From the Fireside Critic
An Open Letter to President Umaru Yar’Adua
Letter No. 5
Dear President Umaru Yar’Adua:
I hope all is well with you. I come to this letter with rage, rage that I have left at the door, because if I have learnt anything in life it is the fact that reason seldom prevails when rage is left to gallop unfettered. Like Plato’s unruly horse, it has the capacity to both cause havoc and to bring down the entire house, the individual. Mr. President, ordinarily this would be a time of celebration, when the poet and the lover of peace in me should be able to say, “The guns have fallen silent/The town square is full of joy/Joyful feet caress the eager earth/The cries of the young/Ring out from seesaw to seesaw.” But no, Mr. President, no such cries greet this moment, because in the days and weeks leading up to this moment, I learnt some very unpleasant truths about my dear country and those whose decisions determine its fate.
What are some of these unpleasant truths? A coterie of the ruling elite, surprisingly not just in the North, where the Bala Na’Allahs were calling for a Final Solution, but elsewhere, talked about the fire and brimstone that the central government would unleash on the Niger Delta if the fighters of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta do not accept the amnesty. Blackmail was, therefore, the order of the day. And both those making the blackmail and the recipients of the blackmail knew that it would be carried out: a scorched-earth policy of unfettered rapine– the destruction of villages and towns, the slaughter of the innocent, and very likely the rape of women. One was, therefore, forced to ask the question: Is the Niger Delta another country or a colonized region against whom a section of Nigeria’s ruling elite would unleash unbridled terror, so that the business of oil prospecting may go on, warts and all.
Mr. President, some of us, Nigerian and non-Nigerian alike, could not understand such a mindset. We asked ourselves, “If the central government was controlled by a Western power, and such a power had openly talked about the carnage that it would unleash on the civilian population of the Niger Delta, would we, Nigerians in particular, and Africans in general, not react with unfettered outrage at such a blatant display of ruthless arrogance and callousness?” But Mr. President, you and I know that such was the talk. The message to MEND was: Do not hold us responsible for the carnage we will visit on your people if you do not accept the amnesty. I became a very sad man as I struggled with this truth about my country.
Mr. President, as if this was not enough, the entire world gave you a golden opportunity to present the serious environmental problems associated with oil prospecting in the Niger Delta and elsewhere in the developing world and get every nation in the world to agree to a set of agreements that would govern mineral prospecting in the world, in particular the developing world, where the poor are often at the mercy of unscrupulous practices that put them and their sources of livelihood in harm’s way. A push for such a set of universal agreements would have announced to the mother countries of the oil prospecting companies that you are not another nationalist demagogue railing against the evils of Capitalism, but a statesman who believes that Capitalism can and indeed should have a human face and that aspects of that human face should include respect for the environment, for people, and for the principles of fairness encapsulated in the noble sentiment, “Do unto others as you would want others to do unto you,” particularly in those parts of the world where very powerful forces silence the voices of the weak and powerless, and where the injunction to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves–the widow; the old; the infirm; the child; the orphan; the silenced–is very urgent. Mr. President, in turning down such an opportunity, you gave pause to those who wish you nothing but good luck in your duty as the president of Nigeria as to what your true intentions are for the Niger Delta. Do you see the Niger Delta as a prostrate, servile internal colony or as part of a country whose wellbeing you have sworn to defend to the best of your ability?
Mr. President, there are whispers that you may have done it to spite President Barack Obama, who chose Ghana as the site of his first official visit to the continent, and to his Secretary of State, Madam Hilary Clinton, who spoke as a friend to Nigeria, when during her visit to the country, she advised us to put our house in order. Mr. President, if the whispers are true, what did President Obama do wrong in rewarding a country that is fast becoming a site of the successful practice of democracy and good governance? Indeed, Mr. President, should we not have received this message in good faith and put our house in order? Did we not conduct a violent election even after President Obama’s visit to Ghana? So what was wrong with Madam Clinton’s good faith advice to us? Mr. President, are we so beguiled by soothing lies, lies that cripple us and stunt our growth, that we have become totally incapable of receiving good advice from friendly leaders and nations?
Mr. President, if the whispers are true, are we now to believe that a visit to the United Nations General Assembly is an official visit to the President of the United States, or that you allowed your annoyance with him to stand in the way of bringing relief to your people and to countless others in other parts of the developing world? Mr. President, the advisers that advised you to play such politics deprived you of a golden opportunity to win lasting glory as an international statesman and defender of the defenseless. Generation after generation would have celebrated you. You would have returned to Nigeria a hero. Nations of the developing world, particularly those in Africa, would have seen you as a person that they can count on to speak up for them. Therefore, Mr. President, your failure to show up at the United Nations General Assembly and the panel on the environment to articulate and offer solutions to the problems associated with the exploitation of mineral resources by multinational companies in the developing world is a loss not just for the people of the Niger Delta; it is a loss for you too. You lost the opportunity to be an international statesman.
Mr. President, but perhaps your failure to appear at the United Nations General Assembly speaks to a deeper problem in the very fabric of the nation–the idea that a ruler rules for his ethnic group or section of the country and not for all of the country. The evil of ethnocentrism, the idea that one’s people are only those that belong to one’s ethnic group, has played havoc on us, undermined national unity, and thwarted almost every attempt we have made to be a great nation. All our great writers, in particular Chinua Achebe, who has dissected the problem with uncanny thoroughness in No Longer at East, have railed against the problem, such that if every prospective ruler of the country read no material on leadership but the novels of these writers, and took their advice to heart, he/she would lead Nigeria to great heights.
Mr. President, for the sake of greater clarity, let me go deeper into how ethnocentrism is responsible for the perceptions that our rulers have of the Niger Delta. Let us for one moment, leave the issue of the ravages of oil prospecting in the Niger Delta and take on the proposed dredging of the River Niger to widen it enough for ships to go up North and to the Southeast. Ordinarily, this would be a great idea with regard to the development of the country, that is, the idea that we could float goods up country and down country. I know from personal experience that if done correctly the project will bring immense development to both parts of the country. Several years ago, I went to visit a friend in Langtang during the harvest season, and the friend told me that many of th
e farmers there have contractual relationships with Igbo businessmen, who pay them to cultivate their own land. I said, “True?” My friend said, “True.” That was how I got the idea to go into big time farming. Because of the tremendous love I enjoyed from some of those farmers, who treated me as if I were a relative, I promised myself that if I ever get the opportunity to realize my ambition to be a big time farmer, I will make sure that every farmer who works with me gets the means to move from her hut to a decent house and the means to give her children a decent education. Would it not be great to float agricultural produce from the Langtang area to the South and float goods from the South to the Langtang area? It would. But the Niger Delta people have raised legitimate concerns. Have we as a country done enough research to ensure that the country will not pay a very stiff price for such a project? Will generations of the people of the Niger Delta not deal with the ravages of perennial flooding? In fact, will whole villages not be swept away by Katrina-like floods? Will thousands of life and livelihood not be lost in such floods?
Mr. President, these are legitimate concerns. If our rulers consider the people of the Niger Delta as their own people, they will be very open with the entire process. They will hold town-hall meetings with the people of the Niger Delta and show them the measures they have taken to forestall these grave dangers. Yet, as usual, all we have heard is the threat of violence and the very unfortunate accusation that the legitimate concerns of the Niger Delta people are the product of selfishness, namely that the Niger Delta people want to prevent the progress of those up North and in the Southeast. Mr. President, that is cynical politics. It demonizes a powerless people for the legitimate concerns they have about their safety and survival, drives a wedge between the people of one part of the country and the people of another part of the country, and gives short shrift to the forging of the bonds of national unity.
Mr. President, let me use my contact with the Langtang people, who treated me like a distant relative come home during my visit, to talk a little bit more about the ravages of ethnocentrism. Let us say that I hear that a multinational company has moved into Langtang to exploit a mineral there. Let us say that in the course of the company’s exploitation of that mineral, the company expels dangerous fumes into the atmosphere, endangering the health of the Langtang people. Let us also say that the company uses pipes to ferry the mineral that it mines, which it transports in the form of a thick liquid. Let us say that the pipes spill this chemical and that the chemical causes havoc to the farms of the Langtang people and renders them infertile. And let us say that the people of Langtang cry out for salvation from the ravages of the chemical. And let us also say that I, a non-Langtang person, is in a position to send the nation’s military against the Langtang people, should I tell the Langtang people, “Put up with the ravages of the chemical, or I will send in the military to wipe out your villages and towns, slaughter thousands of your people, maim your children, women, and the old? Put up with the abuses of your health and land or face slaughter.” Will such a phenomenon not outrage all people of goodwill? Our rulers have perpetrated it against the people of the Niger Delta, when they should be outraged, because they do not come from the Niger Delta. This phenomenon exposes the very core of ethnocentrism. Mr. President, all I can say is: God have mercy on us.
Mr. President, the town square may not ring with joy, yet the truth is that the guns have fallen silent, and whether they will continue to stay silent or metamorphose into a more virulent insurrection depends on how you manage the silence of the guns. Mr. President, think about it, oil pipelines crisscross the entire Niger Delta. Therefore, the country does not have the troops to police every inch of pipeline. Let us practice some mental calisthenics for a moment. Let us say that a shadowy organization takes the place of MEND, and this organization entirely dispenses with camps. Let us call this group the Fellowship of the Silent Ones. They keep their membership low, insisting that only the most trustworthy will be recruited to join them. Let us say that even at that they disguise themselves to carry out recruitments and they assume pseudonyms to protect themselves in the event that any of them is caught. Let us also say that they never meet more than two at a time. And let us say that they vow never to take any life, but to make sure that they bring the oil industry to its knees by attacking its infrastructure at places where discovery will be close to impossible. And, Mr. President, let us say that the members of the group live perfectly normal lives, are fully employed as attorneys, engineers, civil servants, businessmen, members of the Nigerian military, etc. And, finally, Mr. President, let us say that they have no interest in personal glory and are ready to fade into history when their work is done. They are simply determined to go about their work methodically and efficiently and leave things that way. Mr. President, will such a group not bring the oil industry to its knees in less than a year? And Mr. President, will the country’s military not be entirely useless in tackling members of such an organization? And, Mr. President, will those openly calling for genocide know where or whom to attack? Will they not seethe in their genocidal angst, seeing that they face a faceless enemy with no visible foot soldiers?
Mr. President, I am a creative writer, and sometimes no matter the cant of critics who proclaim that art should not be a site where the writer engages the world in very immediate and practical terms, writers do indeed have the ability to do so, and if they write from developing countries where the inflicting of human tragedy has been elevated to an art of governance, they do so all the time. The late Cameroonian writer, Mongo Beti, said, “In Europe writing has become the pretext of sophisticated uselessness, of gratuitous vulgarity, whereas in our land it can ruin tyrants, save children from massacres, tear a whole from ageless slavery: in a word, serve.” And as far as the great Chinua Achebe is concerned, “Art for art sake is nothing but deodorized dog shit.” So, in exercising my imagination as a writer, I point to a very real future possibility if the present silence of the guns is taken as an opportunity to gloat and to continue with the central government’s ruinous policies in the Niger Delta.