Guide to the Armed Groups Operating in the Niger Delta – Part 1

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 7

During the course of the last year in Nigeria’s oil-rich but turbulent Niger Delta region, armed men kidnapped more than 150 foreigners, killed unknown numbers of Nigerian armed forces personnel, crippled the oil production of Africa’s largest oil exporter by nearly a quarter and detonated five car bombs. There is a bewildering variety of armed groups operating in the delta, ranging from community vigilantes to armed political movements to criminal gangs. The groups, whose aims and members often overlap, are involved in activities that include kidnapping, theft of crude oil, attacking oil infrastructure, extortion, bombings, murders and rigging elections. Without adequate equipment or political will, the military cannot tackle the problem effectively. Unrest in the Niger Delta can be traced back to the beginning of oil exploration, when impoverished communities were exploited and polluted, while billions of dollars were extracted from underneath their feet (Terrorism Monitor, August 10, 2006). In many cases, however, criminal elements and corrupt politicians have exploited the expression of legitimate grievances and armed many of these groups for their own ends. The emergence of modern militant groups is closely related to politics, corruption and bad governance in the delta. Both the 2003 polls and this month’s coming elections have strengthened pre-existing armed groups.

For the purposes of clarity, this two-part analysis focuses on militias and gangs—with part two focusing exclusively on the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)—and discusses the existence of community groups within that framework. It also explains their leadership structures and links to politicians. In reality, the distinctions are somewhat arbitrary. The gunmen and the government are as tangled together as the mangrove roots of the swamps in the Niger Delta.

History of Militancy

The term “militants” refers to gunmen who make political demands, including the release of imprisoned leaders, cash reparations for communities, change of electoral candidates and a greater share of oil revenues, among other issues. These political demands distinguish them, albeit tenuously, from criminals who simply kidnap people for money. Militants are also distinct from disaffected communities, whose people may perform kidnappings or attacks in the hopes of getting a clinic, school or cash, but have no overall political aims. It is a very blurred line—a person may be a community activist one day, then a militant and then a criminal the next. Nevertheless, it is a line worth noting.

Militancy against oil companies in the delta can be traced back a long way, but the general agreement is that the turning point from peaceful activism to armed resistance came after the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders in 1995. The Nigerian government had responded with lethal force to the justified anger of the local people over corruption, underdevelopment and lack of political representation. Dictator Sani Abacha’s government continued to contain any real challenges with severe brutality until the 1999 elections.

Democracy was a disappointment for the people of the delta, as the corrupt government provoked widespread anger by failing to deliver basic social services. Oil companies stoked the problem by failing to clean up their oil spills, flaring gas (which produces acid rain that damages fishing grounds and crops), failing to ensure their police treated local people with respect, executing poorly conceived “development” projects and doling out cash payments that set communities against each other. Communities then began to occupy oil platforms and hold protests, which were often violently dispersed by the police. Moderate demonstrations were met with violence, the debate became polarized and criminal gangs began to use the protesters’ rhetoric to excuse their own activities. By 1999, notable figures such as Prince Clark Igodo (declared wanted by the police in March) began to carry out kidnappings for ransom. Igodo, who lost one hand to an explosion during clashes between different cult groups, was originally a gang leader, but had positioned himself as an important ransom negotiator, so it was difficult to arrest him.

Asari, Ateke and Politicians in Rivers State During the 2003 Elections

During the 2003 elections, politicians sought to arm various groups in return for helping to rig the polls. The problem with this policy, however, was explained by human rights lawyer Anyakwee Nsirimovu in 2004 in a private interview: “Once you give someone a gun, you cannot take it back. After the elections were won, the men turned to crime.” At that time, the now-infamous Alhaji Dokubo-Asari (he later changed it from “Alhaji” to “Mujahid”) occupied a leading role within the Ijaw Youth Council, a forum set up in 1998 by Ijaw activists who wrote the Kaiama Declaration, a manifesto for resource control after which many subsequent militant groups modeled their demands [1]. One Rivers State official, Sara Igbe, has said Governor Peter Odili initially armed Asari. Although Igbe has subsequently refused to discuss this statement, he does not deny it [2]. Asari has denied helping to rig elections. Asari, a Muslim convert, later fell out with Odili over the government’s neglect of the delta region and over negative comments Asari made about President Olusegun Obasanjo. Asari then formed the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), which consisted of a loose alliance between several local gangs known as “cults” [3]. Asari was not a gang leader himself, but was able to convince various other groups such as the Greenlanders, Bush Boys, Elegant Face and Deegbam to cooperate under his leadership.

It should be stressed that many of the young men involved in the gangs turned to crime because of a complete lack of alternatives after the government failed to invest in education, employment schemes and infrastructure. Although Asari, the son of a judge and brother of a university professor, articulated complex arguments for self-determination and resource control, many of his followers were simply fighting because they had lost a struggle with another local gang leader, Ateke Tom, and had been pushed out of their territory in Okrika in Rivers State. Asari, however, retained his links to many people in the government. When this analyst visited his militia camps in 2004, several of his mobile and satellite phones rang with tip-offs from senior military figures when they were planning to attack. He funded his struggle through tapping crude oil pipelines and wellheads, a practice which nets hundreds of millions of dollars worth of crude in Nigeria each year and requires the collusion of senior figures in the military, particularly in the navy, to escort the barges out to tankers waiting at sea.

After Asari retreated to the swamps and formed the NDPVF, the state government armed Ateke, who led a rival gang called the Icelanders. Ateke has also referred to his armed followers as the Niger Delta Vigilantes [4]. According to Amnesty International, more than 500 people died before a truce was negotiated between the two groups. After several months of living undisturbed in Port Harcourt, Asari’s calls for greater resource control and the rejection of the federal government finally led to his arrest in 2005. He is currently in prison on trial for treason and his release is a key demand of many militant groups. Despite accusing him of involvement in a string of kidnappings and bank robberies, the government continued to have links with Ateke for many months. “During his traditional marriage with his wife on January 15, 2005, the governor gave [Ateke] 15 million naira,” said Ateke’s nephew Akinaka Richard [5]. Richard also says that Abiye Samuel Sekibo, the former national transportation minister seen as Odili’s political patron, has strong links with Ateke. Both men come from Okrika. Yet in 2006, Ateke fell from favor and was chased into hiding. His nephew and spokesperson, Richard, however, has declared that his uncle is unhappy with the gubernatorial candidates of Delta and Rivers states and if there is no acknowledgment over their complaints, it is possible the fighters will reband, although their numbers will probably be reduced.

FNDIC, Smaller Groups and the 2003 Elections in Delta State

The Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) was originally an ethnic militia. It grew out of the conflict between the Gbaramatu and Egbema clans (part of the Ijaw, Nigeria’s fourth largest ethnic group and the dominant tribe in the delta region) and the much smaller Itsekiri, which began in 1998 and culminated at the end of the 2003 elections, when hundreds died and thousands were displaced in a fight over the delineation of a local government boundary [6]. The fight began over communities competing for control over the headquarters of Warri South West Local Government and for the privilege of “host status” for an oil facility, which meant that they were given preferential treatment in development projects and jobs, among other benefits. It was fueled by local politicians who wanted control of the lucrative territory [7]. A heavy-handed government response opened up a third front in the fighting.

When the conflict (known locally as a war) ended, many of the fighters turned to bunkering (the theft of crude oil) and kidnapping. Senior members of FNDIC, such as former leader Bello Oboko, were co-opted into the state government to negotiate between oil companies, the government and their fighters. Many FNDIC members and their families also set up “security companies” to provide “protection” for oil majors. The organization has a formal, elected leadership, although it is often factionalized.

Bayelsa State

Bayelsa contains many armed groups organized around a strong local leader or a community such as Nembe or Brass. The smaller groups have recently begun to form alliances with larger groups, which are dissolved or shifted with great frequency. Since the state lacks a large community of expatriate oil workers, it has not seen the same level of violence as Delta or Rivers, although in 1999 government troops massacred scores of villagers at Odi after the murders of seven policemen. Frequent and indiscriminate reprisals by the military throughout the delta help win the militants tacit approval from villagers who could otherwise inform authorities of their activities.

According to various interviews, several militant fighters say that Bayelsa state is where the leadership of the largest and best organized militant group is based, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which will be profiled in part two of this analysis.

The delta militants are eager to exploit publicity and frequently issue threats by e-mail. Some of the groups known through email include the Joint Revolutionary Council (through Cynthia Whyte), the Coalition for Militant Action in the Niger Delta (COMA) and the Martyr’s Brigade. None have ever proved their existence through providing proof of hostage taking (such as photos) or pre-warning of attacks.

The Government

There is a fault line between Nigeria’s federal government, which seeks to prevent militants from interfering with foreign oil workers and production, and state governments, which benefit from it in several different ways. Anyakwee Nsirimovu, the human rights lawyer, explained in a 2006 interview that state governments under investigation for corruption are able to shift attention onto hostages and get a reprieve by insisting that only state officials can handle negotiations. While Nsirmovu does not accuse state governments of actively encouraging hostage taking, officials ensure they benefit from the publicity by always bringing released hostages to the Government House for a photo opportunity with the governor.

State officials also pay ransoms from “security budgets” [8]. In Rivers state, the five billion naira fund is not accountable to any oversight. In at least one instance, government officials who had been given a 20 million naira ransom only showed up with four million, claiming that the balance had been stolen from their car. An angry argument ensued in front of the foreign hostage, and the officials later returned with more money [9]. One Rivers-based militant said that government officials typically take over half of the ransom [10].

The military is also compromised. Senior officials are correct when they say that the militants have faster, smaller boats and outmaneuver the navy in the swamps, which they know far better than enlisted men from outside the area (Terrorism Focus, October 17, 2006). Senior commanders and some politicians, however, also benefit from the militants’ trade in stolen crude oil, which is transported through the mangroves in large, slow and unwieldy barges. Lastly, but most importantly, officials also benefit from the ability to call on organized and armed gangs to rig themselves into power during election time [11]. Brig. Gen. Samuel Salihu, the second-highest ranking officer in the Joint Task Force, has said that some of the armed groups are being protected by vested political interests [12].


The number and the background of the various militant groups in the delta underscore the difficulty in solving this problem. The militant groups in the delta are connected to the communities, in addition to the local and state governments. Unless both state and federal governments seriously tackle the problems of pollution, poverty, underdevelopment and corruption, low-level conflict in the delta will continue. Part two of this analysis will focus on the most prolific of the delta militant groups, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.

* Part Two of this article will discuss the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).


1. The full declaration can be read at The IYC, intended as a united forum for discussion and negotiation, was infiltrated by the government and subsequently wracked by infighting, according to former member and human rights lawyer Dimieari von Kemedi. In a March 28 phone interview, he said, “The lack of a credible forum…has helped the militias to come on strong.”

2. Author interviews with Sara Igbe, former Rivers State official, in 2004 and 2006.

3. According to face-to-face author interviews with two cult leaders in 2006, cult groups are primarily urban gangs. Like the militants, they were originally formed to protest social injustice. Wole Soyinka founded the first one, the Pyrates, while attending university, to protest the brutalities of military rule. These days, they have spread far beyond the universities and have been taken over by criminal elements that use the gangs to sell drugs, rig elections, fight each other, among other activities. Unlike the NDPVF or MEND, once an individual joins a cult, they are in that cult for life, barring exceptional circumstances. All cults have secret initiation ceremonies, which include elements varying from theft to beatings to the murder of a member of your own family. Cults are rigidly hierarchical.

4. Author interview with Ateke Tom, 2006.

5. Author interview with Akinaka Richard, 2007.

6. Author interview with Patrick Naagbanton, a researcher on gangs and militants, 2007.

7. In the vacuum left by a corrupt government, oil companies are typically expected to be service providers throughout the delta. For an in-depth examination of government corruption, see the recent Human Rights Watch report, Chop Fine.

8. Author interview with Emmanuel Okah, Rivers State spokesman, 2006.

9. Author interview with an oil company employee, 2006.

10. Author interview, militant affiliated with Asari, 2006.

11. Author interview, gang leader, 2007.

12. Author interview, Samuel Salisu, second-highest ranking officer in the JTF, 2007.