By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South
Tompolo’s action; Intervention of security agents
WARRI— THE accepted rule of engagement between journalists in the Warri flank of Niger-Delta and ex-militants in Gbaramatu Kingdom, Warri South-West Local Government Area, Delta State, was shattered, Sunday, when the violent youths abducted 14 journalists and six other persons, including Itsekiri youth leaders.
The journalists, among them, this reporter, Sola Adebayo, Regional Editor, Leadership, Shola O’Neil, Regional Editor, Niger-Delta, The Nation and Olu Philips, Energy Reporter, Channels Television, were ambushed on the waterways at 1.p.m. while returning from a press conference, addressed by the Itsekiri community of Ugborodo, moments after they left Ogidigben. Other newshounds were Publisher of Warri-based Fresh Angle Newspaper, Anthony Ebule, Bolaji Ogundele, Reporter, The Nation, Warri, Emma Arubi, Senior Correspondent, Daily Independent Newspaper, Warri, and Awoso Harry, Delta Broadcasting Service, DBS, Warri, Paulinus Odedey, Camera man, Channels, Omoniyi Alex and Osaro Sado, AIT.
Groundbreaking of $16bn Delta gas city project
Journalists in Warri, Delta State and the country at large are seething with rage over the treatment meted to their colleagues. At the press conference by Itsekiri leaders, led by Chief Ayiri Emami, Pa Maku Uteyin, John Anderson, Madam Mercy Olowu and Itse Wilkie, who read the communique, the Ogidigben people called on President Goodluck Jonathan to fix a new date for the groundbreaking of the $16 billion Delta Gas City project, saying the facility was on their land.
Ambush: From nowhere, the speedboat conveying them and six other persons, including an Itsekiri youth leader, Kiki, whose father was understood to be an Ijaw chief in Oporoza, was double-crossed by Ijaw youths in about six speedboats. They demanded for the video cameras of the journalists, saying they had been monitoring them since Sunday morning while they went around with Chief Emami, video-taping their community.
As expected, no journalist would willingly surrender his working tools to hooligans, which was the picture the Ijaw youths presented of themselves. They kept quiet and were praying for the intervention of security agents since the point of ambush was not too far from an oil installation with military presence, but no help came. The fierce youths hopped into the journalists speedboat uninvited and started ransacking their belongings. They saw the cameras and pounced on the cameramen, especially on Paulinus Odedey of Channels for refusing to admit that he was with a camera when he was initially asked. Harry of DBS was also dealt some blows for the same offence.
There was hot argument with Kiky, the Itsekiri youth leader who was with the journalists for between five to 10 minutes. He was asked to leave the boat and enter another, which he objected to. But he was eventually overpowered and everybody was shepherded like captured hostages to their den in Oporoza. The journalists’ boat was earlier demobilized in a struggle between the ex-militants and the driver and this led to the whisking away of the journalists in one of the ex-militants’speedboats.
Agony in the lion’s den
At the lair where we were held for approximately six hours, one of the journalists, Emma Arubi, and six other community guides, including the boat driver, was brutalized. Arubi’s case was special and that is because he is of the Itsekiri ethnic stock. It was apparent from the outburst of the Ijaw youths that there was no a no-love lost between them and Itsekiri. They said the land the project is sited belongs to the Gbaramatu-Ijaw and Ayiri Emami had brought the press to film the community and twist the truth.
Immediately the journalists stepped into their den, they forcefully collected the cameras, telephones, tape recorders; communique issued at the press conference, wristwatches and every other thing, except money and took them somewhere to delete the recordings. Though some of the items were later handed over after the memory cards were removed, my digital tape recorder and that of Arubi were intentionally withheld. Thirty minutes after we were whisked to their hideaway, the ex-militants, who were cheered by some local chiefs and villagers, claimed that a pistol was found in one of the bags they seized. In their den, their word is law; you cannot argue or contest their allegation and untruth can be made to be real under such circumstance.
Warri South-West chairman’s intervention: The newly-elected chairman of Warri South-West Local Government Area, Mr. George Ekpemupolo, called our abductors and asked the chairman on ground to hand over his phone to me about 40 minutes or so into our ordeal. This was after an Ijaw youth leader had spoken to one of the journalists, Shola O’Neil, who told him the names of the prominent journalists that were abducted, including me, thinking that that could elicit an immediate order for release.
The Warri South-West chair assured me that everything was being done to secure the journalists freedom and that they would be handed over to the military. The driver of the boat and the Itsekiri youths denied knowledge of the weapons alleged to have been found in the boat.
But after they were brutally tortured, the boat driver said one of occupants was the person that brought a wrapped object, which he did not know the content into the boat. It was at this point that ex-militant leader, Chief Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo, who spoke to the leader on ground, also asked to speak to this reporter and I explained what happened. I told him we were abducted and our working tools and phones confiscated. He said his information was that guns were found in our boat. I told him we are journalists and not gun-runners. But that as he was speaking, the driver of the boat had already said that he saw somebody put a wrapped object inside his boat.
Punishment continues: Despite what I thought was his intervention, the ex-militants continued drubbing the Itsekiri indigenes among the six that were asked to lie face down. It was not the entire six, however, that were Itsekiri. One said he was a staff of the Delta State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission, DESOPADEC, while the other said he was Urhobo from Agbasa.
One of the ex-militants took delight in flogging those lying on the ground, including an Itsekiri chief. If there was any reservation that the episode was a setup, the decision of the ex-militants to force Arubi, the Independent Correspondent, to hold the AK 47, which they alleged was found in our boat and took photograph of him, then uploaded it on the social media, while we were still in their custody, gave them away.
You‘re all criminals – Abductors
They abused the journalists and accused them of promoting the Itsekiri agenda with their writings, maintaining that we were all lawbreakers since the weapons with which the Itsekiri want to kill them was found in our boat.
Enemy within: From what transpired within the six hours we were held against our will in the den, it was evident that the Itsekiri ethnic group has saboteurs in their midst, who were giving information to the Ijaw on the movement of Chief Ayiri Emami, who was the main target. One of the ex-militants, who said he knew this reporter, described vividly to me how many of them wore life-jackets in our speedboats, how they monitored our movement that Sunday morning and when we took off for the return journey back to Warri. In fact, the ex-militants swore that if Chief Emami was caught with us that Sunday, he would have been dismembered. They said the Itsekiri ethnic group was too small to drag land with Ijaw people and vowed to deal with them sooner or later.
Back to Warri: We arrived Naval Base, Warri, the next day, Monday, at about 11.00 am due to some mechanical problem with the gunboats that escorted the journalists, one of which was towed by our speedboat to Warri. The other could not make the journey.
It was understood that the governor, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, made efforts to free us on the day of the incident, but it was on Monday that he spoke severally with this reporter, asking what the true situation was on ground. And from the point he established contact; he was in constant communication until our eventual release from naval custody at 4.00 pm. The navy officials in Warri said they had to clear from their superiors in Abuja after obtaining statements from the journalists due to the dimension the matter had taken.
Preliminary investigations obviously indicated that the journalists were not gunrunners and that the six persons held with them could be innocent of the allegation from available information, hence all of them were also released. But, some Ijaw youth leaders, who called to apologize for the nightmare this writer and others went through in the hands of the youths, maintained that the whole thing was ill-fated. One, however, said, “Truly, our boys did not plant the weapons; we got information that there is weapon in one of the boats from our Itsekiri informant, who is not in Chief Ayiri Emami camp. It is unfortunate that you (journalists) were in that very boat. But from the way things are going, the Ijaw and Itsekiri are going to fight again, if it is not now, it will be tomorrow, but quote me, the Ijaw will never leave that EPZ land for the Itsekri, it is not for them, they should stop parading fraudulent court papers to say that we are their tenants, we are not their tenants.”