Since military rule ended in Nigeria in 1999, gang activities and the corresponding violence have seen a gradual but steady increase in Rivers state, in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. From the formation of the Supreme Vikings Confraternity (SVC) in the early 1980s at the University of Port Harcourt, various criminal gangs known as cults have sprung up in different parts of the state, with varying membership strengths, and holding different stretches of territory within the state. Prominent amongst the more than 100 cult groups known to operate in the state are the Deewell, Deebam, Icelanders, Greenlanders, Gberesaako Boys, and the Outlaws.
These cult groups individually and collectively have constituted a menace to the inhabitants of the state, causing incalculable human and economic loss in the process. In the first decade of the century, some of these cult groups began to morph into militancy, blurring the line between groups that had always been militants and those who leveraged the organisation the cult groups gave to engage in militancy. They ended up waging war against the oil industry for years, reducing Nigeria’s oil production output. To keep the oil flowing, the government eventually created an amnesty programme for repentant militants which still runs till this day.
The effects of these gangs on Rivers state has been nothing short of debilitating. There is a substantial body of literature that has examined the close interplay between gang violence and the adverse economic effects they leave in their wake. Gangs are an important component of understanding society because “understanding these social actors is crucial to fashioning public policies and building social movements that can both reduce violence and erode the deep-seated inequalities that all too often are reinforced by present economic, social, and military policies.”
There is evidence that gang leaders are in the process of transferring the hard evasive, survival, community organising and negotiating skills they learned in their previous lives to their new found roles as political operators, so called ‘kingpins’ who have been able to convert their influence over well armed, well organised gangs into significant political heft. Many of these gangs start off with community support. While ultimately, as they evolve, the willing support morphs into a fearful exhibition of support, this community base is integral to the operation of these gangs.
The government must realise that the solution is not a token locking up or killing of gang leaders. This changes nothing and only brings about violence as fighting always ensues to take over the lucrative structures these gangs have once a leader is gone. What is more important getting to the root cause of the problem – the socio-economic issues, the legitimacy issues that make communities turn to gangs in the first place, the justice issues and the myopia of political operatives who prefer to take the shortcut of gang violence to win elections. Without tackling these, the head of the hydra will always regrow, irrespective of how many times or how many heads are cut.