While Tom Ateke and Ebikabowei Victor Ben alias General Boyloaf promptly embraced the amnesty offer immediately it was proclaimed by the Federal Government, the initial attitude of Government Ekpemupolo alias Tompolo and the elements behind him was to rebuff the 60-day amnesty
offer of the President Umar Musa Yar’Adua Administration.
But when it became clear that the greater majority of the militants in the Niger Delta region were fast embracing the offer and that time was running out on them, Tompolo and his sponsors made a detour and proposed that the period be extended to enable them make wider consultations.
They went a step further to appoint the likes of Professor Wole Soyinka, Rear Admiral Mike Akhigbe and Ankio Briggs, spokespersons of the Ijaw Republican Assembly and Human Right and Environmental Activist to mediate on their behalf with the Federal Government.
Again when it dawned on them that the Federal Government was not going to compromise on the October 4, deadline for the termination of the process, Tompolo quickly surrendered himself at the last minute to the president, 26 hours to the end of the deadline. Tompolo’s surrender was made to appear like reserving the best for the last. But the truth of the matter was that Tompolo and his backers had no options but to back down and surrender to the superior forces of the Federal Government.
Indeed, anybody who was in doubt about Federal Government’s position on the matter would have smartly erased such doubts after hearing Major General Godwin Abbe (rtd), defence minister and chairman of the Presidential Committee on the Amnesty make government’s position on the matter when he said, “After October 4, the amnesty terminates, there will be no extension. Government is firm, is resolute and government will continue with subsequent aspect of the rehabilitation and reintegration of all those who have embrace the amnesty.”
For sure, Tompolo needed no reminder to tell him that if he had failed to surrender, he would have had no hiding place again as the forces of the federal might would have easily fished him out without much ado. His surrender to President Yar’Adua at the First Lady’s Conference Hall State House Abuja, Saturday, October 3 was face-saving in many respects. He was initially reported to have planned to surrender at his village Oporoza in the Gbaramatu Kingdom, Delta State, but later changed that plan. Perhaps the change in attitude was to reflect the larger-than-life image that had been created around him, given that his colleagues who he considered less daring in the battle field were able to attract the recognition and reception of the president.
Perhaps to properly capture the unique stuff he was made of as the last man standing, Tompolo’s surrender was with fanfare. He was accompanied into the reception venue by the who-is-who in the Niger Delta struggle; the very vocal and intellectual elements of the agitators. This was unlike Boyloaf who surrendered with 32 other known militants in the region, while seven prominent militants accompanied Ateke during to his surrender.
Kingsley Kuku, Secretary, Peace and Conflict Resolution in the Niger Delta, a group set up by the Federal Government June last year to mediate between government and the militants who made a brief introductory remarks and thereafter introduced members of Tompolo’s team took time and style to rob it in to all present the quality and caliber of those on Tompolo’s entourage.
The team included President of what Kuku described as, “the foremost youth organisation in this country,” Dr. Christopher Ekiyo, President of the Ijaw Youths Council (IYC), Ankio Briggs, spokesperson of the Ijaw Republican Assembly and Human Right and Environmental Activist, Daniel Ekpebide former national assistant, Secretary, Ijaw National Congress and former president of Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Community in Warri.
Others were Elder John Oyigie former President of IYC, Wilson Ajuwa legal practitioner and rights crusader, Komen Ngozi youths activist, Dennis Otuaro rights activist and chief of Gbaramatu Kingdom, Paul Demeninbor youths journalist in the Niger Delta, Ketsin Pondi a rights activist, Apostle Monday Torotse and Peter Dunia, all rights activists. There was no reminding anybody present at the occasion that among Tompolo’s entourage that evening was the faceless Gbomo Jomos and war commanders of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MENDS).
When Kuku began the introduction of Tompolo, there were doubts from the faces of many present who exactly he was talking about. “I stand foremostly to announce and bring to your presence rights and development advocate, the undisputable leader of the Niger Delta agitators, one of the greatest men in Ijaw land and Niger Delta. Mr. President, we are lucky to have him here, a recorded peace advocate, who initiated a peace process from 2007, he is a justice activist. Mr. President I bring to your notice formerly from our delegation Chief Government Ekpemupolo (aka) Tompolo,” Kuku announced.
The climax of the event was the drama that played out when Tompolo was given the opportunity to speak. This was after the likes of Abbe, Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta State and Chief Tony Anenih had spoken. As all were eyes focused on him with great expectation. First, he pretended he was deaf and dumb and never knew that the entire gathering was waiting for him. Wearing an ash-coloured baseball face cap what was obviously a smaller than an average human head, Tompolo initially gravitated his looks from one direction to the other perhaps wandering who they were talking about.
When it became obvious that the whole house was waiting for none other than him and despite that Kuku who was sitting by his immediate left hand side had whispered to him what to say and how to go about it, he still could not muster enough courage to talk. By this time the pin drop silence that had initially enveloped the venue had gradually given way to murmuring and muttering. In fact at a stage Abbe had to intervene and urged him to “Talk to us the way you talked to us the day we visited you at your camp now, you remember you spoke to us in English?”
Still, there was no dice. At a stage someone suggested that if he could not speak in English he should speak in his native Ijaw language since there were people who could interpret the language. For a while the situation appeared to be stalemated; no going forward and no receding. Just while the waiting game continued and from nowhere Tompolo gradually rose up from his seat. As he stood, he looked up and looked down and sideways, yet the words were heavy in coming. He sat down again gradually and whispered to Kuku to speak on his behalf.
It indeed was an anti climax of a show. The “undisputable leader of the Niger Delta agitators” had suddenly become the shame of the people, somebody among the gathering remarked. But as God would have it, while everybody including, the president were lost in thought as to what next to do, Tompolo finally picked up courage to speak. Standing, an obviously pitiful president urged him to please sit and talk. When the words finally came they were great relief to all and sundry.
“I want to thank Mr. President and everybody here. We are very happy to be here today,” Tompolo said. Still struggling with his speech and recognising the difficulties of putting his previously rehearsed lines across publicly, the militant leader requested of the President thus, “The problem I am having here is that if the President can give me an opportunity to discuss with him privately on the offer of amnesty,” to which Yar’Adua did not have any qualms acceding to on the spot.
Tompolo was to conclude his about one minute remark with very welcome assurance thus, “I am going to work with Mr. President to achieve the dreams of this country,” to which everybody applauded. When the event ended and the people trooped out, the discussions continued outside of the venue and there were all manners of explanations on Tompolo’s poor showing that night. While some theorised that he was intimidated by the grandeur of the Villa and the Presidency as well as the personalities present at the event, others felt that he was merely living up to his true self of limited education, limited intellect and limited exposure.
One fact was manifest though. From what transpired that night, it was doubtful if Tompolo could identify somebody like Professor Wole Soyinka amongst a crowd of three. Again, it was clear that evening that those who were behind all the views and thoughts being ascribed to Tompolo and MEND in the print and electronic media all the while.
There were discernable signs of frustration on the faces of the so called right activists who accompanied Tompolo to the State House that the crisis was heading to a resolution. This was because Tompolo’s surrender was like cutting the artery of their main source of stay as Tompolo was used as the bargaining chip that sustained their struggles and relevance.
The truth of the matter was that Tompolo lost a rare moment to draw attention of the whole world on the many years of suffering and deprivation visited on the people of the Niger Delta by successive administrations in this country. By not seizing the moment to articulate the grievances of his people, Tompolo cut the impression that he was engaging in purposeless battle against the Nigeria state.
Boyloaf and Ateke did better than Tompolo in this regard. Boyloaf who spoke on behalf of the rest 31 repentant militants on the day of their surrender was very clear on the reasons for their grievances against the Nigerian state were.
Said Boyloaf: “You are all aware of how we got to where we are today in the Niger Delta. Our people are hungry and dying, our infrastructures are in a deplorable state, our communities have no water and light, oil spillage and gas flaring is the order of the day.
“In fact you need to visit the region to see things for yourselves, our youths are unemployed and this is the same region that produces over 90 per cent of our national income. How then can we fold our hands and see the future of our generation yet unborn crumble before our eyes. I do not want to put the blame on the present administration of President Umar Musa Yar’Adua.
“It is just the long neglect of past administrations and constitutional injustice by the Nigerian state that got us where we are today. Our people have had promises in the past that got us nowhere; we want to believe that this administration is sincere and will keep to its promise of holistic developmental approach to the region.
“The main issues are not about making nice promises, but by keeping to them. We want to see genuine changes and development in the Niger Delta region. The world knows that the people of Niger Delta are not asking too much from the Nigerian state. At this juncture, may I use this opportunity to remind this administration of her slogan of rule of law and it should be noted that in the spirit of rule of law, equity and justice comes to play. All we are asking for is correction of injustice done to the Niger Delta region.
“As government on its part has made a step forward by granting amnesty and releasing Henry Okah, we on our part in the spirit of fair bargaining, hereby declare and agree to lay down our arms for this administration to immediately commence the other part of the bargain:–correction of constitutional injustices, rapid development of the region, massive creation of job opportunities for the youths and the immediate implementation of the recommendations of the Ledum Mitee led presidential committee report. Further more may I use this medium to call on this administration to commence the immediate reconstruction of destroyed communities in the cause of the crisis,” he said.
Ateke too was quite succinct and expressive on his remarks even though he spoke in Pidgin English. He thanked the President for the amnesty offer and the decision to meet with him at the State House. He recalled that he was the first person to accept the amnesty offer and assured the president that after the event he would proceed to his Camp 4 to surrender all his arms in fulfillment of his acceptance of the amnesty offer. Indeed, Ateke later lived up to his assurances to the president as he performed his arms surrender in grand style at his camp 4 based in Rivers State.
Ateke on the day of his meeting with Yar’Adua said, “I meet with defence minister them come our camp, ask us say wetin be our problem, we tell them our problems. The problems this Niger Delta get no be new story, Na story wey the whole world know.
“Your amnesty, immediately you announce the amnesty, I be the first person way embrace the amnesty because I like the amnesty. But things wey we talk we dey worry us make una try do am for us because we dey suffer for Niger Delta and we believe you. Me particularly I believe you well well. I know say the things dem wey you promise you go fit do am for us but the people wey no fit endure am na him no fit endure am.
“So I thank you very well for this amnesty. Make you try help us we the Ijaw people. Try commot us from this problem wey we dey get. Our arms we go drop am like me, I don promise I go drop my arms. Na im make I say make I try come see you take all our problems dem try solve am for us, that is why I dey here today,” Ateke emphasised.
As the president observed during his meeting with Tompolo, the real challenge for the amnesty commenced with the post amnesty process. And to demonstrate his administration’s determination to address the grievances that led to the militants taking up arms in the first place against the Nigerian State, the president said the first major post amnesty action by him would be to sit down one-on-one with the major ex militants to hear them out on their major concerns.
As the first leg of the parley is expected to take place without the inclusion of the rights activists, it would be a golden opportunity for the former militants to articulate their grievances succinctly and clearly to the president who has promised to address these problems squarely and decisively.
By GEORGE OJI – Thisday