The big boys of Niger Delta: From struggle in the creeks to affluence in Abuja

TRIBUNE Newspaper

They are from different parts of the oil-rich Niger Delta region. They had made a lot of money for themselves before the Federal Government’s amnesty carrot arrived, and have since continued to make more money. Some say that the federal government’s amnesty programme was actually meant to plug the leak in the nation’s oil sector called ‘Illegal oil bunkering,’ but it appears that the millions of dollars spent so far in this regard have achieved next to nothing.

In this piece, BOLAJI OGUNDELE and OLUWOLE IGE spotlight the ‘big boys’ who have made it big through their foray into militancy and how the haemorrhaging of the nation’s oil and gas persists.

They live big, have the best the world can ever offer in exotic fun and all at the expense of the state. They used to lord it over the vast creeks and jungles of the Delta, but now the presidential suites of the most expensive hotels of Abuja are reserved for them. They are the ‘big boys of the Niger Delta’. Erstwhile ‘Generals’ of the recent Niger Delta struggle have all been called out of the creeks, calling off their arms struggle against the state and now embracing peace in the most lavish manner peace could be embraced.

Although there are still a handful of those in the league of these former ‘agitators’ who feel it is not time yet to vacate the creeks, saying they still have an axe to grind with the state, a larger number of the class is far gone into the affluent sector of the society, acquiring all the best things money can buy. Some of them are so connected that they make the list of the closest advisers of the President and go on to win the juiciest contracts; oil and gas, the amnesty programme and the security sector projects. These men are, by all standards, rich in finance and they continue to make more money.

How did they start this spree? The militants accepted the government’s offer and laid down their arms, giving the government the chance to implement its amnesty. But since the death of former President Umaru Yar’Adua, and the subsequent installation of Dr Goodluck Jonathan, first as acting president and later substantive commander-in-chief, the former militants became the darling of government, currying favours.

Among these Niger Delta mega-bucks are personalities like Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, leader of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force; Chief Tom Ateke, former leader of Niger Delta Vigilante; Government Ekpemukpolo also known as Tompolo, Ebikabowei Victor Ben, also known as Boyloaf. These men and some others, whose identities gained fame, started out as dissidents. They were bold enough to do what most men and boys in their league would not dream, bold enough to risk the establishment’s blacklisting, growing from just oil thieves into militants (or what they preferred to be called agitators). They were so armed that their activities brought the country’s petro-based economy to its knees in a matter of months.

Dokubo-Asari: Melford Dokubo Goodhead Jr was born and bred in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. A Kalabari from Buguma, the capital of Kalabari kingdom, an Izon clan, he shot into limelight through his activism. Asari withdrew from the university twice to emerge at some point as vice president and later the president of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC). The peak of his career was in 2004 when his group, the NDPVF, declared war on the Nigerian state and demanded the immediate relocation of foreign oil companies and its workers from the oil-rich Niger Delta region. His conflict with the state actually commenced when his financial support base was threatened by another armed group, the NDV, led by Tom Ateke and his struggle to maintain his hold as a force to reckon with in the illegal oil business in the region came under threat.

Between those ‘days of little beginning’ and now, a lot has happened, which has contributed to transforming Dokubo-Asari, a temperamental warlord, into a respectable Kalabari chief in control of multimillion dollar businesses. From popular financial reports made available by respected authorities, Dokubo-Asari reportedly earns a whopping $9 million per annum on the amnesty deal with the Federal Government. He is also linked with a multimillion dollar waterways security project involving a company owned by one of his compatriots in arms, Government Ekpemupolo (Tompolo), a project running into over N15 billion.

Government Ekpemupolo (Tompolo): One of the most dreaded, yet influential leaders of the Niger Delta region’s arms struggle. Like most of his comrades in the class being described, Tompolo started out in the crude oil black market, doing his oil theft business on a large scale in the creeks and waterways of Delta State, controlling a large army of youths to protect their territory of operations. Although, the era of the most covered militant group in the Niger Delta crisis; the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), has lasted longer in the media than the revelation of one of its strongest leaders, it is today a well known fact that Tompolo controls a large number of the forces that culminate in the MEND that we all know.

Tompolo properly came under the spotlight in 2009 after the episode that led to the attack on Gbaramatu kingdom in Delta State. It was a singular military attack on a Nigerian community, which drew global attention. It was also this attack and the reason for it that gave prominence to Tompolo and his Camp 5 among all the personalities and events that ever got mentioned as part of the era of militancy in the Niger Delta. Of course, the reason that brought about the revelation of this rather taciturn militant tells enough story about the amount of wealth he has controlled and still controls. According to those conversant with the Delta creeks and how the black market crude oil business is done, there are mega players who deal with international buyers just as there are medium and small scale players who service the local crude markets. Tompolo belongs to the biggest league, informing the quantity and quality of arms and ammunition his Camp 5 boasted. Reports have it that the high and mighty of the Nigerian government as well as military had gone to pay homage before its eventual fall in the May 2009 military operation in Gbaramatu.

Today, Tompolo is without doubt about the richest and one of the most influential Nigerians, freely entering and leaving the gates of the presidential villa. Among other deals that have fetched the ex-militant leader his millions of dollars is a security project awarded to a company he has been said to have links with. Though he and his MEND team mates were once accused of killing 11 soldiers in the Gbaramutu creeks, he is now said to be the principal promoter of Global West Vessel Specialist Limited (GWVSL), which is executing a $103.4 million (N15bn) project for the security of the nation’s maritime. GWVSL has since entered a 10-year concession agreement, which is renewable for two terms of five years each.

According to the Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Ziadeke Akpobolokemi, GWVSL, under the contract, will “Provide platforms for tracking ships and cargoes, enforce regulatory compliance and surveillance of the entire Nigerian maritime Domain.” He explained that the partnership with GWVSL was necessary because the Federal Government could not bear the cost of the project. There was an outcry from the opposition parties and other Nigerians, but the government pushed through with the deal which translates to N49m weekly to the Tompolo-linked company.


Illegal refineries
Tom Ateke: He is a former leader of the Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV), an armed group which was in a bloody, bitter and long-drawn rivalry with the Dokubo-Asari-led NDPVF, with his base in the creeks of Rivers. He was also involved in big time illegal oil business. Like most of the self-acclaimed militant Generals, he also controlled a huge army of youths, especially boys from various communities of the region, mainly in the Okrika and Kalabari axis of Rivers State. His ‘Evil Forest’, Okochiri base in Okrika Local Government Area of Rivers State was indeed a dreadful place to mention while the crisis led by the rivalry between himself and Dokubo-Asari lasted. As a matter of fact, by the time the Joint Task Force (JTF) eventually brought the reign of his camp to a close in March 2008, taps diverting crude oil from pipelines were reportedly found in some places within Okochiri community, alleged to have been sources of this illegal business.

Ateke or Godfather, as he is fondly called by his followers, made money while he was still in the oil black market business and this showed in the quantity and calibre of arms and ammunition his followers surrendered during the amnesty programme in September 2009. The money rain for the Godfather does not seem to be ceasing yet as he is one of the favoured ex-militant leaders who are now counting their mega bucks, still in millions, but now in dollars. According to the America’s Wall Street Journal, Tom Ateke receives a sum of $3.5 million annually to ensure that his foot soldiers stay off the waterways and farther from oil pipelines. Just like most of the ‘big boys’ in his class, Ateke is also said to have relocated to Abuja.

Ebikabowei Victor Ben (Boyloaf): The Bayelsa-born ex-militant and one-time ally of former Bayelsa State governor, commanded a wing of the MEND in Bayelsa state, by virtue of which he had a considerably huge army of youthful foot soldiers to execute campaigns against the state, although his influence in the illegal crude oil business and struggle for territorial control prior to the escalation of hostilities in the Niger Delta could not be ascertained here. In recent reports, Boyloaf took the role of a presidential envoy, representing Federal Government’s interests, visiting training sites on the ticket of government and so on. In the income arrangement, the Bayelsa ex-warlord also reportedly goes home with as much as $3.5 million annually, same as what Tom Ateke earns in the name of his former foot soldiers.

There is, however, the argument that the millions of dollars paid annually to these former warlords, plus some other advantages in contracts and perks, are a way of ensuring that they continue gaining financial reward in their oil business, but without the hazards and environmental damage known with their former activities. This is deemed so because, according to those who know, despite so much in the pockets of erstwhile outlaws, activities of oil thieves have yet to reduce. If anything, the situation has worsened in the last few years after the declaration of the Federal Government’s amnesty programme.

This is so because, though the nation had announced increase in daily crude output from around 700,000 barrels per day, during the militancy era, to above 2.5 million barrels per day, major oil companies have continued to lament increase in oil theft. At a recent briefing, the Chief Executive Officer and Country Chairman of the oil multinational, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), Mutiu Sunmonu, said the company was losing above 150,000 barrels of crude oil per day to oil thieves alone in Niger Delta.

“The Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd (SPDC) Joint Venture suffers a daily loss of at least 43,000 barrels to crude theft and illegal bunkering, in a trend that negatively impacts the environment, robs the country of badly-needed revenue and fuels criminality in communities.

“Most of the crude theft activities have been targeted at SPDC JV’s two major pipelines in the Eastern Niger Delta – Nembe Creek Trunkline (NCTL) and Trans Niger Pipeline (TNP). The NCTL was replaced in 2010 at a cost of $1.1 billion, but the new line is still a favourite target of crude thieves. It was shut down for one month in December last year following a spill caused by two failed bunkering connections. The thieves used the one-month pipeline depressurisation as a window to install even more bunkering points. Since restart of production in January 2012, there have been multiple trips caused by pressure drops resulting from illegal off-take. Eventually, the NCTL was shut down on 2nd May 2012 to allow for the removal of more than 50 illegal bunkering points. The great majority of spills in the Niger Delta are the result of third party interference, mainly sabotage, theft of equipment or leaks caused by crude oil thieves drilling into pipelines or opening up wellheads to steal oil. On average, such third party interference has accounted for 74 per cent of all oil spill incidents and 73 per cent of all oil volume spilled from our facilities between 2007 and 2011.”

Corroborating the claim by SPDC about loss of crude oil to oil thieves in the Niger Delta, a youth who prefers to be identified as Pastor Somina, confirmed that the number of illegal oil refineries which source their raw ingredients from local oil thieves has continued to swell by the day. According to him, there are hundreds of illegal refineries across the region, operating and pushing out products to both special big time buys and the small roadside black markets.


He went further to explain that the sort of gains made in refining illegally is most likely to make any thought of the illicit business going away anytime soon a dream. Somina, who said he had participated in the process before, said social issues like unemployment and poverty are like tools in the hands of those recruiting young men to assist in the process all through. “With N2 million, you can set up your own local refinery and if you can refine as much as 200 barrels in a week, you can be sure you will make that N2 million as your gain. There is a ready market; people come with big barges from places like Eket and so on to buy refined products and you can get it on the streets. This business won’t die the way things are because there are no jobs. Imagine a situation where burners are paid about N5000 per night and helps, who help with minor chores like me make N2000 per night. If not that I told myself that the risks are too much for the money, I would have continued till now.”


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