By Okenyi Kenechi.
At the end of a densely populated street in Diobu, one of Port Harcourt’s suburbs, Mike sat with three other men he introduced as his friends staring at the dying flames of the cigarettes they had in hand.
A bottle of locally brewed whisky was placed conspicuously in the middle of the semi-circle sitting pattern they had arranged themselves in as they scanned faces upon faces, identifying strangers and those who lived in the area.
It has become a daily routine and they carried on with relish.
They converge at the end of the day’s job and watch the streets for trends and evidence of truancy. Those who exhibit such traits are counseled and advised by Mike and his friends, a task they follow through diligently.
Sometimes, they use the various marks on their bodies as examples to the young ones – evidence of what they have been through as gang members.
“These kids need to learn that being real men and women go way beyond carrying guns like cell phones and prostitution” he said reflectively as he crushed the remnant of the half-smoked cigarette with his boot.
“They need to get education or skills and do something for themselves and the society. The grass is greener that way” he added!
Mike has come become a clear depiction of a man in regrets. Although he says he has non but would do things differently if he has another opportunity.
Just over a decade and half ago, Mike was part of the gangs sponsored by local politicians that ravaged the streets of Port Harcourt and terrorized residents.
Politicians struggling for the control of state powers armed young boys and girls in order to achieve electoral victory and failed to disarm them at the end of the process.
“They used to call me cocktail Molotov because I rained hell each time ” he said with a faint smile on his face and adjusted the peach coloured T-shirt he wore and showed bullet and machete marks on his slender body.
“They used us and dumped us and subsequently set us up for something more harmful. If only we had the necessary education, that wouldn’t have been our destiny” he said!
They were mainly boys from poor backgrounds that struggled to make earns meet he said, and had provided the politicians with a huge pool from whence they drew from.
Although, he says that poverty is not an excuse for crime, he says that one gets carried away atimes and lands on the other side and that is what they are trying to teach the young ones – to learn how best to avoid it.
Armed with little formal education, they became portent tools in the hands of politicians and their associates who used them for various purposes.
They, soon, turned the arms against each other in bitter supremacy battles for the control of street structures and the lucrative drug market that fueled the gang activities after the politicians left them with a glut in funding.
They metamorphosed into armed robbery, kidnapping and oil bunkering.
The federal government responded by inviting the military to break their influence on the streets but it failed to curtail some of their excesses.
When military approach failed to produce the expected results and forced many to migrate into the creeks and disrupt economic activities, the government bended with the amnesty program.
“The politicians abandoned us after they had won elections or lost them” said Ofune, one of Mike’s contemporaries.
“We had arms at a time that we did not know what to do with life and the balkanization into different cult groups ensured”
“It was not just for the street power but also economic. Man must survive the best way he has to”
Just a week before, armed gang members had murdered four young boys on the street adjacent to Mike’s – a trend he said had begun resurfacing months ago.
“The people are poor and can’t get enough to eat. Most companies that employed these boys and kept them off the streets are laying off workers and folding up because of the economic policies of the government”
“This is injustice at the highest level. Our resources are used to power the rest of the country while we die from environmental degradations. Those who can’t cope have resorted to crime”
With the country’s slow recovery from recession and millions of people losing their jobs every day, more people are sliding back to their old lifestyles of crime and more of such horror would be a nationwide occurrence as the election approaches.
Mike and his friends have taken charge of their street to prevent the kids there from falling victims and being conscripted into various gangs as they seek expansion for various reasons.
From the meagre income he earns from his mechanic workshop, he sponsors street sports, educational competitions and skill acquisition programs.
On Saturdays, he and his friends spend time with teens discussing the different hazards of cultism and gang culture.
He hopes to achieve a gang and cult free society within the shortest period. Although his aims have been plagued by several challenges, he said he would not lose focus now that the times are dire.