ONE MAN, ONE GUN
For nature so loved Warri that it gave the city its eternal gifts – oil, mankind's most sought after soluble mineral resource, beautiful creeks, rich in splendour and full of aquatic life, and diverse ethnic nationalities whose people are so intelligent and so resourceful. Nature also blessed the city with what is easily believed as an icing on the cake - Waiffe, a variant of Pidgin English that Warri residents are ever proud to say is the best spoken on planet earth.
Indeed, any one who comes to Warri, striving to have a bite of any of these tasty pies freely given, shall not hunger, but have life so fulfilling.
That explains why Warri has continued to attract people from lands far away, who come to town to have a taste of the city's milk and honey. That is why the Caucasoid from various nationalities are in Warri. And from Nigeria, the Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba and more are all in the city. They have all come to join the early settlers, Itsekiri, Urhobo, Ijaw and others, who now own the city in various proportions.
Just before the turn of the 1990s, all was calm in Warri. The rich assemblage of people from diverse cultures and nationalities gave the city its verve and vitality. Nightlife, business, everything all boomed gracefully. Then, suddenly, something began to happen. One thing led to another, and the city began to lose its innocence. A thick cloud of anarchy like a fog started to descend and soon spread out all over the area.
Things fell apart. The harmony, which earlier existed in the city went away. And as things stand, it can neither be retrieved nor recreated in full.
Sunny Omoniho, a resident of Warri, recalls that organised militancy in Nigeria has its roots in the local government creation in 1993, which sparked off fury between the Itsekiri and Ijaw people.
'The problem in Warri today started when the late General Sani Abacha's government created the Warri South-west Local Government Area and cited its headquarters at Ogbeijo, an area that belongs to the Ijaw. Within 24 hours, a contrary announcement was made, relocating the council's office to Ojidigbe, which is largely populated by the Itsekiri. The Ijaws felt slighted and concluded that the Itsekiri were the mastermind of the sudden relocation. That sparked off a big problem between the two brothers. Houses were burnt, property of inestimable value were destroyed. The incident further threw up a lot of questions over the ownership of the city. That equally raised a lot of ethnic consciousness, which till this moment is yet to die down.
'But the real root of militancy in the Niger Delta has its base in the invitation of Warri youths to Abuja to feature in the then one million-man 'Youths Earnestly Ask for Abacha' (YEAA) march, organised in Abuja. The attendees were given N5, 000 each. While in Abuja, they saw a lot of physical development going on. Many of them, who had never seen such a sight, thought they were in dreamland. Then, they resolved that if so much oil was being drilled from the creeks to build Abuja, it was only fitting for them to begin to ask for their share of the rich revenue their area has been giving the Federal Government. When they came back, they began looking for ways and means of forcefully getting money from the oil companies and other organisations operating within the region. That was how many youths with the assistance of their godfathers started buying guns and started kidnapping oil workers in the region thus setting off a wave of militancy in the area.
'With ethnic skirmishes, arising from time to time, Warri grew restive by the day. Burning of houses and other property of members of other ethnic groups grew in intensity. Originally, fuel bombs were used, but as time progressed, more and more sophisticated weapons were acquired. Everyone began to buy and stockpile arms to fight perceived aggression, which gradually became the order of the day.
'Right now, Warri people are used to guns and their sounds.
Everybody has a gun and can tell from afar the type of rifle in action by the sound of its shot. Everyone can differentiate among the dane gun, locally made pistol, pump action rifle and what have you. Now in Warri, if you show someone a gun, they will not take you seriously until you shoot. However, if you do, you cannot guarantee what will happen next since the other person might be forced to retaliate.'
Corroborating Omoniho's assertion, a lady, who simply identified herself as Tega, told Daily Sun that in Warri, guns were freely used. She said: 'Here in Warri, everyone has at least a gun. In fact, guns are used as freely as a walking stick. Everyone is used to it. If you are shown a gun here and you begin to shiver, chances are that you have not been living in Warri.'
To buttress her claim, she recalled how her uncle, in company with his wife, had to frighten off a lad, who met them one evening, pulled a gun and demanded for money. 'My uncle and his wife were taking a stroll one evening when suddenly, a scruffy lad emerged from the corner and brandished a pistol, demanding for money and threatening to shoot them dead if they failed to cooperate. He thought my uncle would shake, not knowing he was dealing with a hard- boiled Warri man. Instantly, my uncle even without a stick, challenged him to a duel. So, he fled.'
Indeed, an evening in Warri bears true witness that peace of the graveyard reigns in the city. At six in the evening, businesses and shops close in the trouble-prone areas like Ogbeijo. Everyone runs for their dear lives. A simple, harmless beer parlour argument could spark off tension, which might take days or even weeks to clear. No one wants to die; people retire to the comfort of their homes and prefer to be in to wondering what goes on outside.
A drive through the volatile areas where real war was fought in the past reveals scars of the crisis. One resident said people had managed to rebuild their burnt houses after the major clashes that took place in the mid 1990s and the early 2000s.
In the heat of the major crisis, according to Omoniho, many prominent people were targeted. Their houses and cars were burnt. Most of them fled the city.
Some, who could not afford to keep away, made their homes in many of the hotels spread across the town. To prevent some of the prominent people and other visitors to Warri from being caught in the crossfire, government, in collaboration with the hoteliers, arranged for soldiers to fight the challenge. Investigation conducted by Daily Sun reveals that at the entrance of some hotels in the city, which then served as safe haven for their lodgers, heaps and heaps of sand bags are still seen; even in some strategic points, they are there. Some of them are yet to be dismantled till date.
Part of the proactive measure government is using now to prevent hoodlums from gaining free rein is to prevent commercial motorcycle operators, otherwise known as okada, from operating beyond 7.00pm. Anyone caught operating beyond that hour faces the wrath of the government. Besides, government has ensured a strong military and police presence along the roads, leading into Warri to ensure that the city is secured. At such checkpoints, stern-looking security personnel -police and army – are seen always on duty.
A commentator told Daily Sun that given the level of insecurity in some parts of Warri, oil workers and other people, especially non-indigenes, would have loved to relocate to other towns but for the strong economic attraction, which the city holds for them. For instance, there is strong presence of oil companies and allied organisations, servicing them. There are also the Ports of Warri, Burutu, Koko, among others being operated by the Nigerian Ports Plc. The large workforce of these ports comes from every nook and cranny of the country. Even in the heat of kidnapping and Joint Task Force (JTF) crackdown on militants within the region, workers of these organisations remained in the city.
As it is, the militants, who were the products of Warri crisis, have remained a torn in the flesh. A prominent Warri indigene accused local politicians of being the biggest beneficiaries of this segment of the city's population.
'During elections,' he siad, 'the politicians use the militants to win at the polls. In return, they give them rights to sell local government motor emblems to motorists they are not familiar with. That is why if you are driving a truck from Lagos or Port Harcourt through Warri, for instance, you might be compelled to buy emblems of as many local governments within the Warri region as possible, unless you don't encounter them.'
He feared that if the fast emerging area-boy culture was not checked, it could harm the establishment of the Warri Export Free Zone, which is in the works. He also feared that Onitsha traders, who are being targeted to patronise the port when it goes into operation, might be discouraged when the area boys start harassing them and their goods in transit.
He noted that the presence of the creeks still constitutes a problem to the smooth operation of ports within the Niger Delta region. He alleged that militants were still in the habit of harassing vessels, coming through the creeks, thereby hampering maritime activities in the area. He further alleged that for the managements of the ports within the area to curtail the trend, they have to settle the big militant organisations and their sponsors to ward off smaller militant groups so as to make the creeks safe for foreign vessels.
When our reporter visited Warri, some youths at a settlement, just before Effurun junction, were seen wielding planks with nails stuck in them, harassing motorists, a confirmation of the area-boy culture in Warri. If not checked, it might turn out to be a challenge difficult to handle in time to come.