Agbonchia killings, chairman of Eleme Local Government Area, Philip Okparaji, told The Guardian that on the evening of July 11, 2015, three gunmen on a motorbike stormed a place where commercial motorcyclists wash their bikes. After the dust had settled, five persons were discovered dead. The chairman blamed the incident on rivalry between two notorious groups – the Deywell and Deygbam.
“We cannot continue to experience people killing one another. Three weeks ago in Onne, three persons were shot dead, and in Agbonchia, five persons. Is that what we shall continue to experience? For me, cultism is failure of governance by the previous administrations. They were not on ground to check rising crime rate and cultism in Eleme. We started experiencing this two years ago. In Ebubu, there is also problem, as cult boys have chased the paramount ruler from the community,” said Okparaji.
For several years, residents of Port Harcourt, particularly in the Diobu and old Port Harcourt township areas, have lived under the threat of some of the most vicious cult groups: the Icelanders and the Greenlanders, and of course, their affiliates, the Deygbam and Deywell.
It will be recalled that on March 6, 2015, cultists invaded a well-known hotel in the D-Line area of Port Harcourt, shooting five persons dead at the reception. The motive remains shrouded in mystery. The next day, in what appeared to be a reprisal, four persons were killed at a restaurant along the Eastern By-Pass in the Marine Base area of the city.
Early, last month, residents of Ubima community in Ikwerre Local Government Area were jolted by shootings in a turf war between two rival groups. The fighting left, at least, three persons dead and several others injured.
A source in the community who begged anonymity for fear of reprisal, said a prominent Deywell member, popularly known as Biggi, had gone to a neigbhourhood dominated by members of rival Icelanders. Some Icelanders, said to have identified Biggi, intercepted him. In the altercation that ensued, he was brutally killed. Enraged by the execution of one of their members and intent on revenge, the Deywell group struck, killing two Icelanders and injuring several persons. According to the source, despite the deployment of security agents to the areas, in a bid to restore peace, some cult members have threatened more bloodletting.
“This incident has left the community traumatized. People are gunned down in broad daylight in rural areas, like Ubima, almost every week. The brazen, cold-blooded killing of innocent citizens is yet to send shock waves through the state because no immediate family member of any government official has been killed. For instance, the gang that kidnapped the mother of former Governor Celestine Omehia was routed. It is time for the government to take decisive steps to eliminate these blood thirsty gangsters from the state,” the source added.
In July, Aggah community in Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni council was under siege for several hours as warring cult groups murdered more than six persons and destroyed properties. The Police said 16 suspected cultists were apprehended for involvement in violent crimes including murder and arson.
One community scarred by the activities of cultism is Omoku, headquarters of Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni Local Government Area. The flow of guns and ammunition into this town during the political crisis that bedeviled the state between 2013 and now, may have further exacerbated violence in the area.
In the battle for supremacy between suspected Deygbam and Icelander members, over 32 persons were killed in Omoku between October and November 2014. The violence, which has crippled nightlife in the once peaceful town, has been linked to the abduction and subsequent gruesome murder of an Icelander henchman, Chukwudi Agbadiba, popularly known as ‘Chiboy’. The death of Chiboy was followed by a spate of brutal revenge that claimed even the life of his cousin, said to belong to another notorious gang – the KGB.
A source in Omoku, who pleaded anonymity, told The Guardian that the town is currently under a siege by cult groups, even as traditional institutions and security agencies have tried in vain to stop the bloodbath. Execution by warring cult groups, according to him, is now a near daily occurrence in Omoku.
“The ineptitude of security agencies at clamping down on these gangs is mind-blowing. Members of these groups often hold funeral processions in communities and urban areas every time their members are slain. Finding gang members on motorcycles revving their engines is a common sight these days. So, it should not be difficult to track down these people and bring them to justice,” he said.
He said the situation in Omoku has been complicated by the fact that the various cult groups have affiliation with political actors in the state. This, he said, explains the impunity often shown by perpetrators of these acts.
The story of cult violence in Rivers State will not be complete without mention of Ibaa in Emohua Local Government Area. Ibaa has been one of the main flashpoints. A recent clash between Icelanders and Greenlanders, during which guns and other lethal weapons were used, claimed at least 10 lives and property worth millions of naira destroyed. Two vigilante members were among the victims. This particular incident displaced thousands of residents who fled to neigbouring communities, like Rumuji, for refuge. The crisis in Ibaa has been linked to a lingering chieftaincy tussle, and these cult groups have taken sides with parties involved in the dispute.
Cultism has also been prevalent in Abua/Odua Local Government Area, where there have been reported cases of clashes between Greenlanders and Icelanders. In Emughan community, a clash between these two groups recently claimed the lives of 12 persons.
Not too long ago, three persons were killed in rival cult clash in Bane and Kpaa communities in Khana council. This incident was one of the most brutal in recent times. Two of the victims died in Bane. One of them was decapitated, his remains riddled with bullets.
Last year also, seven persons were killed during a fierce battle for supremacy between suspected members of Icelanders and an unidentified cult group at Oyorokoto in Andoni council.
Former Director of the State Security Services (SSS), Albert Horsefall, who was appointed by former Governor Amaechi to head the Rivers State Social Rehabilitation Committee, is of the view that the seed of insecurity now pervading the state was deliberately sown and watered by top political players in the state between 2000 and 2002. The security expert said refusal by state actors at the time to heed his advice and nip violent crimes in the bud is why insecurity has become prevalent in the state.
On his part, former Governor Amaechi, credited with crushing militant and cult groups that literally crippled socio-economic activities in the state, has blamed the current spate of insecurity on the state’s 2012 political crisis.
But his successor, Governor Nyesom Wike, in his inaugural address, declared that his administration would work assiduously to secure the state, as no government is worth any value, if it cannot guarantee security of life and property.
“We have the political will to fight, defeat crime and criminality in Rivers State. There will be effective coordination, collaboration and synergy with the Federal Government, the law enforcement agencies and our community leaders in the prosecution of the war against cultism, kidnapping and armed robbery. We urge our people to fully co-operate with us in this direction,” Wike said.
A resident of Port Harcourt, Mrs. Bertha Onyigbulam, observed that the state government has in the past two years regrettably failed to launch any major offensive against criminal gangs and cult groups bent on frustrating socio-economic activities in the state. She noted that instead of clamping down on cultists, politicians have instead devised a clever means of using them as tools of coercion to advance their political and economic agenda, and create chaos in constituencies.
“The state already has enough laws to prevent cult associated crime. There is the Secret Cult and Similar Activities (Prohibition) law No 6 of 2004. This law has failed to provide the needed respite. In fact, the state government once abused the application of this law when it used the police to charge some factional Peoples Democratic Party members who attempted to set up a parallel office in Port Harcourt. You do not make laws that you cannot enforce. The government and the security agents must rise up and defeat this menace before what is left of our dear state is destroyed,” she said.
A criminologist, Onyeka Ajie, said the active participation of some ex-militants, kingpins in cult groups in the political process in 2015, remains part of the reason for the upsurge in cult-related crimes and shootings in recent times. According to him, the proliferation of firearms during the elections is the reason guns are now being used even in petty theft of items such as smartphones, jewelry and ladies’ bags on the streets of Port Harcourt and Obio-Akpor.
“Today, cultism is part of Rivers’ way of life. The state has been haunted by violence and the negative reputation that comes with it. Former Governor Amaechi attempted to clampdown on these nefarious groups but a lot of them quickly took cover under the Presidential Amnesty Programme, and are even members of political parties today. You don’t allow these elements access to political power because this will embolden their foot soldiers. We need to begin debate on the seriousness of cult violence in Rivers State before the situation gets out of hand,” he warned.
A security expert, Cyril Nkem, said if Nigeria is serious about combating the menace, the political leadership must endorse the idea of state police and a total restructuring of the conventional police, with the bulk of officers drafted to crime prevention. He said government must also provide sufficient crime prevention tools and put enough men on ground.
The State Commissioner of Police, Chris Ezike, thinks the police need to do more to prevent crimes, even as he has launched a one-month emergency action against violent crime in the state. Amid criticism that security agents and government have not dealt with the menace head on, the Police chief, last week, said the State Command arrested 74 cultists: 30 (Deygbam), 17 (Deywell), 26 (Iceland), one (Vikings), including a witch doctor who makes charms for them. The suspects were arrested at different locations in the state. Offensive weapons and other exhibits recovered from them include, one AK 47 rifle, one pump action gun, three locally made guns, an axe, 12 motorcycles and one car.
Ezike, who identified cultism as a hydra-headed monster in the state, has ordered special operations in Eleme, Ubima, Aggah and Emouha areas. Consequently, Police Mobile Force Personnel, Tactical Units and Special Detectives have been deployed to these areas for an initial period of two weeks, with likelihood of an extension. He urged residents of the affected areas not to panic, but cooperate with operatives to rid their communities of cultists.