By Emma Amaize
His tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte with Henry Okah,Â How he survived JTF offensive, His next plan
LEADER of Camp 5, the dreaded militant group in Gbaramatu kingdom, Delta State, Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo, who fled his stronghold after it was overrun by the Joint Task Force (JTF) on the Niger-Delta in a military operation, code-named, â€œCordon and Searchâ€ to smoke out the militants that butchered no fewer than 13 soldiers, including a Lieutenant in a gun battle on May 13 has resurfaced in the territory.
He was declared wanted by the Commander of the JTF, Major-General Sarkin Yarkin-Bello in Warri on Thursday, May 21, eight days after the incident, but, the militant leader remained hard to pin down despite the frantic search for him in the creeks with gunboats, helicopters and other military devices.
Some national newspapers (not Saturday Vanguard) reported that he had fled the country for Ukraine and other countries, but, our source was emphatic that he was in the creeks in Ijaw land.
The JTF also refuted media reports then that Tompolo had fled the country, saying through its spokesman, Colonel Rabe Abubakar that he was still in the country and that the task force was closing in on him.
It was not really known how close the security outfit got to arresting him when President Umaru Yarâ€™Adua proclaimed amnesty for militants on June 25, which automatically invalidated the wanted tag placed on him by JTF.
However, Tompolo, who is said to be a master of the creeks refused to show up at any of the arms collection centre in Delta stateÂ since then to formally renounce militancy and accept amnesty, but, his lieutenants who spoke to Saturday Vanguard said he was not against amnesty.
The JTF is still occupying his overrun camp but soon after the displaced persons from Gbaramatu kingdom started returning back to their burnt homes from their â€œrefugeeâ€ camps in Ogbe-Ijoh and hideouts in the forests after the state government cleared the coast for them to do so, he re-emerged in Gbaramatu kingdom about a fortnight ago.
Tompolo inspects damaged buildings
An eyewitness who saw himÂ said, â€œHe went round some of the communities to inspect the damage caused by the Joint Task Force and to sympathize with the peopleâ€.
But a â€œgeneralâ€ in Tompoloâ€™s command told Saturday Vanguard, â€œMy boss was in Ijaw land even when the JTF said they were looking for him. We read the press reports that he had fled the country and all that but we know the truth and kept quiet.
The point I am making is that his coming out or being seen in Gbaramtu is not new because he never left Ijaw land and Gbaramatu is part of Ijaw land, I hope you get what I am sayingâ€.
Our source who is from the area, nevertheless, stated, â€œThat was the first time I saw him in our midst since the crisis erupted and he was going round the communities with some of his people following him aroundâ€.
He said there was a stampede in Okerenkoko community within the period, as soldiers came to collect some things they left behind and people thought they had come for another invasion.
Saturday Vanguard was told the militant leader shuddered when he saw the damage that was done to the palace of the traditional ruler of Gbaramatu kingdom, His Royal Majesty, Godwin Bebenimibo as well as the controversial â€œAso Rockâ€ in Oporoza, which the JTF said was his personal house, guarded by militants, but, which some other persons said was a community guest house.
JTF commander maintained that the house, which was bombed was owned by Tompolo and that he was living in the house before it was destroyed by soldiers.
If he trembled at what happened at Oporoza, he was literally speechlessÂ when he saw the situation of things at Okerenkoko, where virtually every house was looted and burnt.
â€¦ He is free to move about â€“ JTF bossContacted on the information that Tompolo has resurfaced in Gbaramatu, Major-General Yarkin-Bello said Tompolo and other militants have been granted amnesty by the Federal Government and it was left for him to accept it or otherwise.
He said since he (Tompolo)Â was no longer wanted by the task force, the search for him was calledâ€“off and the task force had no business monitoring when he enters Gbaramatu kingdom or not, but, he expressed the hope that Tompolo would accept the amnesty offered militants by President Yarâ€™Adua.
Meeting with Okah
Itâ€™s not known whether rebuilding the â€œAso Villaâ€ is his agenda for now, but, he met with the leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger-Delta (MEND), Henry Okah about a fortnight ago in the creeks of Delta state.
One of his aides who spoke to Saturday Vanguard on the meeting said, â€œBoth leaders discussed the amnesty programme of the Federal Government for militants, the peace process generally and the way forwardâ€.
His words, â€œMy boss will come out with a statement soon on his position regarding most of the questions you are asking me but what I can tell you for certain is that he is not against amnesty. The problem is that he does not think the Federal Government has any concrete post-amnesty programme for militants, as the South-South governors pointed outâ€.
â€œYou see, it is not just to ask militants to surrender arms or to accept amnesty, it is ensuring necessary things are put on ground for them not to return to militancy thereafter, it is ensuring that the government does what it has promised to do and all that, these were the kind of things that talked aboutâ€, he asserted.
According to him, â€œHe (Tompolo) has been long in the struggle, what he is after is development of the Niger-Delta region and he wants the militant leaders to close ranks and not to be fighting themselves on the pages of the newspapers. He is a quiet person and left for him, he does not want to be come out in the open to discuss anything with anybody, he prefers resultâ€.
â€œHowever, the amnesty programme, as it is now is bound to fail because the real militants or leaders of the Niger-Delta struggle have not come out to embrace it yet. I donâ€™t think the amnesty will be said to have been accepted by militants in the region if Tompolo, who was championing it before the unfortunate incident of May 13 refuses to be part of it.
â€œHe and others are still considering it because of the doubts about the sincerity of the government and he is making consultations with other people to see the best way the situation would be handledâ€, he asserted.
Asked when Tompolo would surrender arms, the aide said, â€œWe have not come to the stage of surrendering arms yet; he is talking about how to make the amnesty actually work. No real militant in Delta state and some other states of the region would want to surrender arms except they hear from their leaders, such as Tompolo and it is how to ensure that the struggle is not compromised even when they accept amnesty that he is working onâ€.
â€œTalking about arms surrender, which arms do you want him to surrender, did the JTF not announce to you that they raided his Camp 5 and its satellite branches and carted away his arms and ammunitions. They stated that they discovered his training camps also and recovered all the arms, so what arms are you talking aboutâ€, he asked.
How he survived in the creeks
Our source said Tompolo did not flee out of the country but was in a part of the creeks in Ijaw land, where the JTF could not possibly find him, except an Ijaw person, who is an insider, took them there.
It was gathered that some Ijaw leaders gave the JTF information that would have made it possible for it to track down Tompolo at one of his previous locations during the search for him and that made him to go deeper into the creeks.
â€œThat was why the task force said very confidently then that they were closing in on Tompolo. But as soon as we knew where they were coming from and who was talking to them, we changed strategy and he went to where they will not see him.
â€œAt a stage, only very trusted allies were with him because we found out that some people were giving out information on his whereabouts for a fee. Well, no gunboat can access where he later encamped and it is difficult for an aircraft to come there too.Â It is our territory and we know it in and out, we know how to get thereâ€, the aide added.
â€œIt is a very quiet and in a hidden place, you cannot locate it easily no matter your military training. If you came with a gunboat, it cannot take you people there, you must disembark and if you file out one by one to begin to look for the place, you are on your own because those who will finish you are there, but, the point is that they cannot locate the place even if they search for 100 yearsâ€, he added.
The JTF had thought that through some of the people they arrested and the harassment of innocent villagers, they would get a clue to arresting him, but, that was not possible. They were also looking out for the people that were sending food to him to track him through them.
Before he decided to be a militant, it is evident that Tompolo has a very strong heart and even when the soldiers were looking for him, he was confident that they would not find him and was calling his men to dish out instructions on what to do.
He spoke during the period to some highly influential government officials and Niger-Delta leaders who wanted to know his whereabouts and get him to reach out to MEND to stop the bombing of oil facilities, which took its toll on Delta state in particular.