When He prides himself as the ‘king’ of Niger Delta youths, and is passionate about seeking an end to militancy in the oil rich region. Jude Tabai, 50, son of a retired Judge of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, is blunt when discussing issues concerning the Niger Delta. A Sociologist and Special Adviser on Niger Delta affairs to two former governors of Bayelsa State, Dr Goodluck Jonathan and Chief Timipre Sylva, he is a delight of the nation’s intelligence goons who tap on his vast network in the restive Niger Delta region
In this no-holds-barred interview with MURPHY GANAGANA, he reveals why the crises in the Niger Delta is seemingly intractable, and proffers solutions. Excerpts:
I was made to understand that you took the Minister of Youth and Sports to the Gbaramatu creeks in the Niger Delta to find a solution for peace in that region. What gave you the impetus, and what link do you have with the militants over there?
Well, first and foremost, I am the youth Amayanabo; Amayanabo is king of the youths of the Niger Delta. I am determined for peace in the Niger Delta; I have been a father to these boys from when some of them were wearing nappies until they got to where they are today. From Ondo State to Cross Rivers, any Ijaw-speaking militant or youth activist that says he does not know Jude Tabai, God knows that he might be a criminal. So, the impetus is that I am more than qualified to handle issues relating to the people and my youths.
Are you implying that people like Tompolo, Ateke Tom, Asari Dokubo, Boyloaf, and all those persons who were key militant leaders in the Niger Delta are known to you?
I said I am the Amayanabo, Amayanabo means King; all the names: Henry Okah, Asari Dokubo, Boyloaf, Ateke Tom, Tompolo, Young Shall Grow, Africa, Joshua Makiava, Fara, General Franklin, how many do you want to name that did not come through our network; we know ourselves like you and your children. If I tell you the history of how some of them were brought into the struggle, you will be baffled. So what you cannot tell them, I can tell them because 25 years ago, I knew where they were and I knew where I was. I knew how we were able to initiate some of them into the Ijaw struggle because this struggle started from the Ijaw youths, we speak Izon language and those who don’t speak Izon language, we had to see how we could re-initiate them; we had to travel from state to state to bring them on board to see the taste of this struggle, how they were able to confront military men, we showed them the way; what it takes to get that guts, and that was how this struggle expanded across the Niger Delta.
How did you get involved with the Minister of Youth and Sports, whose initiative it was; were you the one that initiated to him his recent trip to the Gbaramatu creeks or he approached you to go on the mission?
Well, I have one or two friends that are close to him who told me he had been complaining that he is the minister of youths and the youths are really giving this administration headache and that he is worried; that he is disturbed that the president is not at peace and that the youths of this country are giving him trouble especially the ones from Niger Delta. A friend of mine approached me and said what can we do? I told him well, I have virtually met who is who in this country and I told them the reality that I believe in truth, and that I am not interested in what he was saying. But my friend insisted we see him, so I went to him (minister) and he listened to me.
What is killing this country is that people claim to know too much; this man, the minister of youths, knew nothing about this issue and he listened to me attentively. I gave him my words; I told him that if he would listen and follow me, we would get a head-way. He listened to me and said he was interested in making his own little contribution, and I said if you are interested, you must hear from every party, the good, the bad and the ugly. He said okay and I told him, for him to be able to do that, I will take him to one, two, three places within the Niger Delta and discuss with the stakeholders who can assist or give us information about how we can resolve this problem. People sit in Abuja and youths will be bringing their friends and presenting to top ministers in this government without providing solutions to the lingering problem. These boys will come back and say they were in so, so meeting with so, so person at the highest level of security in this country and I begin to wonder what is actually going on; but each time I want to react, my fellow Ijaw brothers of the Ijaw connection; they have been spreading some falsehood about what has been going on in Abuja, and each time I come to Abuja, that is what I hear. So we agreed and I told him (minister) first, I will take him to Delta State, where this problem actually started from, because the problem started from somewhere, it ignited from a particular source, let’s go to the source and find out what actually happened. I told him we would go to the creeks under cover, not even your police orderly will go with us. You and I with two of my boys would go there. We had targeted about four places, then, when we are done, we would come back quietly without the next person knowing where we went to and where we came from. So we agreed and we left, he said somebody was going to join us and I asked who? He said the General Manager security, NNPC; I said this same General Manager. I had been advising him for over five months and he refused to listen to me. And when I saw him, I knew the man had a different agenda from my own agenda because about five minutes later, senior SSS officers took me in when he came into the office. I had been giving him all the advice that a brother could give to a fellow brother to make Nigeria move forward, but I don’t know how they mismanaged the whole scenario. To prove myself that where I was going was the right path, do you know that the man that Kachikwu, the minister of state, petroleum resources, mandated to go with the minister of youths to the creeks and witness the kind of dialogue I was trying to establish with the people, the moment we got to Warri, he started complaining of stomach pain. When we met him at the airport in Abuja, he started making phone calls that he was coming to Delta State, but it was a covert arrangement. When we get to Warri, we had been in touch with all the persons we were going to meet; as at 10.am, we were communicating steadily with them, everybody was in contact with me from 6.am on that day when we arrived at the Abuja airport for the trip. But the GM Security, NNPC, started making phone calls and we didn’t know who he was calling. It was shocking when we got to Warri and this man said he wasn’t going with us again because he had stomach pain. At that point, I and the minister were worried, because we realized that people who were not supposed to know about our coming had heard. So by the time we were boarding a boat to Gbaramatu, we got phone calls, asking us they thought it was a private meeting, how come people who are not supposed to know about it were now aware? If not for God, the enemies who are against the success of this government had already arranged that they were going to attack me because of the leaked information about our trip. I had wanted to surprise the entire country including the sports minister, but the action of the GM Security, NNPC, caused us a very grievous discomfort. We were supposed to go to four communities to see things for ourselves and to hear from the community leaders at Kurutie, Okerenkoko, Oporoza and two other cluster communities round the area, to know what was happening; who are the people, what is their grouse, and so on.
So the mission was not essentially to meet the Niger Delta Avengers per se?
If you asked me about the Avengers, it is very funny, because there is nobody that has a sign on his head as a member of the Avengers. The same thing applies with MEND. These are a conglomerate of different militants groups comprising not one village; it is not one house, not one community.
But don’t they have a leadership?
Yes, they have a leadership.
Where you in touch with the leadership of NDA when you embarked on the trip with the minister?
I am in touch with Niger Delta youths, that’s as far as I know. If we discuss, we can proffer solutions to the issues, and we need to hear everybody out.
Including the Avengers?
Who are the Avengers? Listen, let me explain. When we got there, we went to the villages and saw the university project (Maritime University of Nigeria); we saw the place where they arrested our youths and we saw so many things and then, questions were asked? In fact, if not for the phone calls that were made, I wanted to surprise the minister by going further to the high sea to see if it was possible for me to discuss with Tompolo and him (minister) one-to-one.
Do you know where Tompolo is?
He has left that area. As at that particular day, I wanted to reach out to him, I wanted to take the minister by surprise because even himself, I never told him the possibility of meeting Tompolo because he is not in his village; he is not anywhere within there because he has been declared wanted. But we had agreed that in the course of our journey, he was going to join us at a particular place.
Do you know where Tompolo is now?
Tompolo is where he is; he is where he is because the government is busy looking for where he is and his life is at stake. To continue my story, we went there and got to three, four villages, and we couldn’t go further. He pointedly told me because of intelligence reports he could not come to the agreed meeting point. So, I could not move further because those we were supposed to meet weren’t sure it wasn’t a set up. How come what we discussed in camera became public knowledge? But be that as it may, my interactions in the course of the trip brought a lot of support to the nation, though nobody is aware. Nobody would have heard this story if not for the rumours going round. It is time for me to tell the world the true story.
Who actually funded the trip to the Gbaramatu creeks?
Now, let me tell you something. During Obasanjo’s tenure as civilian leader in 1999, it was a memo I wrote that made me meet him in the course of solving the same Niger Delta problem. When Asari Dokubo and the late former governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha were incarcerated, the Niger Delta crisis had erupted, but nobody heard my role in solving it. Obasanjo invited me and I was kept in a hotel, not big hotel; it was a hotel that charged just N5,000 for the room I stayed. One of his aides on political matters, Dr. Oshinowo, called me; he said the president wanted to see me and that was how I went to Abuja, sat with him and gave a ‘lowdown’ of the entire story irrespective of who is or was my friend, or enemy. Then the entire Directorate personnel of the Military Intelligence (DMI) were invited and I addressed them for over two hours. I told them the good, the bad and the ugly, and how we can go about it; how we could resolve it. Asari Dokubo didn’t know the role I played up till today I am talking to you; Alamieyeseigha of blessed memory never knew the role I played, and I never told him if not today that I am saying it.
Was that when he was arrested for corruption?
When he was arrested and locked up. I am not seeking recognition neither am I looking for anything. The people who know me, the SSS who had worked with me for the past number of years can attest to my credibility; all I am after is peace because if any crisis happens in the Niger Delta, some of us had been, and would be having sleepless nights because we do not encourage militancy. If we don’t stop it now, then in the next 20 years, the entire youths will become militants and I don’t know where we are heading to. That fear, and the peace we need for Nigeria to survive is my biggest challenge.
You have not answered my question, who funded your trip with the minister to Gbaramatu?
Let me explain; when we left here (Abuja), I told the minister to do the best he could to arrange for the transportation from Warri, and from Warri, we boarded a commuter speedboat; we went through the Marine Police Jetty without them knowing who we were and where we were coming from, we boarded the boat quietly and left.
You and the minister boarded same boat with other passengers when your trip was to be coded?
No. We had a chartered boat; the minister arranged for a chartered boat, he provided about N150,000 for us to charter a boat when we got there. We took an airport taxi to the Warri waterside. When we got to the communities at Gbaramatu, there was nothing much; after discussions, as Ijaw culture demands, they offered us fish. That was at Oporoza. They offered us a gift of fish and other things. We reciprocated by buying drinks in accordance with the tradition, because it was not time to offer money. Money and funding was not yet in the picture. First, we wanted confidence building, the minister wanted to be sure we were on track; he wanted to be sure this is where are starting from, then, when he comes back, can say, now we have gone to this stage, we have heard and seen, so what is the way forward?
From your narrative, it is glaring you were in touch with Tompolo?
I wasn’t talking directly with him.
You were in touch with him whether directly or indirectly?
Who is Veniman, because I got to understand when you got to Oporoza, he was your points-man?
Veniman is a community leader; he is one of the leaders among the youths.
Is he one of the militant leaders?
He is one of the youth leaders in that community.
Was he your anchor person on that trip?
The community sat down with us, after the meeting, we sat with some youths to discuss their challenges, their problems, and they responded.
But before then, the minister of state, petroleum, had been there?
The minister of state went to Okerenkoko to see the Maritime University structures. There was an inaugural stakeholders’ meeting recently at Transcorp Hilton Abuja, and at that meeting, I realized the GM Security, NNPC didn’t know the critical stakeholders present. As a friend, I told him to allow so, so person to speak. He didn’t understand what I was saying, and the person I asked him to allow to speak was the first person that ended up taking them (petroleum minister) to Kurutie. He is Chief Dan Ekpebide.
Who were at that meeting and when did it hold?
It held about three months ago; the NSA was there, Minister of Defence was there, Minister of State, Agriculture, was there, Minister of Niger Delta was there, the governor of Edo State was there, Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta was there, and some other dignitaries.
Who convened that meeting?
The meeting was convened by the NNPC; the GM Security sent me the invitation card, but when I went there, I realized that fraudulent people had hijacked the process of resolving the crisis in the Niger Delta because out of about 60 persons, the people I actually knew were not up to15 people, which meant it was a fraud. At the point of self introduction, Bayela delegation was led by Joshua Makaiva; Africa Akparasia, was there. I was special adviser to former governor of Bayelsa State; I was the one who brought most of these men (ex-militant leaders) to the Presidential Villa and handed them over to the late president, Yar’Adua.
Who was the governor then?
Timipre Sylva. I was also a Special adviser to Goodluck Jonathan on Niger Delta matters when he was governor of Bayelsa. The names I just mentioned were the only key Bayelsa people. Young-Shall-Grow was not there, and so many key actors were not there. I looked round the representation of Rivers State. So many of them were not there. I only saw Bosterine, Igbele, Ken Whyte, and some other people I can’t name. For Edo State, the people that are the problem, the Ijaw boys were not there. I saw just some ‘Niggers’ who I knew. The people there were some Bini guys, I looked and I know the people. Even the Edo governor knew his key men; Peres is there, Egbema One is there; so many of them controlling that Benin River where the oil and gas business is thriving, but who did we see?
Ayeri was there himself with his friend, Michael Johnny. But others, including Tompolo’s key men, not even one person, was there. Go to Cross River State, nobody was there. Somebody, I don’t know where they brought him from, was saying he is from Cross River. They didn’t even understand what we were discussing. From Akwa Ibom, one boy came and said he is 007; he was out of tune with what was the agenda of the day; the package was all fraud and that fraud has left us where we are today, because people who are not actors in the crisis were being presented at the meeting by Ayiri and Michael Johnny, who are the ones coordinating most of these meetings. At that meeting, people were saying what they wanted to say, but when I got up, I made a very serious statement. I pointed at Ayiri, I said you are here; I pointed at Michael Johnny and said you are also here; I asked, where are the Tompolo people? The impostors they brought stood up from behind and said we are here, and I laughed when I saw them.
If government had genuinely wanted to solve this problem because at that time it was confined only to Delta State, they should have done the right thing. Those at that meeting didn’t understand where I was going when I asked the whereabouts of Tompolo’s people because this problem we are facing today started from Delta State. Several forces are using it to their advantage financially and politically, but Mr President seems not to understand what is going on.
Let me tell you what happened at that meeting when it was time for Michael Johnny to talk. He started by raining abuses on Tompolo and how Tompolo is the problem. But you know Tompolo is a leader; he has people who believe in him. Joshua Makaiva, who is a Local Government Chairman Southern Ijaw, got up and said No, you can’t just be saying things like that, even if Tompolo is not here, even if he is dead, we cannot allow you malign our leader like that, and there was a fight in the hall; it wasn’t physical, but the place was hot. Now, that signal is what you are seeing playing out today, but nobody understood it at that time; a word is enough for the wise.
Recently, it was reported that MEND had set up a panel and listed Tompolo as part of the Aaron Team 2 to negotiate with government. Nobody knew whether it was announced with his consent or not. Suddenly, we were regaled by a new group, the Reformed NDA with names of people alleged to be sympathetic with the Avengers. Don’t you think what is playing out is a battle of the Generals in the creeks of Niger Delta?
Let me explain to you as it stands now, I don’t trust the Reformed Niger Delta Avengers story because already, there has been a script being played out by some group of people; this people are going all out to make sure that they crush the Avengers, and my grouse is that if they feel belonging to the incumbent federal government is giving them all assurances that they can crush certain group of people, it is so sad. What I am saying, I am hearing at the top that there is a power tussle over control of certain resources, some people are believing that it is their time to control resources and everything that comes under it, and some people are believing that the time of some other people has passed. Therefore, if government wants to negotiate with any other group, those people are ready to die to make sure that government did not negotiate with anybody except them. This is because if government negotiates with the Avengers and peradventure if there is peace, all their calculations of taking over certain projects within the Niger Delta will come to a nullity. So, it is a crisis that needs to be solved; you don’t need to involve a third party in it, you will remove Tompolo, remove Michael Johnny and Ayiri, then you can go and solve your problem because all these people are interested parties. If the Avengers said they have ceased fire, then someone else is phoning people to go and bomb pipelines, and the turning round to say, ‘We told you that this people (Avengers)cannot be trusted’.
Is that what is happening?
Yes, that is what is happening. The bombing is not done by the Niger Delta Avengers alone; the bombing is done by the Avengers and the anti-Avengers. The bombing is done by the Reformed Avengers and the Avengers, because RNDA have people who are sponsoring them. So when the Avengers say we are on break, the other people will go and hit. When they hit, they run back to government and say, we told you, this people cannot be trusted.
That brings us to what I was saying, that we are witnessing the war of the Generals in the Niger Delta?
If you say we have a war of Generals, I will still disagree with you for now, you know why? If you say they are fighting themselves, that is your observation; but we must go back to the drawing board before you conclude. Who and who were among the original people fighting? The original MEND was spearheaded by Tompolo and Henry Okah who specialised on internet platform. When they declared amnesty, there was a problem between Tompolo and Henry Okah, they fell out. Within that same period, the bombing of Abuja happened and Henry Okah and others were allegedly involved. Now MEND issued a statement and some of us knew that there was no MEND again. Boyloaf is an ally of Henry Okah; he is a close person to former a governor of Bayelsa State, Timipre Sylva.
Generally, the belief is that people like Sylva in APC and some ex-MEND commanders are using Tompolo as a bargaining chip with Federal Government so that they can release Henry Okah and others. If you look at the statement issued by MEND, you heard them saying we have talked and they want to release Henry Okah and others; so they are only flying a kite based on what they are doing, and that was why I said it is a fight of the Generals because now, it seems it is a fight between the Henry Okah and Tompolo.
You know all of them very well, what is the role of Henry Okah in this crisis?
Exactly the same question I asked Henry Okah; he started as a supplier of arms to Government House, all these small, small guns.
Which Government House?
In Bayelsa, that was what we used to know him for. When you want to buy pistol and so on; that was how he started. It was in Government House I knew him before he went global. Henry Okah was strictly a supplier of arms; at a stage he started forming armed groups, providing everything they needed to set up their camps. Even I, seated here, he asked me several times to recommend for him to supply arms; that is the level of trust he had in me. Henry Okah had released kidnapped expatriates to me without giving him anything.
Expatriates kidnapped during that time?
You see, my name is clean, that is why I can talk because once you have problems you cannot talk in Nigeria, they will mess you up.
Let anybody come out openly and mess me up, I will be the one to also mess them up. I may be hungry, but I have never compromised and engage in anything to spoil my name. I brought out over 10,000 boys from the creeks without sending even one name as a beneficiary of the amnesty programme. Some persons attributed 100 names, 50 names to themselves and today they are claiming big boys. It is okay, but I don’t want to make a non-militant, a militant.
On the issue of MEND, why I don’t want to dabble into it is that MEND is not our problem, MEND have their own programme. There are issues that are of interest to them, which they are trying to sought out. They are only looking for corners to get themselves into the structure. So, they are not relevant as far as I am concerned.
The crisis we have today is between the Avengers and the Federal Government. My interest is how do we solve the problem? Is it by peace or by war? if it is by peace, let’s do it peacefully; if it is by war, let government decide the way they want it. But then, I am not taking sides with interested parties in this crisis because that will amount to taking a wrong decision. Let me give you an example, Ayiri is an Itsekiri man, Michael Johnny is an Ijaw man; Michael has gone to an Itsekiri man, fighting his own Ijaw brothers. If Tompoplo is not someone that has wisdom, this problem would have snowballed to an ethnic crisis; these are things people should understand. They should ask questions to find out what these three people are really fighting for. Once they ask those questions, then, they will really know the root cause of some of the crises that had degenerated to where we are today. Why don’t they want the Federal Government to settle with Tompolo? If Buhari, an old man ruling this country, at his time now, everything has been destroyed and the man has said look, let’s make peace, then why won’t those following government functionaries fall in line?
Why are they still bent on saying let them declare war?
Because if you declare war, it is the Ijaws that will suffer; it is not the whole of Niger Delta people, but the Ijaws that will suffer. So my take is that the issues are not as bogus as being painted, and it can be solved quietly. You do not need a committee to do it; if the President has one genuine ally that would be non-partisan, this problem would be solved. But if partisan people are involved, then there will be problem. Michael Johnny, Tompolo and Ayiri, I know everybody, but we are not close friends. Why is the so-called ceasefire failing? It is because the other group who don’t want peace, who don’t want government to talk to Tompolo will never allow ceasefire to hold, because once it holds, they will do something and tell you that the people have refused, that they will not agree. So if you are arresting Tompolo’s people, you must also arrest the other people because they are all parties to the problem. If you are arresting Tompolo’s boys, you must arrest Ayiri or Michael Johnny’s boys too who are also there to frustrate the peace process, then, you will get result. But when some people come under the cover of being part of the government in power and play with you, you now look at issues from that point, then, you will not be able to solve the problem.
Is government really sincere in solving this problem?
On a very frank note, I will only talk about who I know. I have never met Kachikwu (minister of state, petroleum) before, but he has a pure heart to solve this problem.
But Kachikwu is not the government?
I am coming, I am coming. I don’t know the minister of youth, but I saw sincerity in him. The president himself as I speak to you, he needs peace in the Niger Delta for him to succeed. We want him to succeed. And that is why each time they blow up pipelines, I keep wondering what is going on in his heart, because for every pipeline that is blown, he knows he is losing so much to run his government, and that is going to be the beginning of failure of his government if these things are not put right. So, I feel for him. But as things are going, I think the president needs to know the true story and handle the issues from the true perspective, not politics.
Do you think what is required to resolve the crises in the Niger Delta is negotiation with the Avengers and other groups because some people feel that is not the solution, but addressing the fundamental issues of infrastructural development in the region?
Resolving the crises has to be done in phases; first, you must talk to the people, be they bad or good. You must sit with them and tell them yes, I have heard you; if it is development you want, I will give, but if is freedom you want, I won’t give. If you want money, I will not give, if you want me to close your case in the courts, I won’t give you. Negotiation does not mean that you tell Tompolo you are free to walk about, No. Negotiation is looking at this man eyeball to eyeball and saying look, my friend, we cannot allow you, you must face your trial if need be; the money you took, you must return it if there is any to be refunded. We will not harass you anymore. You can be free, but you must go through the normal processes. That is negotiation. Then, issues of developing the Niger Delta becomes the next phase. This is why when people talk, I tell them negotiation is not just about freeing somebody. It means that you are talking with the man to agree on where you are going to have your limits, because the Niger Delta is a place where you must adopt a carrot and stick approach in resolving issues, because if they break out, they will embarrass you.