Gbaramatu monarch placed under house arrest
NIGER DELTA BOMBINGS
Emmanuel Addeh in Yenagoa and Sylvester Idowu in Warri
Tension pervaded the waterways of the oil-rich Niger Delta region yesterday, when a company of soldiers took over the palatial guesthouse of ex-Niger Delta warlord, Government Ekpemupolo, also known as Tompolo, in Gbaramatu Kingdom, restricting the movement of the paramount ruler to his palace.
Owing to the invasion, the community looked like a ghost town, even as it was learnt that institutions providing essential services, including health facilities, schools and the jetty from which many businesses in the area are transacted, were deserted in order to avoid confrontation with the troops.
Tompolo has repeatedly denied stoking the return of violent agitations in the region, but many believe that the ex-militant cannot extricate himself from the ongoing crisis, which has cut Nigeria’s oil exports by about 50 per cent.
The growing unease in Oporoza, Gbaramatu, Tompolo’s hometown, coincided with the visit yesterday of the Chairman of the Presidential Amnesty Office, Gen. Paul Boroh (rtd), who told the embattled king, William Ogoba Oboro Gbaraun II, (Akatakpe) Agadagba, that the federal government was deeply worried about the renewed violent activities of the militants.
But on the sidelines of the visit, multiple community sources told THISDAY that the 10 “suspects” picked up by the military on Saturday and paraded a day later, were workers in the guesthouse and the king’s palace who were unfortunate to be in the area at the wrong time.
The Commander of the 4 Brigade, Benin, Brigadier General Farouk Yahaya, had told journalists on Sunday, while parading the suspects that the army recovered 28 detonator cords, two pistols, 196 rounds of 7.62 special ammunition, one round of nine millimetre ammunition, a live cartridge and five daggers from the suspects.
Other items found in the area, he said, were 15 handheld radio sets, 18 phones, 203 SIM cards, five swimsuits, two headlamps, a laptop, two iPads and a camera.
Yahaya insisted that the youths who were arrested during the operation were linked to several cases of bombing of oil and gas facilities in the region, alleging that “they were most likely the people breaching critical national assets in the region”.
During a guided tour of the community, only a couple of aged women were seen peeping from their hideouts when they saw the heavily armed soldiers in the community.
In Tompolo’s guesthouse, which served as his temporary residence before he was declared wanted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), a company of soldiers numbering over 60 had taken over the white-coloured building at the time THISDAY got there.
The current operation going on in the area in search of the Niger Delta Avengers, which has claimed responsibility for recent attacks on oil and gas facilities, and ostensibly to recover dangerous weapons, THISDAY gathered, was led by a captain from the 3 Battalion, Effurun Barracks of the Nigerian Army in Delta State.
Once a beehive of transport-related activities, the waterways leading from Warri, through Egwa II, the oil facility earlier bombed by the militants in Kurutie, where Tompolo’s father hails from and down to Oporoza in Gbaramatu was a ghost of its former self as many residents had reportedly fled into the bush.
A number of warships, it was observed, had also been deployed in the route leading directly to the ex-militant’s home and the palace, though soldiers did not directly lay siege to the palace which was first bombed in 2009 after some soldiers were reportedly attacked by the militants at the time.
‘FG Seriously Worried’
But as the military laid siege to Gbaramatu, Gen. Boroh, true to his promise to temporarily move his office to the Niger Delta region in order to engage the leaders on how to halt the destruction of oil facilities, told the distressed monarch during the meeting that the army would not willingly inflict pain on innocent citizens.
“I am from the (presidential) villa in Abuja. I am here basically on a peace mission, sent by the federal government. It’s important enough, that’s why they asked me to come.
“The activities happening in this our area now is affecting the economy of the country, they are affecting our land, it’s affecting all of us and the government is very concerned about it. That’s why they sent me.
“We cherish peace and unity. The presence here of the military is to create peace. They didn’t come to molest anybody. They came to ensure stability.
“I also have a military background, so when an order of this nature is given, it only acts as a deterrence to ensure that there is peace and people are not afraid of the army’s presence.
“I have come so that there will be stability, not only here, but in the whole region. The soldiers are on a cordon-and-search operation. They have information about some weapons. The military didn’t come to beat up people. They are searching for weapons, which shouldn’t be in the hands of some people.
“I have seen the documentation. They are not here to molest anybody,” Boroh explained to the traditional ruler while also querying why there was a resurgence of militancy in Gbaramatu.
Before the traditional ruler and the amnesty boss went into a private meeting, Boroh, who had listened to his complaints, assured him that President Muhammadu Buhari was committed to restoring peace to the region and ensuring rapid development.
“The good thing is that His Royal Highness is committed. These are the things that the government wants to hear to encourage it. (They want to know) that the kingdom is not an enemy to the government and that it supports the government and is able to key into governments programmes and policies.
“The government’s commitment to the Niger Delta is enduring. In a few days’ time, on Thursday, to be precise, the president will be in Ogoniland to flag off the clean-up of the entire Niger Delta, starting from Ogoni.
“When they finish in Rivers State, they will come to Bayelsa, Delta, Edo and Ondo States. The president has good intentions for our people.
“You have to key in and deliberately show that truly you support development. This thing is affecting development. People who want to come and invest cannot even come in,” Boroh stressed.
He also conveyed the concerns of the federal government over the onslaught on oil facilities, noting that the country was unhappy about the events of recent months.
Monarch: I’m under House Arrest
Responding, the traditional ruler of Gbaramatu said that he was under house arrest and had neither taken his bath nor moved out of the palace for days.
“I am in pain as the king and father of this kingdom. We have not been sleeping. This is the third time the military has invaded this community.
“The third time, they came in the midnight with bundles of soldiers to invade the community, beat up and harass the people. Some women are still looking for their children as we speak.
“I was sitting here and I saw how the military men have been parading my children – tied them like animals and beat them up. In fact, I was touched.
“It’s just now that you came that the soldiers allowed us to switch on our light. I can’t even move out of this place. I am under house arrest. I can’t even walk to my injured chief to see him.
“All the chiefs in this community have run away. There’s no single chief in this place. I am lonely here. Before now, we were in pain, but this latest one has topped it.
“If you want to beat up a child, you look at the father’s face. In my presence, they were beating up my children. They have taken over my kingdom, shooting everywhere.
“I have called them, but they won’t even come. I have been working with the government, but I don’t know why the government is treating me this way.
“You don’t have to judge a whole clan by sitting in Abuja or Lagos. Come down and see, but they are judging us from Abuja and Lagos. They continue to embarrass us,” the monarch said.
He added that he was afraid and felt threatened: “I don’t know where my people are. They have looted the guesthouse. They have invaded everywhere and barricaded everywhere. I am not safe.”
He pleaded with the government to come to his rescue, insisting that the people of Gbaramatu were not members of the Niger Delta Avengers.
“We are not avengers, we are not militants, and we are not part of them. The government shouldn’t push us away,” he said.
Suspects are Palace Workers
But just as the battle rages for the soul of the Niger Delta, some eyewitnesses who saw the arrest of the 10 “suspects”, have revealed that just like the five Chevron contract workers who were found innocent and released, those who were picked up last Saturday were just workers in the area.
A community source, who identified himself as Nadi Mogbeyi, told THISDAY that though they were against any criminality in the area, the so-called suspects were residents struggling to make ends meet in the community.
“They caught so many people. I was in hiding, watching them as they were picking people up. They arrested one Moses Andrew, a mechanic that was invited from Warri to come and fix a Dana vehicle here; one cook, called Philip, he is a cook in the guesthouse; he was tortured from morning. They were forcing him to confess what he doesn’t know.
“They tied them with just his underwear on. I heard them shouting ‘I don die’. They went into the shrine, came out and took them away in some boats.
“The mechanic we brought to fix the car because of the construction work going on here, he came on Friday evening. He didn’t know what happened. They invaded the place and picked him up.
“Our generating set went off because the diesel was exhausted. They took the mechanic to the plant that supplies light to the palace. They forced him to switch on the plant and then tied him back when he finished before taking him away.
“They also arrested Orumina Odiki, a security man in the guesthouse, then Ebierieri, who sews and designs the king’s clothes. Those were the ones I know,” he said.
Also, Alpheus Okpekperere, a youth in the community, stated that the entire area was now a ghost town, following the invasion of the place by the military.
“The whole place is deserted. They came around 2 am on Saturday. We haven’t taken our bath. The water suppliers have disappeared. We can’t make calls. Everybody is stranded.
“Life is very difficult. We are being held hostage. We don’t have access to anything, not even water. The workers are all in the bush. Children cannot even go to school,” he told THISDAY.
Tompolo’s Father Escapes Arrest
Meanwhile, Tompolo’s father narrowly escaped arrest yesterday after heavily armed soldiers invaded Kurutie community, Gbaramatu in Warri South West Local Government Area of Delta State in search of members of the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA).
Security sources told THISDAY that the soldiers swooped on Kurutie also known as “Little London” in six gunboats at about 4.30 am and went straight to the residence of Tompolo’s father but did not meet him.
“They came in the early hours, apparently believing he will be in bed or his son hiding there. They broke in and met an empty house.
“The residents were asleep when they came, but many who were roused from sleep by the sound of gunboats scampered into the bush,” the security source disclosed.
THISDAY gathered that the soldiers, who quickly cordoned off the community, embarked on a house-to-house search.
A community source said he ran into the bush and watched the soldiers going from house to house in search of militants and weapons.
“We know their tactics, so we ran away when they landed this morning at the jetty in the town belonging to Tompolo’s father,” he said.
Tompolo has repeatedly denied having any links with the Niger Delta Avengers. However, the uptick of attacks on the oil and gas facilities have been linked to his travails with the authorities and his prosecution for corruption and money laundering by the EFCC.
Immediately after the siege to Kurutie, it was learnt that the soldiers also invaded other Ijaw communities, including Benikrukru, Kokodiagbene, and Okerenkoko, all in Warri South West Local Government Area.
Investigations revealed that the waterways were blocked while the operations lasted preventing movement in and out of Gbaramatu.
The Chairman of Kokodiagbene community, Mr. Sheriff Mulade, told THISDAY on the phone that the soldiers molested and intimidated his people during the invasion of his community.
Also an Ijaw leader, Chief Godspower Gbenekama, confirmed the siege to the kingdom, adding that several residents were harassed and molested by the soldiers.