There are fears that the supporters of the slain ex-commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, Soboma George, may retaliate.

•Late Soboma George

Soboma, a former militant accused of helping rig 2007 elections in Nigeria was shot dead in an ambush, police said Wednesday, sparking fears of unrest before upcoming polls.

Armoured vehicles were deployed in Port Harcourt, the nation’s oil hub located in the Niger Delta, amid fears of reprisals after the suspected death of Soboma George.

A security source who works with multinational oil companies said George’s supporters had threatened revenge attacks on Wednesday afternoon.

George, a notorious ex-gangster, had signed up to a government amnesty deal only months ago.

His suspected killing has likewise led to concerns over the amnesty, which has been credited with bringing relative peace to the oil-producing Niger Delta after years of attacks and kidnappings.

“A man was shot and his body taken away by his assailants. All fingers point to Soboma George,” Rivers state police spokeswoman Rita Abbey told AFP.

She said witnesses told police that George, the leader of the banned Outlaws group which had terrorised Port Harcourt before the recent amnesty, was the man killed on Tuesday.

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“Although the police have not seen his corpse we believe he was the one,” Abbey said.

She said the man was killed along with a woman as he made his way out of a football field. Another woman who was seriously wounded in the attack was being treated in hospital.

George was accused of mobilising his followers to help intimidate voters and rig elections in 2007. Nigeria’s next polls are expected in January.

He had also been a commander in the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, known as MEND, the country’s most prominent militant group that claimed dozens of kidnappings and attacks on oil installations in recent years.

MEND has said it was fighting for a fairer distribution of oil revenue.

The ex-gangster was among more than 20,000 fighters who accepted the amnesty granted by late president Umaru Yar’Adua for Niger Delta “oil rebels” after surrendering their arms between August and October last year.

He was among former militants who last year met with Yar’Adua and vice president Goodluck Jonathan — who is now Nigeria’s president — to discuss the situation in the region.

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“It is a drawback to the peace process, especially for a young man who had embraced the peace, laid down his guns in the interests of the people of the Niger Delta,” said Kingsley Kuku, who represents ex-militants on a presidential amnesty implementation committee.

“The killing will erode the trust and confidence of the people in the peace process.”

A spokesman for a joint military-police task force said officers were keeping a close watch, but declined to provide details.

There had already been warnings that violence could increase ahead of presidential, legislative and state elections slated for January.

President Goodluck Jonathan is from the Niger Delta, and he faces pressure to bring an end to the unrest that has played havoc with oil production in the region. He is widely expected to run in the elections, but has not declared his candidacy.

“It shows that despite the public display of arms surrender by the militants, there are still a lot of weapons in the region,” said Anyakwee Nsirimovu, head of the Port Harcourt-based Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.

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“The implication is ominous at a time we are talking of free and fair elections in Nigeria … What this means is that these gangsters with guns everywhere will be ready tools in the hands of politicians to foment trouble during the elections.”

Violence in the Niger Delta between 2006 to 2009 disrupted Nigeria’s oil production, which dropped from 2.6 million barrels a day to about one million at the peak of the unrest.

But the amnesty has resulted in relative peace in the region, and Nigeria, one of the world’s largest oil exporters, currently produces around 2.1 million barrels daily.