The News (Lagos)

13 September 2004

Nigeria: Portrait of Ateke Tom


Port Harcourt — In Africa, this man takes his seat among warmongers

Six years ago, Ateke Tom, leader of the dreaded Port Harcourt-based Vigilante and Icelanders groups, was just another member of the feared 'Bush Boys,' one of the numerous militant groups in Rivers State. But Tom was minded to leave obscurity for prominence. He waited for his chance which came during the political struggle for the control of Okrika and Ogu\Bolo Local Goverment Areas.

Starting from the end of 1999 and dragging till the early part of 2000, Tom emerged from the violent struggle a new man. Way back then, the All Nigeria People's Party(now All Nigeria People's Party) had won the chairmanship seats in both local councils. The two councils were regarded as strongholds of Chief Ada George, a former Governor of Rivers State and chieftain of the All People's Party, APP . But the results of the elections were hotly disputed by the rival People's Democratic Party, PDP, which considered its defeat an affront.

Particularly aggrieved were Dr Abiye Sekibo, the current Transport minister who was then Secretary to the Rivers State Government, and the late Chief Aminoasoari Dikibo.

The PDP believed that its defeat was achieved by its rival's use of the 'Bush Boys' cult group which has a heavy presence in the Okrika areas. Rather than lick its wounds, the PDP sought a counterforce force to the 'Bush Boys.' The search produced Tom, who had exhibited spectacular ruthlessness when the APP routed the PDP. He had also disagreed with the ' Bush Boys,' a situation which resulted in his banishment from Okrika. With Tom's massive reputation for violence, the PDP was sure it had found the genuine article.

However, it was faced with the problem of bringing him back to Okrika to commence work. A quick solution was found in Dokubo Asari, president of the Ijaw Youth Congress, IYC.

Asari was contacted to help broker a peace between Tom and the 'Bush Boys.' He achieved that and Tom returned to Okrika.

On his return, he became the darling of politicians who knew the value of his abilities. For these, he was courted and copiously funded. With copius cash,Tom began running his own show, recruiting youths who were to form the nucleus of The Vigilante and the Icelanders. With his own groups in place, Tom then decided to turn the heat on the 'Bush Boys' and succeeded in driving them out of Okrika. A new regime was born.

Almost immediately, Tom's boys took over Okirika and other waterfronts.

Out of respect, his boys call him the 'Godfather.' His dressing marks him out as one. Tom is usually seen wearing a lion- shaped pendant, which he says signifies strength.

He is also believed to possess supernatural powers which he uses against his enemies.

But his so called strength and those supernatural powers have not been on display since he claimed to have surrendered his weapons and a mysterious stick following the gang war between his group and that of Asari, his main rival last July. Since then, Tom's whereabouts have remained unknown.

Back in July,Tom had made a public show of the surrender of weapons barely 24 hours before soldiers stormed Port Harcourt to confront the feuding gangs.

Even then, his decision to surrender was at the instance of the State House Of Assembly which had passed an anti-cult law prescribing a10-year jail term for cult members.

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