A former militant leader in Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta is linked to a private security company that signed a $103 million deal with the government to patrol the West African nation's waterways against pirates, officials have told The Associated Press.
The commander, who was granted amnesty in 2009, endorsed hiring Global West Vessel Specialist Agency Ltd. to protect the waterways, something Nigeria's navy and civil authorities appear unable to do.
Before the amnesty, men allied with the ex-militant, Government Ekpumopolo, carried out attacks and killings in the southern Niger Delta.
Nigeria struggles with endemic graft; analysts say the nation has one of the world's most corrupt governments. The government brokered an amnesty deal with militants in 2009 that has since seen oil production rise dramatically, but the $103 million contract raises worries about the influence of former militants.
"It is alarming that the patrol and control of Nigeria's coastal borders is being handed to a private concern, run by a known warlord, even (if) he is a rehabilitated rebel," said an editorial in The Daily Trust, the newspaper of record of Nigeria's north.
A government official saw no problem with the contract.
"Even if it were to be owned by a militant, what offense has the militant has committed in owning a business?" asked Ziakede Patrick Akpobolokemi, director-general of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, which will partner with the private firm. "Here is a country where people have served prison terms and become heads of state or presidents. ... When people say 'ex-militant this,' 'ex-militant that,' they should be mindful of their utterances."
It is unclear whether Ekpumopolo, also known by his nom de guerre Government Tompolo, has any financial position in Global West Vessel Specialist Agency Ltd. One of the owners said Tompolo had no interest in the company.
Tompolo served as a commander in the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which was one of several militant groups that crippled Nigeria's oil industry in the southern delta from 2006 to 2009 with a wave of attacks targeting foreign oil companies.
The region of mangroves and swamps, about the size of Portugal, has been the seat of oil production in Nigeria for more than 50 years. The easily refined crude produced by foreign oil firms provides an energy supply critical for the gasoline-thirsty United States.
Fighters under Tompolo bombed crude oil pipelines, attacked soldiers and kidnapped foreign workers under the flag of the militant group. In May 2009, Tompolo's forces engaged in one of their biggest battles with soldiers after kidnapping 15 Filipino sailors. Two of those kidnapped died and Amnesty International said hundreds of people were killed in the fighting as the military brought in helicopters and jet fighters.
Later that year, Tompolo would be among the first militant commanders to lay down his weapons in the government-led amnesty program. He largely slipped out of public view, though he and other militants routinely could be found in the ground-floor lounge of the Hilton in Nigeria's capital Abuja.
Behind the scenes, Tompolo has been offering his advice to the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, said Leke Oyewole, the special adviser to the president on maritime services. Tompolo is from the nation's Ijaw people, who live in the delta. Jonathan himself is Ijaw, as is the leader of the maritime agency.
Tompolo repeatedly endorsed the bid by Global West Vessel Specialists Agency Ltd. to supply boats and other equipment to joint patrols of the Nigerian Navy and the maritime agency to help combat pirate attacks, Oyewole said.
Incorporation papers on file at the nation's Corporate Affairs Commission list only two owners. Tompolo is not one of them. The company's valuation jumped from $31,250 to $156,250 about a year after it was created.
The contract came before a closed-door meeting in February of the country's Federal Executive Council, under an agenda item that did not refer to the company by name, nor the value of the contract. The council is the ultimate power on some government contracts. The agenda said the meeting would be about the private company enforcing "regulatory compliance and surveillance of the entire Nigerian maritime domain."
"The people who came forward with this proposal are from (Tompolo's) state and he gave every support he could possibly give to ensure this contract sails through," Oyewole told the AP.
Itima Romeo, listed as one of the company's owners, told the AP that Tompolo "has no interest in the company."
Oyewole acknowledged that other militants came forward after the amnesty program to secure lucrative government contracts in a nation where largely opaque budgeting allows for massive corruption. Corrupt businessmen and politicians have used fronts or so-called "briefcase" companies to secure contracts in the past.
Tompolo could not be reached for comment, despite efforts to reach him through intermediaries and by telephone. Oyewole said that no one is "as patriotic as this guy." The maritime adviser recounted a story about how the late President Umaru Yar'Adua asked Tompolo why he didn't "ask for money or ask for contract."
"His answer to President Yar'Adua was: 'Sir, as long as you are good to Nigeria, you give them their rights, I am a happy man,'" Oyewole said.
Tompolo and other militants already have benefited financially from the amnesty program. The amnesty deal in 2009 offered cash settlements to ex-militants and the promise of job training.
Some who claim to be low-level ex-militants in the delta complained that the job training did not reach anyone and the millions of dollars that came into the program were taken by leaders and not shared. A lawyer representing a delta militant leader called John Togo, who sparked violence that killed as many as 150 people in December 2010, said amnesty money promised through Tompolo never trickled down to fighters.
The scope of Global West's contract remains unclear. Oyewole said it would likely begin in April with about 20 boats and possibly increase to more than 150.
Nigeria needs assistance in its anti-piracy campaign. Recently, London-based insurers ranked the waters off Nigeria and nearby Benin as the same risk as off lawless Somalia, where piracy has reigned for years. Analysts believe pirate attacks in Nigerian waters also remain underreported, as some shippers avoid making them public over fears of seeing their insurance premiums rise.
Associated Press writer Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.