■ Why ex-Niger Delta warlord won’t surrender
■ His meeting with Buhari
By MURPHY GANAGANA
HE was a fugitive of the law over seven years ago, holed up in the labyrinth of creeks of the crisis-prone oil rich Niger Delta region in southern Nigeria. He ran riot in the mangrove forests and turbulent high seas after being declared the most wanted man in the country by the then commander of the Joint Military Task Force (JTF), General Sarkin Yakin Bello, now retired.
Bello’s pronouncement, which though ended as an unaccomplished military adventure, did not, however, take Chief Government Ekpemupolo, the dreaded ex-Niger Delta warlord widely regarded as the Lion of the riverine jungles, by surprise.
While he, along several others who believed in a common cause took up arms against the Nigerian government seeking a fair deal for impoverished oil bearing communities allegedly milked dry of their oil wealth and left famished under environmentally hazardous conditions, he was not oblivious of the dire consequences, but felt it was a noble cause worth paying the supreme price with his blood.
However, for Chief Ekpemupolo, popularly known as Tompolo, the worst did not happen and the Federal Government led by the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua offered the olive branch with a proclamation of amnesty for repentant Niger Delta militants in exchange for their arms, an offer he accepted and reportedly persuaded his fellow compatriots in the defunct Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), to embrace whole-heartedly.
His acceptance of the government’s offer dramatically transformed him from an outlaw to a beautiful bride sought after by all and sundry who wanted patronage at top level government and business circles, just as his influence and powers soared by the day. That was the scenario throughout the six-year reign of ex-president Goodluck Jonathan, Tompolo’s fellow Niger Deltan of the Ijaw ethnic stock.
While the good times lasted and he called the shots, Tompolo, expectedly, was said to have stepped on several toes and created enemies of ethnic coloration in his home state, Delta; among some powerful forces in the northern oligarchy, ex-military generals and power-brokers in the oil cabal, especially as it concerned the sale or allocation of oil blocks.
Reports indicated, for instance, that when the multinational oil giant, Royal Dutch Shell Plc, embarked on the divestment of some of its property in Nigeria, Tompolo insisted that the oil bearing communities located within areas where oil blocks were to be sold should be offered a percentage of the proceeds of the deal. This, according to sources, was seen as an “unbecoming affront from a little rascal” by members of the oil cabal, particularly some ex-military officers of northern extraction, who had increasingly become uncomfortable with the ex-militant leader’s growing influence and had been waiting for an opportunity to have him caged.
At the Warri axis in Delta State, there has been no love lost for decades between Tompolo’s kinsmen of the Gbaramatu kingdom and the neighbouring Itsekiris with whom they had traded armed tackles in bloody confrontations that consumed thousands of lives and some villages over land and sundry disputes. Thus, while he wielded power and dictated the pace of events, some leading elite of the Itsekiri nationality literally wallowed in pain and never hid their anger, but rather directed their verbal arrows at President Jonathan whom they vowed not to support for a second term at the Aso Villa.
This resolve was re-affirmed barely a month to the February 14, 2015 general elections when an Itsekiri pressure group, the Itsekiri Consolidated Movement (ICM) at a press briefing in Ubeji-Warri, justified why their kinsmen would rather vote for the then presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd), asserting that their interests would be better served in an APC-led government.
“In as much as we believe Tompolo has the constitutional right to campaign for President Goodluck Jonathan and Senator Ifeanyi Okowa/Kingsley Otuaro, his cousin, we want to assure Tompolo that his voyage is set to hit the rock, particularly on Jonathan’s re-election bid,” it declared.
The group had also, during the media chat, asked the former warlord to explain some alleged critical issues and actions agitating their minds, including the following: “Why Tompolo led the killing of hundreds of Itsekiris during the Warri crisis and forcefully took over Itsekiri God-given communities without any remorse or apology till date?
“…Why Tompolo, with the backing of the Presidency, threatened and hoodwinked Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan into handing the chairmanship of Warri South-West to his sibling, Hon. George Ekpemupolo, 48 hours to the election against the gentleman agreement of single tenure rotation between Ijaw and Itsekiri in the local government?
The ICM said Tompolo has to “explain why he and his Gbaramatu brothers are laying claim to lands belonging to Itsekiri (Omadino and Ugborodo Communities) particularly the area where the Export Processing Zone, EPZ is situated and till date, despite claiming not to be waging war against Itsekiri.”
Interestingly, while several scenarios had played out before and immediately after the last presidential election which signposted an impending end to his power and influence with the defeat of President Jonathan at the polls, Tompolo was said to be unwavering in the belief of his rise from obscurity to fame as a manifestation of destiny.
His conviction may have been further boosted as he was reportedly privileged to hold a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari shortly after his election. It could not be confirmed at whose instance the discussions were held, but a close associate of the ex-warlord confided in Sunday Sun that after the meeting described as private, Tompolo returned to his home in Delta State fulfilled, and in high spirits.
“When Buhari came in, he met with Tompolo, who pledged to work with him. He even assured him that he was going to assist the Federal Government in tackling the crisis in the Niger Delta. The meeting was successful, and Tompolo returned home a happy man. He even confided that Buhari’s government might be better for us in the Niger Delta than that of Jonathan,” the source said.
But that hope seems to have evaporated with the changing times, and Tompolo is, again, being clad in a garment he had discarded several years ago, a fugitive. The difference, however, is that while he had no qualms surrendering to the Federal Government in exchange for presidential pardon during the late President Yar’Adua’s short-lived administration, he reportedly foresees danger signals this time around and is unwilling to invest hope of his safety in the hands of an APC-led government headed by Buhari.
A highly dependable source hinted at the weekend, that Tompolo has refused to show up in court to face corruption charges pressed against him by the Federal Government through the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for fear of his life, as he believes that a government, which he had pledged to work with, could not have been throwing dangerous thorns on his path for no reason. “He sees the moves as a case of drawing an ear to cut off the head”, the source said.
The ex-warlord had himself, expressed fears over his safety while reacting to reports that he was on the run after being summoned by the EFCC to appear before it for interrogation in connection with graft related issues. “I know why they are after me,” he averred, contending that “It is not the alleged multi-billion naira property transaction. After all, it went through due process and was approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC), and as such, if there are any questions to answer, it is the people at the FEC, Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP), Federal Ministry of Lands and Survey, Federal Ministry of Transport, and NIMASA, who approved the transaction, that should be answering such questions.”
Another source said the safety fears expressed by the former Niger Delta agitator were real. “Tompolo is afraid that the Federal Government is after him and not the money because if that were the case, they would have simply requested for a review or revaluation of the transaction and possibly, a refund of some money. Recall that the Federal Government had first raised the issue of land at Okerenkoko; that was a case where the government approached the Okerenkoko community to purchase land for the permanent site of the Maritime University of Nigeria. The community nominated their son who is a lawyer to negotiate with the government and seal the deal; money was paid and it was handed over to the community.
“How does this concern Tompolo? But this was the first issue government raised against him but when they saw that there was no way to rope him in, they dropped it and raised the issue of Global West Fleet contract with NIMASA and froze the company’s accounts when he is neither a director nor signatory. The company belongs to one of his cousins whom the Federal Government is not concerned about. Again, they brought the issue of Micah Divers properties purchased. In this case, the Federal Government appointed a Governing Board for the Maritime University of Nigeria and the people were eager to take off. So, the Federal Government wrote a letter of intent to acquire the land and properties on which Micah Divers is situated.
“On receipt of the letter of intent, Tompolo wrote to the government accepting the intent, and the Federal Government sent its valuers to the site for valuation. They valued the place with the standard of any city in Nigeria and according to Tompolo, the money offered him, which was N13billion, was even under-valued because as a swampy place, he spent much money for sand-filling before erecting the massive buildings, but he only accepted the offer because they wanted to bring a university which would enhance development of the area. And when he accepted the offer, they presented the issue before the Federal Executive Council, which approved the payment before it was made. Tompolo thereafter relinquished ownership of the property and the Federal Government took over. So, what is Tompolo’s offence in all these, after all, he had built the place for a different purpose before the government approached him to acquire it.”
The source, who is also one of the ex-militant leader’s closest allies, said Tompolo firmly believed that the alleged cases of contract sleaze preferred against him were merely a camouflage to trap and get rid of him, as the real reasons revolved around oil politics, ethnic rivalry and a battle for economic and political survival.
“Tompolo had long been seen as a threat to the northerners who feel that the oil in the Niger Delta belongs to them. Even the oil blocks that they buy, they do not consider the interest of the oil bearing communities, a situation Tompolo had been kicking against especially during the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan when he became very influential and powerful. Ethnically, the Itsekiris of Warri, who had hitherto claimed supremacy over the Ijaws of Gbaramatu where Tompolo hails, were also waiting in the wings for him. The Itsekiris never liked Jonathan and as soon as he lost the election, they were the first to decamp to the All Progressives Congress (APC) and swiftly joined forces with the APC in Bayelsa with the aim of winning the gubernatorial election.
“During the last Bayelsa elections, Tompolo moved so many ex-militants to support the PDP governorship candidate who eventually won. Some APC chieftains called him severally to hands off the election so that they could help him in resolving his problems with Buhari, but he declined their offer. The fact is that Tompolo is a threat to the APC in Delta, Rivers and Bayelsa states, where he can influence the elections and the APC which is desirous of consolidating and winning back all states in the oil-rich South-south region to corner the wealth, will do everything possible to get Tompolo out of the way. If you look critically, the shadowy forces pushing for Tompolo’s head are all in the APC. So, Tompolo feels that he does not have a case with the government, and that they are merely after him. Therefore, Tompolo will never appear in court except they will take his dead body for arraignment.”
At Okerenkoko and Oporoza communities in Gbaramatu kingdom of Delta State where he hails from, mum is the word as to Tompolo’s whereabouts when Sunday Sun visited. Although feelers indicated that he might be within the vicinity, there was no palpable tension in the air. An eerie peace pervaded as armless youths, who were mainly the only souls found in the communities already deserted by some of the aged and women for fear of an offensive by security forces, busied themselves with various activities, albeit with a measure of suspicion and caution.
But to be sure, the manhunt for Tompolo is a befuddling steeple chase, which sources in security circles said government might have set out to embark on based on a wrong analysis of the ex-warlord’s profile. So far, the government seemed to have come to terms with the fact that efforts at seizing the ex-militant leader would yield no positive result but might end up in diminishing the intelligence base of the nation’s security apparatus.
Highly dependable sources further hinted that government was not unmindful of some security warnings on the implications of applying maximum force to rein in Tompolo, and could explore other means of resolving his case. Though the EFCC recently charged the alleged corruption cases against Tompolo and his co-accused persons to court for trial, the anti-graft agency was said to have later withdrawn his name from the charge sheet, after earlier being charged in absentia. The agency said he would be charged separately.
Presently, there are fears in some quarters that Tompolo might be compelled to return to the trenches and embark on more dangerous exploits including blowing up key oil pipelines that could bring the nation’s economy to its knees if the Federal Government moves on to arrest him at all cost, but sources close to him said he was not nursing such ideas as he looked forward to resolving his problem with the government legally or politically.
However, apparently overwhelmed by emotions in one of his low moments, the former warlord had warned late last year: “As a full blooded Ijaw man and citizen of Nigeria, I have done everything in my power to follow the laws of Nigeria. Since the amnesty declared in 2009 by late President Yar’Adua, I have strained myself to ensure that we all live in peace in this country. Those who think they can push us to war must rethink the necessity of such a war.”
In the meantime, while he was said to have consistently re-affirmed his desire for peace, the same cannot be said of a good number of his former loyalists and comrades in arms. “Tompolo is not oblivious of the fact that there is a possibility that he may not be alive till 2019. But the truth is that if anything happens to him, several Tompolos will emerge who will be very, very dangerous and brutal. We pray the government sees reason and resolve this issue peacefully,” one of his close confidants remarked last Wednesday.
How well the matter is handled, remains to be seen in the days ahead.