The Fireside Critic
An Open Letter to my Ijaw Kinsmen and Women
My Dear Kinsmen and Women:
Good morning. I hope all is well with you. An open letter of this nature looks somewhat presumptuous and perhaps may even draw the charge of, Who does he think he is to be writing to all Ijaw? To those who are inclined to make this charge, let me be clear that I am writing not because I want to present myself for any chieftaincy title, governorship ticket, ministerial position, or any other elective or appointive office. I have zero interest in such ventures. As a long time card-carrying Americanophile, I am where I want to be, and since I do not need a lot to enjoy life, I am pleased to say that I am doing fine. I write this letter, then, as a discursive gesture from the standpoint of a man who having found the proverbial land of milk and honey looks back toward his original home, like the bird Sankofa, in order to lift it, however difficult that might be, to the level of existence in the new land he now calls home.
My brothers and sisters, that these are trying times for us is nothing new. Has it not been that way since at least the first oil well was struck at Oloibiri? Some may want to go even farther back to the stealing of our sovereignty by Lugard and his men, and on the basis of that call for secession from the Nigerian state. I am more than glad to leave them to that enterprise, because for all of Lugard’s faults and a governing class that Frantz Fanon rightly describes in his seminal work, The Wretched of the Earth, as wanting to live the life of its counterparts in the West but lacks the vision, resourcefulness, and industry of the latter, I am still hopeful about Nigeria. But brothers and sisters, this letter is more about our smaller community, the Ijaw. We as well as the Nigerian nation-state stand at a pivotal moment in history, a moment akin to what Shakespeare’s Brutus in Julius Caesar captures in the following words: “There is a tide in the affairs, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.” The Nigerian nation-state derives almost all of its wealth from the oil sector, and that sector in terms of value is sitting on a ticking time bomb, which when it explodes will lead to a seismic shift in the resources available to us to pursue our existential goals.
Brothers and sisters, what do we do as a people to prepare for that inevitable day? Before answering that question, let me try my best to put this moment qua November 10, 1995, the day Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed, in context. We know that after Saro-Wiwa’s execution, the Abacha government went for broke in its attempt to crush dissent in Ogoni land, so that the business of oil could go on with nothing changed, whether it was the financially imprudent and unconscionable act of the destruction of the environment and of the livelihood of the people through gas flares and indiscriminate oil spills, or the wholesale thieving of oil wealth.
In this regard, Fanon could not have written a better postcolonial script in The Wretched of the Earth on the activities of the governing class in the postcolony. Confronted with a SOS plea from a much abused ethnic minority as a result of the activities of a multinational company and its own thieving ways and rudderless leadership, the governing class saw the plea and calls for remediation not as a moment for deep soul-searching as a prelude to the provision of a bold, visionary, and timely leadership. Rather, it saw the moment as a threat to the grandiose lifestyle it had built on rent collection and thievery of the nation’s resources. Resorting subsequently to cynicism and King Kongism, it rolled out a repressive machinery with a simple and very repugnant goal: kill; kill; kill. It was as if in killing the peaceful Ogoni, the problem of the Ogoni and the eyesore it constituted on the consciousness of the nation will somehow disappear. Of course, the problem of the Ogoni did not disappear, because even by its own standard of abject poverty with regard to human rights the Sani Abacha government could not simply in utter disregard of world opinion wipe out the Ogoni. And, so, it contented itself with figuratively giving the Ogoni a black eye to remind the Ogoni what they were up against: the state’s capacity for absolute terror.
But if the state could not make the Ogoni disappear, and therefore make the Ogoni problem of environmental abuse and economic marginalization disappear, it also made sure that the Ogoni did not have any respite, and, so, the Ogoni experienced increased inter-communal conflicts with their neighbors. These inter-communal conflicts, a not-too-disguised mimicry of the colonial policy of divide-and-rule, introduced a more advanced grade of inter-communal warfare into the region, with sophisticated guns and dynamites. The dreaded AK-47 made its entry into the region as a weapon of choice for ethnic partisans.
Suddenly, ethnic conflicts and inter-clan, or even intra-clan, and in some cases intra-village wars having to do with rent collection from oil companies and chieftaincy/kingship stools began to spring up all over the place. Mutilated corpses floating on rivers, surprise raids on boats carrying harmless and innocent passengers of opposing villages, towns, clans, and ethnic groups, and on villages and towns became part of the oil war, as even chieftaincy/kingship disputes had a lot to do with who collected what. These conflicts provided avenues for unemployed youth to display their masculinity and a sense of self-worth. And as the transition from military to civilian rule intensified, elements of the political class saw in these youth foot soldiers to intimidate opponents, and rig elections. So the transition to civil rule, a golden moment for national soul-searching, at least with regard to the Niger Delta, was frittered away.
It was not because civil society, at least, its activist elements, did not try. In fact, calls for a sovereign national conference in the mode of the 1990 National Conference of the Republic of Benin, in which in a heroic contest of wills with the country’s long-time dictator, Mathieu Kerekou, civil society gained the upper hand and wrote a new constitution and forced the dictator out of office the following year, had risen to a crescendo after the cancellation of the June 12, 1993 election. Like Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha, the country’s last military ruler, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, was vehemently opposed to such a conference, ostensibly because it will break up the country into hundreds of ethnic states and that a national conference had already taken place and produced a constitution that he was ready to sign into law. As an argument, it was a straw man, and as a moment that begged for great leadership, it was yet another frustrated opportunity in the search for a systematic restructuring of the country to make it rise to its full potential.
General Abubakar, if he had wanted, could have risen to the status of Kemal Ataturk, in other words, a military founding father of a profoundly rejuvenated country on a path to greatness, by seizing the moment to hold such a conference to address all the issues that had plagued the country and to reshape it in a way that a majority of its constituent parts would see as just. On the issue of the country’s integrity, all he had needed to do was to say that it was the one thing that was not negotiable, and that he as the head of state would be prepared to defend that integrity with the full might of the nation’s armed forces. In any case, many of those who led the fight for a sovereign national conference were not fringe elements seeking the breakup of the country. They were patriots who fervently loved and
believed in the nation, and sought to restructure it to enable it rise very quickly to its full potential.
General Abubakar was in many ways a man in a hurry to get out of office, and to, perhaps, leave whatever problems that plagued the country to his successor. As a result, the problems of the nation, and of the Niger Delta, persisted and festered. In the Niger Delta, particularly in Rivers State, the pool of youth who had engaged, and were engaging, in the rent-collection wars and struggles over chieftaincy/kingship stools were easily co-opted as hired muscle by politicians for personal protection, to intimidate opponents, and to rig elections. The case of Rivers State was particularly heart-rending, because coming from a minority group within the state and fearful that his hold on the governorship of the state was tenuous, a situation made very obvious by his very narrow defeat of Chief Ebenezer Isokariari, the governor, Dr. Peter Odili, nurtured armed groups to create an aura of strong man of Rivers State politics that cannot be brought down about him. Closeness to the seat of power not only intoxicated the leaders of these armed groups, it also fueled in them the belief that they were above the law, and could get away with anything, including murder. The result was an explosion in conflicts in many of our communities, in which the major players were often the leaders of these armed groups. Because of a bunker mentality that he was at war with many seen and unseen enemies, the governor allowed these internecine wars in our communities to continue unchecked in the misguided but quite logical belief that the strife in our communities will make it difficult for any politician from those communities to constitute a serious political threat to him. When Chief Marshall Harry called his bluff, Chief Harry fell to the bullets of assassins.
Intoxicated by state patronage, and having come out of the environment of the rent collection wars, these groups became more eager to have direct participation in the oil industry. Consequently, they established zones of influence, where they became the key figures in determining who got what in the rent monies. Additionally, they offered themselves to the oil companies as guarantors of security over oil pipelines and flow stations, ventures that made them very rich. In some cases, even such forms of rent collection were not seen as enough, and so oil bunkering, which by the way was already a thriving sector before these armed groups came on the scene, became part of the portfolio of the armed groups. Increasing wealth led to increasing firepower, and both made these groups to feel that they no longer needed their political godfathers, and that in fact if they wanted to make the life of any politician miserable and make governance impossible they could do so. The politicians accepted the new development with pragmatic deference and in some cases doled out tens of millions of naira on a monthly basis to contain the disruptive potential of the armed groups, as well as to establish a sort of you-owe-me understanding with them, promissory notes which they could draw upon during elections.
Rivers State became a thoroughly Hobbesian state. Many of our communities fell under the sway of these armed groups, and were terrorized, and sacked, as these groups fought turf wars or intervened in chieftaincy/kingship disputes. Port Harcourt became a totally lawless city, as armed groups carved out zones of influence in the city and operated with impunity. Brothers and sisters, as you know, in some cases two or more groups would suddenly break out of nowhere and start shooting, and leave several casualties, of innocent people, in their wake, leaving families of the victims to pick up their lives as best they could. This was the situation of things in Rivers State until the Supreme Court in an act of unprecedented magnanimity flushed out the offshoot of the Odili government, the Celestine Omehia government, and took a chance with Dr. Odili’s estranged political godson, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, who took the battle to the armed groups and drove them out of Port Harcourt.
Brothers and sisters, it is these antecedents of the armed groups that make it imperative that they receive the presidential amnesty and let the bloodletting in the Niger Delta stop. Some of you have said that it is the central government that needs amnesty not these groups. It is one of the most unfortunate and most insensitive statements that I have ever heard in my life. That the central government needs its own amnesty is beyond debate. Even without mentioning the more well known cases of the massacre of the Ogoni, or of the total destruction of Odi, there is Umuechem, where in 1990 tens of peaceful protesters were murdered in cold blood by the state, and there is the continued and unconscionable acts of reckless oil spills and gas flaring to make the case in any impartial court that the Nigerian state by its long line of abuses against the minorities of the Niger Delta ought to tender in word and in deed an unqualified apology to the people of the region. So that point is obvious enough. The insensitivity of the statement comes from the fact that if we are not lying to ourselves, we will admit that we are aware of the antecedents of some of these groups, and their history of bloodletting against our own people. Thus, in that unfortunate remark, we give credence to the saying that when it happens to someone else it is a mere statistic, but when it happens to you it ceases to become a mere statistic. If we lack the courage to be honest with ourselves, we will continue to destroy our people.