Two years ago, when Nigeria’s former president Goodluck Jonathan held a ceremony breaking the ground for a new university in the Niger delta, the impoverished region rejoiced.
The Nigerian Maritime University — the first of its kind in the area — was designed to give young people a chance to escape the dog-eat-dog life in the oil-rich but underdeveloped river lands.
Instead of picking up assault rifles, bombing oil pipelines and fighting soldiers in the humid mangrove creeks, education now seemed possible.
But construction of the university has ground to a standstill.
Yellow bulldozers lie idle at the site in the swamp forest of Okerenkoko, a village 30 minutes by boat from the southern city of Warri in Delta State.
The temporary home of the university — a diving school in the nearby village of Kurutie — also stands empty.
Today the Nigeria Maritime University has become a symbol of frustrated dreams, uniting delta fishermen and militants alike in discontent with President Muhammadu Buhari’s government.
The “immediate” start of classes at the university is one of the top demands from the Niger Delta Avengers, an armed group which has claimed a recent series of damaging attacks on oil infrastructure.
“The former president (Jonathan) flagged off the university but the new administration said this school should stand still,” Chief Antoni Ayebibode, from Kurutie village, told AFP.
“That’s the Nigerian problem: when another administration comes, the past one’s work will be wasted.”– Robin Hood –
At the diving school campus, complete with high-rise housing for student accommodation and a cavernous 12-metre-deep (40-feet) diving tank, Ayebibode said classes could start tomorrow.
“It’s just waiting for the government,” he said, passing classrooms furnished with whiteboards, desks and air conditioners. “Everything is ready.”
But this week, lawmakers in Abuja squabbled over the cost, arguing it was cheaper to upgrade an existing maritime school.
The reason for the sudden loss of momentum is partially linked to the militant kingpin-turned-businessman, Government “Tompolo” Ekpemupolo.
A decade ago, Tompolo was a leading commander in the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which carried out devastating attacks on the country’s oil industry.
But following an amnesty programme brokered by the government to end the violence in 2009, Tompolo became a security contractor, protecting the pipelines he once destroyed.
With his non-profit organisation the Tompolo Foundation, he cemented his reputation as the Niger delta’s Robin Hood. It was his idea to build the diving school.
He also operated a hospital in Okerenkoko serving communities in the Gbaramatu Kingdom, a region of snaking waterways stretching from Chevron’s Escravos terminal on the Atlantic Ocean coast to Warri.
“Charity begins at home, he started it at home,” said the administrator of Tompolo’s health project, Agagha Clarkson, showing a picture of an injured man in combat fatigues on a stretcher.
“Even the Nigerian soldiers came to the place.”
In 2014, the Nigerian government bought Tompolo’s diving school to use it as a temporary site for the planned university.
But by December 2015, Tompolo was charged with money laundering in connection with the diving school deal and his assets were frozen. A court issued a warrant for his arrest.
Tompolo went into hiding and hasn’t been seen publicly for months. The hospital is shut down and the university on hold.
– ‘Going through hell’ –
It’s a state of affairs that has fuelled animosity in a region where Buhari’s government was perceived as an enemy even before Tompolo’s arrest.
The largely Christian south had warned unrest could resume if Buhari, from the predominantly Muslim north, defeated Jonathan at last year’s presidential elections.
“If anyone falls sick we have to rush down to Warri,” complained Evangelist Maware, a 40-year-old fisherman in Okerenkoko.
Most people can’t afford the 30,000-naira ($150, 130-euro) trip to the emergency room, he said.
“You pay the speedboat or you lose the person. The suffering is too much,” he added.
In their hunt for the elusive Tompolo the Nigerian military has occupied towns in the region, forcing many to flee their homes.
For some, a university diploma — one of the only ways to escape poverty — has never felt so far away.
That has resulted in widespread sympathy towards Tompolo and the militants fighting for the region’s interests.
“The military invasion has made our primary schools shut down, our secondary schools shut down, this government has said the Gbaramatu Kingdom doesn’t have the right to school,” Chief Godspower Gbenekama, of the Gbaramatu Kingdom, said.
“We are going through hell.”