Former leader of the defunct Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo is in the news again over the oil pipeline surveillance contract. He spoke to Vanguard South South Editor, Emma Amaize in his hometown of Oporoza, traditional headquarters of Gbaramatu kingdom, Warri South-West Local Government Area, Delta State.
- Why big oil bunkerers want to stop him; vows to expose them
- Threats by faceless militant groups and their sponsors
- Says N’Delta struggle not abandoned, ‘but we must first secure our environment to control our resources’
- We chased vessels that stole Nigeria’s oil to the USA, Germany
When people hear your name Tompolo; what comes to mind is that Niger-Delta warlord, some even call you oil bunkerer; asking what is he doing with protecting oil pipelines, is he a security official?
Everybody knows about Tompolo, while many people will say that Tompolo was a militant, some will say he was an ex-militant carrying arms, and some people say Tompolo is still a militant. However, before even I became a freedom fighter, I was a young man working with my father as a businessperson. I am not an oil bunkerer; I actually understand how to do business, not to carry arms to survive.
At a time, the Joint Task Force in Niger Delta declared you wanted, soldiers looked for you everywhere and bombarded many places, they did not find you, some people said you had escaped out of the country, where did you hide?
Which of my declarations as a wanted person are you talking about, is the one of 2009 or the last one?
Let us start with the one of 2009
You know when somebody is fighting a genuine cause; you have nothing to fear; I was in my place by the grace of God, the Almighty God, and the ancestors of our lands were protecting me. Therefore, even if I am here with you, if you do not have good intentions about me, you will not see me. I was here throughout (referring to Gbaramatu Kingdom) I did not go anywhere because the land I came from protected me.
The Federal High Court in Lagos finally found you not guilty and discharged you, last year, on the allegations of fraud laid against you by the EFCC, which declared you wanted another time. Why were you a target after the current administration took power?
Even you, Emma Amaize, know what transpired then. It was all about politics; we were fighting for former President Goodluck Jonathan, while others were working for All Progressives Congress, APC, which is President Muhammadu Buhari, who later won the election in 2015. That was why the opposition party, the present ruling party haunted us, if not, everybody, every Dick and Harry understands that there was nothing against Tompolo, it was just politics, witch-hunting. That was why my lawyers went to court, presented my case, and in the end, the court discharged and acquitted me, that there was nothing against me. It was just political witch-hunting.
Before the court finally discharged you, security officials guarding some security equipment that you purchased for a security contract you were handling, stole the items at a location in Warri, have you recovered the stolen items?
We are still working on that; we had this security contract with the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Security Agency NIMASA, where we had a lot of security vessels protecting the Nigerian territorial waters, we even extended as far as Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Benin to sanitize their waterways, which everybody, home and abroad was aware of. We had a Public Private Party, PPP, arrangement on no cure, no pay basis when they declared me wanted with my people in Lagos, Warri, and everywhere.
That was when they took away many of these vessels, now that we had won the case in court, gradually, I think we will get everything back. Like the ones in Warri, which were under the custody of the Nigerian Navy, in stealing all these things, I think they even caught some of them. It is a security matter, so I want to stop here.
They pressured you for a long time from information available to us to accept the current pipeline surveillance contract that is generating debate, why did you accept it, we hear that the pressure was on for close to two years or over a year, how true is this?
You know, Emma Amaize, we do not have any other place to call our country, this is the only place we have, this is the only country we have. In addition, whether we like it, today, you are seeing a tarred road in Oporoza, the traditional headquarters of the Gbaramatu Kingdom, where you meet me, Okerenkoko and other riverine communities in Bayelsa State, and everybody knows that the Nigerian maritime sector is the key to the success of this country.
Now that illegal activities are going on, involving many people, not just only the people of Niger Delta, the Federal Government, and every well-meaning Nigerian understands that there are people who have the capability and understanding, especially the terrain, to handle this work without causing trouble, which I am one of such persons.
During the time of former President Umaru Yar’Adua, I worked together with our former governor in this state, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan. I went overseas with him, brought in Israelis, and prepared a security contract from Rivers state to Edo state. It was even our late brother, former Chief of Army Staff, General Owoye Azazi (late) that even said no, Tompolo would not handle the contract alone because a lot of persons as we were talking then, were all bunkerers. Therefore, there is no way you will give a contract to somebody that will not do the work and, use the work to protect his own illegal activities.
That was when, specifically, the part of Rivers state went to Ateke Tom, Alhaji Dokubo Asari, Farah Dagogo, and some others. In Bayelsa, Boyloaf, Josshua, Africa, and others got it. It was only in Delta state that they split the contract between Ijaw and our Itsekiri brothers. We did the job and I believe NNPC knows who actually did the work then.
If you want to protect our oil pipelines and stop oil-bunkering activities, they know the people that have the ability and capability, to work with security agencies that can stop oil theft because we had done it before in Lagos and the Republic of Benin.
That was why when they came; I know that if we actually want to survive as a nation; we have to contribute our quota. I have to put my annoyance and the trouble that I faced aside for us to work together to bring up the oil production of this country. As we speak, Nigeria is our country, which is why we agitate we cannot be second-class citizens and that our people should get whatever is due to them.
When you said we did it in Lagos and the Republic of Benin, do you mean you handled a security contract on pipeline protection and performed creditably in these places?
Yes, everybody is aware, and you can go back to the records and check
Our information is that top ex-militant leaders are involved in oil bunkering, so how are you going to tackle them because they are your friends and what is your appraisal of what has led to an increase in oil theft in the country?
We can handle it perfectly, if you look at our environment, our people’s means of survival is fishing, but while people are doing this illegal bunkering, there is no more work for them because it has affected the fishing. Therefore, they have no means of livelihood and our people want their means of livelihood back. Even in federal and state governments, only a few people from our fishing communities have employment, so when you see people coming from outside the country, taking away something from your place, what our people now do is to help them, assist them in the bunkering.
The people getting the bulk of the money are not our people and while doing that, the level of damage they cause to the ecological life of our people is massive, and that is what we are trying to stop. So, we will talk to our people and sensitize them that if you are getting one naira today, the damage it will cost tomorrow is up to N30; that is the area I will now follow to talk to my people and in the end, we will agree and they will leave oil bunkering. We expect the federal government will provide the needful so that our people will survive because we own the oil and our people must be part of the parcel of the wealth, not that people will come from other parts of the country to take our wealth.
Like when people are talking about pipeline protection, and they are doing protests in Port – Harcourt, Lagos, and Abuja, I am amazed. Take the contract that I have now, before now, my late friend, Captain Hosa Okunbo, who was from Edo state, was doing the work for the last four to five years; my younger brother who is a king in Niger Delta today was working with Captain Hosa as his operations manager. Now he has his own contract, then Ben Peters and others are still doing this work, if people are coming to protest that I am part of the contract, I wonder what really is happening.
What I know is that some people are passing behind to sponsor my people against me. If not, there are many contractors on this surveillance job, we are maybe up to four, then calling only Tompolo’s name that we do not want Tompolo, that Tompolo is based in Oporoza and all that, you can now see that if you want to fight corruption, it will fight back.
I can tell you many big names are involved in oil bunkering, they know that if I am involved, working together with the Nigerian Navy, JTF, DSS, EFCC, many people will not have any place to hide again. Therefore, they passed the other way round to sponsor some of my people against me.
I have been fighting all these up till today because I know I am fighting the right cause; I do not have any reason to fear anybody, why should I fear somebody that is carrying maybe two, or three guns protesting in Rivers state?
One, we have to clear our area because if people are working to get N20, the damage, and the aftermath effect is much on our people. That is my concern, not only for me but for many of our people. Many people do not even understand the environmental hazard of cooking this crude oil in this environment.
I think we have many people, traditional rulers, and opinion leaders on our side and we will talk to the people because we are fighting to protect our region. However, if you destroy the economic life of the place, where are you going to protect tomorrow?
Have you reached out to other former ex-militant leaders of Ijaw extraction because many are wondering why Ijaw boys from Rivers state could protest against you?
Before the protest even, I had spoken to my senior brother, Alhaji Dokubo-Asari and Ateke Tom , we spoke on phone and we promised to meet before even this protest. I do not really think they can be involved in such a thing, but we are even having a meeting here tomorrow (last Wednesday). Clearly, I know that even if I secure a contract in Rivers state, Alhaji Dokubo Asari and Ateke Tom do not have the right to stop me.
In fact, while I was here in Delta state, the late Captain Hosa Okunbo’s company had been working here for the past four years; I did not call him to abuse him on the phone, not to talk of protest. So I do not see any reason people should call me out in Rivers state over pipeline security work.
It is just that when this present government came on board, many people felt that this would be the end of Tompolo, but in the end, after seven years, the whole thing turned around, and that is the fear of many people.
When my brothers, Dokubo-Asari and Ateke Tom come, I will explain to them so that they can also help me explain to others the truth about what we should do to save the environment of the region. If I were to be like other contractors, I am not the only contractor, but if you observe, as soon as I signed the contract, after two days, I invited everybody, cult groups, bunkering groups, and community stakeholders from across the states of the region to discuss how we are going to do the work. If you look very well, no contractor has done what I did in the past five to six years.
When you look at the whole thing critically, as an experienced journalist you are, I think you would know where the smoke you are seeing is coming from, but in things like this, we always expect situations like this, but we manage them along the line. There is no cause for alarm; it is something I can handle by the grace of God.
What is your present relationship with the JTF and other security agencies in your plan to do this work?
You know you cannot do any security work in Nigeria, let alone in the creek where oil production is going on, without the Nigerian security agencies. I am working together with the JTF; they are actually the people driving the process, who will provide the intelligence and cover the terrain. Surely, we are doing the job together; I do not have the power of my own to do it, but they also understand that I can provide intelligence and knowledge of how to reach out because I know many people in this region, and Emma Amaize, you know my competence. I know them and they know me. Where the military cannot go in, there is no need to carry a gun, I will tell them to wait and I will enter the place, ask who is there and tell the people to come out, let us discuss.
In addition, let me make a confession, I will not be part of sending the army to kill my people. You know I will not do that; you know me; I will always broker peace and explain to my people to do the right thing. Everybody was carrying arms in this region before, and later we accepted amnesty, but some people still do not know why we accepted amnesty. So let us follow the path of peace and see what will happen, the same Nigerian government and the state, in collaboration with the oil companies, will now do the proper cleanup in our areas to save the area for us.
I think that is why they actually called me and they know that I have been on the ground for the past 30 years, so nobody from Rivers, Bayelsa states can contest that with me. I have been the leader in this struggle for the past 27 years to 30 years, which nobody can dispute or take away from me. Therefore, I can reach out to anybody anywhere.
Why are you leaving the Niger Delta struggle because you are in a new phase now?
(Cuts in, what new phase are you talking about)
In the new phase of your securing pipelines and the earlier phase of the struggle, are you leaving one phase for another?
(Cuts in again, throw more light so that I will understand)
People know you as the leader of the fight back by Niger Delta, which is the Niger Delta struggle, is that struggle in abeyance now that you are securing oil pipelines?
You know that oil pipeline protection is not part of the Niger Delta struggle; I want to clarify that. When we were struggling we were not struggling for people to do oil bunkering, and you know all that. Our struggle is resource control and even as we are speaking now, Papa Edwin Clark and every other person is talking about restructuring the country, people are discussing all that.
What I was saying before is if we are fighting for survival, we will not allow our struggle to bring in things that are not part of the struggle. Cooking oil in all these places is not part of our struggle. If one person builds one house with the proceeds, it will destroy so many people with cancer and other different sicknesses that they do not have an answer.
So, the Niger Delta struggle continues. That was the more reason when we had this issue with the NDDC; we invited our senior brother, former Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, and told him to announce the governing board so that they can work.
Cooking black oil here and there is not part of our struggle; we are not even in the struggle alone; we have part of Igbo people in this struggle, Isoko, Urhobo, and many people in this struggle with us. Pipeline protection is not part of the struggle, what we are doing is to secure our environment, which is in terrible shape.
Finally, your message to those still involved in oil bunkering; the young boys who seem not to understand the issue at stake but issuing threats and assurance; and Niger-Deltans thinking you have jumped ship?
Yes, that is the more reason we are inviting people; traditional rulers, and everybody to tell them what is going on. When they leave here, they will sensitize our people. I told you before that I invited people from across the region, over 10,000 youths were here and I have told them that the way we are going is to stop oil bunkering so that our struggle will have focus, and we can achieve our aim.
If you do not have the oil running, how do you get your resource control? That is what we are doing. When we went to Lagos to stop oil bunkering, we chased some of the oil bunkering vessels as far as the United States of America. The report and paper works they are working with, in this present government, were all our own arrangements, which we brought in. For example, that so and so the amount of crude oil stolen from Nigeria is in so and so port in the USA, and that port in Germany. That was how we actually handled this security job. We are doing all these to save the place called Nigeria, our own country.
While we are doing all that, we will also tell them we want our fair share, you know if you have an oil bunkering camp and somebody have a marginal oil field or an oil block, can you compare the two together? So if we do not stop our people from doing these illegal activities, the people will capitalize on it, they will say we do not know these people for a good thing, and they will now use our people to do the illegal part. The bottom line is that we want to do what is right and get our fair share.
We will take our time, traditional leaders, women leaders, youths, and everybody to sensitize our people; many people do not understand the level of environmental disaster oil bunkering can inflict on us, especially the local cooking.
However, some perpetrators know the danger and still do it and the reason is that they feel they want to survive. Some say let them first survive today before you talk about surviving tomorrow, but I think that with continued sensitization, everybody will understand the real danger and there will be no problem among us by the grace of God.