Nigeria: Tompolo contract raises spectre of renewed militancy in Niger Delta

By Eniola Akinkuotu
Posted on Wednesday, 7 September 2022 13:19

Militants patrol the creeks of the Niger delta region of Nigeria January 30, 2007.
Militants patrol the creeks of the Niger delta region of Nigeria January 30, 2007. REUTERS/George Esiri (NIGERIA)

Meet the billionaire militant known as Tompolo: Nigeria declared him wanted, froze his accounts, seized his houses... then secretly awarded him a million dollar contract. Not everyone in the Niger Delta is happy about it.

“Government Ekpemepulo aka Tompolo: 47 year-old Tompolo is wanted in a case of conspiracy, illegal diversion of the sum of N34bn ($80.9bn) and N11.9bn ($28.3m) belonging to the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA). Dark complexioned Tompolo hails from Okerenkoko, Gbaramatu Kingdom, Warri South-West LGA of Delta State. He speaks Izon and English languages fluently. Two consecutive bench warrants have been issued, for the suspect’s arrest, from a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos. His last known address is No 1, Chief Agbanu Street, DDPA Extension, Warri, Delta State”.

These are the words from the official website of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) the agency of the Nigerian government tasked with the responsibility of tackling corruption in Africa’s largest economy.

The EFCC had in 2015 hired human rights lawyer, Festus Keyamo (now junior labour minister), to prosecute Tompolo; the head of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Mr. Patrick Akpobolokemi and seven others, before a Lagos court on 40 counts of alleged conspiracy and fraud. However, while the others showed up, Tompolo refused to come to court.

The judge subsequently issued a warrant for his arrest. Based on an application by the EFCC, the court on 19 February 2016 ordered the seizure of eight of Tompolo’s properties and his bank accounts for his refusal to heed court summons to answer to fraud charges while he remained incommunicado.

Nigeria’s most wanted

But this would not be the first time that Tompolo would be declared wanted.

In May 2009 at the height of the Niger Delta militancy, he made international headlines when he was declared the most wanted man in Nigeria for allegedly killing 11 soldiers.

READ MORE Nigeria’s silent killer: The deadly price of oil

Tompolo, who was the leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), was at the forefront of a violent struggle for resource control and the cleanup of the Niger Delta which was despoiled by the activities of oil companies.

These armed militants engaged in kidnapping foreign oil workers, vandalising oil pipelines, sea piracy, and illegal oil bunkering. The activities of these militants brought Nigeria’s oil dependent economy to its knees even as Tompolo continued to evade arrest until President Umaru Yar’Adua introduced an amnesty programme.

The programme entailed militants surrendering their arms to the government in exchange for monthly stipends; training and education. The introduction of the amnesty programme also witnessed a drastic drop in the attacks on oil facilities. The government claims over 29,000 militants have surrendered since the programme began while not less than $2bn has been spent on the programme so far.

The ‘billionaire’ militant

For Tompolo, the amnesty programme brought huge fortune but this increased after Yar’Adua’s death, when his successor, President Goodluck Jonathan, awarded a contract worth about $103.4m to a company known as Global West Vessel Specialist Limited (GWVSL). The company is widely believed to be owned by Tompolo.

The multi-million dollar contract was for the supply of 20 vessels which would be used by the military to secure Nigeria’s waterways that had become notorious for sea piracy and illegal oil bunkering. The contract was awarded through NIMASA and its director-general, Patrick Akpobolokemi, who is today facing corruption charges before a Lagos court.

With his new contract and an amnesty programme, Tompolo, who received no formal education and was from a poor background, was living the Nigerian dream – untouchable and stupendously wealthy. However, after President Jonathan’s defeat in 2015, the contract was revoked in 2016 and given to the Chairman of the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress, in Rivers State, Davies Akanya.

Militancy returns

Following the revocation of some contracts by the new President Muhammadu Buhari regime, the militancy increased once more. This time, it was led by a group known as the Niger Delta Avengers. On 14 January 2016, the group carried out its first known attack, blowing up gas pipelines and oil installations located in Warri barely hours after the High Court in Lagos had ordered Tompolo’s arrest. Tompolo, however, denied having any connection to the NDA.

The NDA went on to carry out about 50 attacks on critical oil facilities in the country in 2016 alone, bringing the nation’s oil economy to its knees and forcing Nigeria to lose its position as Africa’s largest oil producer to Angola for months.

One of the major attacks was that of 25 October 2016 on Escravos Export Pipeline, owned by Chevron Corporation, which transported hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil each day from offshore oil fields to the Escravos GTL petroleum refineries was blown up.

Another was that of 15 November 2016 where they blew up Nembe 01, 02, and 03 crude oil pipelines, operated by Eni, Oando and Royal Dutch Shell. The three major pipelines supplied the Bonny Export Terminal, located in Bayelsa State, with 300,000 barrels of crude oil every day until they were destroyed.

The Nigerian military launched two special operations known as ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’ and ‘Operation Shark Bite’. Unable to meet its OPEC quota amid dwindling oil prices, Nigeria soon slipped into a recession.

Attacks continue

Although the militancy dropped considerably, in 2017, it worsened again in 2021 with the attacks on more oil facilities as oil majors had to declare force majeure.

According to Nigeria’s junior oil minister, Timipre Sylva, the latest figures show that Nigeria loses 400,000 barrels daily while its production capacity stands at 1.4 million barrels per day.

With oil sold at over $100 per barrel in recent times, Nigeria is estimated to have lost at least $40m daily to oil theft or at least $7.2bn in the last six months.

Tompolo returns

Desperate to revive its bleeding economy, Nigeria has now awarded a pipeline surveillance contract to Tompolo said to be worth about $9.5m per month, according to local newspaper, The Nation.

Defending the decision, the Chief Executive Officer of Nigerian National Petroleum Company, Mele Kyari, said the NNPC would not be dealing with Tompolo directly but the company.

“He may have interest in the company, we’re not dealing with Tompolo, but we know that he has interests in that company,” says Kyari.

Justifying the contract, Kyari said Nigeria needed proper pipeline monitoring which Nigerian security agencies could not handle alone.

“The security agencies are doing their part, end-to-end pipeline surveillance would require the involvement of private entities and community stakeholders,” he said.

The engagement of private organisations to handle serious security challenges reinforces the belief that the whole defence architecture in the country needs an urgent overhaul. The Federal Government cannot be seen to be playing the ostrich in this regard.

“We need private contractors to man the right of way to these pipelines. So we put up a framework for contractors to come and bid and they were selected through a tender process. And we believe we made the right decision,” he added.

The Delta State Government also stated that since the activities of militants had begun affecting Nigeria’s revenue, it was only proper for pipeline surveillance contracts to be given to locals.

Nobody puts militants in the corner

But the decision to give the contract to Tompolo has also angered some militants in other states who have accused the government of sidelining them. They have also threatened to attack pipelines in their communities.

Besides, bringing onboard a wanted ex-militant has again called to question the seriousness of the anti-corruption war of the Buhari administration which has consistently been criticised by Transparency International and the opposition.

Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State, who is also a member of Buhari’s party, criticised the administration for giving such a contract to a private organisation.

“The engagement of private organisations to handle serious security challenges reinforces the belief that the whole defence architecture in the country needs an urgent overhaul. The Federal Government cannot be seen to be playing the ostrich in this regard,” he says.

It is sad that the Nigerian government is officially endorsing criminality by supporting or providing contracts to people who are already wanted by anti-corruption agencies…

Speaking to The Africa Report, activist Auwal Rafsanjani, who heads the local chapter of Transparency International, said the government was simply promoting insecurity and corruption by giving contracts to people like Tompolo.

Rafsanjani argues that giving amnesty and contracts to known criminals could be counter-productive just as it failed in the fight against insecurity in the north where so-called repentant bandits and terrorists were given amnesty and money.

“It is sad that the Nigerian government is officially endorsing criminality by supporting or providing contracts to people who are already wanted by anti-corruption agencies. They are also promoting militancy in the name of using them to safeguard pipelines.

“The government is undermining the security of the county. What they are saying is that the army, navy, police and air force have become irrelevant and redundant and incompetent to secure Nigeria’s oil facilities,” he adds.

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