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Page last updated at 19:05 GMT, Wednesday, 27 May 2009 20:05 UK

Profile: Nigeria's militant kingpin

By Andrew Walker
BBC News, Warri

Government Tompolo
Mend leader Government Tompolo pictured in his church-going regalia

Government Tompolo, a Nigerian militant leader currently on the run from a military offensive, is one of the most important figures in the swamps of the oil-rich Niger Delta.

What happens to Mr Tompolo in the next few weeks may determine not only the future of the conflict in the Delta but possibly Nigeria's prospects for long-term stability and prosperity.

Even when not on the run, he is a shadowy figure outside the Delta creeks where he lives.

A small and softly spoken man, many journalists who have met him have not realised they were in the company of the commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) until they were introduced.

His real name is Chief Government Ekpemupolo, and he comes from a well-connected family of Ijaw descent from Okorenkoko in south-western Delta State.

His brother George is the head of the local government there, and one of his former aides is a commissioner for waterway security in the Delta State government.

Warri war

Mr Tompolo came to prominence during the five-year war between the Ijaw and Itsekiri people which ended in 2002.

Militants carry money around in the boots of their cars, because they can't bank it
Niger Delta journalist

His militia, the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) fought Itsekiri groups like the Deadly Underdogs on the streets of Warri town and in the creeks around the state for control of government patronage.

Before the war, Mr Tompolo was a contractor with oil giant Chevron, supplying them with diesel for their operations on the Escravos creeks.

After the conflict Mr Tompolo established himself as the muscle behind the Ijaws dominance of government and oil company contracts.

In 2003 Ijaw militia leader Mujahid Dokubo-Asari began fighting the government and kidnapping expatriate oil workers.

His Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force talked about giving more benefits to the people of the Niger Delta from the oil business, but really groups like the NDPVF were out to get their own share of the money being pulled out of the ground by whatever means they could.

The government clamped down on Mr Asari, locking him up for two years.

World attention

After Mr Asari left the scene, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) sprang up, continuing the kidnapping of expats working in the country and sabotaging oil infrastructure.

Mend militants
Mend came to prominence by kidnapping foreign workers

Mr Tompolo is one of five original commanders of Mend, each responsible for a different region of the Niger Delta.

He was the commander of "camp five", a collection of concrete buildings built by the constructors of a pipeline that runs to Lagos.

Mend took the deserted camp over and until now no-one from the military has tried to attack it, even though everyone knows where it is.

When they kidnapped foreign workers, they e-mailed pictures to news desks, instantly giving them the world's attention.

But since 2007, kidnapping and sabotage in the western Niger Delta has decreased, as the commanders of Mend settled into comfortable relationships with local government, taking lucrative contracts, extorting money for protection of traffic on the creeks and giving security to oil bunkering syndicates.

Money

And Mr Tompolo has become rich - although it can have it drawbacks, observers say.

He was very quiet, I could hardly hear him, he just told us he was sending some middlemen for the money and that he would protect us in future and that was it
Man who paid Mr Tompolo a ransom

"Militants carry money around in the boots of their cars, because they can't bank it," says one journalist, who has met Mr Tompolo several times.

Stories about militant spending habits are legion.

One man who negotiated for months to buy a 15m naira ($102,000, £64,000) property in Warri was gazumped by a militant who paid the owner in cash from a box in the boot of his car.

Other journalists who have been with militants in clubs and bars say that they think nothing of spending $2,000 (£1,254) on a bottle of cognac available in other bars for a fraction of the price.

But Mr Tompolo told Nigerian journalists he does not drink "for now" and is a church goer, attending the evangelical Eternal Sacred Order of Cherubim and Seraphim.

He is married with children, according to an interview with Nigeria's Vanguard newspaper, but does not live with them.

Magic

Observers say this might have something to do with witchcraft.

Mr Tompolo refuses to shake hands with anyone for fear they will drain the magic energy that he has created around him with charms and sacrifices.

According to Ijaw rituals dedicated to the war-god Egbesu, contact with women is banned as the "corrupting power" of sex may be the downfall for a warrior, observers say.

Mr Tompolo is also said to be very unassuming.

One business man who had to negotiate the release of a colleague for 20m naira ($136,000, £86,000) said he was surprised at how calm and softly Mr Tompolo spoke.

"He was very quiet, I could hardly hear him, he just told us he was sending some middlemen for the money and that he would protect us in future, and that was it."

It remains to be seen if Mr Tompolo can hang on to his government patronage after this attack by the military, but while he is on the run, he still presents a powerful danger to the military.



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