by Eromo Egbejule
Last month, YNaija.com launched its Monthly Citizenship Dispatches, which explores in detail, the lives and realities of Nigerian citizens across the country.
This month, the dispatches come from the Niger Delta, where our reporters have spent weeks digging deep into a part of the country oft reported about and sadly still mis-understood.
These are the stories we will share with you daily over the next two weeks – for the voices, the issues, the realities that fellow citizens living in the Delta have dealt with, and continue to deal with every day.
And the government – with its revenue – shall be upon his shoulder…
The first moment of authority for Government Oweizide Ekpemupolo in this cruel world came in the early hours of April 12, 1971 when his shrill cries from a midwife’s house in Okerenkoko community of Gbaramatu Kingdom in Warri South West Local Government Area of Delta State, punctuated the quiet of the small coastal village.
He was the last of seven children from his mother, Sologha who was the first of four wives to High Chief Thomas Ekpemupolo, the Tunteriwei (“he who wears the King his crown”) of Gbaramatu Kingdom. Because his elder siblings were all girls, he was named Oweizide, Ijaw for “a male child has come”.
His second cousin, Simeon Bebenimibo tells YNaija that his overjoyed father foresaw his new child’s rise to prominence. So he gave him a name steeped in prophecy: Government. It was inspired by Isaiah 9:6 “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder.”
His schooling began at the Ogeh Primary School, Kunukunuma, Gbaramatu sometime in the late ‘70s and after that, he was admitted into the National Comprehensive College in the city of Warri. In 1993, he concluded his secondary school education and began to work fully with his father’s company, Tom Polo Nigeria Limited – coined from T(h)om(as) (Ekpemu)polo – a sub-contracting firm for oil servicing companies in the Niger Delta.
In October 1996, the then head of state, General Sani Abacha created 6 new states and 138 new local government council areas, including Warri South West LGA, cut out from both Warri South and Warri North LGAs. Initially, the headquarters was Ogbeh-Ijoh (or Ogbeh-Ijaw), a community dominated by the Ijaw ethnic group. When the official gazette legalizing the council was released, the headquarters had curiously been shifted to Ogidgben, a predominantly Itsekiri community and the relocation was effected. This – after an Ijaw, Couple Oromoni has been elected chairman – triggered the infamous Warri Crisis in which freedom fighters from both sides clashed.
From the chaos emerged Tompolo. A prominent actor in rerun episodes of clashes between ethnic militia of the Ijaw, Itsekiri, Urhobo and Ilaje between 1997-2003, he soon became a household name in the streets.
Prior to this time, he was already the quintessential baby boy, living comfortably in Warri off the proceeds of his father’s business, which he managed so well clients thought he was the owner. He had property across the city and was one of its first residents to own a Mercedes Benz 230e (w124 series manufactured between 1985-1996) more commonly known as ‘V-boot’ – a Nigerian status symbol at the time if there ever was.
After the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni leaders under Abacha due to their continued agitation for a better standard of living in the Niger Delta, a number of youth began to fight for resource control too.
Before Saro-Wiwa, there was Isaac Adaka Boro, who had in 1967 led the twelve-day secession of the breakaway state of the Niger Delta Republic before ironically joining the Nigerian armed forces to fight against the people of Biafra. Both men inspired a new breed of Ijaw youth in their late twenties and early thirties who signed what would later become known as the Kaiama Declaration in Adaka Boro’s birthplace – Kaiama, Bayelsa along the River Nun, on 11 December 1998. Some of the signatories and by extension founding fathers of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) were Felix Tuodolo Ogoriba, Timi Kaiser-Wilhelm, Kingsley Kuku, Chris Ekiyor, Asari Dokubo and from all indications, Tompolo. Acting early to prevent a perceived threat of violence, President Olusegun Obasanjo declared a state of emergency in Bayelsa, which was only lifted in January 1999.
Soon however, cracks soon began to appear in the group – between those who were intellectual like Saro-Wiwa and those who preferred the arms-over-dialogue style that was Adaka Boro’s.
In 2003, Ijaw leader Dr. Bello Oboko founded the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities, with Tompolo as mobilization coordinator and a certain Kingsley Otuaro as secretary-general. But broomsticks splinter after falling away from the bunch in circa 2004, the dreaded Movement for the Emancipation of the Nigeria (MEND) was born – Tompolo the head of the many commanders and one of them, Henry Okah as its face.
In the same year, Dokubo who was the IYC’s pioneer vice-president founded the Niger Delta Volunteer People’s Force. One of its major suppliers of ammunition was Tompolo.
The group first operated out of ‘Abuja’, a private property owned by an ud associate in Okerenkoko. Soon, it moved out to one of a set of abandoned makeshift living quarters for labourers with construction giants, Julius Berger who were setting up tank farms for oil firms in the ‘80s. It was called Camp 5, strategically close to Chanomi Creek on the Escravos River and many pipelines. Facilities included among other things a jetty, mini-bunkers, gunboats, a crude oil depot, ammunition storage and more. Its presence made the creek perhaps the most dreaded spot in all of Nigeria, at the time.
There were other shadow camps like Iroko Camp and Bolubala Camp, but those were used as hiding spots and for training new recruits while Camp 5 reigned majestic as the designated headquarters. In 2007, it played host to Goodluck Jonathan who visited in an official capacity as Vice-President, shortly after being sworn in.
Tompolo’s made his authority known on that visit: everyone in Jonathan’s entourage was prohibited from stepping into the camp itself. Only the number 2 man in the country was allowed him.
Jonathan couldn’t say no to Tompolo.
In May 2009, the MEND leader became the last of the ex-militant leaders to be captured when the camp was raided by the country’s armed forces under the supervision of Air Vice Marshall Paul Dike, the Chief of Air Staff. He accepted amnesty the next month and laid down his arms, the Jonathan administration handing over multimillion naira contracts to safeguard the nation’s waterways.
Tompolo is a dedicated member of member of the Cherubim & Seraphim Christian denomination and attends services regularly with his wife, Victoria and his pre-teenage daughter, Mary.
He is also chief priest of the shrine of Egbesu (Ijaw god of combat) in his hometown and a devotee to the Amaseikumor deity.
He is a man whose living is sparse, his resources generously shared across communities, uncomfortable around the wealthy and self-effacing to the point some have called him timid, yet he has steadily acquired wealth from government and private individuals over the past decade.
Like many before him, a complex character.
Intensely loyal, most of his close associates are longtime friends and close relatives who he has positioned to be in the spotlight while he operates from behind the scenes. Niger Deltan activist Paul Bebenimibo who doubles as his spokesman and executive secretary of the Tompolo Foundation is a family relative; Asari Dokubo, a colleague from the days of the IYC, squatted in his house in Warri after fleeing Port Harcourt in 2005 under attacks from the Peter Odili administration. His half-brother, George Ekpemupolo, is Chairman of Warri South West LGA.
Another cousin and his comrade from the FNDIC days, Deacon Kingsley Otuaro (Special Assistant to James Ibori on Community Affairs from 2005 to 2007 and commissioner, Delta State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission (DESOPADEC) under Emmanuel Uduaghan) is currently the deputy governor of the state.
Camera shy, easygoing and slow to anger, he was described by a childhood acquaintance (who asked for anonymity) as a quiet child, albeit with a stubborn streak that bobbed to the surface intermittently.
Hovering slightly below six feet, his lean frame is seldom seen and rarely heard but his influence felt everywhere. An occasional drinker of alcohol, he does not smoke but prefers instead to eat traditional delicacies like starch and fresh fish peppersoup.
Unlike his friend Asari Dokubo who after going into exile across the border invested in Benin Republic, Tompolo has embraced his narrative as a Robin Hood of some sorts – taking from a hated federal government to meet the needs of his abandoned compatriots. “He has done more for his people than all the other ex-militant leaders combined,” Simeon told YNaija.
In November 2012, he launched the Tompolo Foundation at the popular Hotel Excel in Warri, with great fanfare.
Present were Nyesom Wike, representing then Vice President, Namadi Sambo and an aide of Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan as well as Kingsley Kuku, then presidential adviser on amnesty and traditional rulers. Over N100 million was raised at the launch. Two of the biggest donors were Chief Ayiri Emami (now archenemy) and flamboyant banker, Tunde Ayeni who doled out N10million naira each.
The foundation has provided free medical services as well as anti-malarial drugs to Gbaramatu locals, relief materials to flood victims and learning equipment to schools and free training workshops for teachers in public schools across the state.
He has also setup a diving school in nearby Kurutie Town, which has morphed into the temporary site for the Maritime University and attracted infrastructure in the form of another campus in Okerenkoko (the permanent site) for the university.
For all this, and more, his people conferred on him one of the highest chieftaincy titles in the Ijaw/Izon nation; the Izon Ibe-Ebidouwei of Izon meaning ‘he who means well for the Ijaws’ for his “struggles and contributions towards the growth of the Niger Delta.”
Die Another Day
In April 2016, the Economic & Financial Crimes Commission declared Tompolo wanted after he refused to honour its invitation to answer questions on his role in a N45.9 billion fraud case. The Nigerian Army also raided Gbaramatu in May after a resurgence of attacks on installations by militants in the Niger Delta. But he was nowhere to be found.
Tompolo’s status change from friend of one administration to villain under another, came on the heels of the new government’s avowed stance to stamp out corruption and nepotism, including investigating multimillion naira contracts such as the $103 million one for pipeline protection and waterways security that his company allegedly held. No point in handing the pot of fish to the goat for safekeeping, the new president must have reasoned.
Some of his cronies have been arrested and his contacts at the Nigerian Maritime Administration & Safety Agency (NIMASA) rounded up as the EFCC looks to get to the root of a N45.9 billion fraud. The towns of two former militant leaders, Soboma Jackrich (Egberipapa), and Solomon Ndigbara (Osama bin Laden) have also been raided, all in search of Tompolo. This, in spite of the fact that his name is not on the board of Global West Fleet, the company in question linked to the waterways contract.
After refusing to honour several invitations to court, a bench warrant was put out for Tompolo’s arrest. Since then he has been on the run; neither the killing of his father nor the desecration of his village shrine has pushed him to the point of surrender. Matter-of-factly speaking, he has gone from enemy of the state to a seat at the table and back to enemy of the state again in one complete swing of the pendulum.
However, while the Nigerian government has drawn first blood and gone for the kill, he is yet to respond in kind, at least not directly. The warrior has dropped the sword for the pen, writing a series of open letters, sponsoring newspaper advertorials and generally speaking through his spokesman alone.
In one of such statements last year, he declared: “Those who think they can push us to war must rethink the necessity of such a war.”
The war is yet to come but tings seem to have fallen apart, a fact oblivious to his loyalists everywhere who are still keeping the faith.
“My leader/master, you are born to lead!”, wrote Ben Ogwu, one of Tompolo’s 2, 292 friends on Facebook wrote on his wall in uppercase. “Leadership is injected into your right shoulder, like Moses in the Bible…Heaven is your limit IJN amen.”
*The next installment will be published at 10am WAT tomorrow.