•How they took over farmlands, crippled Rivers economy
By Jimitota Onoyume, Port Harcourt
FOR years they terrorized various communities in Ikwerre local government area of Rivers State, and each time leaving trails of blood and destruction in their wake. They are members of the dreaded rival cult groups known as Degbam and Icelanders who were always at daggers-drawn and frequently engaged in bloody wars of supremacy over territorial control.
But today, the story has changed. They are now wearing the reformed tag of ex-cultists after embracing the amnesty programme of the Rivers State government. Last Saturday about two thousand members of Degbam and Icelanders, the two main rival cult groups in the area for the first time in several years came under one roof as brothers at Isiokpo, headquarters of the local government to denounce membership of the evil groups.
Members were mainly within the age bracket of 19 to 32 years. Some told the story of how their sinister activities as cultists made it impossible for women to farm. They brought untold pain to residents of communities in the local government.
They destroyed the local economy as each group took over forests and farm lands in several communities for initiation rites. Owners of these farms were barred from stepping into them because they had become new homes for the hoodlums.
Some of the women who dared the cultists to go to their farms told tales of rape.
The two groups, Degbam and Icelanders were always locked in supremacy battles that claimed hundreds of their members in the area.
Sadly, Ikwerre local government which hitherto was the food basket of the state has had little or no harvest for over two years because of heinous activities of the cultists.
Chairman of the local government, Mr Sam Nwanosike, painted the picture accurately at the ceremony when he said the local government was faced with threat of food insecurity from the activities of the ex-cultists.
He commended them for coming out to embrace the state government’s amnesty programme, assuring that they would no longer be treated as criminals as long as they remained law-abiding citizens.
He said the government already had an empowerment programme in place for them. “There is already something to engage you productively. You are going to be trained in different productive areas to ensure you become useful to yourselves and the society,” he said.
Nwanosike who was not happy that two notorious cult leaders in the area, Italian and Gunboat, did not key into the amnesty programme, announced a N10 million assistance to security agencies to fish them out to face the law.
He warned those who had accepted the amnesty programme not to go back to crime, stressing that the state pardon only covered them as responsible and decent citizens.
The ex-cultists were excited as they filed out for the pardon. Leaders of Degbam and Iceland took turns to pronounce the groups dead in the local government. “Our cult group from today ceases to exist in our local government. We have all come out to accept the amnesty programme of the state government. And we thank our Governor for this privilege. We will no longer get involved in any crime,” they chorused.
They then submitted guns and other lethal weapons to the amnesty committee. Chairman of the Rivers State amnesty committee, Ken Chinda, pronounced the state pardon on behalf of Governor Nyesom Wike on the repentant cultists.
“By the powers conferred on me by the Governor of Rivers State, I hereby pronounce the amnesty of the state government on you members of Debam, Iceland. From today there is no Debam and Iceland in the local government area, “ he said.
He said it was unfortunate that two notorious cultists, Italian and Gunboat, elected to ignore the amnesty and he went ahead to declare them enemies of the state until they turn away from crime.
The committee Chairman also lauded the council Chairman, Mr Nwanosike, for taking steps to ensure the return of peace to the local government area.
Women from various communities in the local government who witnessed the renunciation ceremony commended the Governor for the step, expressing hope that it will bring enduring peace in the local government area.
Governor Wike had, in a bid to reduce crime in the state, recently declared a 60-day amnesty programme for repentant cultists to key into and be reintegrated into society as responsible citizens.