Feared gang leader in Nigeria’s oil-rich and restive delta, who rigged ‘07 vote, believed dead

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Nigeria: Feared gang leader believed dead, again

LAGOS, Nigeria — Police believe unknown gunmen killed a Nigerian gang leader accused of helping rig the 2007 election in the nation’s oil-rich and violence-wracked southern delta, authorities said Wednesday, though officers have yet to find his body.

Gunmen ambushed Soboma George, leader of the feared Outlaws Gang, on a busy street Tuesday night in the oil town of Port Harcourt, Rivers state police spokeswoman Rita Inoma-Abbey said. Inoma-Abbey said the gunmen fired at George, and killed one woman and wounded another during a running shootout.

However, George himself could not be found after the shooting. Inoma-Abbey said investigators believe either the gunmen or George’s own gang members spirited him away after the shooting. Eyewitnesses “are all pointing to him being killed,” Inoma-Abbey said.

Late Wednesday, Inoma-Abbey said George’s brother confirmed to police that the gangster had died, though his body remained missing.

Armed paramilitary police officers in armored carriers now sit at busy intersections in an attempt to stop the violence from spreading, she said.

But this isn’t the first time the oil-rich region plagued by gangs and militant attacks thought George died.

In 2007, investigators believed George died during a gangland war, burned to death inside a building. However, he later emerged alive. Locals say he routinely moves through the city in extravagant armored cars without being stopped by police, even though he escaped prison in 2005 while awaiting trial on a murder charge.

Tuesday’s shooting comes as Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, girds itself for a presidential election that could take place as early as January. In Rivers state, gang leaders serve as muscle for politicians in the ruling People’s Democratic Party, terrorizing potential voters, stuffing ballot boxes and interfering with vote counting.

Analysts and human rights groups say the gangsters remain on the payroll of the state government, reaping millions of dollars of oil money while the majority of Nigerians earn less than $1 a day. George apparently received the largess of 2007 election money, sparking a gang war between him and militant Ateke Tom.

There also are murky ties between criminal gangs, political profiteers, oil thieves and the militant groups fighting foreign oil companies in the delta since 2006. The region’s main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, once issued a statement about George’s welfare during the 2007 fighting.

Violence in the delta has dropped in recent months with the offer of a government-sponsored amnesty program, which provided cash payoffs for fighters and job training. However, many ex-fighters now complain that the government has failed to fulfill its promises.

“We have every reason to believe the assassination was carried out by government agents whose target will be anyone beginning to see through the amnesty scam,” the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta said in a statement Wednesday night.

While a motive for the shooting remains unclear, the attack could spark further violence in a city where Royal Dutch Shell PLC and other foreign oil firms have expatriate workers.

In a February 2007 interview with The Associated Press, George himself warned politicians against ignoring gangland fighters.

“If you don’t feed a lion, he will be angry,” he said.

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