By George Onah
Port Harcourt- About three years ago, precisely Saturday, July 8,Â 2006, SundayÂ Â Â Vanguard met with the leader of the Niger Delta Vigilante/Niger Delta Patriotic Forces Ateke Tom in his hideout in Okrika forest. It was shortly after he was attacked and chased out of Okrika community by the Joint Task Force, JTF, in Rivers State . He was later declared wanted by the government and JTF.
Ateke was bitter and threatened fire and brimstone. However, he was not given a breather by the force to actualize his threat. During the interview, Ateke mooted the idea of peace if his boys could be granted amnesty, provided skilled training and afforded jobs for them to live normal life.
The man spoke about his original means of livelihood before engaging in militancy, sayings he was a farmer, sand digger/seller as well as a poultry farmer. He told Sunday Vanguard about his wish to leave the bush and live like every normal human being, live with his wife and bring up his children like a good father. Ateke recalled with nostalgia his exploits as a warlord but regretted being used by the government of those days and dumped.
In another interview, during the sitting of Justice Kayode Eso Truth and Reconciliation Commission, last year, far away from his former base of Okrika, he said he was tired of living like an amphibious animal and would want to leave the swamps and creeks because he was not a fish or crocodile.Â Accordingly, he called on the government to quicken the pace of amnesty. Based on his frequency of demand for amnesty, it was obvious that Ateke had become war weary, lost his major source of livelihood and a crucial percentage of his foot soldiers.
It, therefore, did not surprise manyÂ Â Â people when, in what appeared like a surrender note, he â€˜remindedâ€™ the Federal Government, through his solicitors, last week, about its amnesty promise. While the Federal Government was delighted about Atekeâ€™s wish to â€˜throw in the towelâ€™, the Rivers State Government said the militant leader should not be believed because he had a long history of duplicity and was therefore a chronic and fundamental liar.
Excerpts of the July 8, 2006 interview:
How do you say you are living?
Like animals of course. Are we not living in the bush? You can see that I came out from the bush, is that how people live? It is the way they have turned us to.
You mentioned that people are being used, dumped and killed, have you been used before?
Of course, everyone knows that I worked for the PDP in the first and second coming of the party. In Rivers State. There is no one who does not know that I was used to get votes for the party.
Now, let us start from the beginning. How did you start this your vigilance group which later became a large group that is being patronized now by the powers that be as you said?
It all started when I was in Port Harcourt , around 1999. The people, particularly in Okrika, my home town, noticed an emergence of a cult group that was involved in stealing, robbery and brigandage. They indulged in raping girls, snatching girls from fellow folks in the town, causing confusion in the town, particularly during ceremonies and all that.
I was informed about this and asked by the community people to do something. We then organized ourselves in Okrika and started fighting them and stopping them from their obnoxious activities. Our actions attracted commendation from the community and some boys started embracing our group. We continued until we conquered those boys and there was peace.Â After a while, I was invited by the government.
At what point were you invited by the government to assist in the elections?
When the election was tough for the party and the areas which I conquered for them were many. I conquered many Kalabari towns, Ogu-bolo, Okrika, Nkoro, Opobo and all those places. They know, the government knows.
For now, how large do you think your boys are as to be able to protect the Niger Delta, as the name implies?
My boys are many, they are everywhere. In the event of any problem in the Niger Delta, as soon as we are invited, we go and stop the trouble.
What is the source of your money, in terms of feeding your boys, clothing, provision of soap and all that?
Right now, things are very difficult. Look at the way I am, even to feed is a problem. In fact, since I started working with them (government), I have not had peace, it is one problem after the other.
What else would you want the government to do for you and your boys so that there could be peace, that is in, addition to the compensation for what was damaged during the attack on your base?
Let the government find jobs for the boys and involve those who wish to learn any trade in skill acquisition, so that they can live their lives peacefully.
Are you saying that if the government comes and says bring the list of the names of your boys so that they could be employed, as a sort of amnesty, will that end the problem between you and government?
Of course there will no more trouble; we would not feel concerned about anything anymore. Because we are not robbers, we are loyal citizens going about our lives quietly.
All the chiefs and elders in all our communities and in the Niger Delta love my boys and me. They know how we operate and that I donâ€™t tolerate nonsense or any wayward behaviour from any of my followers.
If the problem between you and the government is settled, how would you want to live your life?
Already I am a quiet man, since (Alhaji Dokubo)Asari and I made peace and resolved to keep the peace, I have been living quietly, I have nothing against anyone. But our things must be returned or compensated for and we will remain quiet.
How is your family reacting to all these things happening to you? By your family, I mean your wife, children, nephews, nieces and others…
They all feel bad, very bad. Right now my wife and children are all scattered in different places. You donâ€™t expect me to bring them to this bush.Â Let me tell you we sleep here and there and not in one place. Come here tomorrow and you will not find me, can I be moving with my family like that?
Before you became the chairman of the vigilance group, what were you engaged in as a form of livelihood?
I was a fisherman, a strong one at that. I was into selling of sand at beaches; I was a farmer as well and keeping poultry, rearing goats and others.
Before going into this vigilante stuff, where you married?
Yes, I was married with two kids. But then I had not formally wedded my wife. It was recently that I wedded my wife because I want to live well.
Conditions: Apparently troubled by the way of life in the swamps and steady decrease of his followers, coupled with the olive branch of amnesty from the Federal Government, Ateke Tom, paradoxically, wants peace but he, through his lawyer, unfolded a five-point agenda before peace could be realized. His counsel, Mr. Ikenna M. Enekweizu, at a press conference in Port Harcourt , on June 15, 2009 said,
â€œThat Chief (Comrade) Ateke Tom, the Niger Delta Vigilante, the Niger Delta Patriotic ForcesÂ are satisfied with the efforts so far made by the Federal Government of Nigeria as led by President Umaru Yarâ€™ Adua with respect to the matter of the grant of amnesty to militants.
They are also convinced that the present Federal Government of Nigeria is sincerely committed to the granting of amnesty to militants and to the restoration of peace in the Niger Delta.
â€œHereby declares on behalf of himself and all members of the Niger Delta Vigilante, the Niger Delta patriotic forces, that he is prepared to hand over all arms and ammunitions in the hands of himself and his boys to the Federal Government, the moment the modalities for the grant of the amnesty is completed and announced by the Federal Government. Chief (Comrade) Ateke Tom hereby calls on the Federal Government to immediately make public the conditions for the said amnesty and put in place all necessary frame work (both legal and otherwise) for the facilitation of the grant of the said amnesty.
â€œIs prepared and ready to return to his home town (Okrika), from where he hopes to continue to meaningfully and positively contribute to the peace and development of Okrika land, Rivers State , the Niger Delta and Nigeria as a whole.
â€œHereby calls on all his brothers in the struggle to lay down their arms and fully embrace the amicable solution of the Niger Delta questions, through the amnesty granted by the Federal Government to the militants.
â€œAlso, hereby calls on Mr. President to match his words on the issue of the grant of amnesty to all militants with action, and show- case governmentsâ€™ sincerity to the cause by stopping, forthwith, all military operations in the Niger Delta, and immediately withdrawing itsâ€™ troops and men of the JTF from Gbaramatu Kingdom and all places where such troops are presently stationed. This is the only way to convince the people of the Niger Delta that he has truly embraced the peaceful option in resolving the Niger Delta question and is sincerely committed to the grant of amnesty to the militantsâ€.
But, in a swift reaction, the Rivers State Government said it could not be fooled by the antics of Ateke and quickly issued a statement describing his surrender of arms notice as â€˜diversionaryâ€™ and â€˜insincereâ€™.
A statement from the office of Â Â Â the acting chief press secretary to the governor, Mr. Blessing Wikina, said the militant leader should not be taken seriously in view of his several antics in the past which led to severe consequences on his people.
â€œPeace cannot be achieved by proxy, it is either he is committed to the process or he is notâ€, Wikina said, adding, â€œhe is insincere and should not be listened toâ€.
The statement added that if Ateke was serious about his commitment to the peace process in the Niger Delta, and the Federal Governmentâ€™s amnesty, he should have come out of hiding with his loyalists and guns, rather than speaking through a proxy.
â€œThis is not the first time Ateke Tom has deceived the people with a promise to contribute to the peace process in Okrika and we believe that it is a ploy to re-enter Okrika to unleash mayhemâ€, the statement said, puncturing Atekeâ€™s claim to contribute to the restoration of peace in Okrika.
The governorâ€™s spokesman therefore urged the people of the state to discountenance Atekeâ€™s claim as they do not contain any iota of remorse over the series of the â€œself confessed killings he masterminded in the state.â€
Further to this, the government said â€œwhile the Rivers State Government welcomes every genuine effort at seeking the Federal Governmentâ€™s amnesty, we believe that such persons must show genuine and remorseful commitment to the processâ€. It then called on the people to be focused in their commitment towards peace and should not allow Ateke Tomâ€™s many antics to dissuade them into believing him as serious in the quest for amnesty.
Well, it is not known whether the man is truly remorseful in his present move or aiming at another prank. But he confided in this writer in the last interview at his base that â€œbeing able to control this number of armed boys involves a lot of efforts and self discipline and I think I want this whole thing to come to an endâ€. By this solemn revelation, clearly, Ateke Tom is a tired war horse needing permanent rest.