Saturday, June 15, 2019

On the trail of a Frankenstein

On the trail of a Frankenstein
January 29
10:01 2016

With his grotesque shadow looming menacingly from Niger Delta creeks today, perhaps it is time to formally admit that the government and indeed the people of Nigeria are now effectively under the dominion of militant extraordinaire, a secondary school drop-out and the ultimate Government himself – High Chief Government(!) Ekpemupolo (aka Tompolo).

The signs are all too ominously visible on the wall. First, he spurned EFCC invitation. Next, he was declared wanted. Not a few lawyers, I’m reliably told, had run away as quickly as their feet could carry them at the mere mention of Tompolo by EFCC. (Until fearless Festus Keyamo agreed to take the brief.) Then, a Lagos Federal High Court judge issued a warrant of arrest. Three weeks later, police sensationally opened a comic angle to the melodrama by claiming they remained unaware of any such order to nab a whole Government.

Yet, the raft of felonies leveled against Tompolo is very grave indeed, presumably contributory to the nation’s economic adversities today. They involve tens of billions of naira, for which some of his disciples like immediate past NIMASA boss, Patrick Akpobolokemi (Akpos for short), are already arraigned before the court.

In one instance, buccaneering Tompolo allegedly led others to defraud the Federal Government of N13.5b by presenting fake documents claiming ownership of the land on which the Maritime University in Okerenkoko is being built. In another, a princely N34b accruing to a partnership between NIMASA and Tompolo’s SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle) called Global West Vessel Specialist Limited was allegedly converted to personal use. In yet another, a whopping N22.7b was systematically withdrawn from NIMASA’s treasury.

It is in the details of the last heist that the full ugliness of the devil is clinically revealed. According to court papers, the N22.7b was withdrawn beginning from December 2014 to April 10, 2015. The coincidence will hardly be lost on discerning watchers of the economics of political campaigns in Nigeria. What further evidence is needed to admit that part of the cash used to “settle” thousands of delegates who attended PDP’s presidential convention featuring Goodluck Jonathan as sole candidate came from NIMASA’s treasury? Or the funds disbursed to PDP agents on April 10, 2015 in the then ruling party’s last-ditch effort to “capture” Lagos jewel, having lost the Abuja crown on March 28?

In media circles, for instance, it is an open secret that many of those who placed heavy-budget campaign advertorial on PDP’s behalf had direct links with NIMASA or its contractors. As well as the unseen hands behind the spate of crisp hate television documentaries against key opposition figures.

Well, for the avoidance of doubt, let it be said that all suspects are still presumed innocent until proven otherwise. However, nothing in jurisprudence – whether municipal or international – could explain Tompolo’s continued refusal to submit himself to the law of the land today other than a hangover from an undoubtedly lucrative career in impunity. Which will invariably call to question in the days ahead the agility, if not the authority, of the Nigerian state as presently constituted.

Not surprising, the tribe of defenders and volunteers have risen to the occasion, seeking to obfuscate things by alleging ethnic persecution. Leading the ludicrous procession as usual is Pa Edwin Clark who seems incapable of shame, however compelling. (But just who else will the calculating butterfly side if not the bearer of an open sore.) To Clark, seeking to make characters like Tompolo account today is simply an attempt to humiliate Ijaw nation.

It is noted that two key pipelines were blown off the day after the court ordered Tompolo’s arrest. It is a familiar tactic. That dirty trick once worked. Under Jonathan, that sometimes was the mode of communication whenever the boys wanted something from their patron at the Villa. In December 2014, for instance, recall that presidential advance team had already berthed in Delta for the flag-off of a $16b oil/gas project. In fact, while featuring on a live programme in Abuja, Jonathan had boasted about his impending trip being yet another manifestation of the much-touted “Transformation Agenda” to create wealth through jobs.

But, apparently, the Commander-in-Chief had not been properly briefed that the locals at Ogidigben had still not settled with imperial Tompolo on the level of his own interest in the deal. Pronto, the strongman of Okerenkoko reportedly put a call to Jonathan to abort the trip or the whole of Niger Delta would burn! Of course, Jonathan deferred to Government himself.

But with the “new Sheriff in town”, the earlier salesmen like Clark realized that old talisman of cheap blackmail and scaremongering has since expired, the better. Wisdom is ordinarily ascribed to old age. The least expected today of Pa Clark, therefore, is help explore the usual informal channel to convince Tompolo to come out of hiding and submit to the law of the land. Accusation is different from affirmation of guilt. But the wicked certainly run when no one pursues them, says the holy book. To continue to pontificate or hold brief for a man who, by actions and utterances, suggests he is bigger than the country is not helpful at all. As a political veteran, Pa Clark should know that any government that condones such insolence invariably digs its own grave. Otherwise, other deviants will get emboldened to undermine it further.

In a way, the nation should share in the blame for birthing the Frankenstein monster Tompolo seems to have morphed into today. In its original incarnation in the 19th century novel by a British author named Mary Shelley, a young science student, seeking to extend the frontiers of fantasy, creates a stranger through laboratory experiment. Once out of the bottle, the hideous genie came back to haunt its own creator.

Conversely, the Tompolo enigma should be seen as a quixotic political experiment that has dangerously spurned out of control. While the Niger Delta question remains germane even today, let it, however, be known that Tompolo and co only amount to its corruption and the apparition they jointly approximate over the years can never ever be acknowledged as the true face of that struggle. They only fattened on the sacrifice of the genuine heroes of Niger Delta who ironically mostly remain unsung today.

It is perhaps a fitting footnote to this still unfolding historic tragedy today that, in his quest to evade trial, Tompolo has scurried back to the jungle of Okerenkoko from where he slithered in the first place. But having spent the last seven year luxuriating in opulent indulgences and occupying the corridor of power, it is quite hard to imagine how today the absconding “general” is coping with new life of mosquitoes and acrid smell of the creeks.

Truth is no matter the shiny costumes he is clothed, a thug will always be a thug. There is, therefore, a clear and present danger in allowing those without the mental capacity near power, least of all they getting addicted to its opium. What led this writer to this conclusion was his first-hand experience in the jungle of Okorenkoko back in 2003.

Then, some self-styled “freedom-fighters” just waylaid scores of troops and hijacked 21 Army rifles. The military high command soon gave ultimatum for the weapons to be returned. Fearing a repeat of Odi, the state authorities in Delta State embarked on a last-ditch effort to persuade the militants to surrender the guns.

As a journalist, I was privileged to be invited to join the official expedition led by then Governor James Ibori. From the military base in Warri, we set out in a yacht, flanked by four gun-ships and no fewer than two dozens heavily armed troops. We spent over two hours navigating the creeks before reaching Okerenkoko, the acclaimed hotbed of Ijaw militancy. On the island, we were practically at the mercy of an assembly of wild-looking guys in a makeshift town-hall. City-based commentators were free to classify their activities as piracy or illegal bunkering. But as far as they were concerned, they were only furthering the “Niger Delta struggle”.

When the babel inside the hall cleared a bit, Ibori eventually delivered his message in parable: “In short, na come I come beg una wey dey hide something wey una no suppose hide. I beg una make una bring them comot.”

We finally departed before night-fall, not with any cache, but with a little hope borne out of the expectation that the boys would, at least, pity the governor who had left his high office in Asaba to eat the humble pie in the jungle by returning the “exhibit” at their own convenience.

In all, what struck me was the sense of complete alienation. That space looked more like no-man’s-land. The way the inhabitants conducted themselves didn’t suggest they recognize Nigerian sovereignty. Nor did the governor communicate with them like people he had power over. Amid the chant of abusive songs from the locals, the troops who came with us looked and acted completely impotent. It was a very humiliating encounter.

Now, having wielded enormous power in the last dispensation, Tompolo’s psychology today should be understood. How is he now to accept that power carries responsibilities? Which is why in any given social order, utmost care should be taken in the process of reintegrating into the mainstream deviants who hitherto lived and had imbibed negative values of the margin. The tragedy of the Nigerian case is that, in a desperation to create a fraternity he could call his own upon assuming power in 2010 and naively assuming only they could safeguard him in the hour of need, insecure Goodluck Jonathan threw the gate to power wide open for these little characters with criminal past. Like dogs who found themselves at a garden party, they cheapened everything we once held dear. To operate, they ended up bringing the nation down to their level.

It explains why pipeline-protection, traditionally the preserve of the navy, was handed over to Tompolo for a hefty fee. But rather than abate, oil theft only escalated thereafter to a scale never seen in Nigeria’s history. Just as Tompolo also became the purchasing officer for the NIMASA when the agency got approval to acquire six battleships. The way and manner he went about purchasing the fleet of six refurbished naval vessels and combat boats from the Norwegian government only brought the nation further ridicule at the international arms market.

Bereft of the slightest shred of technical know-how and to avoid scrutiny as a non-state actor, Tompolo had to go through a British third party. When the story leaked, the Norwegian Defence Chief, Haakon Bruun-Hansen, had to apologize profusely to his country’s parliament for the shame they might have felt seeing the vessels that once bore Norway’s flag being as much as touched by a character whose hands had been soiled in piracy, hostage-taking and oil theft.

But whereas everyone outside railed at this abnormality out of a shared sense of decency, back home in Nigeria, there was not even a whimper in official circles!

Under Jonathan, it is public knowledge that Tompolo’s personal security was a joint-military affair. His security cordon consisted of soldiers, Air Force operatives as well as Naval ratings. In expectation of favours, military officers sometimes stood still in salute whenever and wherever he passed by. And when not peddling influence around the Villa and some Government Houses in the South-South, Government was certainly busy checking up his cashiers at NIMASA to know how much had accrued from his cash cow for the day. Or else, fun-loving Tompolo devoted his time to junketing around the country in a fleet of two executive jets he owned.

Until GEJ was dethroned last year, to say he and his co-travelers were acutely weighed down by the “oju o ro la ri” (Yoruba for upstarts intoxicated by sudden wealth) syndrome would be putting things mildly. A rather ludicrous story is often told to illustrate the severity of Tompolo’s own delusion. At the crowded lobby of a popular 5-Star hotel in Lagos, he once reportedly asked his pilot via cellphone to fly down from another location in a raised voice. Arms stretched out in demonstration (as if the guy at the other end could see him!), he reportedly stressed: “Na dat one wey im hand (wings) long, long well well you go bring o.”

His burly comrade, Asari Dokubo, got a different inspiration to start his own charity not from home, but abroad. He chose to travel to faraway Benin Republic to float a university! The great irony was that not only was he himself a school drop-out, his native Niger Delta itself was in dire need of such citadels.

On the political front, many governors would today attest that, under Jonathan, the fear of Tompolo was the beginning of wisdom. As another tale goes, once some governors found themselves waiting endlessly on the president at the Villa. Then, sauntered in Tompolo in a blaze of glory and he reportedly strolled straight into Jonathan’s office without let. While the state chief executives continued their wait!

Truly, the hour of reckoning has come.


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