By Jimitota Onoyume
30 years old SOBOMA JACKRICH aka Egberipapa, was a former militant Commander in the Kalabari axis of Rivers State. He was picked up by the Joint Task Force precisely on December 28 last year at the palace of the traditional ruler of Kalabari Kingdom in Buguma, where he had gone for a peace talk with the monarch.
Getting the ex militant to talk to the press was not an easy task. He was apparently rattled by his detention experience. He finally agreed to talk after Pastor Success Jack, a man who had been actively involved in driving the peace process in the region, persuaded him with assurances that the interview would not be injurious in any way. Nevertheless, he insisted that the Pastor must be physically present while the chat lasted.
At the venue of the interview which the ex militant said should not be made public his boys otherwise called his foot soldiers were all over. It could be safe to conclude that they were within the age bracket of 19 to 25.Â At the snap of a finger by Soboma about four of them who understood what he meant ran to set up a place for the interview.
You are one of those who embraced the amnesty by the federal government. Whatâ€™s your view on the exercise?It is a good idea that the federal government initiated the amnesty for sake of peace in the region. It is also good for us freedom fighters. Since they said our activities were affecting development programmes in the region we will mellow down for these good things to come to the area.
What advice do you have for the federal government on how it can consolidate on the gains of amnesty after?
First, I will say there are still some ex militants that are languishing in detention centres in the country; they should be released in the name of the amnesty. Secondly, government should threat everybody equally. It should start implementing development programmes in the region.Â So that our country can be a great nation.
Who are the others in detention centers?
They are not of my group but I can recall some of their names. Stephen Opukeme, Oromi, Yokolom, Osai bai etc. I saw about seven of them in Kuje prison. Since government has granted amnesty it should extend same to them.
How many boys did you lead to accept amnesty?
I have over a hundred boys. And we all surrendered. We all wanted peace even before now. And it was at a meeting in the palace of my king where we were fine tuning talk for peace that I was picked by the JTF.
Are these your boys at the rehabilitation camp now?
Not yet. We are waiting for them to call us. Maybe, they are dealing with ex militants in batches.How many riffles did you submit?I and Farah Dagogo who is my ‘eneral Commander’ jointly surrendered arms.
Tell us about your detention experience?
(Paused. Drew a deep breath) It was like a lion under detention and an antelope became the lion. It is a different world all together. It is not a place for somebody to be. Thank God I have been released. The greatest lesson I learnt from the experience is patience. The law is no respecter of any man. Any body can be there. While I was there, I saw many leaders and big men being dragged into the place too.
When you saaid antelope and lion, who are they?
When you go there, a small boy who had been there before you gave you orders; they ceased your things, saying they were king of the jungle.Â (General laughter). I was arrested December 28, and taken to the SSS, then to Kogi prisons and finally to Kuje where I was released.
With your prison experience, what piece of do you have for society?
I will ask the federal government first to create jobs for our people and empower the youths. Our people are poorly represented in key sectors of the economy. You will see the statistics of freedom fighters that more of them are from jobless background. This is the challenge before the government. This is one thing that pushed them into arm struggle.
Again, the government should come and cleanse the palace of the Amanyanabo of Kalabari kingdom where I was arrested while in a peace meeting with the king. This canâ€™t happen in so many palaces in the country. I was in a peace meeting with the king when the soldiers came to pick me. That was wrong.
The king called me for the peace talk so I went. The following day by the trend of our discussion at the meeting I was supposed to be led to take the oath of peace at our ancestral shrine. So you see that it was a genuine peace move initiated by the palace before the arrest.
I know the governor will understand what I am talking about when I say that the government should make peace with the Kalabari people by going to cleanse our palace.
Your English is relatively good. Tell us your educational background.
(Laughed, looking shy initially.)
Letâ€™s know, did you attend a primary school?
Well! I am a school certificate holder. I attended Kalabari National College , (KNC) and then concluded my secondary school at Ojims College .You mean your parents gave you secondary education in a private school, did you make further attempt to continue your education?
We were not rich or poor neither. But please, I donâ€™t want to continue this gist. It is beginning to disturb me.You were into militancy and at a time it was alleged you kidnapped Chief Mrs. Seinye Lulu Briggs(Cuts in)I did not do that.
I was not behind that abduction. I never took hostages for ransom. For instance when I took seven expatriates of Global Gas because of their failure to understand the reason for our agitation for better attention in the region, I kept them for two days and later released them without any ransom.
I also took some Shell contractors that came for pipeline installation. I released them without collecting a dime.Â I carried out these abductions to press home demand for better attention for the region.I was surprised when my name came up when the wife of Chief Lulu Briggs was kidnapped. I was innocent. All the things I have done are on record.
There is this perception that some ex-militants do not even understand the political dynamism at play in the country. they only shout, â€œdevelop Niger Deltaâ€, to justify their criminal actions. What do you have to say on this?
There are criminals in the struggle. They call themselves freedom fighters too. But we were genuine and very focus. Like in all system, bad guys cashed in to make gains for themselves. For instance I wonder why anybody will kidnap children. it is wrong.
As an ex militant, a former â€˜generalâ€™, what do you say you achieved through militancy?
We are yet to really achieve anything in terms of addressing challenges in the region. But the greatest we have done so far is to make the federal government accept to develop the region, provide jobs and address challenges of underdevelopment in the region.
You are looking robust. And you just came out from detention. What happened? Were you so well fed there?
(Laughs) Na God oh.
Are you still going to retain the name Egberipapa?Laughter) Egberipapa meaning story teller, is not a bad name. I have been bearing it in the last fourteen years. We are still in the struggle. Just like my governor, His Excellency Chibuike Amaechi said that we should go for non violent struggle that is what we are into.
My governor was initially bitter with me because of something that happened. But on the amnesty day he forgave me. I want to use this as an opportunity to say that we will work to promote peace in the state and the country. I am his son, a subject he has forgiven; I will want to make him proud by working to promote peace.
I was giving the name by my former master, the only man I have called master in my life, Alhaji Asari Dokubo. Before he became president of Ijaw Youth Council, I was one of the boys with him.Â As boys under him then we would agree among ourselves that when Alhaji come we would ask for money for soap etc.
But whenever he was around others would not be able to talk. I was the only one that would have the courage to tell him our resolution. He would be annoyed initially and even ordered that I should be flogged but in the end he would grant our request. It got to a point; anytime he was around he would say they should call that Egberipapa for him, because he wanted to know what I would be asking for this time. This was how the name stuck.
Let me say that I want to specially appeal to Alhaji Asari to key into the peace process
Are you aware he is in court challenging the amnesty
No. I just heard this now. I am sure he has his reasons. But my appeal to everybody is that we should work with the government to promote peace for development in the region
As Egberipapa, what story or word do you have for youths in the region?
(Laughs) They should shun violence. Arm struggle does not pay. It takes too many lives
I am appealing to all my brothers and sisters to embrace peace. Those that have not keyed into the amnesty can even come to me to put their name in my list for the rehabilitation programme. Let us all promote peace for the development of our region and our country.