Whether or not he ends up in a Lagos court, Tompolo and his supporters can cause havoc by relaunching the militant campaign in the Delta
The search is on for the militant kingpin High Chief Government Ekpemupolo, aka Tompolo, who has disappeared since a court warrant was issued last month for his arrest on corruption charges (AC Vol 56 No 25, Taking down Tompolo). The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), led by President Muhammadu Buhari's new anti-corruption chief Ibrahim Magu, accuses Tompolo and his associates of siphoning away 34.5 billion naira (around US$15 million) in government cash, part of a $175 mn. money laundering operation. The money was allocated to securing the Niger Delta's waterways under Buhari's predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, an Ijaw man like Tompolo.The government's Joint Task Force is dug in around Tompolo's Oporoza political base in Gbaramatu Kingdom, Delta State, not far from American oil major Chevron's Escravos facility (see Map). This snaking confluence of creeks and inlets was the battleground in May 2009 for an armed standoff between the JTF and Tompolo's forces at 'Camp five' and the most serious fighting before the ceasefire and Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP; AC Vol 50 No 11, The fight gets more serious).
Seven years ago, the severity of the small war, which included a missile strike on the blue, corrugated, galvanised steel roof of Tompolo's 'palace' by a jet aircraft, was instrumental in reaching the original ceasefire between the federal government and the now defunct Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), of which Tompolo was a leading light. It also led to the formation of the PAP by Jonathan's predecessor, the late Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, an arrangement which Buhari has conceded – provisionally – that he'll continue with for now.
Six years on, the loose MEND alliance of gang bosses is split – if not over for good – and history is repeating itself in the creeks. Across the oil-producing South, the PAP is entering a shaky period of renewal under Buhari's appointee, General (retired) Paul Tarela Boroh (AC Vol 57 No 1, Big tests beckon for Buhari).
Fighters who have officially been 'stood down' are demanding months of back pay pocketed by camp commanders under Jonathan's rule. Last month, there were two large demonstrations on the other side of the Delta as unemployed fighters blocked Aba Road and Tombia Road in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. As vehicles slowly passed, they grabbed things through their windows. Both roads had been blockaded in October, too.
Former PAP boss Kingsley Kuku is planning to run as governorship candidate for the previously governing People's Democratic Party (PDP) in Ondo State and his election committee has been announced. However, he still faces a grilling by the EFCC over alleged multi-million naira contract fraud. He's cited knee surgery and trips to the United Kingdom for treatment as delaying his giving a full statement.
The manhunt for the High Chief follows a 14th January arrest warrant from Justice Ibrahim Buba after Tompolo declined to appear to face charges relating to the EFCC's ongoing investigation into Tompolo's deals with the former Director General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (Nimasa), Patrick Ziakede Akpobolokemi.
In the 40-count charge sheet presented by the EFCC lawyer Festus Keyamo, Tompolo is accused of diverting N34.5 billion from a public private partnership agreement between Nimasa and his firm Global West Vessel Specialists Limited to his personal bank accounts (AC Vol 48 No 12, Champagne in the Delta & Vol 55 No 24, Danger looms as piracy booms). Keyamo told the court that the charge sheet had been attached to Tompolo's residence at 1, Chief Agbanu DDPA Extension, Warri. 'He took an advert and said nobody should push him to the wall. Let us see whether he's an outlaw or whether he's within the law.'
Tompolo, however, has refused to appear. His defence lawyer, Tayo Oyetibo, told the court this month that its warrant had been issued to Agbanu Street, instead of Agbamu St., and that Tompolo's house had a black gate whereas the notice had been served on transparent gates. Justice Buba ordered the High Chief to appear before him on 19th February and instructed the security services to compel him to show up.
Others accused on the charge sheet include: Akpobolokemi; Global West; Odimiri Electricals Ltd.; Kime Engozu; Boloboere Property and Estate Ltd.; Rex Elem; Destre Consult Ltd.; Gregory Mbonu and Captain Warredi Enisuoh. Akpobolokemi has also been re-arrested, after being fired from Nimasa in July then arrested at the EFCC's behest two weeks later. Appearing in court in Lagos on 3rd December, he faced a 30-count charge sheet citing the missing N34.5 bn. and alleging conspiracy, fraud, illegal transfer of funds and money laundering. Others named with him include Capt. Ezekiel Bala Agaba, a Nimasa Executive Director; Ekene Nwakuche; Felix Bob-Nabena; Juan Amechee Governor; Ugo Frederick; Timi Alari; as well as Alkenzo Ltd. and Penniel Engineering Services Ltd.
Akpobolokemi's re-arrest was effected outside the Lagos court, when he was bundled away in a white van. A video surfaced on YouTube which appeared to show the ex-Nimasa chief being manhandled into the vehicle by State Security Service agents and uniformed cops.
The government is tightening the political dragnet around Tompolo and Company. That includes most of the the other PDP power-brokers in the Delta. Yet with the PDP Governor Ezenwo Nyesom Wike's mandate in Rivers State upheld in the High Court, with Timipre Sylva (who went over from the PDP to the governing All Progressives Congress) a sore loser to the PDP's Henry Seriake Dickson in Bayelsa, with a protracted war with Boko Haram, with inter-communal violence between Sunni Muslims and the Shiite minority in the north, and with renewed tension in the Middle Belt, the Presidency has signalled that it intends to leave the rump PDP faction in place for now.
Delta militants still keen on confrontation with the federal government also note that, having sat the election cycle out, Tompolo has retained his private navy of seven refitted Norwegian Hauk-class, high-speed torpedo support ships (AC Vol 56 No 3, Lots of gunboats, little diplomacy). The JTF search for him threatens to spark a renewed Delta-wide conflict once his rivals scramble for control of parts or even all of his legacy. The gangland power structures of the last six years are shifting.
This is happening as Shell's profits tumble with the falling value of oil. Along with Chevron, the Netherlands-domiciled energy giant has announced plans to cut 18,000 jobs worldwide. A substantial portion of the redundancies will be in Nigeria. For now, neither company will say how many Nigerian layoffs are planned. Shell is hard-pushed to make its offshore operations, such as the Bonga facility, profitable. It reversed its policy of a decade ago of leaving the land altogether. Although the oil price should rally eventually, with Tompolo's fraternity considering a resumption of war the cost of doing business in the Delta in the near future is hard to calculate.
Twelve angry militants
'With oil prices slipping below 40 dollars a barrel, if the government of President Buhari is willing, we will help to reduce its price of barrel to 15 dollars […] Nigeria will collapse under the watch of All Progressive Congress (APC) and President Muhammadu Buhari as we will do everything necessary to actualize the American prediction', thundered twelve 'retired' Delta fighters as they warned the government off arresting their comrade, High Chief Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo. The insurgents signed their December missive, the Egbesu Mightier Fraternity.
The prophecy of Nigeria falling apart was contained in a 2005 discussion paper by the United States government's National Intelligence Council, 'Mapping Sub-Saharan Africa's Future'. It's often attributed to the then US Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell who, carefully covering all his bases, later said, 'I have never predicted the breakup of Nigeria because I have never thought it would happen. But, were it to do so, the likely consequence would be a humanitarian disaster.' Campbell is now a Senior Africa Policy Fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations.
The Egbesu warrior cult is based around the Ijaw traditional war god. In its modern version, it is an armed clique which has been central to the Delta insurgency since 2003. Egbesu fighters wear magical amulets fashioned by a priesthood which includes Tompolo. Now, they have not only bespoke talismans but also serious firepower, courtesy of an arms deal with Norway, via the UK.
Designed for coastal patrols, seven armoured vessels were sold to Tompolo's Global West security outfit for anti-piracy operations in June 2014 (AC Vol 56 No 3, Lots of gunboats, little diplomacy). The ships sailed from Norway to Ramsgate, England, through an intermediary British security company, CAS Global, then on to Nigeria. The legal loophole hasn't stopped Britain's National Crime Agency from arresting two CAS Global businessmen on suspicion of bribing a Norwegian civil servant with US$150,000 to secure the Hauk deal. Their first court appearance is in March.
At news of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission's attempt to arrest Tompolo, a series of pipeline explosions broke out on 14 January along the Escravos-Lagos pipeline, owned and operated by a subsidiary of the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. This led to a $400,000 daily loss to gas supplies and power generation.
At the same time the authorities reported a 'breach' in the Bonny-Okrika pipeline on the other side of the Delta, in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. It's unclear whether these events were coordinated. Both led to the Port Harcourt and Warri refineries halting operations.
Schools have been closed as the Joint Task Force scours Oporoza for Tompolo's sympathisers. 'Boats are freely moving in and out with guns and other weapons', said one report. 'There is a stockpile of arms and petrol […] This is not an ordinary operation, it is well planned and there seems to be several options and alternative plans.'
Was this a sign that the armoured ships are being readied for battle? Officially, the navy impounded the Horten, the largest of the vessels, along with six smaller, more agile craft, it is currently missing in action.
Not everyone in Gbaramatu supports Tompolo. Neighbouring Itsekiri groups protested against the ship in 2014, mindful of Tompolo's command role in the 1990s in the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities, which made violent land grabs for ethnic Ijaws.
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