By Temitayo Odunlami
Government Ekpemupolo a.k.a. Tompolo, a former militant has risen to become a strong ally of the federal government, and a billionaire businessman
Only three years ago, he was a fugitive. In May 2009, Brigadier-General Sarkin Yaki Bello, commander of the Joint Military Task Force, JTF, in Niger Delta, had declared Government Ekpemupolo the most wanted man in Nigeria. Bello had fingered Ekpemupolo, or Tompolo, as he is widely known, and his band of militants in the Gbaramutu creeks of the Niger Delta as executing the killing of 11 soldiers – one officer and 10 junior men. It was just one of the many instances of the militants’ atrocities.
The militants had been running riot in the Niger Delta, perpetrating illegitimate bunkering, operating illegal refineries, vandalising oil pipelines, engaging in kidnapping and doing piracy. And Tompolo was in the thick of it as one of the leaders. The JTF was intent on doing him in. Bello’s men stormed the Okerenkoko, operations headquarters of Tompolo, desperately searching for him. They were successful all right, but not in nabbing Tompolo. What they found were numerous rifles, machine guns, Uzzi guns, Army mistin carriers, dynamite and gun boats. In the Niger Delta, Government Ekpemupolo, ruthless, invincible and taciturn, was and is indeed, a government all of his own.
Today, Tompolo is not only a free man, he is a darling of the very federal government that only three years ago, considered him an arch enemy deserving of extermination. Despite his violent past and little education, he is one of the most influential Nigerians today. There is no doubt that he is very close to President Goodluck Jonathan. To cement the romance, government has invested the Global West Vessel Specialist Limited, GWVSL, a firm widely believed to be owned by Tompolo, with a contract worth $103.4 million (over N15 billion) to supply 20 vessels for the use of the nation’s military authorities to secure the waterways. Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA, Ziadeke Akpobolokemi, had last year sent a memo titled, “Award of Contract for the Strategic Concessioning Partnership with NIMASA to Provide Platforms for Tracking Ships and Cargoes, Enforce Regulatory Compliance and Surveillance Of The Entire Nigerian Maritime Domain,” to President Goodluck Jonathan.
In considering the memo, President Goodluck Jonathan and Akpobolokemi chose GWVSL as the preferred company for the 10-year concession agreement. The concession is renewable for two terms of five years each. Jonathan, in a memo dated 9 November 2011, with reference number PRES/99/MT/61, approved Akpobolokemi’s memo, which the Federal Executive Council rubber-stamped on 5 January 2012. According to Akpobolokemi, GWVSL “will provide platforms for effective policing of Nigeria’s maritime domain and ensure compliance with international maritime conventions on vessels and ships voyaging the country’s waters”. NIMASA maintains that the concessionaire would help the federal government to enforce the sabotage law and collect levies on its behalf. NIMASA’s projection shows that about N124bn is expected to be generated in revenue to the federal government by GWVSL. Akpobolokemi underlines the public-private partnership with Tompolo’s company as necessary because the federal government could not bear the cost of the project.
Jonathan has sent the new memo to the National Assembly, urging it to discountenance an earlier one submitted by the late President Umaru Yar’Adua. Yar’Adua’s memo sought to create a coastal guard, comprising all security agencies, to man the country’s maritime domain.
Although the Minister of Transport, Senator Idris Umar had striven to explain there were no underhand dealings to the maritime contract, critics still read ethnic jingoism into it. President Jonathan, Akpobolokemi and Tompolo all hail from the Niger Delta, whose people have for many years been expressing infuriation that they are being oppressed despite the fact that the geographical area produces the oil that enriches Nigeria. Umar told journalists that contrary to speculations that the GWVSL, by the contract, would be usurping the functions of the Nigerian Navy, the company would only be providing platforms, security boats, equipment and expertise to assist in securing Nigeria’s waterways and thereby leverage on revenue generation. The company’s hands will not bear arms.
More importantly, it is GWVSL, and not government, Umar disclosed, that would be providing the entire $103.4mn fund for the exercise and it would be recouping its investment from surpassing NIMASA’s annual revenue collection profile. “Under the NIMASA Act, it is empowered to take charge of administration and the safety of our waters. And under the same Act, NIMASA has been empowered to carry out its functions, duties and responsibilities either by itself or through any institution of government or in partnership with any agency of government or through or in partnership with any natural person or limited liability company like the Global West Limited which has now entered into a partnership with NIMASA,” Umar clarified in justifying the contract.
But the critics, mostly northern leaders, accused the President of secretly pursuing an ethnic agenda and wondered why what they called a sensitive contract that borders on national security should be handed to a private company. They also wondered if the concessionaire would keep the huge accruals even if it met its target in one month of its operation. The disenchanted leaders cited the abrupt deployment of former Minister of Transport, Yusuf Suleiman to the Ministry of Sports for once querying Akpobolokemi over the Tompolo issue. Suleiman was believed to be furious with Akpobolokemi for allegedly paying N49mn weekly to Tompolo’s company to secure the waterways. But Akpobolokemi justified the payment, claiming that it was payment for five vessels hired from Tompolo’s company by the agency. The power play between Suleiman and Akpobolokemi assumed an ethnic dimension as some Niger Delta elders waded in in support of the NIMASA boss. Suleiman eventually lost his job as Transport Minister.
Sources told TheNEWS that Akpobolokemi was Tompolo’s candidate for the NIMASA job. Jonathan, it was gathered, preferred to remove the minister from his position than risk infuriating Tompolo, a man the president is very happy to have on his side.
Immediately Suleiman queried Akpobolokemi and sent a clear signal to him that he could be fired, Tompolo called Suleiman asking him to show mercy to the NIMASA boss. But Jonathan moved fast by redeploying Suleiman from the Transport Ministry to Sports.
The GWSVL contract is regarded in many quarters as merely formalising a job Tompolo has been informally performing for NIMASA for many months; and has been feeding quite fatter on. For the 43-year-old creek-wise roughneck, it has been a long, tortous road to stupendous wealth and the billionaire club. Frail of figure but so stout of courage, Tompolo balances whatever deficit he suffers in educational accomplishments with suicidal but calculatingly rewarding proclivities. Born to a royal house in Okerenkoko in Gbaramatu kingdom, Warri South-West Local Government, Delta State, little Government attended Okepopo Primary School, Warri and later, Warri Comprehensive College, leaving in 1993.
The increasingly combative restiveness of Niger Delta youths against what they perceived exploitation by the federal government cut Tompolo’s future out for him. In 1997, he began his quasi-military career as an Ijaw soldier during the bloody crisis between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri over then Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha’s relocation of a local government headquarters from the Ijaw area to Itsekiri’s. Once disclosing what prompted him into militancy, Tompolo explained he and others like Paul, Dennis, Ketson, Kingsley Otuaro, Oboko Bello, Dan and George Timinimi were furious that what they firmly believed was their land was being taken over by their Itsekiri neighbours. He narrated that in the 1980s, there was a time the Itsekiri people wanted to collect rent from those living in Okerenkoko, a town that is today an Ijaw community in Gbaramatu kingdom. “The Itsekiri people say they are the owners of Gbaramatu kingdom as a whole. From what I was told, we (Ijaw) are the original owners of the land in question, and our Itsekiri brothers came to meet us there,” he asserted.
Tompolo recalled that he was always accompanying his father’s elder brother, the late Papa Gbamido Ekpemupolo as he went from one court to another, in Benin, Warri or Abuja, over cases between the Ijaw in Gbaramatu and the Itsekiri. “So when we realised that if we didn’t stand firm we would be forced to pay rent to our neighbour, we decided to take our lives in our hands and fight out the battle. That is where the battle between us and our Itsekiri brothers started,” he stated. The face-off was compounded by the relocation of the headquarters of Warri South-West Local Government Area from Ogbe-Ijoh to Ogidigben, an Itsekiri community.
The war threw up Tompolo as a ruthless and brave soldier and a good manager of forces. After the war, threats to his life and his own ambition of playing in the bigger league compelled him to move to Oporoza within the Gbaramutu kingdom. There, two developments emerged to lend Tompolo excuses for his militancy and its underlying goal of mercantilism. Violent agitations against the oil multinational, Shell, had been growing since Abacha deployed soldiers against the Ogonis and other Niger Delta elements protesting against oil spillages, general environmental degradation and non-development of the oil-producing areas. The coup de grace was government’s hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa, an Ogoni and environmentalist.
Tompolo arrived the Niger Delta agitation cauldron at the right time, after Abacha’s death, and keyed in efficiently into the scattering of unorganised armed groups disrupting the multinational companies’ oil prospecting and producing operations, especially Shell’s. He was particularly alleged to be a pointman in the attacks against Shell, accusing it of environmental despoilation and exploitation. Helpless against the militants’ guerilla attacks – and kidnapping of its officials, to boot – Shell quickly got the message. Tompolo’s operations turned into a protection racket, with Shell shelling payments to the young, ruthless militant and his associates to assure, at least, some measure of smooth operations.
Second, on the return to democracy, the wont of Nigeria’s political leaders to apply violence on opponents and need for private protection demanded the services of tough, fearless goons. In the Niger Delta, many of the politicians turned to the militants who already boasted heavy weapons and understood the terrain. When state governors came into power, they only boosted the artillery firepower of the militants on whom they splashed money to acquire more arms. Thus, the Niger Delta, populated by fierce, gun-toting youth, became a hotbed of both violent attacks on oil companies and oil installations, as well as violent political thuggery. In 2003, Tompolo led the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities, FNDIC, in an uprising that shut down about 40 per cent of Nigeria’s oil production, targeting mostly Chevron’s installations.
Gradually, Tompolo’s fame as a vicious war general but a principled and maganimous leader to his forces spread through the creeks. He had moved back to Okerenkoko to establish Camp 5 as his headquarters. Camp 5 was originally a private property called “Abuja” in the neighbourhood from where he and his colleagues started the struggle. And gradually, the money began to flow in – from the various rackets of political and corporate protection, to illegal bunkering. He was effectively leader of the Delta State end of the Niger Delta militants’ battle against oppression. As Convener of the Ijaw Youth Leadership Forum, IYLF, the umbrella body of all Ijaw young militants, Tompolo was, and is said to still be, providing mentorship and logistic support for all members. Across Delta State, he contributed to strengthening other militant groups. One example was Mujahid Dokubo Asari’s Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, NDPVF, to which Tompolo not only provided field fighters but also supplied the necessary arms and ammunition that ensured Asari’s successful commencement of his military campaign against oil installations.
Tompolo’s intervention also helped to check the rampaging influence of Ateke Tom’s Icelander Group, which was on the verge of overrunning Buguma, Asari’s hometown in Rivers State. As admitted by Asari himself: “Tompolo decided on his own volition to give me 50 AK47s which I used to launch the first series of attacks on the stronghold of the Icelanders. All my attacks were successful.”
Tompolo’s profile and stature soared in 2006 when he gathered his fellow group leaders from across the Niger Delta at Camp 5 to accord their struggle a definite name and platform. Besides, the new platform was meant to be immediately used to press for the release of Asari and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the former Bayelsa State governor, both of who were incarcerated by the federal government. So it was at Camp 5, Tompolo’s headquarters, that the Movement of the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, was formed. MEND was, however, not formed as an umbrella organisation of all the militant groups but as an organ to issue unified, rather than discordant, statements for them. So if any of the groups attacked any oil installation or kidnapped any figure, it was MEND that would admit responsibility for the act.
Tompolo had maintained in a rare interview that it is not an issue in dispute that he was the founder of MEND. “I did not go to school, so anything concerning paper work, there are people who handle it. I am not the only person; there are others. If you are doing something, you have to put heads together with others because the idea is to cut across our nine states. That was how MEND was formed and that was the reason the last time that all the ex-militant leaders went to Abuja. In the presence of everybody, I told them that I am the owner of MEND. It was formed in Camp 5. I said it in the presence of everybody and nobody can contest it with me,” he declared. Names Tompolo was referring to as the intellectual minds behind his operations then included Oboko Bello, who studied Mathematics up to the doctoral level and Henry Okah, who was appointed in Camp 5 as the propangadist for MEND though he was not in the country. Okah has since been arrested in South Africa for gun-running and the 1 0ctober 2011 (Independence Day) bombing in Abuja.
Tompolo boasted that, apart from Dokubo-Asari and Ateke Tom, every other militant general had his tutelage at Camp 5. “Henry Okah was one of us. That is the truth and he is somebody that if not for greed and his trying to say that I want to be all and all, he is one person that all of us respect. He is one of us,” he said. Based in South Africa, Okah was the brains behind the e-mail and text messages to media establishments on MEND’s activities.
MEND announced its first signature statement with the abduction of nine foreign staff – three Americans, two Egyptians, two Thais, one Briton and one Filipino – of Wilbros, an American oilfield services company based in Panama but with a major office and company executives in Houston. Its Nigerian operational base is Choba, Port Harcourt. Wilbros has since been acquired by Nigerians; it is widely believed that former governor of Delta State, James Ibori, now serving term in an English jail is behind the acquisition. MEND, which claimed to be fighting for a greater share of Nigeria’s oil wealth, claimed responsibility for the Saturday 17 February 2006 abduction. There followed a series of raids which consequently cut Nigeria’s crude oil exports drastically and negatively impacted on the economy.
Until the JTF fell out with Tompolo’s militant group, he was the Task Force’s favoured boy. The JTF was always turning to him for information and assistance to nail pirates and kidnappers, and as one unconfirmed source said, his magnanimity was always rubbing off in some forms on the men and officers of the Force. In July 2004, Tompolo was said to have assisted the JTF, then under the command of Brig-General Elias Zamani to capture John Togo, a notorious sea pirate and his gang that included Perembowe Ebinimie, Felis Dissi and Peter Dolobowei. The JTF and the Delta State government were also said to be employing Tompolo’s structures to provide security for the troubled waterways in the state. The source alleged that Tompolo was earning as much as N100mn every month to maintain peace, on behalf of government, on the waterways.
By 2009, Tompolo had amassed so much influence in Niger Delta affairs that even powerful figures in the zone looked up to him for economic and political empowerment. Reliable Niger Delta sources affirmed that his influence sustained his kinsman, Chief Wellington Okrika as Executive Chairman of the Delta State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission, DESOPADEC, for so long. Tompolo was also said to have virtually single-handedly enthroned Godwin Bebenimibo, a retired Superintendent of Police, as Gbaran III Agadagba, the traditional ruler of the Gbaramatu kingdom.
So when in June 2009, the President Yar’Adua administration embarked on implementing its Amnesty programme for Niger Delta militants, it could not but court Tompolo as the arrowhead of the programme. The federal government could not afford not to patronise him; his acceptance of the amnesty programme largely influenced other militant leaders to embrace peace. His embrace of the peace overtures largely crumbled MEND, the structure that wrought havoc and nearly crippled the economy of the nation. Newspaper reports painted how Tompolo received a hero’s attention on the day he led more than 1,500 militants to surrender their weapons in Oporoza village. Received by then Minister of Defence, retired General Godwin Abbe and cheered on by hundreds of people wearing vests with the inscription Tompolo Is Our Hero, the militant surrendered a large cache of arms that included general purpose machine guns, rifles, rocket launchers, explosives and countless numbers of various ammunition.
Tompolo was reported to have shed tears at the occasion while remembering close friends, associates and relatives who had died while the militants were waging what he called a fight to free the people of the Niger Delta from bondage. He promised that since the militants have embraced amnesty, the issue of MEND and the reason to shed blood was over. The warlord insisted that anybody using MEND for any liberation cause for the Niger Delta would be doing so for his personal interest. He, however, warned that if the federal government reneges on its promises to develop the Niger Delta, militants in the area would have no choice but to go back to taking up arms.
Tompolo always cites Isaac Adaka Boro, the late Ijaw militant who was killed during the Nigerian civil war, as his hero and the main inspirational figure for his daring struggle against the federal government. He strongly believes in the Egbesu deity, the god that many Ijaw worship, and sees it as directing his survival so far. He explained that the deity helped him to achieve his aims and objectives, since he was pursuing what he insisted was “a genuine struggle”.
Now a High Chief in his Gbaramatu kingdom, Tompolo’s frail physique belies the daring spirit within. At his Camp 5 headquarters, he determines the rules of engagement. On one occasion in 2007, when Jonathan, then Vice-President, visited the camp for talks with Tompolo, his convoy and guards were strictly denied entry into the camp. Only Jonathan was said to have been allowed in. Throughout the struggle, Tompolo gave the JTF the fiercest, combative resistance. But away from the struggle, he is described as so unassuming; even till now that he is a billionaire, he relates freely with his Ijaw kinsmen and the larger Niger Delta people. He constantly denies he was, and is, involved in illegal bunkering. “My name became associated with oil business when I was in Camp 5. When people were doing illegal business in my area (front of Camp 5), I had people with me and would ask them to go and ask these people to give them some money so that we could feed with it. But I would never do it myself,” he said. “Everybody knows that I am not a bunkerer and that is the more reason why I am surviving up till date,” he once told a national daily.
Talking about illegality, Tompolo, typical of him, has not been heard to say a word on the raging GWVSL contract that some critics have been lampooning. So what is illegal about it? Nothing, absolutely nothing, insisted Akpobolokemi. The NIMASA Director-General queried: “If it is Tompolo that the contract was awarded to, is he not a citizen of Nigeria? Is he an ex-convict? Is he not more than 18 years old to own a company? We have hundreds of vessels which in the past 10 years and up till this moment, including patrol boats supplied by private individuals to oil multinational companies, that are working in conjunction with the Nigeria Navy. Has there been any complaint anywhere? Shell Nigeria Exploration and Production Company and Agip, among other international oil companies, and the Nigerian Navy, up till this moment, engage people, including those who are grumbling now, to supply them patrol boats. Who has raised any dust? If anybody has a reason to partner with us and we feel he is qualified, who are we not to give him jobs?”
Akpobolokemi said many people kicking against the contract are afraid they would be exposed. “The illegal activities they are conducting in the maritime domain are all going to be exposed, including illegal bunkering, illegal ship-to-ship transfer and mystery discharges that are not authorised. These are things people are afraid of.” He explained that the contract was not awarded to Tompolo as an individual, but to GWVSA, in which the NIMASA boss admitted the ex-militant has interest, but which, he said, had been verified to have the capability to render the required service. “The contract awarded to GWVSA is a fair deal to Nigerians,” he maintained.