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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 October 2007, 00:03 GMT 01:03 UK
Anger over Nigeria's gang blitz
By Alex Last
BBC News, Lagos

In the slums of Port Harcourt, the troops are out on the streets.

Slum street in Port Harcourt
Slum dwellers fear losing their houses in the crackdown
In some areas near the waterfront there are checkpoints, and even an occasional machine gun nest has been set up as part of the government's response to a two-week gang war that erupted on these streets in August.

Dozens were killed and many more wounded, most of them bystanders caught in the crossfire.

The authorities claim the poor areas of the city are havens for the gangs in Rivers state that not only run criminal rackets and carry out many kidnappings, but have also been used by local politicians as hired muscle to rig elections.

Patrick Naagbanton, a journalist and activist who monitors the gang scene, believes the gangs persist because they are linked to some of the most powerful people in the state.

"They were created by politicians and in every election these guys are always used by the politicians.

"And after the elections (in April) the politicians did not settle them well. So there was this resurgence in violence."

The response, amid growing pressure from the central government, was to send in the army.

"We do not want a situation where we withdraw today, and tomorrow lawless elements come on major streets and unleash terror on innocent members of the public," insists Maj Sagir Musa, a spokesman for the army's Joint Task Force in Port Harcourt.

Business blow

Many in Port Harcourt seem to welcome their presence.

Newspaper
They should get rid of the current administration, clean things up, then hand power back
Port Harcourt resident
"I think they are doing a good job," said one businessman. "The trouble was slowing down business, so it's for the greater good."

But some say the solution is superficial and only temporary.

"They can stop them for now, but they cannot do much. They need to uproot it," says one young woman who works in a Port Harcourt office.

"I think the problem is the police system, because the police force is not working in this country. The kidnappers are always there, but they don't want to curtail them, they don't want to arrest or investigate or look for these people. That's why things have gotten so out of control."

Demolition plan

Still more controversial are the plans to demolish more than 20 poor areas of the city, home to at least 100,000 people, built next to the creeks and rivers which surround Port Harcourt.

The authorities said the waterfronts were havens for criminals, and needed radical redevelopment.

Armed militiamen patrol Delta creeks
Militia members are said to be working for leading politicians
Glory, who owns a music shop in a waterfront area called Marine Base, says that if her premises are destroyed, she will simply have nowhere to go.

"My store is here, my husband's store is here, our house is here. Where does he (the government) want us to go?

"Most of us have just paid our rent and now he wants to destroy the place. What hope do we have?"

Building promise

Glory rejects the official argument that the waterfront areas were a haven for gangsters.

"This community is a decent place. The militants are not from here, they have nothing to do with us - we have nothing to do with them. "

The waterfront areas of Port Harcourt are poor, lacking in basic amenities. Many who live there reclaimed the land from the river themselves.

Marine Base is crowded, the houses are closely packed together along sandy alleys, and there is a lot of refuse. But here at least the houses here are made of concrete, with corrugated tin roofs, and the people don't want to move.

"The governor is talking about development. I wonder what kind of development he is talking about," says local resident Ebenezar Gibson.

"Displacing us from our place here, to another place as development, I don't know. This is our land. "

Boat on Port Harcourt waterfront
The authorities say the waterfront is a haven for gangsters
He rejected the idea the waterfront areas were home to criminals.

"They should work with the community leaders to fish out the bad boys."

The government says it will build at least 6,000 houses to rehouse the residents before its starts any demolitions.

Clean sweep

"The silent majority of the people there want a change, not the vocal minority," says Okwu-Worlu Chidiebere, the Rivers State Commissioner for Housing, in his office in a tower block that overlooks the busy city streets.

"The issue is about giving them a better living condition."

Residents are sceptical. A few years ago, the previous state government cleared other waterfront areas - citing the same reasons - but many residents were not compensated, and the land was often sold off to friends of the administration or left empty.

The politicians are still patronising the gangsters, the drug business is still there - all this is helping the emergence of the gangs
Patrick Naagbanton, journalist
Anyakwee Nsirimovu, a veteran civil rights lawyer and activist, believes that demolitions will only lead to more gangsterism.

"When you do not have a roof over your head, no sense of belonging, no sense of society, you become an element that is out there to be recruited as a gangster. And if you move more of this population out, you will be creating more havoc in this society. "

Many in Port Harcourt believe that the problem of gangs needs a solution from central government more radical than big guns or bulldozers.

"It needs to be a clean sweep," said one local mechanic.

"They should get rid of the current administration, clean things up, then hand power back."

Patrick Naagbanton also believes military involvement is no solution to the crisis.

"We are talking about the whole emerging gang and gun culture and its very difficult to eliminate it - because the politicians are still patronising them, the drug business is still there, the oil bunkering (smuggling) business is still there.

"And all this is helping the emergence of the gangs who are fighting for control and supremacy and recognition by the government of the day."



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