When Tompolo barks, the wind freezes in all of the Niger Delta. His real name is Government Oweizide Ekpemupolo. He is regarded in the oil region as a government of his own.
He is the self-styled Grand Commander or leader of the dreaded Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).
About a week ago, he issued a seven-day ultimatum to the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, to cause the Board of the Niger Delta development Commission (NDDC) to be constituted or face a total shut-down of oil operations in the oil region. But, after a stormy visit in the creeks and a meeting with the elders, youths, ex-militants, the ultimatum was withdrawn. Nigerians may not know how close the economy came to a halt.
Oil and oil related revenues are expected to contribute about N4 trillion in the N7.9 trillion revenue expected to fund the N13 trillion 2021 budget. Even the deficit of about N5 trillion to be sourced with loans and capital earnings can only happen if oil economy is stable enough to contribute its N4.28 trillion. This means that whatever attacks occurred in oil supply would ruin Nigeria. That understanding must be why Tompolo’s ultimatum reverberated around the world.
When Covid-19 attacked the oil economy, Nigeria could only muster a mere N1.09 trillion oil revenue in 2020. This led to unprecedented borrowing to keep the country going. Many analysts wonder if Nigeria can absorb another such hit at this point in time.
This is why many view the action taken by the Minister (Akpabio) in reaction to the ultimatum as a step to be studied.
The ultimatum led to huge panic elsewhere but anger in the camp of the Minister who sees himself as a man of uncommon actions. Top-level meetings ensued, during which anger flowed most of the time. At the end of the consultations, Akpabio, former two-time commissioner in Akwa Ibom State, two time governor, one-term senator, embarked what his close aids now call ‘suicide mission’. Many advised him not to embark on the eight hours to and fro trip to Gbaramatu riverine community where Tompolo rules. Some were said to sneak away. Akpabio went, according to him, to save the economy.
The underpinning scenario in the south-east seemed to lend huge panic. Should the ex-militants take on the oil economy, the little funds trickling in to support the war against terror would simply dry up, the wheels of governance would grind to a halt, and final crash may be imminent, he was said to have reasoned. Hence the suicide mission!
Thus, while most Nigerians focused on the other crisis points taking place in Nigeria caused by threats of all sorts, another crisis was set to explode around the oil region. A battle raged, though with diplomacy, not guns.
The Presidency was the target, as many reasoned. The Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio was to be the channel to attack his principal. The President is the one empowered by law to constitute the Board of the Commission established about 21 years ago. An analyst and resource person in the oil region, Oby Ndukwe of Citizens Quest described what the Minister did thus: “In a swift response, Akpabio made a grand but suicidal entry into the lion’s den, though with a heavy presence of Nigeria’s military might, in a statement that was evidence of how much the Government of the day was sensitive to the red smoke coming from the creeks and would even bend to avert a full-blown fire that could cripple or stagnate the already wobbling economy.”
The signals coming from the militant world indicated that false information must have been fed to the underworld. Akpabio thus reasoned that use of force may not address the mindset of the ex-militants who felt they were fighting for their people. He thus saw the need to fight false information with the truth and bare facts.
Yes, the Minister met with Tompolo face to face. He also met with other big lords of the creeks and the elders and leaders of the region. This is believed to have afforded both parties a rare opportunity to hear each other out without intermediaries and conflict entrepreneurs that may have been distorting the intentions of any government to address issues.
Ndukwe said: “The Minister met with Tompolo, the grand commander of the Niger Delta Youths, after the all-exhaustive parley with the deputy governor of Delta State, elders, traditional rulers and the youths. It was gathered that Tompolo hailed Akpabio for daring to make the trip and for being ready to meet ex-militants in the deepest creeks of the Niger Delta, in the grooves of the ocean.
“This must be why they, despite being determined to stand by the ultimatum issued by Tompolo, they also patiently listened as Akpabio seized the moment of the visit to explain the real challenges facing the Niger Delta region and why the inauguration of a new Board will only be possible after the Forensic Auditors turn in their reports.”
The Minister was said to have communicated the fact that the audit was not intended to fight the Ijaw or criminalize anybody, rather, “The whole essence was to chart a new course for the speedy development of the region through the frugal management of the resources allocated for the purpose and to ensure that the over 12,000 abandoned projects were completed. The critical question the Audit will answer is, should the NDDC focus on completion of old projects or to start new ones? How do you do it without falling back to the rot?”
He forced them to think beyond clamour for a Board but to ask why for over 26 years, it was difficult to complete the Headquarters of the Commission and give it a befitting status in the region.
He reminded them how this would be a timely stoppage of a yearly rent of N300m paid for the temporary headquarters so far in 21 years, something that has been stopped by the President through Akpabio, according to close sources to the minister.
Akpabio was quoted to have wondered why the people, rather than clamour for a substantive Board for the Amnesty Office, which pays over 30,000 trained ex-Agitators, and being run by an Interim Administration system, though an Ijaw, they looked the other way.
A huge revelation tumbled out at the meeting at Gbaramatu. Akpabio was said to have shown concern that had Tompolo and his associates, backed by the elders well informed on the reason for the snail speed in developing the region. “They would have rather challenged the decision of some ministers and members of the National Assembly from the region, who ordered the International Oil Companies (IOCs) to stop the payment of the statutory three and five per cent of their yearly capital budgets (capex) to the Commission’s account domiciled at the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). This paved the way for the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to act on a petition to divert these sources of allocation of funds to a dedicated account tagged EFCC /NDDC account.”
The Minister was believed that the ex-militants had been penetrated by those who lost out in nominating persons to the NDDC Board or those who had fears in the forensic audit or Buhari haters in the region. Else, how would the ex-militants feign ignorance while billions of naira meant for the region’s development were trapped in an account recently opened to warehouse NDDC funds in a questionable manner.
The minister’s supporters wondered why they barely heard any commendation for Akpabio whose intervention helped return the contractors handling the East-West Road project to site since 2015, when the project was stalled.
The Minister succeeded in showing the ex-militants how badly their own interests would have been affected by a renewed violence in the oil region. A source at the meeting said: “The decision by Tompolo and others to rescind their earlier decision and withdrawal of the ultimatum remains therefore an added advantage to the current fight against insecurity.”
Further points Akpabio drove down their minds to think, according to those present, included the fact of likely immediate cancellation of the Amnesty Programme that puts cash in the hands of over 30,000 youths of the Niger Delta, the danger of further driving away international oil companies (IOCs) from the region, increased unemployment, poor rent for landlords, low patronage for business owners.
The Minister opened their eyes to the notion that it is what the region lost from fleeing oil workers that has made Maroko, Lekki and Ajah estates the heavens they are today; Lagos gains, Niger Delta and its 17m people lose. Throughout, he was said to communicate peace and way forward. He mentioned how Rwanda was set ablaze by false information. He doused fears of mass arrests after the audit.
He also showed how the interim administrator came by way of court verdict, not his making.
He showed the tasks ahead such as that for 14 years, a whole Senatorial Zone of five LGAs (Ondo South) has been in total darkness in spite of a sub-station existing there, and how he has plans to connect them to the national grid.
He concluded thus: “I came in peace and in peace, I leave with you.”
Lessons for the South East
The neighboring South East region has been embroiled in crisis as the Government battles to return normalcy to the area. Some of those who witnessed the Gbaramatu dialogue believe such a method can help douse the fire raging in the South-East. The source said: “Rather than a proactive measure to avert the current challenge in the region which has recorded casualties on both sides of the divide and the region now militarized, the leaders of the South East comprising of elders, traditional rulers and governors hurriedly set up a counter-security outfit codenamed “EbubeAgu” which seems to fall apart. Observers say the leaders need to adopt the Gbaramatu formula of face to face dialogue.
President Muhammadu Buhari is believed to have commended Akpabio for this feat during his interview on Arise Television. This is because, without a single gunshot fired or a life lost, a fresh start of war was averted for Nigeria. It was Akpabio’s suicide mission to save his country. It is not easy for a minister to earn open commendation from his boss. (BusinessDay)