Asiama River, 2003
We planned to kidnap the white man at about 11.27 a.m. on a drizzling Friday morning in August. We were on one of the nameless, winding creeks that flowed from the Asiama River. The white man was on a boat, a 20-seater speed boat owned by the company he worked for, Imperial Oil. Other staff of the company on the boat were the captain and the two deckhands. The boat also had other passengers – two naval officers and four mobile policemen who did not exactly work for Imperial Oil, but were on its payroll. Their job was to protect the white man from all dangers that face white oil workers in the Niger Delta, especially kidnapping. To do their jobs effectively, all six of them were armed with semi-automatic rifles.
The twenty-three of us on this mission were not exactly ill prepared. We had Uzis, three tripod-mounted belt-fed machine guns and one rocket propelled grenade launcher. They stood no chance. Sixteen minutes, that’s how long we waited for them. We knew that their boat would have to slow down to negotiate a particularly sharp bend in the creek and as such we positioned ourselves, so that they would run into us when they did this. It was all going exactly as I had planned. Naturally, the planning had taken longer than sixteen minutes. It took me ten days. In this time, I had studied the Imperial Oil boats and their boat schedules. That was how I knew that this boat, the PO44, would come with the white man today, at this time and would come by this bend.
I could see the surprise on their faces when they saw us. We were on six small boats, each with two 250-horsepower outboard engines. We could outrun them easily. They didn’t try to run. The captain was an old professional, and at a glance, he understood the meaning of impossible. Besides, we looked frightening. We were all bare-chested. Our muscle taut bodies were glistened by the flicking raindrops. We all wore black on our heads – bands, bandanas, kerchief’s and caps; palm fronds were tied on our right arms just under our shoulders and we had leaves in our mouths. We were scowling.
The PO44 stuttered to a stop. The flow of the water rocked it gently. Front and back, side to side. They were about thirty metres from our nearest boat, my boat. Slowly, I stood up straight, Uzi hanging loosely in my favoured left hand. They watched me, the trapped rat watching the encircling snake. I saw their fear and as always, I was thrilled by the fear of other men. I looked right back at them, seeking the pale face of the white man and locked eyes with him. He shuddered and looked away and somehow in that moment became certain of his fate. But, I made them wait. I put my head back slightly and closed my eyes. There was a slight smile on my face. I inhaled, long and hard the familiar river air. The air I was weaned on. I was at peace with myself at that moment. Above the hum of the boat engines, I heard the squawking of gulls and egrets on the swampy mangrove banks just metres away. I also heard the panic and mad scrambling on the PO44. I didn’t have to open my eyes to know that the white man’s bodyguards were making a half-hearted attempt to take up firing positions from the windows. In response, I felt my men go a bit skittish as they gripped their guns tighter and waited for my command. Still, I kept everybody waiting. I was in control. I felt powerful. I opened my eyes and spat out the leaf in my mouth at the same time. I was still locked on the white man. Like a frightened child, he refused to look at me. And then I spoke.
‘We are the Asiama Freedom Army,’ I declared. I was rewarded with the gasps from the Imperial Oil boat. We, the AFA, were the most feared of all the ethnic militia in the Niger Delta. We were credited with oil bunkering, kidnapping and bombing of oil installations.
‘I am the leader of the Asiama Freedom Army.’ I paused, ‘You may have heard of me, People call me Doughboy.’
The white man’s heard jerked up. He held my gaze just long enough to send what I guessed was a silent futile plea. He had heard of me, and so had the others.
I heard someone muttering, ‘Blood of Jesus, blood of Jesus, blood of Jesus…’
‘We will take the white man.’ It was not a request. I addressed my next words to the mobile policemen and the naval officers. ‘Mopol, Navy, you can try to stop us. Or, you can throw your guns in the river and let us take the white man. But I warn you – if you try to stop us, your bullets cannot harm us because we are the children of this river.’ I let my words sink in for a moment. ‘After you have wasted your bullets, we will kill you. And I promise you, your people will not find your bodies to bury. If you wish to stop us, I advise you to start shooting now.’ At this, I felt my men stiffen. From the corner of my eye I saw Kabongo, my 2-I-C (second-in-command); open his mouth in surprise. This was not in the script. I was practically inviting the Navy and Mopol to shoot us. I heard the thousand silent questions I knew they wouldn’t dare ask then. I ignored them.
‘If you choose not to stop us, throw your guns in the river. Now!’ I should say now that they didn’t mean anything – the black headgear, the palm fronds and the leaves. They didn’t mean a thing. We also did not have any bullet-defying charms as I had hinted (at least not at that time). It was all a charade. But it was a very effective way of sowing terror in the hearts of men. It also fuelled wild rumours and added to my myth: my own manipulation of my publicity.
There were loud splashes as they threw their guns in the river.
‘Abeg, no kill us, o! We don throw way we guns. No kill us. We all be Nigerians. Abeg, we all be brothers. We be one people. We take God beg you.’
I led the way as some of us boarded their boat. It was cramped when we fitted in. Some of them were lying face down under the seats. Others knelt down with their hands in the air. The white man cowered in the far corner of the front. I ignored him for a moment. ‘Who said we are brothers?’ They didn’t have to answer. They all turned to look at a dark, burly mopol who was on his knees. He looked at me in terror.
‘Abeg, sir, na me.’
‘Where are you from?’ I asked.
‘Nigeria, sir…’ I shook my head. He knew that wasn’t what I wanted to hear.
‘Sorry sir, Kano State, sir.’ He knew he couldn’t lie. His accent indicated he was from the North.
‘Hausa man.’ I lowered my voice. I didn’t want my anger to show. I continued slowly, ‘How can you, a Hausa man, be my brother? When your people were stealing our oil money all these years, was I your brother then?’ He didn’t answer. I didn’t expect him to. He looked away and whimpered like a little dog.
‘Abeg, sir. Abeg, sir. Abeg…’
I turned to another one who was face down on the floor. He was in the navy uniform. I kicked him hard on his ribs.
‘Hey, you! Where are you from?’
‘Eh… eh… Ekiti State, sir.’ He kept his face down. He didn’t want to look at me. I squatted near him. I whispered, ‘Yoruba man, are you my brother?’ He didn’t know what to say. Again, I didn’t expect an answer.
‘My people have the oil, yet it is your people who have all the jobs in the oil companies. Your people refuse to employ my people. They say we are not qualified. Yoruba man, answer me – are my people not qualified?’
‘Yes sir, dem over qualify sir.’ I laughed and got on my feet again.
I turned to the white man. His pink face was a blotchy and sweaty mess. Sweat plastered his thin, fair hair to his big head, and highlighted, starkly, how large his ears were. He wasn’t really fat, but had a stomach that fell odiously over his jeans. His breathing was loud, wheezing and heaving. I interpreted it as fear.
‘Oyibo, what is your name?’ I asked.
‘B…Brian.’ More wheezing, more heaving.
‘Manning. Brian Manning.’
I gently poked his stomach repeatedly with my finger. He tried, shuddered each time I touched him. By the second poke, he tried, stupidly, to suck his stomach in. I laughed.
‘Mr Brian Manning, money from our oil has made you fat, hasn’t it?’ It was not a question. Manning’s bloated stomach could have been caused by anything else, but between heaves, he nodded sheepishly and agreed with me. It was settled. Oil money from the Niger Delta was the cause of Manning’s fat gut. I smiled humourlessly at Manning, and stretched my hand to him.
‘Come with me,’ I said.