Conflict within and between militant groups in the Arogbo-Ijaw area of Ondo State in Nigeria are the result of struggles for supremacy. Such violent communal conflict has emerged as one of the features of local communities in Nigeria’s oil producing states. Although most studies of oil-related conflict in the Niger Delta focus on violence in Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers States, this article focuses on the under-explored conflict in the oil-producing Arogbo-Ijaw axis of Ondo State.
In one of the most recent incidents, violence erupted in the Arogbo-Ijaw area after prolonged tensions partly caused by the alleged murder of two soldiers by a local militia led by Ossy Ibori. Ossy Ibori was born in Ajapa, an Ijaw-Arogbo community located in the Ese-Odo local government council area of the coastal part of Ondo state, but he was displaced during the Ijaw-Ilaje conflict of 1998-2000 and forced to live in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Epe, Lagos State. As a youngster in the camp, he became involved in a range of criminal activities.
During his absence, the militias in his community came under the control of Bibopere Ajube (aka Bibo or Shoot at Sight), who dominated the Ijaw area of Ondo State partly as a result of his strong influence within local militia circles, ruthlessness, and reputed connections to some high-ranking politicians in the state government. There were even reports that due to his influence, he received security contracts from the state government, which feared a return to the pervasive insecurity of the Ijaw-Ilaje conflict of the late 1990s. They supposedly offered him patronage with the expectation that he would rein in criminal elements within the militias and restore order.
The hostilities between the Ijaw and Ilaje communities in Ondo State ended in 2000 following several interventions and peace initiatives facilitated by the state government and community leaders. The state government under Chief Adebayo Adefarati reached out to the local community leaders and heads of the militias through a series of meetings where promises were made. At that time, the people were already war-weary due to the large number of human casualties and the extensive destruction of property. The leaders of both communities were eventually able to convince their foot soldiers to embrace peace. A Judicial Panel of Inquiry was promptly set up to examine the violence and make recommendations to the government. At the same time, military forces were deployed into the restive communities. However, one major flaw of the peace process was the absence of proper post-conflict disarmament, demobilization, reintegration, and re-engagement (DDR) programs for the thousands of ex-fighters—mostly youth who had participated in the inter-communal wars. This left many youths, who had access to arms, unemployed and idle. They soon formed armed gangs and began to engage in acts of violence, including robbery, kidnapping and thuggery.
The security forces within the area were overwhelmed by the rising incidents of crime, including kidnappings and killings in the community. It was at this point that two militia leaders—Othello Mafimisebi from the Ilaje side and Bibopere Ajube from the Ijaw side—decided to stem the rising tide of criminality. The two leaders, encouraged by community leaders, met and issued orders to their foot soldiers to stop engaging in criminal activities in their territories. Within a short time, crime rates dropped and the society heaved a sigh of relief. In recognition of their efforts, the Ondo State government under Governor Olusegun Mimiko decided to entrust the security of all the oil-bearing areas to the warlords. Othello was to secure the Ilaje side and Bibopere the Ijaw side. Thus, Gallery Security Services, a security company owned by Bibopere, was given the contract to secure the Ijaw area, while Othello’s company, Sea Mask, received the contract to secure the Ilaje area. Both companies recruited ex-fighters and established checkpoints—on the waterways and on land—to enforce order in the areas under their jurisdiction.
This was the situation until Ossy Ibori returned home from Lagos in 2015 and formed a rival militia group, leading to animosity between him and Bibopere. On April 30, 2017, the two rival militias led by Ossy and Bibo clashed in Ajapa town. According to reports, the fighting resulted in widespread destruction of property and several deaths, including Ossy’s. Half of the houses in the community were razed to the ground, forcing survivors to flee to nearby swampy forests where they stayed for several days. The killing of Ossy and other members of his gang was aided by soldiers in the Nigerian military deployed in the area, who had been antagonized by Ossy’s criminal activities and his alleged murder of two soldiers. The military naturally joined forces with Bibipere’s Gallery Security Services to launch coordinated attacks on Ossy and his gang, which eventually led to his death. In spite of their defeat, the surviving members of Ossy’s gang have retreated to the creeks of the Niger Delta, from where they launch surprise attacks and continue to engage in criminal activities. A series of interviews with members of Ajapa community revealed that residents live in constant fear of an attack or a resurgence of the conflict. The Nigerian military and Bibopere’s militias constantly comb the area in search of Ossy’s “boys.” 1
The case of the communal conflict involving Ossy and Bibopere in many ways reflects conflict trajectories in other communities in Nigeria’s oil producing Niger Delta states. The emergence of militia commanders with large numbers of armed foot-soldiers has come to characterize the geographies of conflict in the oil producing region. This is partly the legacy of the militarization of the region since the 1990s and the socialization of youth into a culture of violence—both as a modality of staking claims/demands, and in pursuit of opportunistic, criminal, or survivalist ends. With the blurring of the lines between agitation for communal rights and opportunistic acts of criminality, militia leaders have deployed brute force to exercise power over their gangs, unleash violence against opponents during turf wars, and improve their bargaining position vis-à-vis the government and oil companies. Apart from the well-known drivers of local conflict in the region, the contestations for supremacy, access to power, and resources among the militia leaders proliferating in the Niger Delta add another layer to the complex terrain of conflict, and pose a major challenge to local peacebuilding. In the case of Ondo State, as well as neighboring oil producing states, the Arogbo conflict illustrates the need to empower the security forces to tackle criminality in the region. It also helps us understand and recognize the limitations of existing state responses to the structural drivers of conflict in the oil producing communities of the Niger Delta.
- Sahara Reporters (2017): “Panic in Ondo community over suspected military invasion”, online at http://saharareporters.com/2017/09/08/panic-ondo-community-over-suspected-military-invasion (accessed on 12 December, 2017). ↩