By Chioma Okezie-Okeh
“Majority of our victims are real criminals and deserve to be kidnapped. They come to Nigeria to buy and sell petroleum products illegally. This is why you rarely hear that they were abducted.” Those are the words of Tony Ebiyepade, a notorious sea pirate whose team is said to specialise in kidnapping foreigners.
He made this revelation when he and two others identified as Godbless Oruboro and General Karinatei Timidiseghe were nabbed recently by operatives of Force Intelligence Response Team charged with tracking down suspected kidnappers who participated in the abduction of four Americans sometime in 2020. Top on the wanted list was Tony whose camp is said to be located around Akenfa area in Yenagoa, Bayelsa.
In the course of investigation, operatives were said to have intercepted a conversation between him and Karinatei, an ex-militant. In it, they tried to perfect plans to transport several kilogrammess of cocaine for Tony’s members stationed at Ekubie town, Southern Ijaw, Bayelsa State. According to security source, Tony promised to help him set up a narcotic distribution network in the town where militants are said to be still operating.
After several weeks of discreet monitoring, Karinatei was arrested. He later led operatives to pick up Tony and Godbless. But in a conversation with Saturday Sun, the threesome denied having anything to do with the kidnap of the four Americans although security sources insist they are being economical with the truth.
From kidnapping to illegal drug hawking
Karinatei who continues to protest his innocence said although he used to be a kidnapper, with him, there is nothing like “once a kidnapper, always a kidnapper” as he gave up kidnapping a long time ago after he was granted amnesty by the federal government. Today, he claims, he makes do with drug-selling.
“I am 35-year-old, from Southern Ijaw, Bayelsa State and married with six children,” he said in an interview with Saturday Sun. “I dropped out of secondary school and started trying my hand in one menial job or the other. Along the line I found myself in the midst of other young men who are all cultists. This was how I joined the Greenlander Confraternity. And, selling drugs is a normal thing over there. I rose through the ranks and became the number one in the entire Bayelsa State. I am well known by every politician in the state. Go and ask them about General Karinatei. I submitted 15 locally-made guns during the third phase of Federal government amnesty programme.
“I was selling cocaine to several cult groups, sea pirates and kidnappers operating within Southern Ijaw because I have many children and I don’t want to be seen as an irresponsible father. It was my friend, Ajhil, that linked me up with a drug baron in Lagos. He normally sends it to me through commercial buses. I am no longer a kidnapper but I sell drugs to them. It was when I got to the police station that I was told that I was arrested because of my relationship with Tony who is a notorious kidnapper.”
But if you think he got connected to him through drug selling or cult confraternity, it is not true. “Tony called me because the engineer working for him at his building site was missing and he learnt that the said engineer was kidnapped by some cult boys,” he explained. “Since I am the head of Greenlander in Bayelsa State, he needed my help to rescue the man. One week after the discussion took place, I was arrested and they (security operatives) insisted that I am a kidnapper. I sell hard drugs and it’s giving me enough money. I know that Tony is a notorious kidnapper and sea pirate.”
Tony’s exploits in the world of militancy
Like Karinatei, Tony who gave unique insights into how the kidnapping business among militants used to operate, also insists that he has given up the business although it was from it he made the money he used in starting his current business – oil bunkering and timber-lumbering business. “I am 25-year-old and a native of Ekubeye in Southern Ijaw area of Bayelsa State,” he said. “Before my arrest, I was living at Ebi-sam Road, Agudama, Bayelsa, with my two wives and four children. I did not have the opportunity to go to school as my parents are fishermen. They believed that it was not necessary as I am to inherit the business. For some months now I have concentrated on my business and stayed away from kidnapping. That was why I was shocked when police arrested me. They said that I was part of those who kidnapped the Americans. But the truth is that I was not part of them. It was one of the ex-militants known as Big Joe that organised the operation. I learnt about it when I went to my community and met Big Joe in a bar with about four others. They were bragging that they just released the Americans. That was when I asked and he gave me details of the kidnap.
“It is the money that I made from kidnapping that I used to construct illegal oil bunkering dump in Rivers State and also built several houses in Bayelsa, I also used it to buy motor saw for my timber business. I invested in my business well. Most of the people that we kidnapped deserve it because they are in Nigeria to do illegal business.”
Recounting some of his exploits, Tony said that as a boy, he discovered that he would not make it in life as a fisherman. He also revealed why he abandoned the dream of becoming a successful fishing merchant only to be co-opted into militancy and illegal oil business. “The oil companies polluted our waters and most of the fishes migrated and it is not easy to get enough in the deep ocean. Then my parents kicked against my becoming a militant. But after my mother and sister were raped by those militants, they let me be. When they came to our house, they beat us up. And, since none of us was a member, they raped the women.
“I was about 12-year-old when I joined them in 2007. My plan was to get access to gun and kill all those who touched my mother and sister. The first person I worked with is one Japas who is dead now. We used speedboats to seize ships on the ocean before they finally land. Normally, when they (white men) arrive, some of them will hang in there for days till they have clearance to proceed. Others buy and sell off petroleum products without even stepping into the land. Those ones who are in a hurry are there to buy products illegally. We are about eight young men and we currently have 8 AK-47s and a standard speedboat although we rent most of the time. My gang members are: Ebimor, Kemen, Good, Tari Emos, Boma, Ijabra and some other boys from Delta State.”
Asked to give account of his kidnapping exploits as a militant, he said: “I have lost count of kidnap operations I participated in but I can remember about four. In 2007, we abducted 10 foreigners, seized their ship and drove them to Ebono River in Calabar. We kept them inside their ship hidden in creeks for a week till a sum of N100 million was paid. Then militancy was strong and as long as the ship is within our territory, no security man dares enter there. We just paid the area guards and were allowed access. I got N8 million as my share. And as a boy this was a huge success. I was so excited and made up my mind to become a sea pirate.
“The second one was in Badagry area in Lagos State. We got information that some foreigners from Benin Republic were buying our products illegally, so we struck. We got them and seized their vessel and took them to one creek in Koloma Fish Town in Bayelsa. The vessel was fully loaded. We negotiated with the real owner and he paid us N45 million and the vessel was released with the content intact.
“The third was another set of sailors that we took to Akwa Ibom. Those ones did not waste time before paying the N35 million for ransom because they cannot report the matter to anyone. They were in Nigeria illegally; the legal ones are normally heavily armed and they receive escorts from Nigeria Navy when they enter our waters. Others, including the foreigners, are here to make quick money and leave. That is why we kidnap them so that we can get our own share. Many of them are in different camps waiting for ransom to be paid and police or navy are not even aware. They make billions illegally, so they are willing to give us our own share.
“The fourth one was only Nigerians. We took only the vessel, the captain and two others. The owner paid and his vessel and workers were released. If you take only the captain, you would have wasted your time because the owner will still have his ship and product intact.”
Ex-militant’s journey back to crime
The third suspect, Oruboro, also an ex-militant told police that he decided to go back to the crime of illegal oil bunkering which he had earlier abandoned because he was not making much from his monthly allowance.
“I am married with two kids, after my secondary school in 1999,” he said. “There was no need to further my education because other young men were making quick money through oil bunkering. I learnt the business briefly and in 2002, I went into illegal oil bunkering. Then militancy was very strong. I worked with one General Lapotol and our camp is located within Gbara Area of Bayelsa State. I accepted amnesty in 2009 but I have not been enlisted for training although I am currently receiving the amnesty stipends from the federal government. I also get pipeline security stipends from oil companies.
“But all these were not enough, so I went back to oil bunkering. I decided to partner with one Akuro who is also a kidnapper and sea pirate. I started by buying illegally refined products from Akuro who specializes in kidnapping expatriates and hijacking oil tanker vessels on the sea. He has a camp known as Camp 45 which is in Bile Island in Rivers State. There is rarely a time when you don’t see kidnapped victims both foreign expatriates and Nigerians. Four months ago, we kidnapped some foreigners although they are not Americans but their skin is white. The first set paid N70 million while the second set paid N40 million. I was still waiting for my share from the most recent one before I was arrested. I was scared that security operatives will arrest me because one of the guards who escaped identified me during the operation. I was at the motor park boarding my family to move ahead of me to Enugu when policemen arrested me.