Tompolo: Hero, Villain or Victim?

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Differing opinions about ex-Niger Delta warlord, Mr. Government Ekpemupolo, otherwise known as Tompolo, leaves much to be desired. Emmanuel Addeh writes

The federal government would rather he was apprehended and taken out of circulation. His people would wish they had a thousand of his likes. Sharply divided, that is how opinions about ex-Niger Delta warlord, Mr. Government Ekpemupolo, aka, Tompolo, conjure different emotions.

To some, the Ijaw high chief, now on the run after he was declared wanted by federal authorities over alleged complications in underhand dealings with the erstwhile government, running into billions of naira, is nothing short of a reprobate. To these ones, Tompolo’s alleged clandestine activities in the Niger Delta waterways have brought sorrow, tears and blood in their wake. In reality, cutting Nigeria’s oil output by more than half and worsening an already bad power situation in the country.

Yet, to many of his admirers, the reclusive, covert and self-effacing, the 46-year-old remains a beacon, a helper of the helpless and a fighter with a cause, who has unwittingly become a victim of a complex web of intrigues bordering on the politics of oil in the Niger Delta region.

In his first major confrontation with the Nigerian military as a fiery commander in the now defunct Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger in 2009, the former warlord, seldom seen, rarely heard, but everywhere, was said to have been complicit in the killing of several security operatives. He was the man who dictated the tune in the waterways; he was a thorn in the flesh of the military as well as the federal government’s. Many times, his clashes with the military were bloody and unhidden.

However, this time, Tompolo stoutly denies knowing anything about the havoc currently being wrecked by the Niger Delta Avengers, the new face of militancy in the region and their little known collaborators.
“It baffles me that the Nigerian military has refused to believe that I am not part of the group (NDA) and its activities,” the reticent businessman said earlier in the week.

Ironically, the embattled chief has continued to point fingers at people he thought were setting him up to gain cheap points with the military and favour with the Nigerian government.

“May I once again point out that those accusing me of the destruction of oil facilities in parts of Delta are simply looking for relevance, recognition and pipeline surveillance contracts?” he added in another forum.
Tompolo was probably referring to Mr Ayiri Emami, his arch rival, now an All Progressives Congress (APC) stalwart in Delta State, whom he accuses of consistently disparaging him before President Muhammadu Buhari and making him look like the devil before the federal government.

The rivalry is not surprising. Emami, who like Tompolo is a businessman and also a beneficiary of pipelines surveillance contracts and other oil-related jobs, especially in the last administration, is of the Itsekiri stock in Delta State. Though Tompolo has always argued that he is not in contention for oil pipeline security contracts with Emami, it is common knowledge that the rivalry is between two businessmen angling for the same jobs, who wouldn’t spare anything to make the other party look bad.
Pundits agree that the altercation between the two is manifold and understandable – business competitors, ethnic rivals and political adversaries.

In fact, Emami, a 40-year-old Itsekiri chief, in many of his public pronouncements has openly put the blame of the renewed insurgency on the doorsteps of Tompolo, whom he accused of destroying oil and gas facilities because he (Tompolo) has lost the power and influence he wielded during the last administration led by his fellow Ijaw man, President Goodluck Jonathan.

“I said it before that we all know those bombing the installations, they are going to meet them. If he (Tompolo) says he is not the one, then, he should challenge me, he can go to court. I had my business that I was doing before I was dragged into the pipeline surveillance contract he was talking about under the late President Umaru Yar’Adua government. They did not bring me in because I was the one bursting the pipelines, I was brought in because of my pedigree,” Ayiri told journalists last week in response to comments by Tompolo.

But who is the essential Tompolo aside his alleged notoriety for savagery? Long before he became publicly known, in 1993, Ekpemupolo had reportedly dropped out of school and joined a resistance group in the Niger Delta and later the Ijaw Youth Council, which was then still very new. He was said to have been spurred on by the exploits of his compatriots, including Mr Adaka Boro and the popular playwright, Ken Saro Wiwa, both of whom paid the supreme price in their attempt to ‘liberate’ the Niger Delta.

Having substantially empowered himself and his lieutenants, Ekpemupolo, perceived to be one of the most financially buoyant ex-militants in the region, at least before the federal government’s clampdown, took on the authorities in what would later prove to be a watershed in the history of Nigeria.

When it became apparent that Tompolo and his ilk would not budge in their confrontation against the Nigerian military and their attempt to cripple the economy largely dependent on crude oil from the Niger Delta, the federal government came up with a quick fix – the amnesty programme.

The ex-militants were, by the agreement, required to submit their arms to the authorities while the federal government would in turn rehabilitate and empower them. Though critics argue that a substantial portion of his riches came as a result of his involvement in illegal oil bunkering, which he has denied, and of course from his relationship with the previous government, those who are close to him describe him as a staunch businessman.
“My name became associated with oil business when I was in Camp 5 (headquarters of MEND at the time). Everybody knows that I am not a bunkerer and that is the more reason I am surviving up till date,” he once told a news medium.

Thereafter, he secured a multi-billion naira deal to secure the waterways after reluctantly accepting the amnesty on June 27, 2009, thereby publicly renouncing armed militancy. But controversies have become a part of his relatively short reign, despite his attempt to draw attention to his humane side by floating a foundation, which caters for the needs of the less privileged.

He has renovated dilapidated schools and put brilliant kids on scholarships. His foundation, the Tompolo Foundation has donated drugs to both government and public hospitals. He has funded teachers’ training, especially those in the field of science to acquire more knowledge and be trained to meet the educational needs of children in the riverside communities of the state.

Tompolo has influenced many high level appointments of his people both in government and in the private sector, thereby largely strengthening his hold on the politics and the economy of the area.
Yet, controversy has become his middle name. The taciturn ex-militant was rumoured to have singlehandedly stopped the then President Goodluck Jonathan from inaugurating the $16bn gas project in Delta State as a result of his disagreement with the Itsekiri people concerning the project.

His loyalists purportedly held a group of journalists and then later accused them of possessing firearms, just because they were going to cover an official assignment for Emami, his rival, in the waterways. He has influenced the enthronement of past traditional rulers in his Oporoza, Gbaramatu area and indeed singlehandedly nominated and installed Mr. Kingsley Otuaro, as Deputy Governor of Delta State in the last governorship election.

During the last local government election, the Itsekiri candidate backed by the then governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan stepped down overnight for the ex-agitator’s brother as a result of pressure from Tompolo. He forced Uduaghan, who was then preparing for the senate even as an incumbent governor, to step down for Senator James Manager, his kinsman, during the 2015 December National Assembly primaries in the contest for Delta South senatorial seat.
A polytheist, the ex-warlord once said he respects all religions and practices Christianity, Islam and African Traditional religion, but with special devotion to the Amaseikumor deity, headquartered in Oporoza and currently besieged by the Nigerian military.

But back to the present crisis, aside Chief Emami, who the ex-MEND leader accuses of inducing the ongoing imbroglio to keep him under check, he has also made comments to the effect that the security operatives should broaden their search for those destroying oil and gas facilities.

“…the contractors in charge of repair works of attacked pipelines are equally culpable in the act of pipeline vandalism as they now sponsor their allies in the communities to continue to destroy pipelines to get more repair works. This is the sorry state we have found ourselves in the Niger Delta,” he said in a statement a few days ago.
Then again, if as they say in local Nigerian parlance and when roughly rendered, that “the witch cried last night and a baby died this morning, who doesn’t know that it was the witch that killed the baby?” Then the decision of Nigeria’s security apparatchik to go after him may be justified.

The embattled ex-warlord started having issues with the Nigerian authorities around December 2015; the resurgence of militancy and destruction of oil platforms started around 16th January, though it didn’t draw much public attention. Not a few felt that this is too close to be a coincidence.
However, Spokesman of Gbaramatu Kingdom, Tompolo’s town, Chief Godspower Gbenekama, held that the search for Tompolo is a whirlwind that would blow nobody any good. According to him, if Tompolo indeed wanted to fight the federal government, he would come out in an open confrontation like he did just a couple of years ago, before agreeing to key into the amnesty programme.

Gbenekama believes that the purported arms recovered from Tompolo’s village when Oporoza was raided by the military last week were only a façade; a way of calling a dog a bad name so as to hang it.
“This issue of recovery of ammunition is an arrangement from the pit of hell. Who was there? It’s an arrangement. When Tompolo was reigning in the days of MEND, was it rusted AK 47s or pistols that he used? They are pursuing a wrong agenda.

“No arms were recovered, if they were, they were planted by our enemies. They came in the night, so they would have arranged them,” he said. The chief asked the military to look elsewhere for the Niger Delta Avengers.
“They should beam their searchlight on somewhere else. At the time they were invading our community by 11.55, pipelines were being blown up in Nembe, Bayelsa. Was it Gbaramatu people that went there? Let them stop playing a script. As long as they concentrate on Gbaramaru and continue to molest people, they will continue to be in the dark. The FG should know what to do. Let them open their mind.

“As long as they victimise Gbaramatu, more militants will arise. I repeat, an 18-year old child can impact the critical assets of this nation and cripple the government with just a hammer and chisel. They should broaden their searchlights because we are not militants,” he added while stoutly defending Tompolo, who is to him, an Ijaw hero.
But to the federal government, Tompolo remains a villain, a lawbreaker, and an outlaw, who should face the charges against him in the law courts and direct his boys to stop sabotaging Nigeria’s critical economic assets. Yet, the man in the middle of it all sees himself as a victim of high level political and economic power play.

“I am obviously a victim of circumstance in this matter because of my case with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC),” he said, adding, “I am greatly touched and disappointed with the manner the Nigerian government and the Military are being arm-twisted by the unfounded claims of Ayiri Emami and others that I am behind the Niger Delta Avengers group, when there is no single proof to back the claim. It is a pity that President Muhammadu Buhari and the Military do not know the kind of informants that are working with them,” he lamented.

Is Tompolo truly innocent or are his antecedents haunting him? Does the resurgence of militancy in the oil-rich region have anything to do with the ex-warlord? Are the recent bombings of oil facilities and his case with the FG intertwined? These and many more are the puzzles the security forces, hopefully, would seek to unravel in the coming months.

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Controversies have become a part of his relatively short reign, despite his attempt to draw attention to his humane side by floating a foundation, which caters for the needs of the less privileged…He has renovated dilapidated schools and put brilliant kids on scholarships. His foundation, the Tompolo Foundation has donated drugs to both government and public hospitals. He has funded teachers’ training, especially those in the field of science to acquire more knowledge