The death, last week of Chief Thomas Ekpemupolo, father of ex-militant leader, Government Ekpemupolo (Tompolo), is threatening the fragile peace in the Niger Delta, Reuters reported on Monday, saying militants were becoming restive over the circumstances of the death.
The militants massed in the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), that had dealt heavy blows to oil and gas installations in the region, had entered into an unofficial ceasefire with the federal government, pending formal negotiations of their grievances last month.
But the death of the father of the militant leader, the report said, might reverse the little gains of the peace process and lead to the resumption of hostilities as the militants were said to be holding the military vicariously liable for the incident.
The octogenarian had fallen while fleeing an army raid on his hometown in May and injured his leg, which had to be amputated two months later, said a spokesman for his son, Tompolo. The old man died last week from complications arising from the amputation. And the NDA militants were said to be agitated by this.
Although security sources said Tompolo had links to the NDA, which had claimed responsibilities for the attacks on oil and gas installations, which incidentally began shortly after corruption charges were brought against him, he had persistently denied any involvement in the acts.
“In a nutshell, [the] government caused the death of my father,” Frank Ekpemupolo, another son, said at a gathering of 400 mourners at his father’s compound in Warri, the largest city in Delta State. Mourners including community chiefs, politicians and villagers accused troops of harassing people in the fishing communities dotted along the region’s waterways.
An Avengers spokesman told Reuters the military was “harassing poor people of the Niger Delta”. The military denies it, saying troops are merely searching for militants and criminals. Several new militant groups have sprung up in the last few weeks, each with its own demands, and some have vowed to launch a new wave of attacks.
Community leaders say they are concerned that the government has not contacted militants or unveiled a negotiation team, three weeks after the Avengers said they were ready for the promised talks.
“We haven’t been contacted, but we are not worried,” said the Avengers spokesman.
Captain Mark Anthony, a spokesman for the Niger Delta Liberation Force, a defunct militant group, said the “government’s muteness” since the Avengers announced a ceasefire was creating “a security concern for everybody”.
“They have only stopped bombing temporarily. It doesn’t mean they are tired of bombing,” he said.
An army offensive was launched in late August against militant camps which led to the deaths of five people and the arrests of 23 others.
Eric Omare, spokesman for the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), which represents one of the region’s largest ethnic groups, said statements by President Muhammadu Buhari that militants would be treated like Boko Haram jihadists prompted fears that the offer of talks was a ruse to prepare for a military onslaught.
Tensions in Warri are concentrated along its murky brown waterways — used by fishermen, commuters and thieves stealing crude oil — where fleeting encounters with strangers can end in bloodshed.
Boats slow down and their occupants raise their arms when they encounter naval patrol boats fitted with machine guns. Fishermen say they fear being mistaken for militants and shot. Gunmen disguised as priests killed three soldiers last month.
An official who did not want to be named said “arrangements” were being made to resume dialogue with the militants. He said the government wanted each militant group to send representatives, rather than acting through intermediaries as in the past.