Government Ekpemupolo.. wants a fair share of the oil
HE is popularly known as Tompolo, an ex-militant leader that once evoked terror in the Niger-Delta. Most people don’t know him by his bonafide name, Government Ekpemupolo, not to mention that he is a High Chief of Gbaramatu kingdom, Warri South-West Local Government Area of Delta State.
Looking at his little frame, you would never believe that he was the founder of the dreaded Movement for Emancipation of the Niger-Delta, MEND, and since 2009, when he accepted amnesty; he has kept his cards very close to his chest. Even when he became a subject of controversy over the award of a mouthwatering contract to his company by the Federal Government to provide security on the nation’s territorial waters, he remained taciturn.
But the “generalissimo,” as he was known in the militant world, came out of the cocoon, last week, and spoke to our source in a no holds barred interview. He cleared the air on the controversial contract, opened up on why the nation’s oil cabal is after him; how he plans to stop them from looting the country’s resources, what really propelled the Ijaw/Itsekiri crisis, his once dreaded militant hideaway, Camp 5, Niger-Delta struggle, Henry Okah and lots more. Excerpts.
YOUR real name is Government Ekpemupolo, but you are popularly known as Tompolo, a nickname that rouses fear in people because of your dexterity as a former militant leader. How did you come about the name?
Tompolo is my father’s company’s name and then, I was like the director of operations. Almost everybody calls me Tompolo because I was the one running the company – that is how the name came about.
What kind of company?
Tompolo Nigeria Limited is a company we have been operating these past 17 years, from Tompolo and Sons to Tompolo Nigeria Limited.
It deals on what?
It is a general contracting company.
Your first name is Government and I believe you know what government means. How did you father come about the name? Was he expecting you to become government later in your life?
Government is my name, it was given to me by my father’s friend when I was born and it overshadowed every other name.
Where is this your father’s friend from and what warranted his giving you the name?
I was a kid then, I do not know much about it, but from what my father told me, he simply told him that this is the name for this young man and everybody agreed with him.
Looking at your quiet mien, one will never believe that you are the former militant generalissimo that caused a lot of panic in the Niger-Delta. What really propelled you into arms struggle?
What prompted me and maybe a few other people like Paul, Dennis, Ketson, Kingsley Otuaro, Oboko Bello, Dan, George Timinimi and others, was that our God-given land was taken over by our neighbour, the Itsekiri. In the eighties, there was a time when the Itsekiri people came to say they wanted to collect rent from Okerenkoko people, a town that is today an Ijaw community in Gbaramatu kingdom. Also in my father’s land, which is Egwa community,we are still having cases pending in the Supreme Court. The Itsekiri people say they are the owners of Gbaramatu kingdom as a whole. From what I was told, we (Ijaw) are the original owners of the land in question, and our Itsekiri brothers came to meet us there.
You know how our people used to live. They accommodated and lived together with them, but because this early awareness was not in our people, they now used this kangaroo court judgment and at the end say they are the owners of Gbaramatu. Even as we speak, we are still facing cases like this in Ogbe-Ijoh. I was following my father’s elder brother, late Papa Gbamido Ekpemupolo as he went about these cases from one court to another, either in Benin, Warri or Abuja. So when we came to find out that if we don’t stand firm that we will be forced to pay rent to our neighbour, we now said for once, let us take our lives in our hands and fight this battle. That is where the battle between us and our Itsekiri brothers started.
The second stage was the relocation of headquarters of Warri South-West local government area from Ogbe-Ijoh to Ogidigben, an Itsekiri community. However, I have a personal pain. My main concern is this and I will give an instance: If my father told me, my son, this table belongs to me, but people are taking from me by force, then, you know, as a son, you will always keep it in your mind and you grow up to a stage that you can work with it, you will do your work.
What of the larger Niger-Delta struggle, what brought you into it?
The Niger-Delta struggle is something our elder brother, Isaac Adaka-Boro and others started. We know that what is keeping this country together is the oil that is produced in our place and we are not getting anything out of it. And we know that if this oil was to be in the North, it is what they give to government that government would take. Our opinion is that we are the owners of the oil and want to get our fair share.
It was alleged that before the Itsekiri/Ijaw crisis, you were actually into oil bunkering and that was what kept you going?
I think every reasonable man and woman knows that I am not into oil bunkering. Even before 1997, I was working with my father. As the eldest son, I was the person in charge of my father’s business.
My father was one of the contractors …even the contracts we were handling then with Gulf, not Chevron, was not small by obtainable standards. Everybody knows that my father was a contractor. I am not into oil business. My name became associated with oil business when I was in Camp 5 (the militant camp that was destroyed in 2009 by the Joint Task Force, JTF, on Niger-Delta). You see, when people were doing illegal business in my area (front of Camp 5), I had people with me and would ask them to go and ask these people to give them some money so that we could feed with it.
When any vessel comes in from Escravos to Forcados to load crude oil, we have Customs, DPR, Navy, Army, Police and Airforce, everybody is there in Chevron yard. That is why no security person can confront me that I am a bunkerer. Everybody knows that I am not a bunkerer and that is the more reason why I am surviving up till date.
Talking about Camp 5, how did you come about the place. It has buildings patterned into a barrack structure with training field and an adjoining canal. Did you build the camp?
No, when we started this struggle, our base was a personal house at Okerenkoko and that was the place everybody was using. We called the place Abuja. You know if you want to achieve your aim and objectives, you cannot stay in the midst of people to do a genuine struggle. Also, there is a deity, Egbesu, that we used to fight this war and there are things that you cannot involve yourselves.
Like maybe you are going out for operation tomorrow, you will not sleep with your wife and you will not even eat food that a woman prepared.
For me to confront the Nigerian government to a stage where we would be recognized, I needed to move my people out of Okerenkoko, that was how I went to fence… there is a place before Camp 5, which is Iroko, we went there, but Camp 5 was a camp that Julius Berger Construction Company built I think in the eighties, so the structures were there.
Money to build new structures
I just went there to clear the place because I didn’t have money to build new structures. And the place is strategic, you know, so I now roofed the houses and base in Camp 5 and I was there. A lot of people were coming and you had to have a place for them to sit down and you talk with them on the struggle.
My intention was not to kill innocent person and that was the reason why even at the point of open confrontation, maybe if I saw that the soldiers were seriously injured, I would bring them into my camp, given them treatment and take them back.
Is this really true?
Yes, that was what I was doing and a lot of security people can attest to that.
Okay, how did the name Camp 5 come about?
Julius Berger was having a lot of camps; they had camp 3, camp 4, camp 6 and camp 5. That was the name that was given to that place by Julius Berger.
It was the Niger-Delta struggle that gave birth to the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger-Delta, MEND. There is controversy up till date on the formation and leadership of this group. How was it formed and who is the leader?
I think that it is not an issue that people will argue about; every reasonable person knows that I am the founder of MEND. Like I am here, I have people who are graduates (pointing to one of them who was with him during this interview), I did not go to school, so anything concerning paper work, they are the people to handle it. I am not the only person though, there are others. If you are doing something, you have to put heads together with others because the idea is to cut across our nine states.
That was how MEND was formed and that was the reason the last time that all the ex-militant leaders went to Abuja, in the presence of everybody, I told them that I am the owner of MEND. It was formed in Camp 5. I said it in the presence of everybody and nobody can contest it with me.
You see, most of these ‘generals’ you see today that are everywhere, I produced them, except the leader of the Niger-Delta Peoples Volunteer Force, NDPVF, Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari and Ateke Tom; every other ‘general’ that you are hearing their names, blah, blah, blah, I produced them from Camp 5. But you know, when somebody is doing something, especially when money comes, you know power, everybody will support it, even today, all of them know that I am their leader.
What is the involvement of Henry Okah in MEND? He is also being referred to as the leader of MEND?
(Voice rising) I think I will not discuss much on that, but if not for the recent happenings, Henry Okah was one of us. That is the truth and he is somebody that if not for greed and his trying to say that I want to be all and all, he is one person that all of us respect. He is one of us.
What was really the vision of MEND that time?
MEND- the name MEND, our vision was to fight for our people, free them from bondage, which was the essence of MEND. And that was the reason Alhaji Dokubo-Asari and former governor of Bayelsa State, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, were arrested and the N1.5 billion that was supposed to be paid to Bayelsa people was not paid. Even till now, we are waiting, MEND had to mount pressure on the Nigerian government. Even Henry Okah before he was released, I mean this last one before his present predicament, we fought and they were released.
With the present situation of things in the Niger-Delta, can you boldly say that MEND is dead?
MEND, for now, as all of us came out to embrace amnesty; I think the issue of MEND is over. Today, if anybody is using MEND on any platform, I think we should call the person to come and give us the reason he is doing that. If there is any reason today or tomorrow for us to go back to the creek, and we decide to use MEND, then we can bring it back. But for now, MEND is nowhere, anybody that is using MEND is using it for his own personal interest.
In 2009, that was three years ago, the JTF declared you wanted, razed your house at Oporoza and the palace of your royal father, but you simply disappeared. The task force could not get you and there was information that you escaped from the country. Can you tell us how you survived the manhunt without being caught?
That is a long story. When they were bombing Oporoza and Camp 5, I was there. The belief I have up till date is that I am into a genuine struggle and so, no amount of bomb or gun can do anything to me and others that are in it. We were doing our community festival when the army went and bombed Oporoza with small children, women and everybody in the gathering. One person was seriously injured and because of lack of medical care, he died. The person is my brother, even now, the daughter is with me, I left her an hour ago to come and wait for this interview. So, I was there and after the whole battle, as they were going from one village to another village, I was there monitoring them.
Bombing of Oporoza
Even the day Okerenkoko was burnt down, I was there. My father’s village was burnt down, you know, when they came back to loot Oporoza, I was there because that is my place. One can do all sorts of things, but for one to go to your village and get to where you are, it is not an easy matter. It was after this that I quickly moved out of the country for about two weeks.
I know that I can always save my people and when I came back, I was in touch with top government functionaries, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, Ministers and even the JTF Commander, who was hunting for me. I called him and asked him: You said you want to get me dead or alive? I told him it was not possible and he said no, he would get me, and I told him; if you can do it, carry on.
Are you talking about Major-General Mohammed Sarkin-Bello or Brigadier General Rimtip?
I was talking to Rimtip and the other one, Mohammed, the one who was in-charge of the operation directly.
You mean when you were right there in Oporoza or you were hiding in the forest when the soldiers were searching for you?
I was there. There was even a day when they came to Okerenkoko, I was there, after the burning down of the place, I was there, it is my area, and nobody can drive me out of the place.
You later accepted amnesty; can you tell us the circumstance that made you to accept amnesty?
You know when I came back, I fought back, it was then I attacked Chevron and went to Atlas Cove in Lagos. After then, the government now realized that the matter was far more than it was thinking as we had the capacity to cripple the economy.
MEND claimed responsibility for these attacks and because the JTF was searching for you, nobody would think you were behind it?
After these particular attacks, which were massive, everybody was calling me that we should settle this matter, that as soon as I come out to accept amnesty, the government too would do what they are supposed to do for us. So because of the pressure on me, I told myself, let me try to save my people, who were being killed and harassed by soldiers under the pretext that they were searching for me.
You know, majority of the people of Gbaramatu were out of their villages and communities for about three months because of this problem. So, I came out, it was myself and two other persons, I now said, if they want to kill anybody, I will surrender myself, instead of allowing them to kill my people. So I went straight to Abuja, I did not go with police, I did not go with anything, I went straight to Abuja, I went straight to meet the then President, Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua and he said that it was himself who asked them to declare me wanted. And that he was very sorry and that we should put heads together and build Nigeria together. So I agreed with him and accepted amnesty.
At the time you went to Abuja, you were still being looked for by the JTF and I know I asked him at that time, he said you would be arrested once you were seen because you had not accepted amnesty. So how did you find yourself in Abuja with Yar’Adua, did you fly, which road did you pass?
I know my way to Abuja, how I got there is between me and my God.