On Saturday, November 25, ex-militant and promoter of the Icelanders cult in Rivers State, Ateke Tom was crowned Amanyanabo of Okochiri in Okrika Local Government Area of the state. The state governor, Nyesom Wike handed him the staff of office and a letter of recognition as a traditional ruler in the state.
This development seems to be the game changer with regards to the next general elections especially the gubernatorial contest in the state, and the south-south geopolitical zone as some analysts believe it has altered the political calculations ahead of 2019.
On hand to witness the coronation of the ex-militant turned traditional ruler were the Senator representing Rivers South East, Magnus Abe, chairman of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Victor Ndoma-Egba, special adviser to the President on Niger Delta Affairs and coordinator of the Presidential Amnesty Programme, Gen. Paul Boroh (Rtd.), amongst other dignitaries.
The attendance of these politicians at the event, many believe, signposts the spectrum of patronage the ex-militant leader enjoys. Furthermore, it shows how frantic and ingenious ways are being deployed to engage ex-militants and other criminals who are always available for hire during electioneering seasons.
Ateke was accused by the immediate past administration in the state led by Rotimi Amaechi of rape, arson, kidnappings, and other acts of criminality through his defunct group, the Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force (NDPVF).
His residence in Okochiri was razed to the ground when Amaechi led security forces to invade it. A model primary school was subsequently built there by the government.
Also during the administration of former governor, Peter Odili, Ateke and his gang almost overran the riverine axis of the state comprising Okrika, Ogu/Bolo, Akuku-Toru, Asari-Toru, Bonny, Degema, amongst others through a wave of violence he visited on the area.
It took the firm resistance of another ex-militant leader, Asari Dokubo to checkmate him. There were unconfirmed reports then that both men were engaged by the then secretary to the state government (SSG), Abiye Sekibo to eliminate each other as a way of restoring normalcy in the state since both men posed a threat to the security of the state.
Though Ateke accepted the 2010 amnesty granted by late president Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, his group, the Icelanders have continued to grow its membership and deepen its threat to the security of the state.
Some close watchers of the unfolding drama see Saturday's coronation of Ateke as the government's open support for the Icelanders cult against and above the Greenlanders and other cult groups operating in the state.
A security expert, who prefers anonymity, took exception to the event, saying “the government knows about the battle for supremacy between the Icelanders led by Ateke and other cut groups and how this has negatively impacted the security situation in the state. Coronating him means giving him the free hand to operate.”
A member of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state, who does not want to be mentioned, however, pinned the development on the forthcoming guber tussle in the state. He expressed worry that 2019 would witness another round of gruesome violence as was in 2015.
According to him, “we have credible information that Ateke's group, Icelanders have spread their network across the state and in the event of an election they would pose a challenge to any group that works for any party or candidate contrary to the one their leader supports.” He, therefore, called on the security agencies to focus more on the activities of the Icelanders and their leader.
But a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state, Gbaranor Nkee debunked such insinuations. He pointed out that “it is the chiefs and good people of Okochiri that chose Ateke to lead them. The governor does not impose traditional rulers on communities but recognizes those chosen by their people. If Okochiri community has chosen their son, Ateke to lead them, why would the governor say no?”
So far, Ateke has continued to have a say in the sharing of political opportunities in the state. Some members of the state house of assembly are said to be handpicked by him, among them a former speaker of the assembly; same with some of the caretaker committee chairmen appointed by Wike. Recently, unconfirmed reports had it that one of his 'boys' (names withheld) was appointed to play a critical role in the Bonny/Bodo road project.
But a knowledgeable source confided in TNN that making Ateke a traditional ruler was allegedly a smart move by those who were benefitting from his services to shield him from the onslaught of the security agencies that have declared war on militant gangs, cult groups and other criminals in the state, especially those allegedly working for the PDP.
He noted that currently, “Don Wanny”, the cult leader terrorizing Omoku and its adjoining communities is on the run as the security agencies are on the lookout for him. Same with Solomon Ndigbara in Ogoni axis. I think this was a smart move by those behind Ateke.”
Furthermore, he disclosed that there was a strategic crackdown on the various groups that were engaged to foist violence on the state before, during and after the 2015 elections. According to him, the APC led federal government was leaving no stone unturned in ensuring the state was calm and conducive for elections to hold in 2019, especially against postulations by Wike that the 2019 polls would be a do-or-die matter should the APC try to win the state.