The Egbesu society is a very disciplined socio-religious organization, spread across the the Izon (Ijaw) speaking areas of the Niger Delta. For the Ijaws, it is the fulcrum on which justice rests. To those who believe, it is deity, the divine spirit with which an Ijaw can overcome the forces of oppression and evil. In their spiritual realm, the Egbesu is the personified enforcer of order in the land of the living. Like all human Gods, Egbesu is the unseen Field Marshall in warfare. Its initiates are taught how to protect themselves with all kinds of mystical powers, charms and amulets. It was into this society that Ijaw High Chief, Government Ekpemupolo, a.k.a Tompolo, was initiated at an early age. Born in 1969 into the royal family in Okerenkoko, Delta State, Ekpemupolo, had his primary school education at Okepopo Primary School, and his secondary school training at Warri Comprehensive College. After leaving secondary school, he went into business, dabbling into all sorts of petty business up and down the streams of Warri, until the 1997 Warri ethnic crisis. That year, the military regime of late General Sani Abacha, had played a thoughtless game of political gerrymander. It created a new Warri South local council with headquarters in Ogbe Ijo in the Ijaw-speaking waterside of the city, then without much ado reversed itself and moved the council headquarters to the Itsekiri-speaking Ogidigben. Hostilities erupted immediately between the Ijaws and the Itsekiris. It was the ripe moment for Ekpemupolo to test all he had learnt in the past years as an Egbesu adherent. It was with this conflict that he launched a career in ethnic liberation, one that was to metamorphose into what his lieutenants regard as a freedom movement. He was reputed to be courageous and ruthless in his prosecution of the ethnic offensive. The Itsekiris never forgave him for the carnage he visited on them in a mayhem that saw all sides in the conflict visited with destruction. He was a marked man in Warri and the city was no longer safe, he remained underground in Warri until 2003 when he moved into the creeks, arriving at Oporoza, in the Gbaramatu Kingdom of Ijaw land. In the creeks of the Niger Delta, he was confronted once again, with the stark reality of environmental degradation that has become the lot of his people. It was an experience that did not quite register in his formative years in the creeks. Now, it was different. The ponds had turned brackish with oil pollution and farmlands had lost their productive value. It was an economy of extreme poverty sitting on a bed of stupendous wealth. For once it dawned on Tompolo that his enemies were in fact not his ethnic neighbours, rather they all were victims of a system that exploited them. That same year, he put together a militant umbrella body called the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities, FNDIC, that carried out unprecedented attacks on economic installations in Ijawland, a type never seen before in the Niger Delta. The militia campaign cut Nigeria’s OPEC oil production quota by more than 30 per cent. His target then, was mainly oil facilities operated by Chevron, an America conglomerate. There seem to be no love lost between him and the American oil giant. In an exclusive chat with The Armada, his first and only one-on-one interaction with any Nigerian media to date, he accuses Chevron of being a major arms importer for the federal government of Nigeria, arms used to attack defenceless Niger Deltans, and by extension contributing in the escalation of tension in the region.
It is often said that reputation gets you to a position, but eventually, it is only character that can keep you there. Unlike some of the other militant commanders, Tompolo was not loud. He was hardly ever seen, even after the military joint task force leveled his famous Camp Five operational base. With a network of strong loyalists he held on for several weeks. A very deliberate person; he appraises his immediate environment, taking in very gesture and movement. He is economical with words. His now familiar baseball face-cap, casts a shadow over his face, creating a distant mystic, masking his facial expressions. The physical appearance, does not in any measure or stretch of imagination match the reputation of this Ijaw demagogue.
The Armada reporter had been waiting along with some fierce-looking henchmen of Ekpemupolo for about 30 minutes in the living room of his expansive suite on the second floor of New Chelsea Hotel, in Abuja, a day after he met President Yar’Adua, when suddenly the quiet small talk of his associates were stirred, something was about to happen. The militia-men sitting with The Armada reporter all stood, rather briskly for civilians. For some few seconds all eyes were directed at the reporter who was still sitting down at the imminent arrival of someone obviously very important. Sensing discontent, the reporter stood up. Not long after, High Chief Ekpemupolo, commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, and the one known as General Officer Commanding, GOC, sauntered into the room accompanied by the president of the Ijaw Youth Congress, Chris Ekiyor. Ekiyor, eloquent and debonair, is a reflection of how deep the discontent runs in the Delta and why those who think it is a run of poorly trained criminals and thugs got it all wrong. He holds a Ph.D.
As they came in, Ekpemupolo took time greeting his visitors, shaking hands with the first henchman he called ‘Armourer,’ another whom he addressed as ‘Shoot at Sight,’ and finally the reporter, which he grabbed firmly.
As The Armada reporter was about settling down for the business of the day, Tompolo’s men made it clear that the GOC had mood swings and as such will not entertain questions directly. Rather the reporter was informed that Ekiyor would speak on his behalf, which he did, with interjections from the GOC. The interview covers the reason for his accepting the amnesty deal and his expectation from the government. He was asked whether he was in touch the other factional leader of MEND, Gbomo Jomo, this time he never uttered a word, he just shook his head in affirmation and his countenance changed immediately. He called the interview closed, bringing all proceedings to an end. Excerpts:
It’s a good thing that today you are privileged to meet the man himself. The man behind the iron mask. A lot of people have not seen him, that is. The man is humble by birth. We used to say that he has the characteristics that border on piety, humility, patience, spirit of forgiveness and understanding. Most of the actions today are fashioned after the ideologies the young man has initiated.
Is the struggle about ideology or self-aggrandisement?
True to type, I can tell you categorically, that the war we prosecuted in the creeks in the swamps of the Niger Delta were just true, even though we had people who came from far and wide who were not even real Ijaw people who were just supporting the movement of MEND, that started doing some things different from what we set out to do but that is what happens in society. I say that once there’s an original there’s will be counterfeit so that’s what we saw when you hear things like people being kidnapped, hostage for money.Our fight was clear, you can’t continue to take our resources without putting something back in the land. You have plunged us into poverty and our case was like the case of a walking cemetery. Before the oil, we had our land, as poorly developed as it was, we plant our yams and plantains they come out in good sizes. In the morning we just need to go to the waterside and use our basin to push the water to the sand bank and you see one or two, three fishes that you can add to the plantain and it will give you our native pepper-soup. So you really don’t have to struggle too hard for anything. And if you go the palm plantation, you get and you get good palm oil, and get also the dry gin and we were comfortable. And then one day we saw some people, strangers as they were, as hospitable as we were, we accepted them and embraced them to our region. And we saw them putting some strange structures in the area that we did not understand, after a while we saw that in their areas there was light, they had pipe-borne water, we also didn’t bother and true to type, if that was all they have done, there would have been no problem, but we suddenly realized that what they were doing there started affecting our daily yield of food and drinking water. The water got polluted, our yams cannot grow, our estuaries disappeared and we dared to ask what is the activity going on here that we can no longer live our lives? That is the crisis that came out. Rather than give us answers, the state uses force to subdue us and for fifty years or so, we were subdued. Until 2003. He left the comfort of Warri, the young business man who was into oil and gas, all sorts of things. With the pains and suffering of Ijaw people, he moved into the creeks and confined himself there for six years. He was on land for the first time on the 3rd of October, 2009, he saw Warri also for the first time after six years.
Newspapers said Tompolo broke down in tears, Yes he has his human element, his milk of kindness. And his breaking down in tears was not because the war was over, it was because after seeing (the beauty of) Abuja, he went back home and at that point when we have given up to allow amnesty to reign, he wished dearly that all our fallen heroes, the blood of our people that were wasted, will not go in vain, all the suffering of all those young men that have stayed and tarried with him will not go in vain. And that was what he said. We have done our part and we do hope that this government will do its part. He is here, he will say a few words, he a man of few words. He has asked us to let you know that whether in armed struggle or no armed struggle, we should all know that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.
Do you think the government will stick to its own side of the bargain?
The Nigerian state as you and I know, has never been committed to anything. But if what we are doing now is another form of sacrifice for the nation to move forward, for the world to know that we don’t mean the idle equivalence of peace, we are prepared to pay that price. The beauty of it is that, life regenerates itself, if you look at the history of the struggle from Dappa Biriye’s time, the minorities rights, fears of the minority, up to Adaka Boro’s time, up to the early 1990s, eventually the Mujaheed and eventually himself (Tompolo), you find out that the trend of violence that has prevailed had escalated from mild to medium to where we got to full blown war. The country will be doing itself a disservice if it refuses to respond because the next generation of freedom fighters that will come may be worst than Al-Qaeda, we are not predicting doom, but you see, with what we have done, nobody will seat down and fold his arms. In another ten years and nothing happens and you think the country will have a field day? Looking at the amount of armoury that was handed over to the government, if we were selfish people who wanted to break away, we had the capacity with the kind of armament that we had. The civil war that broke out did not have it and it lasted for three years. With the dicey nature of the country today, if anybody can hold his forte for six months, it will be over. But the Ijaws are peace loving people, we still believe in the entity called Nigeria, all we ask is mutual respect. If you respect us, you will not be treating us the way you are treating us currently. You will not award N200billion for an airport road to town (Abuja Airport Road), 30 minutes drive, and N57billion for Warri to Calabar dualisation and you are trying to compare the two. So we have a lot of issues. But in the wisdom of comradeship and One-Nigerianness, he had asked all his flanks and everybody who believes in this struggle to come with him. That’s why you saw that last minute rush, because the man that holds the forte has said that all those who look up to him to lead the way should queue behind him. As I speak with you, he’s still leading the process of discourse on behalf of all those who have been involved in prosecuting the armed conflict, he is in consultation with the Ijaw elders and Niger Delta leaders on how we can take a position with the government.
(Tompolo’s voice) – The truth of the whole thing is that we want the international community to come and see actually what is happening in our area because most people do not understand what we are facing actually, they say these people are carrying arms here and there, but if you get to the creeks you will know that we are facing some serious problems. Common water to drink we don’t have, light we don’t have, hospital we don’t have. There’s nothing. Even the least thing one is supposed to have, even if you don’t have money, my people don’t have. The oil companies know what every reasonable person needs to survive, they are working around our areas knowing the truth but nobody is following the truth. It may interest you to know that most of the arms used by the Nigerian government is supplied by Chevron and some other countries. So we are begging everybody to come and see the truth, and let justice be done in the Niger Delta. We’ll give government the benefit of the doubt for now. No amount of threat will stop me and my people from arriving at our destination. As a people, we want to be treated as any other Nigerians. There isn’t much problem, we have done our own part; we are now looking up to government to do their own part. Truth is bitter and people don’t want to hear the truth, in every struggle like this, hijackers will come. What we are asking for is not too much for any reasonable person both home and abroad to give to his fellow citizens.
MEND is saying they are not part of the peace deal, don’t you think this could scuttle the entire amnesty deal? (To Tompolo)
(Ekiyor cuts in)
I want to state categorically to you that this is MEND (pointing to TOMPOLO) leave every other thing. He is the first and last bus stop. He’ll take care of that.
Tompolo: You see everybody is not happy the way we are going about the whole thing, but it is our duty to call on people and continue to explain to them the import of the peace deal.
So you are in touch with Gbomo Jomo?
Yes (nods affirmatively).