Letter No. 1
The Fireside Critic
I call myself the fireside critic, because as a social critic I do not engage in public discourse to launch verbal missiles; I do so to offer constructive criticism that would help to make the world a better place.
An Open Letter to President Umaru Yar’Adua
Dear President Yar’Adua:
Good morning. I hope all is well with you. I am writing this letter to present an alternative vision of the Niger Delta to its present reality of widespread poverty, environmental devastation through oil spillage and gas flares, armed insurrection and criminality, and government containment of both the insurrectionary violence and criminality through the Joint Task Force (JTF). In doing so, Mr. President, I also present an alternative vision of our dear country.
Mr. President, you signaled your intention to act proactively on the Niger Delta when you made finding a decisive and lasting solution to the problems of the region one of your seven-point agenda. Mr. President, your decision was very welcome, but halfway into your tenure there appears to be no solution in sight, and the region continues to bleed drip! drip! like a woman who has been waylaid on the highway and left to die.
This woman was waylaid on the highway of apathy. Mr. President, it is fifty-three years since the first oil well was sunk at Oloibiri, and five decades and three years later, the oil companies still flare gas, toxic fumes that destroy the health of the people of the region and put the planet in peril. Mr. President, even if there is just a sliver of truth in the science of global warming, please consider what will happen to the low-lying swamplands of the Niger Delta if the Atlantic Ocean were to rise by just a couple inches. I am not a fear monger, Mr. President. I only ask that you consider the consequences of our inaction as a nation on the fate of future generations. Most of those who live in the region, particularly those who live in the low-lying islands, are fighting a grim battle of survival. Will their children, in addition to such existential battles, fight a more tragic, and perhaps pathetic, battle with the elemental furies? The fury of recent hurricanes and tsunamis should make even the most apathetic of us to sit up and say, “Not on our watch! Enough is enough with gas flares. We may not be able to undo what has already been done; but we can stop further damage to the health of our brethren and to our planet.”
Mr. President, there is also the issue of oil spills, hundreds of them, which agencies of the government have reported. If government is absent in the lives of the rural masses, who till today do not have access to electricity, potable water, modern toilets, healthcare facilities, and in some cases, even primary schools, they should at least be able to survive the way their ancestors survived for centuries: fishing. When pervasive oil spillage makes this impossible, have we not as members of a privileged middle class with good education, easy access to healthcare, and other benefits of modernity failed in our duty to the poorest of the poor and the weakest of the weak? Mr. President, if the oil companies will not do an honest reporting of oil spills, or make an honest compensation to victims of these spills, can the government as the protector of the people not intervene on behalf of these voiceless rural masses?
Mr. President, before I am accused of spreading disaffection against the oil companies, let me unequivocally declare that I have nothing against the oil companies in themselves as oil companies, but I do have something against an entity, any entity, that takes food from the mouths of the poorest of the poor and leaves them destitute on an island of incredible poverty surrounded by the high seas of unimaginable profit and monumental apathy. Let the oil companies repair rusted and broken pipes that spill oil into the creeks, rivers and seas, and let them not cover up spills, but pay adequate compensations to the victims of the spills, and I will write a paean to them every day.
Fundamentally, though, Mr. President, can your government not find it in its heart to stand up for the little man, to speak up for the voiceless and the defenseless? We are made lesser, Mr. President, when we shut up ourselves in the cocoons of our comfort and turn deaf ears to the cries of the least amongst us. Indeed, Mr. President, the country as a whole is made lesser by our sheer apathy and lack of empathy. Our lives are greatly enriched when we stand in the shoes of our unfortunate brethren, and walk with them through those marshlands of back-breaking poverty, hunger, and disease. Indeed, Mr. President, we cannot move an inch as a nation on the prosperity column until we see our fate in the fate of the least of our brethren, for if their hunger, and disease and poverty cannot make us to strive for better conditions of existence and a better country, nothing will put a fire under us. We march toward progress to the degree to which we dream and work toward a better society for everyone, in particular, the least amongst us.
Mr. President, on a number of occasions, I have had the unpleasant task of explaining to my American acquaintances and audiences why a sovereign nation cannot tell an oil company, any oil company, to stop endangering the health of its citizens and the planet through gas flares or the livelihood of its rural poor through frequent oil spills from its aged infrastructure. Often my listeners will themselves volunteer two answers: 1) corruption; 2) the oil companies lead the leaders of these countries by the nose. Now, I am often offended by the second answer, because those that offer such answers do not see that what they are in essence saying is that the leaders of these nations are mindless idiots who cannot think for themselves. Of course, these people mean well, but I tell them that they mean well in a very wrong way. I tell them that they cannot take vicarious blame on themselves on behalf of the oil companies, because the oil companies can continue these policies only in so far as thinking men who are in the saddles of leadership of the nations in which they operate allow them to do so. In other words, the leaders of these nations where such mindless abuses occur are not mindless idiots. They are simply apathetic to the plight of their own.
Mr. President, recently the Minister for Niger Delta Affairs, Chief Ufot Ekaette, appealed to the Dutch Government to take measures to compel Shell to stop gas flaring in the Niger Delta. If our Dutch brethren actually take measures to compel Shell to stop gas-flaring in the region, I will say a loud “Amen,” for it will at least show that the common bonds of humanity that bind their side of humanity to our side of humanity are very strong. But, Mr. President, you will agree with me that that is no way to govern a nation. We cannot continue to live on the goodwill and mercy of others. We are a nation, a sovereign nation for that matter. And we are forty-nine years old. Think of it, Mr. President, we are forty-nine years old and yet our Niger Delta minister has to appeal to our brethren on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean to come rescue us, lest we die, in a matter that is entirely within our hands to stop.
Mr. President, it seems to me that such an appeal, though made in good faith, and I thank the chief for making it, should make a forty-nine-year old nation to put on sackcloth and ashes and weep its eyes out for its self-inflicted misfortune of crawling on all fours at forty-nine, when it should be master of its own house. It is never a pretty sight to see a full grown man who has shirked the responsibility of fighting the good fight of taking on full-bore the challenges of existence in order that he might scratch out a miserly existence on the good grace and charity of others. Such a man deni
es the commitment inherent in the human condition to do everything within his ability to unleash the enormous potential that lie buried in him for his own benefit and for the benefit of the world.
Mr. President, we are forty-nine, and on these twin evils of gas flares and reckless oil spills, as on all other problems that beset us, the choice is ours to either wallow in the wilderness, now chasing the wind, now chasing the whirlwind, and now making a lot of noise and motion but getting nowhere, or to accept the unpleasant truth that at forty-nine we are still crawling on all fours, and that it is time we get up from our hands and knees and walk. We owe this to the present generation. We owe this to future generations. We owe this to the world. In making ourselves better, we make ourselves one less-basket case into which others are expected to pour their water of kindness, and we put ourselves in the position to be the giver, not because we are “the giant” of Africa, even though we have no clothes, but because we have worked for something that we can truly share with those less fortunate than us. As you know, Mr. President, we are living on an inheritance of oil wealth that is running out by the day, and when like the prodigal son we blow through that inheritance, which we did not work for in anyway, we will be left with the stark reality that we were a giant that danced naked in the square all the while, and did not know it.
Mr. President, we can ill-afford such apathy. Let us start acting our age by taking decisive action on the issue of gas flares and oil spills. Let us stop the twin evils now.
With very warm regards,