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Brief encounter with Ateke

By Donu Kogbara

LAST week, Chief E.K. Clarke, the veteran champion of Niger Deltan rights and a zonal leader I regard as a close friend and father figure, was kind enough to invite me to his residence to attend a reception he was hosting for Ateke Tom, the famous militant commander and founder of the Niger Delta Volunteer Force.

Ateke’s reputation precedes him and is complex. He is the kind of man who attracts massive amounts of controversy and wildly conflicting opinions. He is feared as well as loved and despised as well as revered. Some folks describe him as a dangerous thug. Others insist that he is a brave freedom fighter.

I am told that when Ateke returned to Port Harcourt after having discussed amnesty issues with the President in Abuja, he was greeted like a conquering hero by cheering crowds.  But I also know people who were shocked by this proof that he enjoys considerable support from some segments of society – people who are convinced that he should be jailed or executed, not negotiated with or feted.

Whether you like Ateke, hate Ateke, are indifferent to Ateke or have mixed feelings about Ateke, one thing is clear: Ateke is not irrelevant or a weakling.

Ateke was, for many years, a formidable force to be reckoned with in the creeks of the economically crucial oil-producing region. He had influential political allies and substantial military resources; and the Federal Government has – wisely, in my view – concluded that it simply cannot afford to ignore him.

And he comes from my home state (Rivers); and his mother comes from my tribe (Ogoni). So I figured that Ateke and I had a couple of things in common; and I was grateful for the opportunity to meet him and find out whether I’d be able to relate to him…and whether I would instinctively side with his admirers or his detractors.

Ateke hadn’t yet arrived when I got to Chief Clarke’s residence. So I waited for him in the lounge area with the other guests. Then he suddenly walked in with a small entourage, dressed very casually in baggy shorts, a T-shirt and a cap and looking like a jaunty rap musician. And the most extraordinary thing happened.

Everyone, including me and some elderly VIP chums of Chief Clarke, stood up and took turns to respectfully shake the hand of this young man who was born when most of us had already been on this earth for a few years or for several years.

I am not naturally deferential. Even when I am communicating with powerful personages and distinguished seniors of all nationalities; I generally treat them as if they are normal human beings. And I rarely feel intimidated when I am around notorious guys who allegedly operate like gangsters. So I can’t adequately explain why I leapt to my feet without hesitation when Ateke entered that room. All I can say is that it was a knee-jerk reaction that seemed to be appropriate at the time.

Ateke, despite his limited education, average height, unremarkable face and unpretentious penchant for projecting himself informally, definitely possesses presence…a subtle and difficult-to-define special aura that surrounds certain individuals and makes onlookers feel that someone significant is around.

When individuals who possess presence make their way into any arena, conversation stops momentarily, even if you don’t know who they are. There is a kind of hush and simmering sense of expectation. And that was the atmosphere Ateke generated.

Ironically, he was very quiet and controlled. Others talked far more than he did. He had to be pressed to express personal opinions. He complained about someone who had upset him, but the complaint was not aggressively expressed. When I addressed questions to him, he responded amicably, but was essentially taciturn.

So, what was my overall impression? Did I leave that meeting regarding Ateke as the irredeemable rogue his enemies describe him as or as the icon his fans hail?  Did I feel that he was a psychopathic riff-raff pretending to be decent?

Sorry, dear Vanguard readers, if this sounds like cowardly fence-sitting, but journalists aren’t supposed to be emotional or to jump to conclusions when they haven’t personally researched a situation or rationally assessed an individual.

And the truth is that Ateke seemed nice and did not come across as harmful, but I don’t currently have sufficient evidence with which to make accurate judgements about his personality and motivation and honestly don’t know what to think.

As I drove back to my house that evening, I recalled the many scary and benign tales I’ve heard from both sides of the fence, as in Ateke’s friends and foes.

I remembered the stories about him allegedly doing terrible things to his fellow human beings, the stories about him allegedly being a boon to his community, the stories about him being nothing but a common criminal who is only interested in making money from illegal activities like oil-bunkering and the stories about him being an ideologically-driven Niger Delta activist who only broke the law because he was so outraged about the injustices that had been inflicted on his people.

Having replayed these good/bad stories in my head time and time again, I cannot make my mind up, so I’ve decided to suspend judgement and to take the view, for now at least, that Ateke is a mysterious enigma who cannot be easily understood.

If I ever get a chance to get to know Ateke better, I will get back to you and tell you whether I think that is more villain than saint or more saint than villain.

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