Vanguard (Lagos)

7 August 2011

Nigeria: Killings, Power Tussle Over Oil in Delta Community

Since Last Month, Fierce looking soldiers, with armored personnel carriers, APCs, stationed at strategic locations, have been on the alert at the oil -rich Ekpan community in Uvwie Local Government Area of Delta State, following a dusk to dawn curfew slammed on the community by the state government as a result of the uprising and butchery by rival youth groups, which has claimed at least 16 lives.

In the skirmishes, backed by diverse power groups, the host community to Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) petro-chemical plant, Nigeria Gas Company, NGC, Chevron-Texaco, Julius Berger and other oil and construction companies, rose to become arguably the most volatile community in Delta State. Many persons have been maimed and property worth millions of Naira destroyed in the orgy of violence.

Indeed, rising from a State Security Council meeting, 7 July, the Secretary to the State Government, Comrade Ovuozourie Macaulay, who announced the 7.00 p.m. to 6.00 a.m. curfew, said it was to checkmate the dangerous resort to bestiality.

But almost a month later, it does not look like the combatants are ready to drop their swords. The reality on ground is that they are waiting for government to lift the curfew for them to resume their battle.

AK 47 reigns

What is clear from our investigations on the Ekpan conundrum is that majority of the youths have found they could eke out a living through violence and to position themselves for patronage. They acquire AK 47 and other weapons with which they not only suppress themselves, but also to kill and maim as the case may be. The bone of contention is money and who controls the resources of the community. Royalties and donations come frequently from the companies in addition to 'deve' (illegal levy) collected by the youths.

Instead of going to school, 80 per cent of the youths, according to the chairman of the Ekpan Development Committee, EDC, the administrative organ of the community, Mr. Franco Akemu, was more interested in the collection of 'deve' from companies and developers with the active collaboration of their parents. Chairman, Editorial Board of Delta State-based Urhobo Times newspaper, Mr. Omafume Amurun, an Uvwie son, who grew up in Ekpan, lamented that while Uvwie youths competed in the 1980s with the number of book they had read, the youths of today in the community compete with the number of guns, as well as big cars they had acquired.

Immediate cause of crisis

The present crisis, which necessitated the curfew, was sparked off by the release of some suspected killers arrested by the police, early June, but freed on the alleged intervention of their backers. They returned to jubilate, shoot and carry out a reprisal action against those they believed gave information that led to their arrest in the first instance, which resulted in a very bloody confrontation.

The situation in Ekpan actually became very disturbing, as some parents were said to be procuring arms for their children to engage in the violence. Some of the boys were also alleged to have bought their guns from military men involved in gun racketing. They boys intimidate and extort money from organizations and individuals in Ekpan with impunity.

Ghost town

Before the curfew was imposed, some indigenes as well as non-natives had started relocating from the community to be out of harm's way. It was gathered that before 6.00 p.m. each day since the curfew started, all shops, stores, markets shut down, with residents retreating into the inner recesses of their homes.

Ekpan ... Things fall apart

The bustling night life in the deeply industrialized community has been paralyzed owing to the strict enforcement of the restriction of movement between 7.00 p.m. and 6.00 a.m. by the soldiers.

A source said that the curfew has been further tightened to commence at 6.00 pm and that security agencies had also issued a 30-day ultimatum within which the community should resolve the causes of the frequent threats to lives and property in the area or the actors would face the music.

A source claimed that at least two "ceasefire meetings" have been held by the warring groups in the community in the last few weeks, but Omafume told Sunday Vanguard he was not aware of any directive to hold meetings.

Genesis of crisis

Our findings showed that before now, the current acting Usiavwe and head of Ekpan community, High Chief Newton Agbofodoh, JP, was a powerful youth leader of the community. Something happened and he was accused of murder and arrested. He was in prison custody for some years undergoing trial, but he was granted state pardon.

While he was away, however, so many other groups emerged and thus started an intense power struggle pertaining to which of them would collect money from the oil companies. The state government banned all youth groups in Ekpan and other parts of state and facilitated the birth of EDC, which Akemu emerged as chairman after a hotly contested election. Agbofodoh came back to see that the 'empire' he left behind was no longer what it was.

The new leadership wanted to call the shot, but Agbofodoh was elevated to the position of head of the community by the Uvwie monarch, which, somehow, makes it uncalled-for, for him to participate directly in youth affairs. In his position as head of Ekpan community, he tried to exert some measure of control and following the clamor by a cross-section of the community, particularly women, he challenged the EDC to render account to the people on what happened to the N25 million donated to the community by Chevron.

As the head of the community, the EDC was supposed to consult with him, but the committee apparently saw his intervention as an attempt to usurp its powers and so, the chairman, Akemu resisted him.

Opposition

Even though Agbofodoh meant well in his bid, his move was misinterpreted. It was not just Akemu that read it with suspicion, the youth leaders that took over after his tenure, led by one Ngozi, who the Director of Public Prosecution, O. Okpokpor (Miss), found a prima facie case of conspiracy of murder against; one Aston, the disciplinary committee chairman, who allegedly got involved in kidnapping and others, rejected the plan by Agbofodoh to intervene in the affairs of the youth body.

The disciplinary committee is a very strong organ in the community. It is the group that goes to collect money from the companies and because the members of the group turned millionaires overnight, youths from the different quarters that make up the town want to be the chairman and nothing else.

Things were going well at a time between the EDC leadership and the disciplinary committee, and the battle was then between the group of a popular chief and power broker that is feared in Ekpan and EDC leadership, Ngozi and Aston on one side. The contest for supremacy led to shootings in which innocent persons lost their lives.

Counter force

With Aston, Ngozi, personal assistant to a retired military officer and top politician put out of circulation on charges of murder and kidnapping, the popular chief looked like he was going to get his hands back to power, but the brother of another emerging power broker, also a chief, who initially supported the popular community leader, challenged his authority. The two leaders, thus, started to fight themselves.

In one of the moments of madness, an Igbo trader was shot dead on his way home by a rampaging gang, now backed by one of the leaders. In fact, the blood brother of the said leader allegedly pulled the trigger. Five of the suspected killers, including the trigger-happy youth leader, were apprehended by the police at Ekpan and taken to the State Investigation and Criminal Department, SCID, Asaba.

Rather than face prosecution, they were released under curious circumstances, even when police sources at Asaba confirmed that the police at Ekpan discovered the gun used in killing the Igbo trader was found in the house of one of the suspects. Sunday Vanguard gathered that the elder brother of the deceased was intimidated to withdraw the affidavit he swore to in respect of the killing of his sibling.

June fracas

It was the release of the said suspects, who returned in June to threaten the supposed informants, that led to the present unrest in the community. Our investigations showed that a suspected thug and councillorship aspirant, Edigbe, who was hired by one of the factions to fight on its side, was shot dead in the ensuing hostilities. The aggrieved group retooled and killed the personal assistant to the powerful chief they believed was behind their travail.

Agbofodoh , who conducted Sunday Vanguard round his home that was riddled with bullets by the opposing youths in the community, said the EDC was supposed to be reporting to the community every three months, but since the leadership was installed, January 3, 2009, nobody has idea of what was happening. Agbofodoh recalled almost in tears how his personal assistant was shot dead by members of the opposing youth group.

He said that N25 million was given to the community by Chevron-Texaco, balancing N50 million for a women empowerment programme, but since it was given, the EDC has declined to let the people know what is going on, adding, however, "I have left Akemu to his fate, whenever he feels like, he should call a meeting to brief the people".

Struggle for power

Agbofodoh said the recent problem in the community was caused by youths who are struggling for position, saying that before this time, the EDC chairman bought SUVs and other vehicles for practically every member of the employment committee and so, when the other youths saw that their tenure was going to expire, they decided that the best thing was to gun for the lucrative offices in the youth executive.

It was alleged that Ngozi, now in prison custody, declared himself as disciplinary committee chairman and went about collecting 'deve' and also scaring daylight out of people until he was arrested. Aston is currently held at Okere Prisons, Warri.

Specifically, youths from Udumuovwori quarters, which the position of the youth president was zoned have written to the Uvwie monarch, saying that they don't want the position and that they prefer the position of chairman of the disciplinary committee, ostensibly because that is where money is. Ekpan has nine quarters and the other eight quarters, namely Afieki, Ubrete, Udumuto, Oriokpo, Ohore, Asabiri, Egbesaba and Udumuovon were supposed to fill in other positions, starting from vice chairmanship post. The other quarters appear not ready to succumb to the move to change the order of zoning, which has made the situation dicey.

Security alert ignored

Agbofodoh, however, said that if security agencies had reacted appropriately to his May 26 letter, entitled, "Security Alert", the breach of peace that occurred in the community would not have happened. In the letter, reference number, No. ECS/C.31/2011, addressed to the Commanding Officer, Nigeria Army, Effurun Baracks, Effurun, and copied to the former attorney general of the state and commissioner for justice, Chief V.E. Otomiewo, director of personnel management , Uvwie local government, Emmanuel Sideso, Ovie of Uvwie Kingdom, DPO, Ekpan and officer in charge, SSS, Uvwie, he urged that four persons: Mr. Andrew Agagbo, who was allegedly parading himself as youth president to companies in Ekpan, Uwaye Uruere as secretay, Omavowan Omasheye, alias Marley as disciplinary committee chairman and Edigbe Ikpesan as secretary, be called to order.

Agbofodoh suggested that he, EDC chairman, Akemu; and the four persons parading themselves as youth executive of the community should invited to a meeting by the Commanding Officer before things ricochet. But no such meeting was called before hell was let loose the next month, June.

He debunked the suggestion that he wanted to plant his men in positions of authority in youth group, saying, as a community leader, he was fighting for what would benefit the people.

Dangerous dimension

Another alarming development in the Ekpan debacle is that the warring youths and leaders are split into two major political camps, PDP and DPP. The combatants now hide under the canopy of a political party to attack their opponents and expect heavy weights in the party they claimed to belong to fight for them. In fact, politicians need the powerful youth leaders on their side to win elections in Ekpan and what determines the power of any group are the weapons it parades, as well as its ability to wreak havoc by kill fellow human beings and destroying property.

Chevron's N25 million

On the furore over the N25 million donated by Chevron Nigeria Limited, which he was alleged not to have accounted for, Akemu said it was given to the community for the construction of the women development centre.

His words: "It was not given to EDC directly, it was paid into an account, having three signatories from the state government, Chevron-Texaco, which is the donor, and EDC. Nobody can take money from the account without the consent of the other party. So, the rumour that one thing is happening or that we want to eat the money is unfounded.

Police won't spare criminals - Tsafe

Checks by Sunday Vanguard also showed that the Divisional Police Officer, DPO, Ekpan Police Division, Mr. Muazu Mohammed, has done a lot to check the Ekpan mayhem, but, because of the proliferation of arms and the godfathers behind the youths, some of the suspects are usually released after spending some weeks in detention.

However, Delta State police commissioner, Mr. Mamman Tsafe, who spoke to Sunday Vanguard before the state government imposed the curfew on Ekpan, said the police would not spare any godfather or youth fomenting trouble in Ekpan.

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