Dozens of residents have fled a community in Akwa Ibom after repeated attacks by a suspected cult group, locals and security officials say.
Residents of Midim Atan village in Essien Udim local government area of the state said at least two people have so far been killed and many more injured in attacks by a group known as Akwa Marine.
“Akwa Marine led by Emmanuel Ben has been disturbing our community for many years. The problem is not just the cultists but the people sponsoring them and that is why it has been difficult to clamp them down,” said a local chief, Efene Jeremiah.
The unrest has lasted years, and police have made limited success against the group despite an investigation by a team set up by the former Inspector General of Police, Solomon Arase, to probe its activities.
The divisional police officer for Essien Udim, Alhassan Guda, said he was new at the post and could not comment on the activities of the gang.
But the spokesperson for the police’s Criminal Investigation Department, Chike Nwabuwa, told this newspaper that an investigation team had long been set up by Mr. Arase, to monitor and investigate the activities of the gang following several complaints. He declined to disclose the findings of the panel.
The Investigating Police Officer in charge of the case, Abdul Mohammed, did not also disclose the findings when contacted by PREMIUM TIMES.
Many residents say the group has been emboldened by police inaction.
The civil rights department of the ministry told PREMIUM TIMES that the ministry had written to the Police IG’s office regarding the case, but had received no response for months.
Security officials and locals, many of whom had fled the community, blame the lack of aggressive police response on links between the group and powerful politicians from the area.
They say the group was set up ahead of the 2011 elections to go after perceived opponents of top politicians from the area, including former Governor Godswill Akpabio, whom they accuse of providing support for the group.
Mr. Akpabio denies the allegation. His spokesperson, Anietie Ekong, told PREMIUM TIMES the former governor, who is now the Senate minority leader, would not sponsor a criminal gang.
“It is pure political mischief to link the distinguished Senator to a criminal gang,” Mr. Ekong said.
He said several petitions sent by community members to different law enforcement agencies, linking Mr. Akpabio to the group, were “politically motivated”.
“Any criminal who has been apprehended by the security agencies should be made to face the consequences of his action,” Mr. Ekong said, referring to the recent arrest of Mr. Ben.
Attacks and killings
Ahead of the elections in 2011 and 2015, attacks by the group largely targeted those perceived to support political parties other than the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, the state’s governing party, several security officials and witnesses told PREMIUM TIMES.
Victor Udom, a community member, told this newspaper how he and another resident of the community, Samuel Ikpa, fled the community after being attacked in 2015 on suspicion they supported the main opposition, All Progressives Congress, APC.
“On that fateful morning, we were suddenly surrounded by members of the gang led by Emmanuel Ben. Before we could say jack, kicks, hits and blows rained on us,” Mr. Udom, a former ExxonMobil staff said. “If not for some community members who saw what was happening and alerted the police on surveillance team on ground for the election, we would have been dead.”
In recent months, the attacks have been more random, with gang members going after non-members suspected of supporting efforts to clamp down on the group.
Mr. Udom’s cousin, Udo Udom, was killed and set alight alongside another community member, Ekpenyong Uwa, in September 2016, by the group, this paper confirmed. The group accused them of theft, an allegation their families strongly denies.
After evading capture for years, Mr. Ben was finally arrested in February by the police, with the support of the State Security Service, SSS, and locals.
Mr. Ben was transferred to Abuja where he is currently being held at the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, office on allegations of terrorism and murder.
But some community members say the police, under pressure from politicians, are making efforts to send him back to Akwa Ibom on claims his offences are not federal crimes. Police did not respond to that claim.
In recent weeks, attacks have escalated in the small community largely in response to Mr. Ben’s arrest.
A fortnight ago, members of the gang attacked the local market, called Urua Nsong Eto, and vandalised shops, sending traders scampering for safety. They also torched homes of those suspected to be in support of Mr. Ben’s arrest.
In a bid to get government’s attention on the activities of the gang, fleeing community members mobilised and travelled to Abuja for a protest march on April 27, but were denied permission by the commissioner of police, FCT command, Musa Kimo.
Mr. Udom said police advised them to take the protest to Akwa Ibom. The community leaders later marched to Louis Edet House, the Force Headquarters in Abuja, where they narrated their personal experiences at the hands of the group’s leader, Mr. Ben.
Amongst several crimes, Mr. Ben is accused of ordering the killing of the two men murdered in Midim Atan: Udo Udom and Ekpenyong Uwa.
Mr. Udom’s mother, Nse John, was one of the over a dozen community members who managed to travel to Abuja in April to seek justice.
“They came and took my child from the house at 7 pm. When they left with my child, I was not feeling well, I put on my clothes and walked gently. Before I could get there, they had killed him and cut him into pieces,” Mrs. John narrated amidst tears.
The community chief, Mr. Jeremiah, who corroborated the story, told PREMIUM TIMES the attacks have continued because of the support the group receives from powerful individuals.
“We have gone to many security agencies, when we call them, they will say the situation is a very bad one but nothing will be done,” he said.