From the Fireside Critic
Letter No. 5
An Open Letter to President Umaru Yar’Adua
Dear President Yar’Adua:
Good morning. I hope all is well with you. I will start this letter by again thanking you for your amnesty to the militants engaged in the project of insurrection against the Nigerian state. Numerous commentators have used a lot of virtual paper to make comments about the amnesty. Many of them, particularly those from the Niger Delta, have wondered whether what you have termed amnesty should be called by that name and if it should be called by that name whether its appropriate beneficiary should not be the Nigerian nation state, or more appropriately its leaders, who have used the instruments of the state, including unjust constitutions and state terror, to exploit and oppress the people of the Niger Delta. To this question, I have responded that the records of many in the current insurrection in the Niger Delta make a valid case for use of the contested term. To those who say that the term “ceasefire” followed by negotiations for an honorable surrender would better capture what they are and the cause for which they fight, I concede that they have a legitimate argument, but I also want to point out that if they scrutinize their histories well, including their past and present associations, the word “amnesty” as a term capturing the vision of a peaceful Niger Delta, where life and property are secure, may not be problematic after all.
Nonetheless, Mr. President, it seems to me that you should carefully examine the term “honorable surrender,” for a thorough understanding and intelligent appropriation of it to frame the current peace initiative will decide whether there will be future insurrectionary violence in the region or not. The militants have raised the issue that they will be participating in a dishonorable surrender if they simply take the amnesty and walk away from the problems of the region for which they fight. In other words, they declare that they would have fought in vain if at the end of the day they only manage to save their skin and return to their villages and towns and continue to see the flaring of gas, the pollution of streams and rivers through oil spills from rusty pipes, the absence of even the most basic amenities of modernity, and the shutting out of host communities from participation in the oil business, when fellow Nigerians are empowered through legal oil bunkering/lifting and engagement by oil companies as service providers.
In the light of these concerns, I made the suggestion that we should have mediators from the United States and Britain, since both countries are heavily represented in the oil sector, and in addition, whether we choose to play the ostrich about it or not, Britain, our former colonial master, still wields a lot of influence with the ruling elite of the country. The internationalization of the resolution of the conflict is necessary because the key to the resolution of the conflict lies in bringing all the players in the oil industry to the table to talk and come up with a document that will be binding on all, a document that will stand as proof for not only Nigerians but also for the international community. Such a document will serve as hard evidence with regard to the role that every party chose to assume, so that if there is any violation to the terms of agreement, no one will be in doubt as to who is doing the violating.
But, Mr. President, your Foreign Minister, Mr. Ojo Madueke, has summarily dismissed the idea of the internationalization of the peace initiative, arguing that the use of foreign mediators would amount to the surrendering of our sovereignty. While I fail to see how the involvement in the resolution of the conflict of persons from nations whose corporate entities are an integral part of the conflict, I will concede to the minister his right to declare what amounts to and what does not amount to foreign interference with Nigeria’s sovereignty. And if indeed that is the position of your government, and it appears to be so, then surely your government should be able to bring the presidents of the various oil companies to the table, since Mr. President, it is crystal clear that any solution that does not involve the active participation of the oil companies will amount to, as the saying goes, an attempt to shave their heads in their absence.
Thus, Mr. President, it is also clear that if we must get the oil companies to take a firm undertaking to replace worn-out and rusty oil-ferrying pipes, to stop gas flaring, to execute prompt and effective clean-up of oil spills, to engage in remediation efforts to restore the environment, and to decide how and where oil-bearing communities can participate in the sector to attain financial empowerment, we must have the chief executives of the oil companies at the table, those men who answer directly to their companies’ shareholders, and not their local minions, as important as the latter may be. Mr. President, it is not enough for the central government to tell us that the Senate has just passed a bill to set a deadline for the stoppage of gas flaring. We heard a lot about the stoppage of gas flares from your predecessor. December 2008 was to be the date to end all past projected dates for the stoppage of gas flaring. December 2008 came and disappeared, including the fireworks that usually usher out an old year and welcome in the new. When the people of the Niger Delta looked under the Christmas tree for the present of an environment free from the pollution of gas flares, they saw none. They were told that the Grinch had stolen their present, and I guess officers of the INTERPOL and other organizations are still looking for the Grinch.
In other words, Mr. President, the people of the Niger Delta have been deceived so often that it is now time that all parties sit down and sign a document, which will be promptly lodged with the United Nations, so that when December 2010, the time the Senate has set for the stoppage of gas flaring comes around, the oil companies cannot turn around and say that the Senate never consulted with them, and that besides the Grinch had struck again, and his whereabouts are unknown. Once the chief executives of the oil companies append their signatures to the document, and the document is lodged with the United Nations, all the nations of the world can help track down the Grinch, and force him to release a gas-flare-free environment to the Niger Delta if he goes a stealing again in the Niger Delta.
And Mr. President, it is instructive that the Senate’s Bill did not account for the replacement of rusty and worn-out pipes, and yet oil spills have wreaked the greatest havoc in the destruction of aquatic life in the Niger Delta. Will the ancient pipes remain, or will they be replaced? And if they are replaced, will there be a timeline for how long a new pipe shall be in use before it is replaced? Will there be a more effective way than the present setup for monitoring oil spills and for taking care of them? When oil spills are cleaned, will there be remediation efforts to make the aquatic environment healthy for the return of aquatic life and for the resumption of subsistence and economic fishing? (Mr. President, please read Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to get a glimpse of what the rivers and seas of the Niger Delta mean to the people of the region).
Mr. President, these questions speak of the sorrows of the Niger Delta and they also throw into broad relief the precarious situations of minority ethnicities in a multi-ethnic nation state, where majority ethnicities or the ruling elite carry on as if the former are non-existent, or that they are second-class citizens who can live with all manner of abuses no matter how egregious the abuses are. For, indeed, is it not a little bit odd that in the 21st century, a people should be figh
ting for their right to not have their rivers polluted by reckless oil spills, to not have the indiscriminate destruction of their livelihood, and to be able to spend a night in their ancestral homes without dealing with the incredible roar of gas flares and the pollutants that they unleash into the atmosphere? Mr. President, these are the reasons why the presidents of the oil companies, and not their representatives, need to sit down at the table with the other parties to the conflict, negotiate in good faith, and come up with a document that will be binding on all.
And, Mr. President, there is the issue of the economic empowerment of members of oil-bearing communities. One of the things the current insurrection has taught us is the fact that there is very little sophistication in the trade of oil-lifting. That, therefore, makes it very curious that others can participate in oil-lifting, but not the people of the oil-bearing communities. It is an injustice that has managed to stand only because the central government is dealing with ethnic minorities. I am never one to play the ethnic card, since I regard it as a primitive passion that thrives on ill-defined and arbitrary histories and chauvinism that sometimes instigates misguided attacks on, and fear of, the other. I am not, therefore, playing the ethnic card. I am pointing to the issue of justice. What makes it agreeable that members of oil-bearing communities should not participate in businesses that involve the oil retrieved from their backyards, while others with not a whit of better qualifications can do so, except that they are from majority ethnicities and that they are beholden to the powers that be? If the situation were reversed, is it even conceivable that members of minority ethnicities will be given the opportunity to do oil-lifting in the villages and towns of majority ethnicities? If we are honest with ourselves, our history tells us that the answer is a resounding no.
Mr. President, you can therefore see that when some of us use the paradigmatic concept “internal colonization” to describe the central government’s relationship with the minority ethnic groups of the Niger Delta, we are not crying wolf or participating in academic sophistry. The facts on the ground, however which way we look at it, prove the point. Mr. President, you are an intellectual. Perhaps, a little reflection on the treatment of the Niger Delta as an internal colony will make clear to you what may not have been clear to you as a member of a majority ethnic group and a scion of the Katsina Emirate. And whether that reflection will cause you to act in a just manner is entirely up to you, but whatever decision you take, Mr. President, history will serve as witness between you and the minority ethnicities of the Niger Delta.
Therefore, Mr. President, while it is a good thing that you want peace to return to the Niger Delta, it is equally important for you spell out your full vision of peace. Whatever that vision is, Mr. President, I presume you now agree with me that any comprehensive peace initiative must go beyond a perception of amnesty as cessation of hostilities without the resolution of underlying problems; rather, it should be perceived as a cessation of hostilities that involves a comprehensive resolution of all underlying problems. To arrive at that destination, we need the presidents of the oil companies at the table. Mr. President, in the absence of such a comprehensive peace initiative, the central government may move in the military to crush the current insurrection at the end of the two-month grace period you have given to the militants, but if history is any guide, it will be a temporary victory.
With very warm regards,