By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South
MINISTER of Defence and Chairman of the Presidential Panel ofÂ on Amnesty and Disarmament of Militants, Major_General Abbe (rtd.) may have either forgotten that he was not in the barracks or that the amnesty programme, which heâ€™s marketing to militants on behalf of the Federal Government cannot be bought by military fiat when he met , last Sunday, September 13,withÂ the generalissimo of Niger-Delta militants, Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo at Oporoza, the traditional headquarters of Gbaramatu kingdom in Delta State.
A dependable source told Saturday Vanguard the Edo-born Defence Minister was so fixated on the point that the October 4 date fixed by the Federal Government for acceptance of amnesty and turn-in of arms is sacrosanct that a vital point for the success of the amnesty programmeÂ droppedÂ by his â€œchief hostâ€, also regarded as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) in the militant world was almost overlooked until the former Minister of Works and ex_chairman of the Board of Trustees (BOT) of the People Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Tony Anenih drew his attention to it.
Besides Abbe and Anenih, the Governor of Delta State, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, Commander of the Joint Task Force (JTF) on the Niger_Delta, Major_General Sarkin Yarkin_Bello, and Special Adviser to the President on Niger_Delta, Mr. Timi Alaibe and the Coordinator of the Disarmament Committee, Air_Vice Marshal Lucky Ararile were present at the tactical meeting.
According to our source, â€œTompolo felt the minister did not know what he was saying the way he was postulating, but, because of the presence ofÂ Â Â Tony Anenih, whomÂ he hadÂ Â met previously and who left theÂ comfort of his home at his ageÂ to come to the creeks to meet with him in the search for peace in the Niger-Delta, he had to condone the outburst of Abbe, who sounded as hell would be let loose if he did not accept amnesty or surrender his arms come October 4â€.
However, Major-General Abbe simmeredÂ Â at the end of the day and a tentative agreement of sort was reached on how to pursue the next line of action.Â Except for Governor Uduaghan and Mr. Alaibe who had met with Tompolo in the past, Abbe, Anenih, Yarkin_Bello and Ararile, who were meeting him for the first time were surprised that the militant leader with so much guts is packaged in a tiny frame.
The Gbaramatu visit was not about Tompolo alone, the team visited the Pere (traditional ruler), His Royal Majesty Godwin Bebenimibo, a retired police officer, whose palace was razed by the JTF during the aborted Cordon and Search operation in his kingdom, Rivers warlord, Ateke Tomi and had a session with a group of six militants willing to surrender their arms at Osubi Airport, Osubi before proceeding to the creeks.
Meeting with Tompolo
The meeting with Tompolo was held at the open gallery at about 2.pmÂ in the burnt palace of the Gbaramatu monarch and the minister was said to have been shocked at the level of destruction. On Tompoloâ€™s side was the leader of the Ijaw Youth Leadership Forum (IYLF), an umbrella group of Ijaw youth leaders, Mr. T.K. Ogoriba, former national president of the Ijaw Youth Council, Jonjon Emmanuel Oyinfie,Â Hon. Kingsley Kuku and Annkio BriggsÂ Abbe delivering the message from the Commander-in-Chief, saying President Yarâ€™Adua wants him to accept amnesty offer and the Federal Government was committed to handling the issues he (Tompolo) and other Ijaw leaders raised. He added that the President would want Tompolo to be part of the solution to the Niger-Delta crisis.
Mr. Ogoriba who spoke on behalf of the IYLF and Tompolo noted that it was in the midst of destruction that amnesty was declared for militants and that there had been peace in Delta state for two years until the unfortunate May 13 incident. He said that if the government wanted Tompolo to accept amnesty, the October 4 date was not feasible for obvious reasons.
Our source explained,
â€œTompolo is a leader with thousands of boys under him. Most of them are scattered in the region at the moment and have arms. Some were sent on errands with those arms one time or the other and now that he is back, he has to summon them back, brief them on the Amnesty programme of the government, arrange for the Presidential Committee on Amnesty and Disarmament of Militants to come and address them, convince them on the propriety of the amnesty programme, provide tangible way forward to the issues of underdevelopment of the region, jobs for the unemployed youths, re-building of burnt communities and burnt palace of the Gbaramatu king before asking them to surrender armsâ€.
The minister who was apparently not comfortable with the suggestion that the amnesty programme should be shifted insisted that the October 4 deadline for the acceptance of amnesty and surrender of arms was sacrosanct and urged Tompolo to key into it.
Tompolo opens up
Everybody wanted to hear from the horseâ€™s mouth but Tompolo, a man of few words,Â Â did not want to speak in the open forum. His quietness created a little concern and the team had to enter into a closed_door session with him. In his session, Saturday Vanguard was told Tompolo was accompanied by Ogoriba while Abbe, Anenih, Uduaghan and Alaibe made the government team.
Abbe spoke again, asking him to accept amnesty, adding that he should feel free and talk to the team, as if Mr. President was there, because the powerful delegation represents him.Â This time, Tompolo, who controlledÂ his anger over the military manner the minister posited earlier that the October 4 deadline was sacrosanct told the minister that things were not straightforward the way he thought.
He noted that Delta state was peaceful and he was part of the peace programme until the May episode. He said there was need to extend the October 4 date for a holistic approach, as most of his boys with arms were presently at large and he neededÂ Â time to locate them, adding that if October 4 and the government sends soldiers to kill people in Gbaramatu, who would they kill if they did not see him or the boys with the arms.
He said if the government want him to drop arms or come out to accept amnesty, it was a very simple thing, but, the question is, â€œWhat of my boys that are still with arms and the many Tompolos in the creeks, who will not drop arms if the programme is not well handled or allowed to go the way it is going at the momentâ€.
The militant leader said the answer is that another round of insecurity would be created in the region if an extension was not granted for a proper work to be done by the Amnesty Committee in an all_embracing consultation with militant leaders and their fighters.
Saturday Vanguard was told that Major_General Abbe replied that extending the October 4 date would be difficult. It was at this stage that Chief Anenih played one of his deft roles, observing that the point raised by TompoloÂ was cogent and should be treated with the seriousness it deserved. Consequently, Abbe agreed that Tompolo should come to Abuja to tell Mr. President about the extension himself, saying his security was guaranteed.
Tompolo and his senior aides are working out the necessity or otherwise of his meeting with Mr. President at Abuja on the matter, having passed the message through the Minister, who earlier gave him the impression that the presence of the delegation was as good as the President himself being in Oporoza.
Some of his people think there was no need for him to go, but, a good number suggested he should make the sacrifice and meet with Mr. President to intimate him of the reasons why the deadline should be extended. The minister is expected to facilitate the meeting if Tompolo accepts to take the initiative.
One of his senior aides challenged Saturday Vanguard to find out from the Governor of Delta State, Dr. Uduaghan if Tompolo was not part of his peace process that worked in the state, saying, â€œHe has not changed, he still wants peace in the Niger-Delta. That was why the IYLF was set up to facilitate the process and the group warned several times when they saw threats to the peace programme but the government did not listen and allowed the JTF to disrupt the process in May over a matter that would have been sorted out if a little time was given to dialogueâ€.
JTF Commander cuddles Tompolo
Major-General Yarkin-Bello has always yearned to know Tompolo since he could not catch him â€œdead or aliveâ€ within the period that he declared him wanted after the May 13 killing of soldiers serving in the task force by militants, supposedly from his overran Camp 5. September 13 was the dayÂ he set his eyes onÂ him. He could not believe his eyes that this is the militant leader that gave him sleepless nights. With his massive frame, he embraced the tiny_built Tompolo, as if to say there is no victor, no vanquish.
Tompolo, who had nursed a very deep grievance against the Commander was said to have gripped him also and in a moment of ecstasy, Major_General Bello would have told him something like, â€œSo, you are the one that gave me all these horrors, I thought you are one big Mafioso, look at you, looking so innocent when you are a very bad boy.
Take this handshake for running and running so far from me and my men because if we hadÂ caught youÂ Â I donâ€™t know what would have happened to youâ€. And Tompolo would have said, â€œI told you that you cannot win the war but you thought I was joking, even if you had searched from now to eternity, you would not have seen me, the more you look for me in the creeks, the less you see me because it is the land of my forefathers and they will not allow you to harm me until the government, which is stealing our oil, decides to develop our landâ€.
Monarch spits fire on JTF boss
AsÂ Â expected, the first port of call for the visitors when they arrived Oporoza was the temporal palace of the Pere of Gbaramatu, HRH Bebennimibo. Major_General Abbe (rtd) who delivered the message from the Commander_in_Chief said President Umaru Yarâ€™Adua wants the entire Gbaramatu people to accept amnesty and surrender their arms.
It was gathered the monarch took on the JTF Commander, saying he read in the newspapers that the Major-General Bello wanted to see him in connection with some matters during the military operation. He maintained the task force ought to have carried out its investigations properly before assuming that his assumption of office as the royal father of the kingdom did not follow due process, pointing out the Governor Uduaghan was in the better position to speak on the matter.
The monarch said he served the country meritoriously as a police officer before his people choose him as their king.Â He addedÂ that in the case of his Urhobo mother, who the JTF alleged could have been murdered because they saw her dead picture in his palace, the woman committed suicide in an unpleasant circumstance and was not killed for ritual purpose.
He called for the rebuilding of his palace that was burnt by the JTF, saying he is a man of peace and had no reason to work against the peace process of the government in his domain. Turning to Chief Anenih, whomÂ he said he was very pleased to welcome to hisÂ abode, the monarch said the PDP leader, also a former police chief was the person that recruited him into the Nigeria Police Force in 1969 in Warri, pointing out that he was the only person that was recruited on that day, as others were all disqualified. Chief Anenih nodded his head in agreement as he spoke.
Why Anenih joined the team
Many would have wondered why Anenih was in the team that visited Tompolo. The assumption is the political tactician was there to clear the coast for the company he was involved in the dredging of the River Niger but our source saidÂ he told the gathering that after meeting with Mr. President for about 90 minutes last Thursday evening, he was more than convinced that the man was genuine in his amnesty programme and he opted to meet with the militant leader to appeal to him to be part of the peace process that would usher a new dawn for the region.
â€œHe (Anenih) played the role of an elder during the visit, as he told the Amnesty Committee to go to other ethnic communities and appeal toÂ them also to surrender arms, as it was illegal to carry arms without authority and moreover, it is not only the Ijaws have boys that carry arms in the regionâ€, our source stated.
Anenih sense there was disconnect between Abbe and Tompolo at the meeting and he calmed the nerves of the latter when he spoke and he appeared convinced after the meeting that Tompolo is a rebel with a cause. It was learnt that Major-General Abbe thanked Anenih after the meeting for his dexterity.
Uduaghan meets with the three musketeers
Governor Uduaghan said he was aware that the Amnesty Committee was already going round and telling other ethnic groups to surrender their arms and that whosoever refused to accept amnesty and surrender arms, as prescribed by the law would have himself to blame later. The issue was raised at the open session by Annkio Briggs.
Saturday Vanguard gathered that Uduaghan met with three youth leaders he described as the three musketeers. The minister of defence may not know them but the governor who is not a stranger to the musketeers introduced them to him and asked him to hold them strongly if the amnesty programme was to work in Gbarmatu kingdom.
Ateke Tom says he is ready
The delegation also met with Rivers militant leader, Ateke Tom in Rivers State and he expressed his willingness to accept amnesty and surrender arms, but, asked the Amnesty Committee to prevail on the Rivers State Government to stop making life uncomfortable for him in the state, as Governor Rotimi Amaechi was doing everything to make him not to come out of the creeks.