Nations: Nigeria

Mayhem in Warri

A food vendor walks past a gas station destroyed during a 5-day bout of ethnic violence that killed at least 10 in Warri, Nigeria in February, 2003. (Photo: AFP)

The endless ethnic violence in Nigeria’s port town of Warri continues; Ijaw and Itsekiri youths take to the streets, killing, burning, and destroying property. They are used to bloody confrontations. This year alone, the two riverine communities of Ijaw and Itsekiri in Delta state have engaged each other twice in bloody wars, losing lives and property on both sides.

The two communities are up in arms again, shooting at each other as enemies. And the recent warfare appears to be the bloodiest. Since the first shots were heard on March 13, more than 100 people have reportedly been killed on both sides. Properties worth millions of naira have been destroyed in the confrontation led mainly by youths.

Soldiers who were deployed by the federal government on a peace mission in the area were not spared. Reports said about 16 of them had been killed, with a large number of them seriously wounded. The soldiers were drawn from the 2nd Mechanized Division of the Nigerian army in Ibadan [the capital of Oyo state] and the Western Naval Command, which is stationed at the NNS [Nigerian Naval Ship] Umalokun at the Warri Naval Base.

Newswatch has learned that the casualty figures among the military personnel rose when youths ambushed them at Okerenkoko Creek on March 20.

As of press time last week, the situation remained uncontrollable.

The conflict has also taken a toll on oil companies doing business in the area. Chevron Nigeria Ltd. (CNL) was forced to shut all its oil operations in the Western Niger Delta on March 23. Jay Pryor, the managing director of ChevronTexaco’s Nigeria-Mid Africa Strategic Business Unit, said that even though the attack was not “directed toward CNL people or assets, we do not consider it safe for our people to remain in the Western Niger Delta given the current situation.” ELF and the Anglo-Dutch oil giant, Shell, also stopped production in the area.

But the military officials who are keeping vigilance in the area appear to be playing down the seriousness of the matter. Gar Dogo, a lieutenant colonel and commandant of the battalion, told Newswatch that “it is only in the creeks that we have a problem. Warri is under control.” But soldiers at the headquarters of the 7th Amphibious Battalion of the Nigerian army in Effurum are not happy with their authorities for sending them to fight in the deadly creeks.

One of the soldiers, who does not want his name mentioned, told Newswatch at his headquarters on March 24 that they were not happy with the way many of them “are being killed by the illiterate youths. The annoying thing is that the authorities have continued to send us there, not minding how many of us are being slaughtered. Yet civilians will not see anything good with the military.”

The raging conflict in Warri appears to be politically motivated. Unlike in the past when such conflicts were caused by conflicting land ownership claims and the siting of local government headquarters, this has to do with the struggle to gain political advantage in next month’s general election.

Ijaw youths say they took up arms against the Itsekiri for fraudulently conspiring with the Independent National Electoral Commission to perpetually dominate them through ward delineation. [The Ijaw complain that although their population is larger than that of the Itsekiri, the Itsekiri control more electoral wards.—WPR] Newswatch gathered that the Ijaw are not happy because even though they represent the majority of the population, they are being controlled by the Itsekiri, who are in the minority. The Ijaw want this corrected before the April general elections.

Of the 12 wards in the Warri-South local government that are made up of Ijaw, Itsekiri, and Urhobo, the Ijaw are most numerous. Many people who spoke to Newswatch about the matter in Warri said peace would continue to elude the oil city until the alleged fraudulent act of registering 200,000 ghost names in favor of the Itsekiri was reversed.

Emmanuel Urhobo, a lawyer who represented the Warri-East constituency in the former Bendel House of Assembly of 1979, described the recent conflict between the two oil communities as a tussle for supremacy and control of the commercial city of Warri. “The Ijaw tribe has a great population and therefore is supposed to have an overwhelming victory in elections. But they are not as strong, influential, or well connected as the Itsekiri, who have always manipulated election results to the detriment of the Ijaw. Now, the Ijaw want a change while the Itsekiri want to maintain the status quo. That is the problem,” he said.

The Itsekiri are accused of being responsible for the frequent crises in the area. Churchhill Esenone, 35, one of the Ijaw youth leaders and contractor for the [dredging company] Boskalis’ project, is angry with the Itsekiri over the incessant crises in the area. “You know as youths, we do not like being in the majority and yet dominated by those in the minority. The Itsekiri cheated us by telling the whole world that they are more in number than us. This made the government give them more wards than us. We want all that to end even if it means fighting with our last drop of blood,” he told Newswatch.

Esenone attributed the long period of Itsekiri domination to its leadership’s insatiable quest for more wealth. According to him, the Itsekiri leaders, who are not even living on Itsekiri land, are the ones fueling the crisis by instigating and supplying their youths with dangerous weapons to kill and destroy the Ijaw.

An indigenous member of the Urhobo ethnic group, who does not want his name mentioned, corroborated Esenone. He blamed the bloodbath in Warri on what he called the fight to retain relevance by the gladiators of Itsekiri who are getting fat on the money accruable to the people of the Niger Delta. He told Newswatch: “The Itsekiri lords are always fueling the wars between either the Itsekiri and the Urhobo, or the Itsekiri and the Ijaw. They are not living here but they control every activity going on in the Niger Delta.”

But Idafe Odje, 45, an indigenous Itsekiri from Igbudu, denied allegations that the Ijaw people always looked for avenues to kill their opponents. He told Newswatch that the present war started because restive Ijaw youths attacked and set ablaze six of the Itsekiri’s riverine villages. “Are you saying that we should have folded our arms and allowed them to slaughter our people?”

James Ibori, the governor of Delta state, dismissed the belief that the Itsekiri and Ijaw crisis was politically motivated. Ibori, who expressed shock at the wanton destruction of lives and property due to the crisis, said it was a consequence of the bad economy. Briefing newsmen in Asaba, the governor exclaimed, “We should rule out political motives. The people are at loggerheads over economic matters!”