From the Fireside Critic
An Open Letter to Acting President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan
Dear Acting President Jonathan:
Good morning. I hope all is well with you. You became the acting president in very interesting circumstances. The president, whose vice you were, is incapacitated and unable to work and the expectations of about 150 million Nigerians are now on you to fulfill at least some of the promises that President Yar’Adua made to them. Recently, a group of concerned Nigerian intellectuals in the United States got together and asked you not to forget the Petroleum Bill that President Yar’Adua was working on before he left for Saudi Arabia. And on 23 March, a group of former militants, including Chief Government Ekpemupolo, issued a communiqué asking you to use the remaining months of what can now be called the Yar’Adua-Jonathan presidency to focus on power, electoral reforms, and post-amnesty programs. Mr. President, I want to use this open letter to meditate on the pair of contributions.
Mr. President, let me first take on the Petroleum Bill. In that Bill, President Yar’Adua did something that no other Nigerian head-of-state has had the courage or the compassion to do: he proposed a ten-percent stake in the petroleum sector for the oil-bearing communities. In other words, the president stated in very unambiguous terms that no more will the country continue to carry on as if the oil-bearing communities have no stake in the resources mined in their communities, even though as host communities to the petroleum industry, they bear the brunt of petroleum exploitation. With the passage of the Bill, a Civil Rights Bill par excellence, the petroleum sector would rightly have three stakeholders, the private investor, the Nigerian government, and the oil-bearing communities, instead of two stakeholders.
Mr. President, the Bill would have been nothing short of revolutionary and would have entrenched Yar’Adua, no matter his failings, as the most compassionate man to hold the office of Nigerian President. Unfortunately, Mr. President, the president became gravely ill and could not follow the Bill to an historic passage in the National Assembly.
Fortunately, though, Mr. President, you, his former vice and a man from that beleaguered region as well as a former governor of one of the states in the region now occupies the office of the acting president. History is beckoning on you. You have history within your grasp. You can win lasting honor and glory and stamp a measure of glory on the Yar’Adua-Jonathan presidency by ensuring that the just and courageous vision of President Yar’Adua does not die. Mr. President, you can see that Bill to its passage in the National Assembly.
Mr. President, still on the Petroleum Bill, since the first oil well was struck in Oloibiri, the people of the Niger Delta have complained about the preventable ravages of oil and gas exploitation. They have asked for the stoppage of gas flares, so that living in the region does not automatically mean breathing foul air and susceptibility to all kinds of breathing ailments. However, because no Nigerian head of state has had the courage to put himself in the shoes of those who suffer that fate on a daily basis, the problem has persisted for decades, with the oil companies making promises that they never keep. Mr. President, the suffering people of the Niger Delta, who live in the shadow of those infernos have for wailed to both God and country, saying: “How long? How long before we are delivered from these foul scourges? How long?”
Mr. President, you are from the area and you know that for centuries the people of the region lived fat on the produce of their farms and the vast resources of the sea. Fishermen and women left their hearths and homes long before the sun revealed itself to the naked eye. With fishing nets, lines and hooks, they traversed the various creeks and rivers of the Niger Delta and at midday returned with the bounties of the sea to feed their families. Today, those bounties have disappeared from the creeks and rivers due in large measure to oil spills spewed forth from worn-out pipelines begging for replacement.
Their livelihood gone, these benighted souls embarked on a massive rural-to-urban migration and slums — veritable sites of hunger, disease, violence, crime, death and decay — erupted all over the cities of the Niger Delta. In the shadow of such mind-shattering poverty and state of existential anomie stood and still stands unimaginable wealth, drawn from those very veins of fortune that have created these dens of human misery. And the hapless soul cries to God and to country, saying, “O God, how long? How long?” And “O Nigeria, how long? How long?”
Mr. President, it is easy to yield to the naysayers, who say to you, “Don’t try to stop gas flaring in the next twelve months,” or “Don’t ask the oil companies to start replacing dilapidated pipelines with new ones. The time is too short for you to do so.”
Mr. President, if you yield to the naysayers, remember that it was President Yar’Adua, a Hausa-Fulani, who identified the existential anomie of the Niger Delta as one of the problems he would solve before he considered his presidency successful. Mr. President, you are a man from the region. You grew up in the area. You are very familiar with its problems. If you need to refresh your mind on what your eyes have seen over the years, you need not go further than the book of one of your advisors, Mr. Oronto Douglass. If you do not have a copy of it, ask Mr. Douglass to give you a copy and read it from cover to cover. Mr. President, one year is more than enough time to act — to finally stop the hideous practice of gas flaring and get the process of the replacement of dilapidated oil pipelines going before you leave office.
Mr. President, think of it this way, leading up to you, a man from that beleaguered region who now occupies the highest office in the land, is a long trail of tears, blood, and death. Today, you are where you are: a man from the area, invested with the power to set things right, and you will be wise to heed the advice of the great bard, William Shakespeare, who writes:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Mr. President, do not forget too to ponder the words of the great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who writes:
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, – act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Mr. President, history is within your grasp. Greatness is within your reach. You can act now or spend the rest of your days saying with great sorrow: “I had the power to do what is right. I had the power to do what is just. But I did neither. And now from dawn to dusk and from dusk to dawn my conscience tortures me: ‘O man, who are you? You were exalted to the highest office of the land and you lifted no finger to lift the misery of the powerless.’” Mr. President, may history not say that of you.
Mr. President, let me now come to the issues raised by Chief Government Ekpemupolo’s group. First, electoral reforms. It appears that the National Assembly is going to accept all the recommendations of the Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) except the provision that has to do with who appoints the chair of the Independent National Electoral Commission.
The Peoples Democratic Party-led National Assembly has chosen to go with expediency rather than go with what is right. Under the guidelines of the ERC, the National Judicial Council (NJC) will nominate persons of high moral fiber and capability to the president, who will then appoint one of the nominees.
Mr. President, this recommendation is a win-win for all the political parties and the citizenry. The NJC takes away the temptation to appoint a dubious person who would rig elections for the president’s party from the president, and the president gets to exercise his executive powers. Also, opposition parties and the citizenry are reassured that everything has been done to produce an impartial umpire. But the PDP-controlled National Assembly does not want to give up any advantages that it currently enjoys with a president from the PDP finding and appointing the chair of the INEC. What the PDP fails to realize is that it will one day be the party in opposition and it will want a level playing field — then in a state of amnesia, it will cry, “We don’t want a member of the other party appointing who will be the umpire of the match.” It will then be reminded that it was the party that set the precedent.
Mr. President, free and fair elections and a stable democracy are very vital to the growth of every nation. That India is slowly becoming an economic and technological behemoth and Nigeria is not is not because Nigeria does not have the capability to walk in the path that India has taken. Recently, a Ghanaian friend told me the obvious, namely that Nigeria has both the people and the resources to be one of the greatest nations. But we are not; in large measure because we have had a very unstable polity where vote-rigging is the norm of our elections rather than the exception. Of course, vote-rigging is part of the culture of corruption that has frustrated every attempt at nation building and has turned a well-endowed nation into a nation of paupers where the vast majority lives on about a dollar a day.
The PDP, then, should decide whether it wants to be known as the party that solved the problem of vote rigging and set the nation on the path to political stability and economic growth or the party that decided not to look beyond its own interests and failed to see the big picture. Mr. President, I am, of course, not saying that if we follow the recommendation of the NJC, everything will be automatically right with the polity. Rather, I am saying that the NJC’s recommended path is more likely to lead us to the discontinuation of electoral malpractices, and in consequence a stable polity and economic growth than the path the PDP has chosen.
Mr. President, on the question of sufficient power supply, it is worrisome that a nation so well endowed with great rivers and oil and gas should be struggling with such a problem, and allied with that problem is the problem of paucity of supply of petroleum products. Our Achilles heel in both sectors has had to do with our failure to throw both sectors sufficiently wide open.
Mr. President, prize open the two sectors — from the level of the grassroots, the local government areas. If a company wants to concentrate in supplying power to a single local government area, by all means, let it do so. If a group of people want to get together and set up a refinery that will meets the needs of a single state or one or more states, by all means let the group be encouraged to do so. And by all means, if individuals want to set up petrol stations, including the floating variety that goes from village to village, in their villages, let them be given adequate support to do so. Yes, the more the merrier. Over time, companies will merge and form bigger ones, but by then, round-the-clock power supply and availability of petroleum products will be the norm rather than the exception.
Mr. President, on the question of the implementation of post-amnesty programs, it seems to me that the nation instead of imaginatively seizing the opportunities created by the cessation of hostilities and the discovery of new settlements that were used as militant camps has decided to walk like the proverbial tortoise.
Mr. President, it takes very little imagination to know that we can open up new and thriving towns where the militants once had their camps. Mr. President, place a call to President Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity and bring Habitat for Humanity, the former militants and young entrepreneurs at home and abroad together and let them draw up plans for new towns and businesses that will give the famed Caribbean resort islands a run for their money.
Mr. President, Habitat for Humanity will be able to help the former militants to use their labor to build homes for themselves. Entrepreneurs can handle everything from building roads to setting up petrol stations to fitting homes with solar panels to supplying homes with cooking gas to building vacation cottages in the new towns. Former militants who want to go to school can return to school. Those who want to work can be trained to run fish farms or engage in high-sea fishing or get other forms of employment that will come with the companies that set up shop on the islands.
Mr. President, these new towns will remove these young men from the various slums in the cities that many of them currently call home and enable governors such as Mr. Chibuike Amaechi to carry out their visions of replacing the slums with something better. Mr. President, there is no rocket science in providing jobs for the former militants and resettling them in beautiful towns built from islands they once used as their camps. If imaginatively done, these islands will be thriving centers of commerce and tourism. For example, there are many people from the riverine areas who have the money to build homes in their ancestral villages, but can’t do so because there is no land for them to do so. What prevents the government from giving land to not only these people but others who may not even be from the areas where these settlements are, but are interested in having seaside and vacation homes, to build their homes?
Mr. President, the European Economic Commission (EEC) has been knocking on the door, saying, “We are ready to help. We are ready to help.” Let them help. If we bring the former militants, the people from Habitat for Humanity, entrepreneurs who want to develop the former camps of the militants into new towns and the representatives of the EEC together, we will have an explosive team that will come up with all kinds of possibilities. For example, in creating towns of this nature, we have a lot to learn from the Dutch.
Mr. President, in a second letter to you, I will take up another issue that I am very passionate about — agriculture. Yes, you have just one year, but there are things that you can do that will strengthen the nation’s ability to be self-sufficient in food production. Meanwhile, Mr. President, you may have one year in office, but you can have such a hell of a year that you leave indelible marks on the pages of history. On this note, I say, thank you for giving me your time.
With very warm regards,