Iron Fist of the Niger Delta


In the Niger Delta, almost everyone believes in the endless cycle of life.  The ancestors, buried deep in the dark soil or in the undulating water of the lagoon and slow-moving rivers, are alive.  They roam the mangroves and if you look hard enough, you can behold their unblinking gaze in the dark.  They would not abandon their children, for they are part of them.  The struggle, when it comes, is also their own.  So, the Ijaws, confronted with the might of the Nigerian military, paid obeisance to Egbesu, their ancestral deity, and asked for spiritual leadership in battle.

MEND was the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger-Delta and it announced itself, when it did so, with a bang.  Henry Okah (currently in a South African jail for carrying out acts of terrorism in Abuja, Nigeria) was the mastermind, and he found his resources within variegated interests in FNDIC and the disenchantment of the Ijaw youths.  This development was because there was a division in the FNDIC High Command about the prosecution of the struggle.  By this time, President Obasanjo had reached out to the leaders of the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC), but some of the leaders felt the offer of amnesty by the Federal Government was not going far enough.  They felt the offer would rob them of income and influence. Putting the formation of MEND in the context of the times, Timinimi notes: “Henry came with the idea (of MEND) when he noticed that the FNDIC had been seriously infiltrated and there was an impending quest to mellow down the struggle for a period.”

MEND was the culmination of a troubling metamorphosis whose seed was planted with the execution of Saro-Wiwa and eight of his Ogoni compatriots.  Despite these terrible wounds, many politicians from the Niger Delta were still strutting the land, trying to participate in the Transition to Civil Rule Programme engineered by Nigeria’s vile dictator, General Sani Abacha, who did not hide his ambition to rule for life.  Part of his scheme was the One Million Man March organised in Abuja, by the shadowy group called the Youths Earnestly Ask for Abacha, (YEAA) spearheaded by a young opportunistic politician-cum-businessman named Daniel Kanu.  The group moved to the Niger Delta to recruit youths for the march.  Many of them, blessed with new naira notes and free flow of alcohol by the organisers, travelled by buses to Abuja.  It was the first time many of them were beholding the glittering new city of Abuja, proclaimed in 1976 the new capital of the Federal Republic by  then Head of State General Murtala Muhammed  They saw the meaning of the Niger Delta wealth and how it has been used to build a new city in the jungle.  They returned home, wiser, chastised and bitter.  They wanted something for their land, the source of the wealth.  When the crisis started, the militants knew what they were fighting for.  They wanted a new Niger Delta.

When MEND was established, the young militant,  nominated as the group’s first “General Commander” was a welder with a contractor engaged by  Chevron Nigeria Limited and he soon learnt that he might lose his job unless he returned to work.  He informed the leadership that he would prefer to go back to work.  At this point, one of the leaders, Chief Government Oweizide Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo, pleaded with Timinimi that they needed to ensure that the young man got his job back at Chevron. Timinimi got in touch with Chevron and they agreed to give the welder his job back.

There was a contentious debate among MEND’s top members about the replacement for this General Commander.  Timinimi recalls: “I suggested that the first and second commanders were in my opinion not capable of manning the head honcho position of MEND being that they were not well schooled. In their place, I nominated one of our members who was a beneficiary of the struggle in gaining admission to Delta State University to study political science.  He was equally sponsored by the FNDIC to head the activities of MEND.  High Chief Government Ekpemupolo (alias Tompolo, the business name of his father, Chief Thomas Osen Ekpemupolo, who was the Tunteriwei of Gbaramatu Kingdom) concurred.”

It was the coming of MEND that built up the near mythical personality of Tompolo. As Godspower Gbenekama, a key Ijaw leader who is the Fiyewei (spokeperson) of the Gbaramatu Kingdom, recounts: “If you go through the length and breadth of the Niger Delta, nobody has developed his own area among those who called themselves leaders of the struggle like Tompolo.  He has listening skills more than any other leader and he has influence over the youth more than any other leader in this area. His voice is obeyed. He is a potent personality. He does not lead from afar. He lives among the people.  He knows and feels their pains.  He is building leaders.  The only problem he has is those of us that are around him.  We don’t have the same vision he has.  I am here.  I want to make myself comfortable. I want to be rich, but this man is in the bush fighting for the people. He is wounded.  He is being pursued in the bush. He is a different kind of leader for he loves his people.”

Perhaps so, but Timinimi differs, querying why MEND’s activities were shrouded in secrecy. “Every member of MEND’s High Command,” he says, “acquired a pseudonym. The only public face of MEND is a faceless ‘Jomo Gbomo.’ Because of this, it was   extremely difficult to know who was involved or responsible for the activities of MEND. It was more or less seen as a struggle of guerrilla warfare and they took responsibility for whatever oil installation or facility of multinationals that were attacked, torched and expatriates that were taken hostage as prisoners of the struggle. Ransoms were also collected for the release of hostages in most cases by members of MEND.  When the situation on ground is very critical, monies may be rejected for fear of being attacked by the JTF (the government security Joint Task Force).  There were instances where drugs for various ailments were being sent across to an oil company’s staff who were captives through community persons.”

As far as Gbenekama was concerned, Tompolo is indispensable to the peace process in the Niger Delta. “Though the government is criminalising him,” he notes, “in the dead of the night, they still call him to talk to him. He is a young man.  He is a human being. At the height of the struggle, if he was taken into confidence, he would secure Chevron installations.” He adds: “If I was asked about the movement of marine assets in a convoy between Warri and field locations, in the height of the struggle, I would say let me check.  Who was I checking with? Tompolo, of course. Once he gives the go-ahead, I would give the all-clear signal.  That was why at the height of the struggle, IOCs in our area did not suffer attacks.  There were proper communication channels with oil companies.”

MEND militants were the starry-eyed youths of the Niger Delta drawn mainly from Delta and Bayelsa states who grew up seeing the gas flares and the dark liquid or the black gold polluting their ancestral land.  Now, they were told by their leaders that if they act, blow up some oil facilities, participate in well-thought-out kidnapping and generally show that they can fight, then the future would be better.  They felt empowered and emboldened when they were issued with standard machine guns and sophisticated weapons.  The struggle was getting more protracted and sophisticated.  Hostages were used as shields for fear of attack from the Nigerian military.  Ransoms were being paid regularly to MEND and they bolstered their operations.

Timinimi says MEND tried to enforce rules for its operatives.  His words: “There were ground rules for captives not to be molested by activists in the struggle. Whenever a captive wished to exercise, they were at liberty to do so under strict surveillance.  They were well-fed to their satisfaction, depending on what they wished to eat.”

He notes that internal squabbles within the community associations led to tension in the Niger Delta and affected the activities of FNDIC.  This ultimately gave way to the more ferocious MEND and its militant operatives. 

Timinimi says it was difficult for MEND’s High Command to maintain a united front because of pressure from the Federal Government and the ideological divides among the leadership.  “There was a divide among its membership after the arrest of Okah prior to the introductory period of the Amnesty Programme. While part of its members had embraced the amnesty opportunity thrown at them, others were still bent on continuing with the struggle,” he adds.

He says that for the first time, the Ijaws, through MEND, were able to conduct a united struggle. “Above everything else, and without too many backward glances, the leadership of MEND was tailored after the FNDIC with the coordinators and members cutting across the Niger Delta, mostly in Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers and Ondo states. It was therefore easy to instruct any of the coordinators to embark on actions on strategic areas where there is so much security pressure in Delta State.  These were actually a distraction tactics used during the period of MEND.”

Despite its success, many members of the political class were worried about the activities of MEND and they sued for a truce. Hear Timinimi: “The idea of a truce was first brought forth by Chief James Onanefe Ibori who drew my attention to the fact that there is a need for a truce to enable government take certain decisions that may be beneficial to all that were in the struggle.”  He says that Ibori, who was then Governor of Delta State argued that MEND’s activities were not different from the ‘Resource Control’ campaign of the political class which some of them were being blackmailed for.

Timinimi had been invited to the Government House, Asaba and at the meeting was also the Secretary to Government, Dr Emmanuel Uduaghan (who would succeed Ibori as governor).  Later, Timinimi recalls that, Ibori and I had a private discussion. Ibori then told him that since the impeachment and imprisonment of Chief Diepreye Solomon Peter Alamieyeseigha as Governor of Bayelsa State, (also lionised as the Governor-General of the Ijaws), by the Olusegun Obasanjo Administration for alleged corrupt enrichment, he Ibori had been taking care of his family.  Ibori thereafter called Alamieyeseigha on the phone and asked Timinimi to speak with him.

“From the time I spoke with him, I had a change of heart about Chief Alamieyeseigha as one person we, in the struggle, actually respect to the core. This  also gave me greater impetus to respect Chief James Onanefe Ibori for the role he had played in the family life of Alamieyeseigha, Alams, as he was popularly called. Alams instructed that we should work in tandem with the Odidigborigbo of Africa (the alias of James Ibori),” he adds.

Timinimi recalls that many members of their movement were sympathetic to the plight of the now late Chief Alamieyeseigha.  “He was one person whose arrest and detention inflated and heated up the anger of most aggrieved Ijaw youth, giving it escalated increase of the crisis. As soon as I got to Camp 5, (the headquarters of the MEND in the creeks), I intimated the leadership that he (Alams) spoke for a majority of us during my discussion with Chief Ibori.  This led to a temporary stoppage of the struggle.  Though we were all still very alert in the swamps and creeks as usual in preparation for any eventuality and unsuspected attack from our neighbour, the Itsekiris and the Government.”

To Timinimi, the activities of MEND would remain controversial. His words: “While FNDIC was structured essentially to be involved in genuine struggle, MEND was in most cases associated with vices such as kidnapping and ransom-taking. These vices introduced by some elements in MEND were a great challenge to the leadership of the FNDIC who vehemently opposed such mode of operation.”

The truth was that, at some point, the leadership of the FNDIC lost control over most of the activities of the MEND boys.  Many rogue groups also emerged, claiming affiliation with MEND but they were totally unknown to the FNDIC.  The new MEND operatives were on a different wavelength to the methodical leadership of the FNDIC.  

The MEND boys went the extra mile to acquire supernatural powers.  “They believe in the spirit of the river gods, deities and all those stuffs,” said Dr. Ikem Claver Tolar, a former manager at First Bank of Nigeria, an Ijaw leader who was the pioneer chairman of Egbema Gbaramatu Central Development Council (EGCDC) – easily the poster-child of Chevron’s Global Memorandum of Understanding (GMoU} – a joint company, community and government participatory development programme.

Dr. Tolar views militancy as a wrong turn in the struggle for justice in the Niger Delta. He notes that, initially, “the agitation then was for us to draw the attention of the Federal Government and the international community to the underdevelopment of the Niger Delta; to get our people out of poverty.  But when militancy took over, they went fetish and violent.  The voodoo people would do incantations.  It worked for them because they believed in it.  It was difficult for them to do away with it.”

The emergence of MEND and its militant variants was not a surprise to many of the political leaders of the Niger Delta, especially among the Ijaws.  One of the top Ijaw leaders, Chief Oboko Bello, elaborates extensively on their strategy. He notes that when the crisis started against the Itsekiris, following the creation of the Warri South-West Local Government Area, the Ijaw leadership decided to get their facts right.  He explains further: “They brought these documents and we now separated these figures, the figures of the population for the Ijaws and those for the Itsekiris.  We did this mathematically.  We now concluded that well over 63 per cent of the population of Warri South-West Local Government Area are Ijaw while only 37 per cent are Itsekiri.”

With this figure, they believed they would have an easier time in court.  The group then approached Chief Edwin Kiagbodo Clark, the veteran Ijaw leader who was persuaded to assemble a team of lawyers.  The lawyers took the case to the Federal High Court, Benin, where the Ijaw lost.  With that, the Ijaw were left with their second and third options, according to him. “The second approach was propaganda. I have the figures and facts.  So, I use these figures as propaganda that if government did not consider our case and reflect the extant figure of the population in the local government area in the register of voters, we would take our destiny in our own hands.  We gave them an ultimatum.”

• Being excerpts from The Contentious Search for Peace in the Niger Delta authored by Jide Ajide, John Ashima and Oluwole Agunbiade

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