When one think of warlords and private armies, one generally think of war-torn Sierra Leone, Liberia, Somalia, Afghanistan, and a few other condemned places around the world — places that are generally associated with weak and failing states or absence of legitimate government. In view of the events of the last few weeks, how could one not think of Port Harcourt as a war zone and or breeding ground for warlords and private armies? Private citizens are being shot at; children are being killed or kidnapped; the militias have declared war on the regular army; and the governor is scared stiff of his own city and state — forcing him to go underground or ride around in armored car.
Is this the Nigeria of the future? One thing is clear, the Obasanjo and Peter Odili governments cannot claim ignorance of the private-army phenomenon, and neither can the Nigerian Army and security services. Both the Army and the government knew that some elements within the society had or were grooming private armies. They knew who funded these armies. They knew their commanders and benefactors. They knew how ammunitions and armaments and other military necessities got into the country and into the region. They knew, and tacitly approved the works and workings of private armies.
Without these armies, Obasanjo and Peter Odili and others like them couldn’t have gotten certain things accomplished. Even the oil companies are in on this as they too have standing private armies that look after their interest, (and in some cases terrorize private citizens and members of other groups). Sorrowfully, the monster is now on the loose, on the rampage. In all of this, it is the people, innocent private citizens that are bearing the brunt of this attrition.
In the 1960s when Idi Amin was doing Milton Obote’s dirty works, Amin was considered a good fellow; but when he turned against Obote, Amin became the serpent, the monster. But really, neither Amin nor Obote were aberrations in politics, more so in the politics of the developing world. Nigeria, like Uganda, has a long list of boy-boys who became monsters and then turned against their handlers.
The reality is that if you create a monster, the monster will devour you; if you personalize the rule of law, you encourage mayhem; if you make honest political struggles impossible, you make banditos possible; and if you pollute the wind, the contaminated winds will envelope you, too. Obasanjo, the oil companies and the Niger Delta governors made this round of Port Harcourt possible.
In Port Harcourt, as elsewhere in the Niger Delta, successive governors, along with those with sufficient economic and political power, raised private armies to do their private and public biddings. They had no use for the official security services. If they needed to rig elections, they call in their private army; if they needed to whack their critics, they call in their army; if they wanted to intimidate their real and perceived political opponents, they called in their army. Today no one knows the exact numbers of private armies that are in place; what is known is that between the summer of 1999 and mid-2007, private armies were preferred when executing the wishes of these governors and elites.
Along with private armies are the various cults. Some cult members are also members of private armies. And unlike some well-established and “well-behaved” cults, most of the cults in Port Harcourt and its environs are mainly interested in mayhem and extrajudicial actives. One of the unfortunate consequences of the ongoing events in Port Harcourt, and in some other parts of the Delta, is that the activities of these nefarious groups are eclipsing the work and struggles of bona fide groups. And so it should not be forgotten that Port Harcourt (and the larger Niger Delta) is home to several legitimate organizations commitment to the overall struggle of the Niger Delta.
Long before the all-out-war several things became observable: (1) the head of these private armies became too powerful to control; (2) having tasted blood, money and influence, some junior officers decided to form their own posse, and like viruses they kept multiplying; (3) due to ideological differences, some of these armies started turning on themselves and on their rivals; (4) some gangs have no rules or creed, what matters is how high they can raise their savagery or the amount of money they make; and (5) in pursuit of their goals, they no longer discriminated between ordinary people, government officials and their sworn enemies. Anything and everybody became fair game — to be exploited, killed, maimed or destroyed.
What are the lessons for Port Harcourt and for Nigeria? Simple: “penny wise, pound foolish.” When the government and the ruling class should have listen to, and genuinely acted on the grievances of the people, they turned blind eyes. When government should have encouraged the rule of law and strengthened institutions, they instead engaged in extra-legalities; and instead of transparency and accountability, they knowing opted for the unjust and injurious path. Because of these and other despicable behavior on the path of government, an unintended vacuum was created — a vacuum that has now been filled by warlords and private armies.
From all indications, we have not seen the end of this wahala. The solution is not in the militarization of Port Harcourt or any city in the region. How many warlords can the government kill? How many leaves and tree branches can the government afford to chop off when the problems are deep within the root?