Death Of Militant Leader: Nigerian Soldiers On Red Alert

The late George

•The late George

Soldiers are now on red alert in Port Harourt, capial of Rivers State, South South Nigeria, following the killing of a leader of ex-militants, Soboma George.

•The late George

Fear has also gripped residents of Port Harcourt after a long period of uninterrupted peace over the shooting of Soboma.

He was shot several times yesterday by three unidentified gunmen at the old Port Harcourt Township.

Although the circumstances leading to his death remained sketchy, an account had it that he was driving home from where he went to play football with his friends when he was allegedly shot at a point blank range several times by gunmen who may have been trailing him.

A lady said to be with him in the car was also killed, while about two others died from stray bullets.

As precautionary measure to prevent any breakdown of law and order, troops and armoured personnel carriers, APC, manned by soldiers and policemen were immediately deployed to the area.

The Rivers State Police Commissioner, Suleiman Abba, confirmed to the incident to a section of the press but declined to give details.

However, the police authorities could not recover the body of Soboma at the scene of the incident as it was suspected that the gunmen may have taken it away.

The ex-militant leader of a gang called The Outlaws can be likened to the proverbial cat with nine lives .The is because in his years of as a deadly militant, on several occasions he had close shave with death. On such occasions he was rumoured to have died.

When soldiers raided the guest house he was lodging in 2007 and killed most of the lodgers, including the hotel manager and the proprietor called Iyalla, the spokesman of the 2 Amphibious Brigade at the time,Major Sagir Musa, announced triumphantly that Soboma was shot dead during the raid.

At the end, Soboma was alive as he managed to escape through the ceiling of the guest house.

Recalling that incident in a rare newspaper interview, Soboma said: “I was actually in the room when they came… First, what we heard was gunshot, a lot of gunshots. There were two different buildings under one roof. The first room is where you have the reception and the general parlour where people drink. The second one is where they lodge guests, where the rooms were and, then there was an open space where they play live band.

“When they came there, they were like shooting seriously. When I heard the gunshots, I became alert. I was so surprised to hear the gunshots because nobody expected a gunshot around that area. When I woke up and asked them what was going on, the whole exit points of the building were locked and there was nothing I could do. When the soldiers came in, they started pounding on the doors and breaking them down.

“Any room they entered, they would just open fire in the room. When I heard this, I jumped into the ceiling of my room and they started spraying bullets on the ceilings. I started creeping in the ceiling, I saw a block at the extreme end of the ceiling and I hid myself behind the block from there.

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“I left the ceiling of my room and I saw another block where I still hid myself. I was there seeing bullets piercing my room’s ceiling. I waited for a while even as the bullets were flying around. I saw a small hole at the extreme end of the building and I jumped down from that hole into the swamp behind the guest house. So all of them thought I was supposed to be dead after the attack. They didn’t use bomb to bring the building down, but they used a rocket launcher.”

He claimed that contrary to the claims by military authorities, none of his men died. “I want to tell you the truth that none of my men died. But there were other lodgers in the hotel and they all died. Another person that died was the owner of the guest house. The man they call Iyalla and his manager and another girl brought by one of the lodgers. It was Iyalla’s manager that they thought was me. I did not receive any tip off. I did not know that they were coming.

“Actually I was not hiding. What happened is that at Marine Base we got a little information that soldiers were coming for searching at Marine Base, so I had to leave the place with my boys. So I went to that hotel room to relax for a while so that after their search, I will come back.”

Soboma was the Second-in Command to Ateke Tom before they parted ways due to some disagreements. He did not only form his own gang, he later became a senior commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta,MEND. He did not speak to the press. Unlike Tom, who is not afraid to publish his photos, George was taciturn but deadly. He was arrested by security forces and charged to court for murder and armed robbery along with others after breaking away from Tom in 2005.

But in a daylight operation unprecedented in the history of militancy in the country, his loyalists stormed the Port Harcourt prisons on Saturday 18 June 2005 by scaling the prison walls near the waterfront, killed some prison officials and released him. He was spirited away into a waiting speedboat.

In 2006, he was arrested for a minor traffic offence, while driving one of his SUVs in Port Harcourt even when the police said he was on their wanted list. He was said to have offered the policemen about N50,000 to allow him go. A report said the policemen wanted more because they knew who he was and when he could not play ball, he was taken to the Central Police Station, CPS, Port Harcourt and detained.

In less than two hours, a rescue team of about 50 fighters armed with dangerous weapons like AK47, general purpose machine guns, grenades and dynamites anchored at the Borokiri waterfront marched to the CPS that shares boundary with MOPOL barracks.

They bombed the station and released Soboma. Besides the destruction of the CPS, seven trooper vehicles belonging to the Nigerian Police were burnt. The overwhelmed policemen on duty fled for safety. Soboma was alleged to be well-patronised by the Rivers State government and was the security contractor for the Liberation Stadium and the Civic Centre even at the time he was declared wanted during the Governor Peter Odili era.

During the brief administration of Celestine Omehia, the police went after Soboma but he always managed to get off the hook.

He was one of those deep-rooted in the struggle to emancipate the Niger Delta.

Soboma who was known to be publicity shy but deadly, commanded a lot of loyalists.When he embraced the amnesty programme of the federal government, he voluntarily surrendered his weapons at the office of the State Security Service, SSS, along with his supporters.

He had been lying low since last year after the surrender of weapons.. Whatever was the motive of the killing, no doubt would pose some security challenges to the state government and security agencies in the state in the coming days.

—Kafor Ofiebor/Port Harcourt

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