By Kelechukwu Iruoma
The security official has initially used force to quell tribal clashes in Niger Delta region but it didn’t work. He then thought of hosting a football match.
In March 2016, there was a land dispute between Tarikoro Polo and Setari Polo communities in the Port Harcourt area of Rivers State in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, resulting in a communal clash that led to the destruction of properties and injuries.
Tarikoro Polo community wanted to use a piece of land that bordered the two communities to construct a new toilet but Setari Polo community objected, saying they were the rightful owners of the land.
Tarikoro Polo and Setari Polo are parts of the eight communities that make up the Igbesikala-Ama people of Ijaw, a minority group in the Niger Delta. The people of Tarikolo-Polo wanted to stop sharing an open defecation toilet with the people of Setari Polo, which was vehemently refused by the latter.
“Due to the disagreement, the elders of the communities started to use the youths to perpetrate violence among themselves. We spoke to the elders to stop the dispute but they refused,” said the Chief Security Officer (CSO) of Igbesikala-Ama Tamunomie Wariboko.
As a result of the high unemployment rate in the communities, the youths were always available to be used to instigate violence by the elders. The dispute then led to the rise in cultism in the communities.
“We were sleeping one night when some cultists came to Setari Polo and burnt a house of a rival cult with people inside. They were shooting and people started to panic. Some properties were destroyed. A young man was shot dead instantly,” said Iyowena Akuro from Setari Polo.
“After that moment, we started experiencing constant conflicts and riots in the communities, including cult clashes. There was no peace in the communities,” he continued. There is no data to show the number of properties destroyed and casualty.
Rivers state is known to be a violent state with so many communal and cult clashes. Some of the youths were ex-militants who indulged in crimes against foreign oil companies until they were granted amnesty by the federal government in 2009.
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Ever since, some of them have formed cult groups and constantly perpetrate violence at the slightest opportunity.
As of 2016, Wariboko was the youth chair of Tarikolo Polo. Efforts to end the conflict between the two communities and the cult clashes were futile.
“We created an arbitrating committee to look at the issue, but it did not work,” the 44-year-old Wariboko told TRT World.
Then in January 2017, the community leaders appointed Wariboko the CSO with a mandate to put an end to the dispute and cult clashes.
Wariboko had been a member of the Partners for Peace (P4P), a network of individuals and organizations under the peacebuilding program of the Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND) dedicated to reducing conflicts and promoting peace in the Niger Delta.
He had attended several capacity-building workshops and the people saw him as the right person to put an end to the conflicts between the communities.
“During training by the P4P, I was taught how to use various methods to address conflicts in my communities. When I became the CSO, I tried to use force to end the conflicts but it was not working,”revealed Wariboko.
“It was while in P4P training I had the idea to begin a football competition to keep the youths busy and advise them to shun violence and embrace peace,” Wariboko said.
Football as a catalyst for change
“I told the young men in the two communities that I wanted to set up a football competition to unify them and they agreed to be part of it because I believed the football competition would bring the young men together and it worked,” he said.
He involved the other six communities, who also took part in the football competition.
“Tamuno met the cult leaders and begged them to bring their members to join their communities to participate in the football competition and they agreed,” said Akuro.
Wariboko said during the competition, he advised the youths to stop being used by the elders and desist from fighting amongst themselves.
“Each of the eight communities brought their teams and were grouped. During the competition, you would see young men who usually fought embrace themselves. The football competition brought the boys together and it was fun to watch.”
Cash prizes were given to the communities that won the first, second, and third positions. The first prize was awarded N150, 000 ($393), the second prize was N100, 000 ($262), and the third prize was N70, 000 ($183, 000).
“With the football competition, I was able to end the dispute between the two communities and ended cult clashes. Now, we have not had any communal clashes since.”
Wariboko said after the youths refused to be used as cannon fodder, the two communities agreed that the Tarikoro Polo community be allowed to construct a new toilet.
“I turned hatred into harmony,” said the father of four.
As he took TRT World to the stadiums – the Baptist High School and six fields – where the football competition was played, youths in the community hailed him “chairmo,” a form of chairman, which connotes respect.
Football is said to have the power to bring people together.
“Football is like a spirit that influences people,” supports Akuro. “It is through football we experience peace in the communities because the government failed us. The government did not do anything to address the conflicts.”
Wariboko was able to use funds from his hotel business to fund the football competition, which was held four times in 2017 and 2018 when the last competition was held. Due to financial challenges, he stopped organizing the football competition as his hotel business was no longer flourishing as it was.
Wariboko the peace champion
Opefka Benjamin who took part in the football competition described Wariboko as a “great and nice” man. “His dream is to always bring the youths together. He makes peace anywhere he goes,” he said.
Africas Lawal, the P4P network coordinator who brought Wariboko into the network and trained him on early warning and early response systems to conflicts, described him as a peace champion.
“We were able to identify him as a young person who could make the change in his community. I nominated him for the training because I noticed he was a voice people do not hear in the Niger Delta. We decided to allow him to have the exposure to our conflicts and resolution training that could aid him in his work and make him a peace champion,” he said.
“I see him as an influencer. You cannot be doing community work and be powerful if you do not have influence. He is powerful despite not being an ex-militant. He is stronger than some of the militants because of his level of exposure. As a voice for peace, the people want to listen to him. Using football competition to address conflict worked in his environment and it should be encouraged,” he said.
Wariboko was crowned a peace champion in Rivers State for his role in using football competition to end the conflict between two communities and ending cult clashes in Igbesikala-Ama.
Wariboko is sad he has not been able to sustain the football competition.
“I had the intention of bringing back the football competition in 2019 but I lacked funds. Last year, I tried my best to raise funds but it did not work as I could not raise funds,” he said.
“Football has been the only solution to ending conflicts in Igbesikala-Ama and I hope to restart the competition soon.”