Rosemary Douglas has no connection to the oil business that pumps more than 2 million barrels of crude a day from beneath the swampy Niger Delta. But the violence surrounding it pierced her home in September anyway, when a bullet shattered her upper left arm as she napped with her 2-year-old daughter.
“I don’t know why this happened to me,” she said, grimacing in pain as she gave a bewildered account of the gunplay that has engulfed her neighborhood and much of this oil-drenched city. “I mind my own business.”
The violence that has rocked the Niger Delta in recent years has been aimed largely at foreign oil companies, their expatriate workers and the police officers and soldiers whose job it is to protect them. Hundreds of kidnappings, pipeline bombings and attacks on flow stations and army barracks have occurred in the past two years alone.
But these days the guns have turned inward, and open battles have erupted with terrifying frequency on the pothole-riddled streets of this ramshackle city. The origins of the violence are as murky and convoluted as the mangrove swamps that snake across the delta, one of the poorest places on earth. But they lie principally in the rivalry among gangs, known locally as cults, that have ties to political leaders who used them as private militias during state and federal elections in April, according to human rights advocates, former gang members and aid workers in the region.
“What is happening now cannot be separated from politics,” said Anyakwee Nsirimovu of the Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Port Harcourt. “The cults are part and parcel of our politics. They have become part of the system, and we are paying in blood for it.”
The cults go by names that veer from the chilling to the improbable — like the Black Axe, the Klansmen, the Icelanders, the Outlaws and the Niger Delta Vigilante. Separate but not entirely distinct from the militant groups that have attacked the oil industry in the past, they represent a new, worrisome phase in a region that has been convulsed by conflict since oil was discovered here in 1956.
Since democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999, politicians across the country have used cults to intimidate opponents and rig votes. A Human Rights Watch report published in October concluded that the political system was so corroded by corruption and violence that, in some places, it resembled more a criminal enterprise than a system of government.