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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 February 2007, 12:01 GMT
The growing power of Nigeria's gangs
As Nigeria prepares for April's general elections, fears are growing about the rise of armed gangs in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

The BBC's Alex Last braves the slums of Port Harcourt to find powerful militant commander Soboma George, who tells him that they, not the politicians, will be calling the shots.

Armed militiamen patrol Delta creeks
Analysts say armed groups are contributing to lawlessness
Around eight o'clock at night, a car with blacked out windows pulled up near the hotel - our escort to meet Soboma George, once described as one of the most powerful gang leaders in the rundown oil city of Port Harcourt.

A city where kidnappings, crime and militancy have spiralled out of control - where foreign oil workers live almost under siege in their compounds. A city in the heart of the Niger Delta, where decades of poverty and neglect have left anger and violence.

Soboma George hit the headlines recently when some 60 militants wielding heavy machine guns marched through the centre of the city, fought off the police and the army, and retrieved him from a police station.

The main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which is demanding greater local control of the oil wealth, claimed responsibility, announcing for the first time that Soboma was one of its senior commanders in the city.

He had been detained for a traffic violation, the police simply didn't recognise him. One officer said privately that, if they had, they wouldn't have dared to hold him.

Broken promises

Police say Soboma George first became known not as a political militant, but as a powerful member of an all-male gang called the Icelanders. Its membership is said to number in the thousands and it's just one of several gangs or "confraternities" - with names like the KKK, Greenlanders and Vikings, that operate in the city and further afield.

In the last elections in 2003 these gangs were hired and armed by politicians to fight their political opponents, steal ballot boxes, and generally rig the vote. As one local resident said: "it was less of an election, more of a low-intensity armed struggle." In Nigeria and particularly in the Delta, political office means access to the huge oil revenues - so the stakes are high.

Map of Niger Delta
After the elections, the politicians' promises of jobs for gang members often failed to materialise. But the gangs had been given weapons, and had grown stronger. Over the years, some moved into the creeks of the Delta. Some factionalised. Some stayed put in the cities, where the police say they are involved in criminal rackets. At times they all fought each other.

On the whole, they remained largely separate from the more political militant groups, like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta which emerged in 2006, though sometimes the line has blurred.

Nigeria goes to the polls again in April. Everyone says the politicians are looking for armed support, except for the politicians themselves. In this climate, the gangs seem to operate with impunity.

'Conniving and colluding'

In Port Harcourt, kidnappings of foreigners have reached new levels. Most are carried out by armed gangs demanding a ransom - and it's becoming a booming business.

With these elections, with a lot of guns around I am very concerned - these gangs are here, they will be hired by desperate politicians who want to win elections at all costs
Patrick Naagbanton
Delta activist

The military says that ultimately the solution to the violence is political - and says both it and the federal government are trying to have dialogue with all sides to calm the situation.

But clearly the political will to find a solution is compromised by politicians' links to the gangs. Brig Gen Samuel Salihu , a senior commander in the Delta told me: "There are some in the political elite who are criminalising, conniving and colluding. It makes my job difficult."

Patrick Naagbanton, a researcher and activist in the Delta is more forthright: "With these elections, with a lot of guns around I am very concerned. These gangs are here, they will be hired by desperate politicians who want to win elections at all costs. These politicians are not democrats, they are just interested in getting political power so they have access to loot more state funds."

We drove to a township on the edge of the city. It was late, but still hot and humid. We drank beer as we waited to meet Soboma George.

Then we were led through a maze of run-down shacks, and dusty narrow alleys to a patch of waste ground near a creek. Soboma George bounded out of the darkness to meet us. Wearing a sleeveless black T-shirt emblazoned with the Statue of Liberty and a woolly hat, he looked young and fit.

Tables turned

He sat on a unfinished brick wall, occasionally slapping a mosquito as cicadas chirped all around. He refused to talk about the gang , the Icelanders, saying he was simply a guy who was well-liked, and that as a Niger Delta man he did of course support those fighting for local resource control and development for the Delta.

He said he expected the politicians to try to use the armed gangs in the elections as they had in the past. But, he said, this time the gangs had become powerful enough to use the politicians. I asked him if he thought the violence would be as bad as 2003.

"Bloodier," he said, "if the person we want is not the right person there. This time around it's we who will say this person is good, this person can work."

This time around it's we who will say this person is good, this person can work
Soboma George

He said they wanted someone who would actually address the widespread poverty and unemployment. "If you feed a lion he won't bite, if you don't feed a lion, the lion will be hungry and he will be angry. "

The more political militants traditionally have their strongholds among the forested creeks and waterways, which weave through the delta, an area about the size of Scotland. Terrain where the military is ill-equipped to operate. Local activists say the sophisticated, billion-dollar business of smuggling crude oil, known as bunkering, provides many militants with money to buy more powerful weapons.

Now, they say they want to extend their influence into the cities. Hence, the need to recruit a city-based commander like Soboma.

The last election in Nigeria accelerated the development of armed gangs in the Delta. The groups moved one stage further away from control. Many are now wondering what will happen when the armed class of 2007 finally graduates.




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