Reclusive. Covert. Self-effacing. These words aptly describe ex-Niger Delta warlord, Mr. Government Ekpemupolo, aka Tompolo, who has of recent evolved into one of the most influential kingmakers in Delta State and indeed in the Niger Delta.
He’s seldom seen, rarely heard, yet the Ijaw traditional title holder’s hold on the happenings in the Niger Delta waterways and lately his image of a political heavy weight, pulling the strings in many puzzling instances compels an analysis.
Born in 1969, Tompolo was just another regular Niger Delta youth and little was known of him until a few years ago when he emerged one of the fiery commanders of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, a militant group which said it was fighting the injustices visited on the region.
However, those who have followed his evolution also say that in 1993 Ekpemupolo dropped out of college and joined a resistance group in the Niger Delta and later the Ijaw Youth Council, which was then still very new.
Spurred on by the exploits of their compatriots, including Mr Adaka Boro and the popular playwright, Ken Saro Wiwa, who both paid the supreme price in their attempt to ‘liberate’ the Niger Delta, the youths who took up arms against the federal government were bent on proving a point that it wasn’t going to be business as usual.
Having substantially empowered himself and his lieutenants, Ekpemupolo, perceived to be one of the most financially buoyant ex-militants in the region, took on the authorities in what would later prove to be a watershed in the history of Nigeria.
When it became apparent that Tompolo and his ilk would not budge in their confrontation against the Nigerian military and their attempt to cripple the economy largely dependent on crude oil from the Niger Delta, the Federal Government came up with a quick fix–the amnesty programme.
Counted as one of the most visible achievements of the late President Umar Yar’adua’s government, the ex-militants were, by the agreement, required to submit their arms to the authorities while the Federal Government would in turn rehabilitate and empower them.
Though critics argue that a substantial portion of his riches came as a result of his involvement in illegal oil bunkering, which he has denied, and of course from his recent closeness to the government at the centre, those who are close to him see him as a staunch businessman with the magic wand.
“My name became associated with oil business when I was in Camp 5. 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. But I would never do it myself,” he said. “Everybody knows that I am not a bunkerer and that is the more reason why I am surviving up till date”, he once said.
He secured a multi-billion naira deal to secure the waterways after reluctantly accepting the amnesty on June 27, 2009, thereby publicly renouncing armed militancy.
Ekpemupolo does not necessarily court controversies, but controversies have become a part of his relatively short life, despite his attempt to draw attention to his human side by floating a foundation which caters for the needs of the less privileged. He has renovated dilapidated schools and put brilliant kids on scholarship.
Less than two months ago, a widely published statement by the taciturn ex-militant stopped the federal government from inaugurating the $16bn gas project in Delta state. The Ijaw people currently have a disagreement with the Itsekiri over the ownership of the land on which the project is located and its naming.
Just before the dust raised by that action had settled, the issue of some journalists who were allegedly held by some boys loyal to the ex-warlord surfaced and then later the accusation that he had imported some gunboats which the navy later said belonged to the military.
With a frail figure which he tends to balance with unrivalled courage, Tompolo, born to a royal house in Okerenkoko in Gbaramatu kingdom, Warri South-West Local Government, Delta State has the uncanny ability to read his environment calculatingly and take full advantage of the opportunities.
Even before his recent cryptic foray into politics, there were insinuations that Tompolo’s influence sustained his kinsman, Chief Wellington Okrika who was then the Executive Chairman of the Delta State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission, DESOPADEC, for the period he (Okrika)headed the commission.
He was said to have also influenced the enthronement of the late Godwin Bebenimibo, a retired Superintendent of Police, as Gbaran III Agadagba, the traditional ruler of the Gbaramatu kingdom, where he (Tompolo) hails from.
However, away from the armed struggle, Tompolo who says he practices Christianity, Islam and African Traditional religion, has found a new pastime- that of a political kingmaker.
In the build-up to the 2015 elections, three incidents of his fresh journey in politics readily come to mind. The overnight standing down of an Itsekiri candidate by Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, governor of Delta State, in last November’s local government elections in the state after serious pressure from Tompolo.
Festus Keyamo, a well-known lawyer of Delta State origin, who took up the case, accused Governor Uduaghan of playing politics in Warri South-West Local Government Area, the affected council, which he said was capable of igniting a serious crisis in the State.
Mr. Weyinmi Omadeli, the candidate who was displaced less than 48 hours to the election, had emerged the PDP chairmanship candidate of the L.G.A after the primaries were conducted, but was suddenly asked to withdraw for Tompolo’s brother, George Ekpemupolo.
Riled by the alleged injustice, Keyamo wrote, “However, in a strange twist of fate, you (Uduaghan) summoned Mr. Omadeli to your private residence in Warri on Thursday, October 23, 2014 (barely 48 hours to the election) and informed him that you had given orders to DSIEC to replace his name with that of Mr. George Ekpemupolo who is the younger brother to Mr. Government Ekpemupolo (alias Tompolo). For the records also, Mr. George Ekpemupolo is an Ijaw by tribe.”
“The decision was taken whimsically and it is unjust, unfair, illegal and ungodly,” he declared in the letter. “Consequently, it is unacceptable and will be challenged legally and politically”, he added. The decision was not reversed.
Tompolo was also responsible for forcing Uduaghan to step down for Senator James Manager during December’s National Assembly primaries in the contest for Delta South senatorial seat. Both Tompolo and Senator Manager are of the Delta Ijaw stock. In his speech announcing his withdrawal from the poll, Uduaghan said the decision was to ‘give peace a chance’ and not to jeopardise the fragile calm in the state.
The former warlord also single-handedly ensured the emergence of his longtime ally who is said to be his cousin, Mr Kingsley Otuaro, as the Deputy Governor nominee of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Delta State. Otuaro is currently a commissioner at the Delta State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission (DESOPADEC).
The deputy governor nominee, an Ijaw man himself, emerged despite opposition from the Isoko people, another major ethnic group in Delta South, who relied on a seemingly unwritten zoning arrangement of the ruling PDP in the state.
The battle for who should become the deputy governor of the state had squared the trio of Ijaw leader, Chief Edwin Clark, an ex-chair of Burutu local government, who reportedly preferred former Commissioner for Agriculture, Dr. Braduce Amakazi Angozi.
Senator Manager was said to have supported one Mr J.T. Government, a former chairman of SUBEB in the state under the administration of Chief James Ibori, while Tompolo supported Otuaro, who eventually emerged as the officially recognized nominee.
Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, the governorship candidate of the PDP also emerged as a result of Mr. Ekpemupolo’s ‘’long legs’’ and rising influence in the politics of the state.
He changed the political arithmetic of the state by teaming up with Delta north to ensure the emergence of Okowa against Uduaghan’s initial candidate, Mr Tony Obuh and later Mr David Edevbie, who was a last minute choice of the establishment.
Yet, despite the political rigmarole, Okowa won, thereby paving the way for an Ijaw deputy governor nominee who was appointed by Mr Tompolo.
Already, he has been crisscrossing the state, holding secret meetings with traditional rulers, drumming support for President Goodluck Jonathan and the PDP standard bearer, Senator Okowa over next February’s general election.
However, there are critics who feel that given his antecedents in armed militancy, it would be a misfit for a former militant to decide who governs and who gets what, when and how in the state.
Mr Robinson Ariyo, a development expert and lawyer believes when there are persons of impeccable character in the society, such humongous responsibilities should not be handed over to people who have a ‘questionable’ past.
Ariyo urged the government to desist from rewarding bad behaviour by awarding contracts to the armed gangs, urging them to clamp down on those who wield sophisticated arms to intimidate their neighbours.
“These youths have weapons the least of which is the AK47’’ te rights activist said. He demanded the disarming of the armed youths, describing their alleged continuous protection by the Nigerian state as a ‘disgrace’.
But, depending on which side of the divide both critics and loyalists belong, there is the general consensus that the exmilitant has evolved from being a warlord in the creeks to being a kingmaker whose opinion is sought when issues of leadership in Delta and indeed the region are concerned.
However, whether he will still be relevant politically as he currently is, when President Goodluck Jonathan, also an Ijaw man, serves out his tenure(s) in Aso Rock, remains to be seen.