By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South, Egufe Yafugborhi & Perez Brisibe
Two weeks ago, a privileged security source confirmed to Saturday Vanguard in Abuja that intelligence information available to the northern collection, comprising a select serving and retired military officers, that commandeered the battle to track down the Niger Delta Avengers, NDA, was that ex-militant leader, Government Ekpemukpolo, alias Tompolo, is behind the activities of the Niger Delta Avengers, NDA.
“The consortium, therefore, wants him nabbed by all means for it believes that once he is apprehended, the bombings will stop, which is Option A. In the alternative, it goes for Option B, which is Tompolo gives guarantee that there would be no more bombings in the Niger Delta and they arrange a soft landing for him.
“Despite the several avowals of Tompolo and Avengers that they share no link, the group’s strategists, including a security commander to a former Head of State, maintain that they were being economical with the truth, as the renewed militancy in the region surfaced soon after the EFCC formally declared Tompolo wanted over sundry fraud cases,” the source disclosed.
MEND redefines perception
The assemblage believed to be part of the security consortium the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, was negotiating with reportedly loosened up on Tompolo following the rationalization from the militant group that there was more than meet the eye in the whole affair and taking Tompolo as a foe would exacerbate, rather than solve the matter.
Indeed, on July 17, MEND in a memo to President Muhammadu Buhari notifying him of the final list of its Aaron Team 2 Dialogue, Peace and Development Initiative, included Tompolo as a key negotiator.
It explained: “High Chief Government Ekpemupolo’s inclusion in the final list was principally because of the key role he continues to play in the Niger Delta as a notable ex-militant leader; philanthropist; traditional title holder and mobilizer of amazing capacity.”
“It will, therefore, be counter-productive if the Federal Government ignored such an individual who may be capable of talking to the militants in the creeks to ceasefire,” the group added.
On the charges against the ex-MEND leader, it expounded, “We are very much aware of the pending criminal charges filed against Government Ekpemupolo by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). However, we strongly advise that the charges be suspended until after the conclusion of the Aaron Team assignment. This is to ensure that Mr. Ekpemupolo devotes his time, energy and resources towards the resolution of the current Niger Delta crisis without any fear of arrest, intimidation or harassment.”
Turning to the Okah brothers, it asserted: “Your Excellency, the MEND Aaron Team 2 Dialogue and Peace Initiative would not have materialized if not for the tireless work and support of the Okah brothers – Henry and Charles who are currently in prisons in South Africa and Nigeria, respectively. It is our humble submission that the release of the Okah brothers is a crucial factor in the peaceful resolution of the Niger Delta crisis.”
It contended: “If Senator Ali Ndume, who is still facing terror charge of sponsoring Boko Haram can be granted bail by the Judiciary and thereby permitted to participate in nation-building at one of the highest levels as Majority Leader of the Senate then, we see no reason the Okah brothers who have enormous capacity to help government bring the Niger Delta crisis to an end are still held in prison.”
“Sir, cases abound in history where prisoners were released from prison to help save the nation in times of crises. Examples include the likes of the Hebrew slave Joseph who was released from prison to help save ancient Egypt from famine.
“Nelson Mandela was also released from prison in 1990 to help restore multi- racial democracy in South Africa in 1994. We, therefore , urge the release of Messrs Henry and Charles Okah similarly as former President Olusegun Obasanjo was released from prison to become President and help to nurture the then nascent democracy in 1999,” the group said.
Peace talks with Buhari
When President Muhammadu Buhari stated, last Thursday, that the federal government was holding talks with the militants through the security agencies and oil multinationals, Niger Delta Avengers, Ultimate Warriors of Niger Delta, Niger Delta Revolutionary Crusaders and others rebutted his claim, but MEND said he was not lying.
Its words: “The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) wishes to confirm that indeed it has been in preliminary talks with the Federal Government through oil companies and law-enforcement agencies as revealed by President Muhammadu Buhari on Thursday, July 21, 2016.”
“These preliminary talks are the precursor to a wider dialogue between the Federal Government and the MEND Aaron 2 peace initiative, for solutions to the short, medium and long-term future of the Niger Delta region.
“The Federal Government made it clear during our meetings that a negotiation with criminals is out of the question,” it said.
However, either by coincidence or otherwise, few days before Buhari’s July 21 declaration, a different group of security operatives working with informants in the region, had launched a fresh manhunt for Tompolo, his associates and friends, particularly in Delta state.
It was not confirmed if the President was briefed on the military offensive, but they arrested a member of the Delta Waterways Land and Security Committee, DWLSC, Hon Simeon Bebenimibo, a friend of Tompolo, Bomboy Oluwa and others.
Speaking on the continuing dialogue at Port-Harcourt, July 25, the Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen Tukur Burutai, warned that the military authorities would resort to the use of force if the dialogue to resolve the current Niger Delta crisis failed.
Angst against Burutai
Burutai’s statement angered MEND, which described it as “insensitive, provocative, unprofessional and prejudicial to the fair outcome of the ongoing preliminary talks on the Niger Delta crisis between representatives of oil companies and security agencies, on the one hand; and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), on the other hand.”
“We therefore warn the Chief of Army Staff to guard his utterances, refrain from making political and inflammatory statements and stick to his primary responsibility. We use this medium to appeal to the good people of the Niger Delta to remain patient with the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari and keep hope alive. MEND and the Aaron Team 2 Dialogue, Peace and Development Initiative, led by Mr. Odein Ajumogobia, and HRH King Alfred Papapreye Diette-Spiff are working assiduously to secure sustainable concessions for the region from the government,” it added.
From MEND’s mien, it was obvious that the group was very hopeful of reaching a middle ground with government and see Burutai as constituting an obstacle.
Jomo Gbomo in fact, affirmed: “While MEND has already kick-started the dialogue process with the ongoing preliminary talks, the Aaron Team, made up of distinguished and accomplished personalities from the region, are waiting on the sidelines to conclude the dialogue process.”
More attacks on army
Also accusing the military, an Ijaw rights group, Ijaw People Development Initiative, IPDI, said soldiers were working at the behest of some political and pipeline-contractors opposed to Tompolo’s leadership. It alleged that they framed Tompolo and were using the military to cause confusion.
Its spokesperson, Daniel Ezekiel, in a statement, July 20, claimed that a combined military force of Nigerian military invaded the residence of a known Tompolo believer and member of the Delta Waterways and Land Security Committee, DWLSC, Warri, Hon Simeon Bebenimibo in three trucks around 12.50 am, last Monday.
“The most pathetic part of this show of shame is that the military men had to enter his house through the roof with a help of ladder.”
“One wonders the basis for such invasion. Even If there is any security report from rival politicians to implicate him, should security men conduct themselves in that manner?.
. It is not a secret that Honorable Simon Bebenimibo is a Niger Delta activist of repute, who never blinked eyes in championing the cause of Ijaw and Niger Deltan in general.”
They also arrested Bomboy Oluba and whisked him away in the same commando style, as reasons of both arrest remain undisclosed.
IPDI added: “Those who are bent on causing the downfall of Tompolo and indicting his supposed friends and associates to gain political relevance, to get contracts and political appointment should have a rethink.”
A Gbaramatu leader told Saturday Vanguard in Warri that Bebenimibo was once an antagonist of Tompolo, as his former group accused the ex-militant leader of shortchanging them in NMU, Okerenkoko contracts, but he later realized that Tompolo was not the devil his detractors painted him.
“Tompolo had a running battle with the group before his present ordeal and it took the intervention of traditional rulers and chiefs from our kingdom and Ogulagha before peace was brokered. But it did not last, and as you can see, they have fingered Bebenimibo as a member of Niger Delta Avengers to punish him for joining forces with Tompolo,” he said.
Probe me – Tompolo
Runaway Tompolo in an open letter to President Buhari raising the alarm that his family and associates were under siege, said that the Nigerian Army, Navy and Department of State Services, DSS, were carrying the harassment and intimidation in connivance with two chieftains of the All Progressives Congress, APC, in Delta State, who denied the allegation.
In spite of the general belief that he went underground because of EFC charges against him, he requested President Buhari to probe the allegation that he (Tompolo) swindled the federal government on the money paid him for the acquisition of his property for the take- off site of the Nigerian Maritime University, NMU, Okerenkoko.
His words: “Your Excellency Sir, I only contributed to the development of the Nigerian Maritime University, I only agreed to sell my property; Mieka International Diving School structures (19 gigantic buildings of various sizes on 12 hectares of reclaimed land) for the quick and flawless take- off of the University.”
“And it all went through due process. I never knew my goodwill and patriotism would lead me to where I am now. I have this burning desire to attract developmental strides to this difficult terrain, as it is the only thing for the people of the Niger Delta, particularly the coastal areas, to continue to have faith in Nigeria as the area has been neglected for so long a time,” he said.
Buhari needs me
“Intriguingly, the ex-militant reiterated MEND’s proposal to Buhari, saying, “Your Excellency sir, it is instructive to state that you need me to drive this change agenda in the Niger Delta region as I am ever passionate to improve the living condition of the people of the region,” he said.
Ijaw groups differ
On the other hand, Ijaw groups are at throat of each other over an allegation that an Ijaw leader, Chief Michael Johnny is among those behind Tompolo’s predicament and arrest of his associates over attacks on oil facilities by militants.
Ijaw Future Agenda, IFA, in a statement by its coordinator, Ebipade Clement, said: ‘Tompolo being declared wanted over his ongoing trial by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has nothing to do with Johnny. He has never been involved in any criminal activities, he is law abiding and a patriotic Nigerian, whose desire has been to get government and multinational oil companies to develop his Gbaramatu kingdom.”
“The people of Gbaramatu kingdom, Ijaw nation and Niger Delta region have not forgotten in a hurry how Johnny was sent to Okere prison over the controversial Nigerian Maritime University, in Okerenkoko.
“But he was eventually released when the Court and Delta State government failed to establish their case against him. It was a sacrifice paid by Johnny for the liberation and development of Gbaramatu kingdom,” he said.
Countering IFA, the Niger Delta Security Watch Organization of Nigeria, NDSWON, said: “We noticed that one Clement Ebipade made frantic effort to deny the involvement of Chief Mike Johnny in the quagmire High Chief Government Oweizide Ekpomopolo is in presently.”
National President of the NDSWON, Dickson Bekederemo, said: “His involvement in setting the Buhari- led administration against Tompolo is a known fact in the length and breadth of ljaw nation.”
“The truth is that it was Chief Mike Johnny who made the false allegation that an empty land was sold for N13 billion to the federal government. Vanguard Newspaper published on 9 December 2015 that an Okerenkoko leader, Chief Michael Johnny, an APC stalwart, was arrested and illegally detained at the Nigerian Prisons, Warri, for exposing the N13 billion land swindle.
“Chief Mike Johnny simply provided the needed bullets to shoot down the Nigerian Maritime University and Tompolo. When the history of how the only federal presence in ljaw land was scrambled is being told, Chief Mike Johnny and his co- travelers will be conspicuously acknowledge in the annals of Ijaw history,” he added.
DSS made a stirring breakthrough, last weekend, when operatives arrested the leader of a militant group, Jones Abiri, aka General Akotobe Darikoko, said to be the leader of the Joint Revolutionary Council, JRC, of the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force, JNDLF.
The DSS in a statement by Tony Opuiyo, said the group, which has “separatist tendencies in connivance with other criminal gangs in the Niger Delta region” was also the “mastermind of the recently circulated hoax of planned overthrow of Buhari and his administration.”
One striking revelation was that the suspect is a journalist in Yenagoa, Bayelsa state. DSS said he had confessed to some criminal activities committed by JNDLF, “including the vandalism of Nigeria Agip Oil Company (NAOC) trunk line in Ogboinbiri, Southern Ijaw LGA and bombing of oil pipeline belonging to Shell Development Company (SPDC) at Brass creek on 8th July, 2016, all in Bayelsa State”.
Other atrocities allegedly committed by the suspect were issuance of threat messages to managements of NAOC and SPDC demanding for the payment of N500m and N250m respectively, and threatening to launch missile attacks against selected targets in Abuja, including the Presidential Villa, Aso Rock.
Letting the cat out of the bag
However, what the brainteaser security agents were trying to unravel was the up-to-the-minute confession of a suspected militant, Christian Oluba, alias Sensor, in custody of DSS.
The service announced the arrest of the suspected Niger Delta Avenger on July 1, saying he was perfecting plans to carry out explosive attacks on critical oil and gas pipelines, including vital storage points when operatives seized him.
In an interrogation transcript obtained by Saturday Vanguard, Sensor, who spoke in Pidgin English, made startling revelations on the ongoing pipeline bombings in the region.
He sensationally disclosed that some politicians and ex-militant leaders from Delta and Bayelsa states invited him to a meeting, where one of the leaders from Delta state complained of how Tompolo neglected them and did not allow them to make money.
Sensor said the leader questioned what he (suspect) had benefited working for Tompolo, over the years. He told his interrogators that the said leader told him that he had met with the President and the project they called him to be part of was to fight Tompolo, depose him and enthrone new leaders in the area.
The suspect said the group whose sole objective of ousting Tompolo would carve out respective empires for new leaders awaiting Tompolo’s final downfall. He said after the first meeting, they held another a fortnight later.
His interrogators asked him to confirm the names of those that called him to the meeting and the assignment they gave him. He named the leaders and shed light on how one of the ex-militant leaders from Bayelsa state, who was not part of the group, got angry when he found out that they were linking him to attacks he knew nothing about.
His words: “Na Tompolo dem wan kill, na him make them dey do all these ones, make Tompolo commot, make dem share the Niger Delta on their own.”
He admitted that he blew up a crude oil pipeline in Delta state with a member of the gang and used his hand to describe the shape of the pipeline after Camp 5, near an NNPC location in Delta state to the operatives.
Asked the identity of his accomplice in the particular operation, he mentioned the name, saying the suspect lives in Warri
Cocktail of lies
Contacted, one of the fingered leaders said there was no truth in the confession, adding were it to be factual, security agents would have gone after him and other leaders.
He said it was all politics and antics of a drowning man.
The Tompolo mystique
Saturday Vanguard, however, learned that because of the evident sincerity of the Minister of State for Petroleum, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, Tompolo confidants arranged for him to speak to their boss on phone shortly before his removal as Group Managing Director of NNPC.
In their interface, Tompolo allegedly explained to the minister that he had nothing to do with the Niger Delta Avengers, but would use his position to help government track down the militants bombing pipelines in the region, not just the Avengers.
Our source said Tompolo and the Kachikwu group reached an understanding anchored on transformation of the region and the minister was confident that the worst would be over in no time, as even the Avengers themselves were also willing to dialogue. Nevertheless, forces beyond him abruptly aborted the peace overtures that were already yielding result.
It is this capacity and towering influence of Tompolo in the Niger Delta struggle , which the late President Umaru Yar’Adua took leverage of, that Kachikwu came to understand during his trouble shooting moves in the region..
MEND knows about the ability, which it pointed out in its memo to Buhari and Tompolo, even in hideaway, alluded to it when he told the president in his last open letter that he needed him to drive his peace agenda.
Kachikwu vs Northern group/MEND models
Findings by Saturday Vanguard showed that besides the ego and preconceived notion about the Minister of State for Petroleum, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, there was nothing significantly different from the unauthorized and bureaucratic approaches he adopted from the line of attack the coalition of the security agencies/ oil companies/MEND has in focus, except the manner of approach.