The Fireside Critic
An Open Letter to President Umaru Yar’Adua – 4
Dear President Yar’Adua:
Good morning. I hope all is well with you. The last couple of weeks have been deeply troubling times for our beloved country. Perhaps hurt that your offer of amnesty to the Niger Delta militants was rejected, and perhaps no longer willing to accept the general atmosphere of malaise in the Niger Delta that has driven away investors from the region and made life difficult for its inhabitants, you have decided to give the green light to the Nigerian military to apply maximum force in its engagement with the militants. From all indications, this is the endgame. You are ready to do whatever it takes to stamp out militancy in the region, and without doubt the recent crushing victory of the Sri Lankan military against the Tamil Tigers has provided a road map for you on how to engage the militants. Mr. President, hardly any serious scholar on our beloved nation doubts the capacity of the Nigerian military to stamp out militancy in the Niger Delta, if it chooses to engage the militants in a zero-sum game. But, Mr. President, it is also worth taking time to ponder whether the crushing of the militants will erase dissent from the Niger Delta.
Mr. President, I pose the above question not because I believe that the state of anomie that has prevailed in the Niger Delta for some years now with armed groups fighting turf battles in villages and towns of the Niger Delta and creating misery for their people, or AK-47-wielding tin gods who engage in murder, rape, armed robbery, and kidnapping, or the operations of groups such as those of Chief Government Ekpemupolo, who from very credible accounts, were driven into armed rebellion against our beloved country after they had seen the central government repeatedly use violence to crush peaceful dissent in the Niger Delta, and as a result surmised that the central government will understand nothing but violence, are good for the Niger Delta or for the country. The situation in the Niger Delta has been very dire. Its inhabitants have lived on the edge. Everywhere fear hangs in the air. And the question on everyone’s mind is: when will the Niger Delta return to normalcy? And will it ever return to normalcy? And, so, there is no doubt that something must be done to return the Niger Delta to normalcy, so that people can breathe freely once again. So that no one steps out of his house and holds his heart in his hands, fearing that he may never see his home or his family again.
But, Mr. President, have you really done all in your power to solve the problems of the Niger Delta? I concede, of course, that your suggestion that the central government will consider giving some of its shares in the oil companies to communities where those companies operate is a very audacious gesture. It is fair. It is right. It is a good move. But, Mr. President, at the moment it is just a promise, a promise that may not even be kept, going by the way the central government has dealt with its promises to the Niger Delta in the past.
Mr. President, you and I know that every concession the central government has made to the Niger Delta has been bought by the blood of its people. The Willink Commission’s Report on creation of a separate region for the Niger Delta to protect its people from majority ethnic domination and to give them control of their own affairs was ignored until Isaac Boro took up arms against the central government and put the grievances of the Niger Delta minorities on the front burner. Even at that, General Gowon only implemented the Commission’s Report on the creation of states for the Niger Delta minorities after the secession of the Eastern Region as Biafra from the rest of the nation. At no point in Gowon’s negotiations with Ojukwu did he raise the possibility that he will implement the Commission’s Report if Ojukwu kept the Eastern Region in the nation. As a result, one of the least untold stories of the Civil War, which Ken Saro-Wiwa captures so well in his war novel Sozaboy, is the way the Niger Delta minorities suffered heavy casualties from both sides. My then pregnant mother, Bekinwari (God bless her sweet soul), was shot in the legs by Nigerian troops and according to what I was told only survived because she recognized the Nigerian officer leading the troops as her kinsman. Mr. President, while other sections of the country got their states handed to them on a platter of gold, the Niger Delta minorities paid for theirs with their blood.
Mr. President, before the establishment of a unitary government, fifty percent was set aside as derivation revenue, and the country’s economy was one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The Sardauna of Sokoto, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, heavily relied on the massive agricultural production of the North to execute development in the Northern Region. Chief Obafemi Awolowo used the proceeds of cocoa to implement a free education regime in the Western Region that helped to create generations of Yoruba technocrats, academics, businessmen, and artists. The Eastern Region was also a largely agro-based economy until oil revenues began to flow in, in significant quantities. Economically, the country was headed in a very healthy direction.
But, Mr. President, as you know, with the outbreak of the Civil War, the central government commandeered oil revenues and reduced derivation to a miserly 1.5 percent. And the country paid a very stiff price for it. Suddenly, the thriving largely cocoa-based economy of the Western Region, which by the way Cote D’Ivoire still uses to achieve a standard of living that is higher than that of Nigeria, disappeared. The same fate befell the agro-economies of the Northern and Eastern Regions.
Meanwhile, the protests of the Niger Delta minorities at the unfairness and shortsightedness of going away from the old revenue-allocation formula and of basing the entire national economy on one product fell on deaf ears. The sense of disquiet in the Niger Delta proved potent, when the military government of General Babangida work up one morning to discover that a significant number of the participants in the Major Gideon Orkar were of Niger Delta minority origin. Major Orkar’s subsequent coup speech showed that the young men were quite determined to restructure the country, even though they took the very misguided step of attempting to excise certain portions of the country from the rest of the country. The seriousness of the disquiet in the Niger Delta suddenly dawned on General Babangida, and after the dust of the coup settled down, he established the Oil Mineral Producing Area Development Commission, and raised the allocation to 3 percent to fund the commission. Again, Mr. President, the Niger Delta minorities paid for the establishment of OMPADEC with the blood of their children.
Mr. President, the agitation for fairness continued. And writer and environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, came on the scene with the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. A first-class product of the University of Ibadan, he waged an impressive and unprecedented intellectual warfare against the injustices meted out to the Niger Delta minorities, in particular the Ogoni. He chronicled the devastation of farmlands and aquatic life in Ogoni land. He spoke about the constant gas flares that destroyed both the environment and the health of his people. He called on the central government to take remedial action, which an enlightened government should be very willing to do. Instead, he and eight of his associates were executed on trumped-up charges. The then British Prime Minister, John Major, called his execution judicial murder. Nelson Mandela was left speechless. The entire world was in shock. But, as you know, Mr. President, that was only the beginning of sorrows for the Ogoni. In a systematic campaign of military pacification, Major Paul Okuntinmo boasted that he had 204 wa
ys of killing the Ogoni.
Mr. President, I wrote a poem, “Okuntinmo’s Night in Ogoniland,” to commemorate Major Paul Okuntinmo’s work in Ogoni land, and I produce it here. “They came in steelboots/And fire-belching thunder sticks,/As brigands going for seedy loots/When the bat its victim strikes/Night was heaviest then/On the innocent, ravished village/And sated, the night beast staggered to its den,/Burdened by the yoke of heavy pillage./Suddenly the thunder came,/A mortal blow to the jugular of the night./The strong were hammered lame./The weak went down with the night./A terrible wail went up to heaven./But the rage of death was everywhere.” It was after the judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Eight and the decimation of the Ogoni and their villages that the 1998 Constituent Assembly raised derivation to at least 13 percent. Again, Mr. President, the Niger Delta minorities paid for that concession from the central government with their blood.
The Niger Delta minorities continued to argue for resource control or a return to fifty percent derivation. This time, Ijaw youth became the arrowhead of the agitation and in December 1998 produced the Kaiama Declaration. Again, the central government viewed the agitation with unease, even though it was a peaceful one. And in 1999, using the pretext of the dastardly murder of twelve policemen by a criminal gang of Ijaw youth in the town of Odi, President Obasanjo sent in the Nigerian military to obliterate the town, leaving only the primary school, the local Anglican church, and the police post.
Again, Mr. President, I commemorated the bloodbath in the Niger Delta with a poem, “Death and the Schoolboy.” I write: “The sun went down/on the ancient town of Odi/perhaps never to rise again./The schoolboy, his feet, cut down by angry bullets,/struggled in the presence of the black crow…/tear-stained hands clutched/onto the thread of vanishing being./I heard his younger brother cry,/‘Mother, mother, the mark/of the black crow is on Ebitimi./And night is coming fast.’” And “But down where the day/gathers sweat, in the port city/of Harcourt, the mother was bleeding/every vein in the fray. Fish seller,/tireless worker, doughty warrior,/raising the meal, the school fees/…the homestead./It will take another day/before she will know/that the steelboots/had silenced all-/the ancient town,/a ghost town,/her children gone,/their spirits howling/the infamy into the testaments of time.”
Hurrying to save face, General Obasanjo set up the Niger Delta Development Commission. Again, Mr. President, the Niger Delta minorities paid for that concession from the central government with their blood.
And, Mr. President, you are very well aware that what President Obasanjo gave with the right hand, he chose to take away with the left hand. He stalled on the creation of the commission. He sought to prevent the littoral oil-producing states from getting derivation revenue from oil exploited in their coastal waters, as if without those states, Nigeria will be able to lay any claim to those waters. In any case, it seemed that President Obasanjo never fully bought into the development of the Niger Delta, and that if the tragedy that was the Odi massacre had not taken place, he might have stalled on the creation of the NDDC until he left office.
Mr. President, it is very sad to note that you have continued the unfortunate practices of your predecessors in office. When you came into office, you brought the Lagos State governor, Babatunde Fashola, under your wings, telling him that you will give him all the cooperation he needed to turn Lagos around. You released all the Lagos state funds that your predecessor had withheld from the state. But when you came to the Niger Delta, you declared that the funds that your predecessor had withheld from the NDDC had expired. The question that slips onto the tongue of every impartial observer is: if the funds of Lagos State did not expire, why should the funds meant for the NDDC expire? Why are the two entities treated differently? Mr. President, is that really not an act of provocation and bad faith toward the people of the Niger Delta? Till this moment, you have held on to the money, refusing to release it to the NDDC.
Mr. President, by many credible accounts, you have also continued the practice of your predecessor in office of undercutting by several percentage points the stipulated monthly allocation of the central government to the NDDC. Mr. President, is this an act of good faith toward the people of the Niger Delta? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it not a perpetuation of the Philip Asiodu Principle that the central government can do whatever it likes with the Niger Delta, because its people lack the numbers to pose any serious threat to the Nigerian state?
Furthermore, Mr. President, several months after the work of the Technical Committee on the Niger Delta, you have refused to release a white paper on the report of the committee, instead you have reportedly asked another committee to come up with yet another set of recommendations on the report of the Technical Committee. Was the original report not produced for you to deliberate upon and draw up a bill for the National Assembly to pass into law? Mr. President, you are well aware of William Gladstone’s famous statement that justice delayed is justice denied. Is this not a case of justice denied?
Mr. President, there is also the issue of gas flaring in the Niger Delta. The country pays a stiff price in loss of needed revenue. Meanwhile, the flares continue to devastate farmlands, pollute the air, sicken the people, and contribute to the scourge of global warming. Yet, Mr. President, like your predecessors in office, you have continued to drag your feet on the issue. It seems to me, Mr. President, that when it comes to dealing with the Niger Delta minorities, the central government chooses to talk tough and to wield the big stick, and yet when it comes to protecting the citizens of the nation from the harmful practices such as gas flaring, the central government chooses to bury its head in the sand. The tough guy is gone. Everything is fine. Mr. President, I am deeply troubled by this pattern of behavior by successive central governments. It seems to me that the Asiodu Principle has taken a very firm hold on the consciousness of those who control the center.
As you can see, Mr. President, you have not dealt fairly with the people of the Niger Delta, and, yes, militancy of all stripes must stop in the Niger Delta, so that peace can return to the area, but Mr. President, are you able to say in good conscience that your actions have not contributed to the problem? And while it is true that a government cannot fold its arms while private militias operate in its domain, since it and it alone has a monopoly on violence, which it is permitted to use within the confines of the law, is the current military campaign in the Niger Delta that has resulted in the sacking of villages, the massive displacement of people, and the deaths of innocents not part of the seasonal visitation of violence on the people of the region by the central government?
Mr. President, I understand your frustration that the region cannot remain in a state of lawlessness, and armed groups, whether they are terrorizing their own people or fighting for them must sheath their swords and give peace a chance, for it is at once ironic and a truism that so long as the armed groups operate in the area there can never be peace or meaningful development of the area. Companies have pulled out of the area leading to massive loss of jobs. Julius Berger pulled out of its construction work in Port Harcourt after its workers were kidnapped. Oil production is way below the level it should be. And yet, Mr. President, this present wave of the central government’s pacification of the Niger Delta would have been unnecessary, if you had released the funds of the NDDC to the NDDC, issu
ed a white paper on the report of the Technical Committee and sent a bill on it to the National Assembly, and followed up your offer of amnesty to the militants with the release of Henry Okah and a visit with him and other stakeholders to the area to personally supervise the return and destruction of the weapons of the militants.
Mr. President, while I cannot tell you how to do your job, I can at least suggest that very often a leader is most effective when he goes into the trenches with the people. He presents himself to the people and lets them know that he feels their troubles and sorrows, and while he may not do all that they ask of him, he will do his best for them. The people will feel flattered that the leader himself has come to see them, to listen to their problems, and to engage them in genuine dialogue. He may not wave a magic wand over all their problems, but he will put a balm on their anxieties. Mr. President, all this you can still do to stop militancy in the area, and to create a condition that will make it impossible for criminal elements, who rape, murder, commit armed robbery, and terrorize their people in all manner of ways to claim the mantle of Isaac Boro.
In conclusion, Mr. President, if it is true that the JTF is practicing a scorched-earth policy of razing villages and towns in Gbaramatu kingdom, it should not be condoned. The Red Cross and Relief agencies should be allowed to attend to the wounded and the displaced. Relief supplies should be rushed to the area. Finally, Mr. President, no sensible person can doubt even for a moment the ability of the Nigerian military to utterly crush militancy in the Niger Delta, but it is only you that will decide whether you want to be a builder and not a destroyer, a healer and not an afflicter. In the past of couple of days, the Nigerian military has, as expected, demonstrated its superior fighting power. It is time to declare a ceasefire, and use the opportunity to demonstrate your skills as a statesman who can levy peace as you have levied war.
With very warm regards,