Six hours in Tompolo's den

2014-11-23
THE NATION Newspaper- Shola O'Neil

When this reporter and 14 journalists from different news organisations, on Sunday, November 16, honoured an invitation by the Itsekiri people of Ugborodo community to a press conference in the riverside community, little did they know that would almost cost them their lives. Most of them, including this reporter, are regular visitors to Warri and other waterways and creeks in the region. Some of them were in the area four days earlier to cover by a protest by the Ijaw of Gbaramatu kingdom in Oporoza.

The Ijaw protest over stake in the $16 billion Delta Gas City Project, forced President Goodluck Jonathan to cancel the ground-breaking ceremony slated for Friday, two days earlier. The Itsekiri’s protest was in response to the president’s cancellation of his visit.

The leader of the group, Chief Ayirimi Emami with women leader, Mrs. Mercy Olowu and dozen others took the news crew to the project site and adjoining land in their bid to affirm their ownership.

After the press conference, this reporter and three other journalists including Emma Amaize and Sola Adebayo, Regional Editors of Leadership and Vanguard newspapers, Bolaji Ogundele of The Nation and their other colleagues boarded a boat from a wooden jetty at Ajudaibo, one of the five clans of Ugborodo. They were in a hurry to get back to the oil city to file their reports.

But they never did – not on that day and not without a close brush with death.

Shortly after the boat passed the Escravos Gas to Liquid complex of Chevron Nigeria Limited, scores of speedboats broke out from creeks, like bats out of hell. They made straight for the reporters’ boat. The attackers were in a very fast boat powered by high-horsepower outboard engines and they moved in a manner reminiscent of the dark days before the amnesty programme.

The prowlers were menacing and in very foul mood. The leader of the gang was a very dark-skinned young man, whose arms, neck and belly were crudely tattooed by fire-burn, probably relic from another ‘war’. He spoke in a voice that matched his countenance – crude and inauspicious: “Na una de go round de take pishor and video everywhere ehn?” there was no doubt that the question was rhetorical.

The journalists tried to explain that they were only in the area to balance a report his kinsmen had also done; it did not matter to him and he shrugged it aside. He was a man on a mission and seemed to have a clear instruction not to ensure that the Itsekiri protest story did not leave the area.

The boat rider and one Sam Eyengho Jnr (aka Kiki) tried to explain ‘Scarface’ who was in no mood for chitchats. The duo got wacked in the head with a club for their troubles; blood spluttered everywhere.

Interestingly, our reporter learnt that Kiki’s father, Chief Sam Eyengho, a titleholder in Gbaramatu Kingdom, is from Ijalla (or Joula in Ijaw), a land in dispute between the two ethnic groups. While the father pitched his tent with the Ijaw, his other brothers and children, including Kiki stayed on the Itsekiri’s side.

In the lion’s den

The carousel of terror and brutality began shortly after they seized the boat. Another dark skin youth, who goes by the moniker of Old Soja, snapped the fuel line of the engine and left the loose end, pouring petrol into the boat. Sola Adebayo tried to explain the danger of petrol freely into the boat, he was menacingly advised to keep quiet or face unpleasant consequence. Soon the boat was filled with the highly inflammable liquid and fear heightened as the attackers seemed determined to either sink the boat or set it on fire.

The newsmen pondered the irony of news hunters possibly turning into newsmakers as they floated on the turbulent Escravos River. More boats bearing no less menacing Ijaw youths joined the fray. The marauders jabbered incessantly in Ijaw language; they were apparently in communication on telephone with a higher authority. As they were deciding the fates of the 20 occupants of the boat, one young lady reporter burst into tears, others hearts pounded faster.

Shortly afterwards, the leader of the group announced that the boat was being rerouted and taken to Oporoza, headquarters of Gbaramatu kingdom. The captives were roughly shoved into another boat and driven through a narrow creek to a private jetty that is used only by former MEND leader, Chief Government Ekpemupolo (aka Tompolo) and his associates in the town. At that point all video and still cameras had been seized.

At Oporoza, a middle-aged man identified as ‘Prince’ took over proceedings. He and a dozen others moved about with two-way radios (walkie-talkies) sent out messages nonstop. They intermittently spoke in Ijaw and Pidgin English depending on whom they were addressing.

Prince asked each reporter to write out their names, ostensibly to profile and separate them from the six other locals in the boat. The names were relayed on the phone to someone, who asked that Emma Arubi, an Itsekiri reporter in the crew, be isolated from his colleagues. It was later revealed that Arubi’s ‘sin’ was some reports that were deemed unfavourable to their ‘oga’. He was introduced to the group of youths, who greeted him with slaps, blows and armoured-cable whips.

The 14 reporters were searched to their last clothing and all mobile phones, recorders, wristwatches. Pens – other than Bic ball-pen – were searched for hidden recording gear. Those uncovered were all confiscated and dumped under a shade of trees where the captives were interrogated and tortured. One of Tompolo’s aides later called and asked to speak with this reporter. He said our reporter should have sought his consent before embarking on the trip. Hope that the caller could be the key out of the dudgeon was shattered.

As the seconds ticked into minutes and then hours the ordeal continued but the worst was yet to come. The situation got from bad to worse when one of the youths brought out a pistol, which they claimed was found in a captive’s bags. “Ha, you are carrying guns!” Prince and the others shouted.

The ‘discovery’ of the pistol led to a frenzy of violence, particularly on Kiki, Arubi and the others, who were accused of leading the Itsekiri to attack and kill them. They were ordered to lie with their faces in the dust with clubs, cudgels, bottles and planks raining down on them. The boat driver and other passengers who identified themselves as Ijaw too were not spared; they were accused of being Itsekiri collaborators and told that everybody there would die.

One of the tormentors boasted: “I have killed six persons; I just need one more head to achieve the next level. Thank God that you are here, I will take the seventh head from here.” One of his colleagues, a smallish small man with a twitching mouth, grabbed the leg of one of those lying down and started chewing on his ankle and heel.

After a further hour into the nightmare, a short, stocky man in a pair of knickers, burst forth holding a gleaming AK-47 over his head. He was shouting, “I don see kalash for their boat (I have found an AK-47 rifle in their boat)”. The new ‘find’ came with three fully loaded magazines and it looked very new. It was greeted with a thunderous, murderous murmur among the mob who unleashed more horrific attack on their supine subjects. Some started singing war songs, others whet cutlasses and knives.

“Let’s cut them into bits and feed them to the crabs,” one of the older members of the group suggested. He was dressed in a white T-shirt and blue trousers and said he had just returned from Calabar. He spoke with glow in his eyes and a voice that sent shivers down the spines of the enslaved 20 men and women.

The boat driver, his mate and a passenger, who identified himself as Ziakede Kelvin, were separated and taken to what was later found to be a torture chamber. Ziakede said his arm was held with a clamp and squeezed until his bone almost snap. He was asked to confess to owning the guns. Ziakede though refused but could not stop shouting, “I know nothing about the gun,” as more broken blocks landed on his head.

The six men and Arubi were later forced to hold the guns while one of the Ijaw youths, a rotund man who said he had just returned from a training in Stockholm, Sweden, took pictures and recorded on a camcorder. He and others took pictures as the guns went round the ‘suspects; while the Channels TV was forced to record the charade. It was later learnt that the pictures were sent out to social media, including Facebook, were the reporters and other victims were marked as Itsekiri gun-runners and militants.

Amidst the orgy of violence and battering of the victims, the Chairman of Warri South-West local council and younger brother of Tompolo, George Ekpemupolo called and spoke with Emma Amaize of Vanguard. Later Tompolo also called and asked to speak with the same reporter. The calls raised hope that the ordeal was ending but the hopes were soon dashed and the beating not only continued, but intensified. Even the arrival of Chief Eyengho (Kiki’s) father did not stop the torture of his son and others. Dressed in a blue shirt and jeans, he watched helpless.

Amaize later disclosed that the callers insisted that since guns were found in the boat, the reporters and everybody on it would be handed over to security agents for proper interrogation.

The traducers also boasted that arrangements were being made to take the ‘suspects’ to Abuja. At that point in the travail, any other place was a better option than what the reporters were going through. Those who were not being beaten were being plagued by the sight of their colleagues and co-passengers being subjected to the worst inhumanity.

About six hours after the 17 men and three ladies were seized, their ordeal ended. They were marched back to the jetty and ordered into another boat and driven to the open river in front of the town. There men of the Nigerian Navy and Army waited and the sights of the military men signaled return to civilization. A senior naval officer at the Forward Operational Base (FOB) calmly took over the proceeding and gently assured that the ordeal was over. The cameras, Smartphone and other valuables were completely returned, howbeit without memory cards, but digital and analogue voice recorders were confiscated.

There was also more drama. The youths insisted that they want the victims (‘suspects’) handed over to the Navy instead of the army. When the Navy refused to balk, the unruly youths grudgingly backed down.

Over 12 hours after they left their homes and hotel rooms in Warri, the 14 newshounds were taken to the Nigerian Navy houseboat, hungry, angry and shaken by the experience. It was too late to venture back into the creek for the 90 minutes journey back to Warri as the Navy formation hurriedly made room for the unexpected guests. The 11 male reporters were squeezed into a tiny room (cabin) while their female counterparts also got a cabin. A meal of leftover rice and pepper-soup from an apologetic kitchen staff assuaged hunger.

On Monday morning they were guarded by two gunboats to the NNS Delta, Warri Naval Base where they were handed over to Capt R.D. Oderemi, who had to wait for “permission from above to release the journalists to anxious family members and friends. The clearance came at about 4:40pm, after they had been made to write statement detailing their experiences. Oderemi, a true naval gentleman, apologized for the delay, explaining that the Chief of Naval Staff’s approval was needed to let the reporters return back to their loved ones.

 

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