Who is Tompolo, the Niger Delta Kingpin Wanted for Corruption?

Fighters with the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) prepare for an operation against the Nigerian army in Niger Delta on September 17, 2008. A former leader of MEND, Government Ekpemupolo—also known as Tompolo—has been accused of involvement in $175 million of corruption and money laundering. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

The Nigerian military confirmed over the weekend that militants had conducted multiple attacks on oil installations in the southern Niger Delta region over the previous few days.

The attacks came after a Lagos court issued an arrest warrant on Thursday for Government Ekpemupolo—more commonly known as Tompolo—on charges of theft and money laundering totaling 34 billion naira ($171 million).

The coinciding of the arrest warrant for Tompolo—a prominent figurehead in the Niger Delta militancy that besieged the oil-producing country in the mid-2000s—and the resumption of attacks in the region is a worrying sign for Nigeria. Newsweek profiles Tompolo and looks at what the latest developments mean for stability in the Niger Delta region.

Who is Tompolo?

Just under a decade ago, Tompolo was considered one of Nigeria's most wanted men. He was a prominent figure with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a coalition of armed rebel groups that kidnapped oil workers and attacked installations between 2006 and 2009. The creeks of the Niger Delta were occupied by rebels with machine-gun equipped speedboats and were dangerous for law enforcement and oil workers alike. At the height of the militancy, rebels reduced Nigeria's oil production by a quarter.

According to Nnamdi Obasi, Nigeria researcher for the International Crisis Group (ICG), Tompolo's acceptance of a presidential amnesty program offered by the Nigerian government in 2009 was "highly significant, some would say decisive, in ending the violence at the time," and that the former militant still commands a strong following in the Niger Delta region.

Why is he being prosecuted?

Tompolo is facing 14 counts of money laundering and theft spanning between 2012 and 2015. His case is being pursued by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which is leading President Muhammadu Buhari's drive to recover billions of dollars lost to corruption.

Prosecutor Festus Keyamo told AFP that Tompolo was awarded contracts to "provide certain services" to the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) but alleged that the agreements were used "as a front to steal money." Tompolo has denied being involved in corruption, and on Sunday published an open letter to Buhari in which he claimed not to be affiliated to any of the companies listed by the EFCC in its arraignment.

Under the country's amnesty program, which launched in August 2009, some 30,000 former militants receive monthly subsidies of 65,000 naira ($326) and employment opportunities in an attempt to keep the tense peace in the region. The program expired at the end of 2015 but is due to continue running for another year, albeit at a reduced capacity.

According to Sola Tayo, associate fellow on the Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House, the amnesty has been an economic boon for high-profile militants like Tompolo. "A lot of these former militants had actually got very rich from this amnesty program," she says. Former militants have been employed to provide security for oil companies, and luxurious mansions owned by ex-rebel leaders have become a familiar sight in places such as Yenagoa, Bayelsa state, a key hub of the Niger Delta region.

Were the recent attacks linked to Tompolo?

While details are scant, the latest attacks reportedly took place on Thursday in the Warri area of Delta state, southern Nigeria. Tompolo distanced himself from the violence, condemning it as a "dastardly act" and pointing out that he would not have been able to get away with such an attack while under close government scrutiny. The former militant did, however, sound a note of caution to President Buhari, saying that "he should allow the people of the Niger Delta region to know peace, otherwise he will not know peace as well."

According to the ICG's Obasi, the attacks came too soon after Tompolo's arrest warrant was issued to be a coincidence. "As the attacks started only hours after the court's order, they appear to be very much a direct response to the arrest warrant," he says. "However, the scale of the attacks suggests the militants must have mobilized considerably well before the court order."

Could Tompolo's arrest lead to further instability?

According to Ryan Cummings, chief sub-Saharan Africa analyst at political risk consultancy red24, the recent attacks on oil installations give voice to ongoing grievances in the Niger Delta and show that many people are not happy about the instigation of proceedings against Tompolo. Poverty remains rife in the region and while headline militant leaders such as Tompolo have benefited from the amnesty program, Cummings believes that ordinary people in the Niger Delta are not seeing the benefits of their oil-rich habitat. "[The recent attacks] speak to the amount of support that individuals like Tompolo enjoy and their ability to mobilize supporters to take up arms against the government," says Cummings. "A lot of people would be motivated to do so not just because of their loyalty to Tompolo, but because a lot of the key grievances which exist within the Niger Delta have still not been addressed."

This article originally incorrectly stated that an arrest warrant was issued for Tompolo on charges of theft and money laundering totaling in excess of $175 million. The correct amount is 34 billion naira.