With little in the way of livelihood opportunities, some young people are lured into criminal, and sometimes violent, means to secure a livelihood within so-called ‘cultist’ gangs operating in the Niger Delta. The Gokana Local Government Area, Rivers State, has been deeply affected by the criminal activities of cult groups for nearly 10 years, with disruption to the economy and escalating violence in, and between, communities. In 2018, SDN partnered with the Pax Viva Foundation to identify and support over 4,700 ex-cultists with community reconciliation and peace building initiatives, and conducted a pilot project to provide economic support to 360 of them with starter-packs to kick-start their legitimate livelihood ambitions. Despite the challenges of working in an insecure context, early monitoring and evaluation results indicate the livelihood pilot, and wider peace programme, supported economic and community improvements. There is also a strong demand from ex-cultists to participate in a scaled up project of similar design.
In the absence of alternative sources of livelihood – and in many cases a lack of other support networks – some young people are drawn into ‘cultist’ gangs that operate in the Niger Delta and that extract sources of income for its members through criminal and illicit activities such as artisanal oil refining, drug trafficking, armed robberies, kidnapping, political thuggery, and paid assassinations.
In Gokana, the expansion and income of cult groups have led to the influx of small arms and light weapons. These weapons have intensified the impact of cult gang activities, and have heightened the levels of violence and causalities in attacks and reprisal attacks from inter-gang and inter-community conflicts. The waning regulatory authority of elders and traditional community leaders have added to the challenge of containing the escalating levels of criminality and violence in Gokana.
Exploring a solution
Since October 2017, SDN has worked with the Pax Viva Foundation seeking to reduce the insecurity from cult groups by creating open spaces for reconciliation and peace building in Gokana’s communities affected by cultism and violence. In January 2018, SDN conducted a pilot with the Pax Viva Foundation to supply 360 (61 females and 299 males) of the 4700 ex-cultists involved in the peace building programme, and at risk of returning to cultist gangs, with livelihood ‘starter packs’ worth NGN₦50,000 and comprised vocational training, peacebuilding processes, and social initiatives to support the process of community reintegration. The vocational training revolved around welding, vulcanizing, operating milling machines, hairdressing, telecommunications, dry-cleaning, catering, and cobbling—all of which are in demand in the local area.
Initial monitoring and evaluation has already been conducted for this pilot project and indicate some promising results. 2,500 participants who were exiled from their families and communities for their involvement in cult groups are now living together again. This familial support can be crucial in lowering risk of reengaging in cultist activity. Schools, health centres, post offices, and businesses operated without interference from cult groups for the duration of the pilot project, where previously they experienced frequent disruption from cultist gangs. Night life is returning at the major junctions, such as Mogho, Kpopie, and Bodo as a result of reduced crime rates and lower cultist gang presence. The army and police that were interviewed, gave testimonies of reduced crime rates in the last six months. There are at least 15 known cases of repentant ex-cultists gaining recent employment by private and public companies and agencies. The profiles of a further 93 participants, who had gained relevant skills via this pilot project, were forwarded to a major employment firm – Julius Berger Construction for recruitment and it is expected they will work on the Bodo-Bonny bridge project.
Despite the multiple challenges outlined below, early monitoring and evaluation results indicate the livelihood pilot, and wider peace programme initiative, supported economic and community improvements.
The Pax Viva Foundation reported pressure for support from some of the 4400 ex-cultists that this pilot project was unable to reach through economic support. Limits of scope, time, or scale are inherent in the nature of pilot projects. The lack of any assurances that the programme would be continued or scaled up beyond the pilot was perceived as the reason that some of those who could not participate in the pilot reportedly resorted returning to criminal livelihoods. Reports indicated that participants engaged in artisanal oil refining, six people went back into robbery, and were either apprehended or shot dead by the Police Force, and nine people were sent to prison on conviction of attempted robbery.
Although initial results from the livelihood pilot indicated positive impacts, the pilot could only be financially sustained for six months, which may not be long enough to sustain these impacts without a longer-term intervention to support and expand on these gains.
Some of the ex-cultist participants felt their personal security was at risk as the pilot also involved ex-cultists from rival groups or communities and, as a result, some participants could not take part in all the activities, especially where they crossed the territorial boundary lines of rival gangs or communities.
There were some reports of local politicians meddling with the transition efforts of some of the participants who were former cronies and hirelings of theirs. These politicians purportedly extended offers of larger remuneration if they abandoned the project and carried out illicit activities for them instead.
This pilot project is highly scalable and initial monitoring and evaluation results indicate that the project correlates with some positive trends in the area. Furthermore, there has been clear demand for livelihood support among many of the ex-cultists who were unable to participate in this pilot. The Pax Viva Foundation and SDN will approach potential donors, NGOs, and agencies of the Nigerian government, for future partnership work to further replicate and scale up the pilot potential, identified by its evaluation.