Though it could just be a fraction of what they have, nevertheless the people of Rivers State were shocked to see the magnitude of the arms and ammunition surrendered last week by cultists, Davidson Iriekpen writes
Perhaps the last time Nigerians witnessed a resemblance of what happened last Tuesday in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, was in 2009 when the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua set up the amnesty programme for Niger Delta militants who almost brought the country to its kneels economically through their nefarious activities of bombing pipelines facilities and kidnapping of oil workers.
But what was witnessed in Port Harcourt last week was in another form. For too long, able-bodied men had held the state hostage with their criminal activities, frequently harassing, killing, robbing, kidnapping and engaging in cult-related activities. Their firepower and voodoo style had made them untouchable. While some parts of Port Harcourt were relatively safe due to the constant presence of a large number of security personnel, other parts of the city, suburbs and local communities where they operated from were troubled with all forms of criminal activities as people lived in fear.
As part of efforts to restore peace in these areas and the state in general, Governor Nyesom Wike among other strategies, on September 16 set up a seven-member state amnesty committee aimed at bringing peace to the state. He promised that any cultist, armed robber, kidnapper who would surrender his arms would not be prosecuted but rehabilitated and put into sustainable venture. Memberships of the committee were drawn from the Nigerian Army, the Nigerian Navy, the Nigerian Police and the Department of State Services (DSS).
At the expiration of the programme last week, the government and people of the state were shocked to see not only the number of cultists and militants who embraced the programme but the assortment and number of arms and ammunition they surrendered. In all, a total of 22,430 cultists and militants renounced criminality to embrace the programme, while 1,500 assorted arms, 7,661 assorted ammunition and 147 explosives were surrendered to security personnel in the state.
Giving a breakdown of the repentant cultists, Chairman of the Amnesty Committee, Hon. Kenneth Chinda, who is also the governor’s Special Adviser on Amnesty, said 6,985 were of the Icelanders cult group while Greenlanders were 942, Degbam 4,329, Dewell 635 and others 9,539. He also said arms recovered included six general purpose machine guns (GPMG), 70 AK-47 rifles, 44 pump action, 16 G3 rifles and five K2 rifles. Others were 443 locally-made single barrel guns, 46 locally-made double barrel guns, 266 locally-made pistol, and five pistols, among others.
Chinda said the committee was successful because it adopted a direct dialogue approach by establishing direct, honest, transparent and sincere contacts with leaderships of the various groups through a discreet confidence building process.
Though many observers believe that the arms and ammunition surrendered could just be a fraction from what they have, those who refused to take advantage of the programme will be dealt with decisively. This is why the governor, while receiving the report of the committee, directed security agencies to henceforth go after all cultists and kidnappers who refused to voluntarily accept the amnesty offer of the state government, pointing out that his administration has zero tolerance for crime and criminality.
Wike announced that all armed vigilante committees in all communities of the state had been disbanded with immediate effect. He described the state Amnesty Programme as “very successful”, noting that the fact that 22,430 cultists accepted amnesty and surrendered 1,484 assorted arms with 7,661 assorted ammunitions and 147 explosives has made the state relatively peaceful.
He said: “But to show that government is serious, I hereby disband all vigilante committees in the various communities. I direct the security agencies to make sure that we don’t have such committees except they profile their members to prove that they don’t belong to any cult groups.
“Initially, people felt it was a political game. I thank God almighty that we have proved our critics wrong that we are serious to ensure the security of lives and property in the state. We cannot say that we can totally eliminate crime, but that you and I can sleep very well today, unlike in the past when cultists and kidnappers had a field day.”
Speaking further, the governor said: “For those we have given the opportunity, but they refused to embrace amnesty, I direct the security agencies to go after them. The time for amnesty is over and we are going to take the war to them. Since we have given you the opportunity and you have refused to surrender, you have become enemies of the state and the state will fight to the last to make sure that criminality is reduced to the barest minimum, so that investors will continue to have confidence to invest their funds in this state.
“I wish to tell politicians that you must not politicise crime. If anybody is involved in crime, we must not reduce it to party politics. When somebody is a cultist, don’t say that that person belongs to party A; that is not fair. We have to fight crime. We have to join hands to bring lasting peace to this state.”
The governor explained that the state government resolved not to monetise the amnesty programme because it wanted the cultists and kidnappers to sincerely embrace the programme. He assured all the repentant cultists and kidnappers that they would be duly rehabilitated and made to become useful to the society.
He said: “We did not exchange money for the return of arms. It was voluntary. We said, return your arms and denounce any cult group you belong to and we will give you amnesty. All those who have not gone back to crime, be rest assured that nobody will arrest you. But if by tomorrow, you return to crime, know that amnesty does not cover you.”
Wike called on the federal government to support the peace initiatives of the state government due to the strategic importance of the state to the economy of the country. “I urge the federal government to give us the support we require for peace to reign in this state. Rivers State is the treasure base of this nation. If there is crisis in Rivers State, it will affect Nigeria and so for us as a government, we will continue to partner with federal government to achieve zero tolerance to crime. We will not support crime. It doesn’t matter the political divide. If you are involved, you will face the law.”
What is perhaps needed now is for security agencies to dig deep into the arms and ammunition that were surrendered in order to make the state safe for all.