An Open Letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown

The Fireside Critic

An Open Letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown

Dear Prime Minister Brown:

Good morning. I hope all is well with you. Recently, Mrs. Teresa Jones, the Director of Policy and Plans in the International Office of the Ministry of Defense of the United Kingdom paid a visit to Chief Demola Seriki, Nigeria’s Minister of State for Defense. Chief Seriki used the opportunity of his meeting with Mrs. Jones to ask for military assistance from the United Kingdom to crush the ongoing insurrection in the Niger Delta. Chief Seriki lamented that the insurrection has cut the country’s crude production from two million barrels a day to 800 barrels a day (the Vanguard Online, 8 July 2009).

Mr. Prime Minister, if indeed Nigeria’s crude production has plummeted to 800 barrels from 2 million barrels a day, it is a lamentable disaster; but Mr. Prime Minister, it is very instructive and spine-chilling that nowhere in his public dialogue with Mrs. Jones did Chief Seriki raise the issue of the human cost of oil production in the Niger Delta and the country’s very poor record in addressing that disaster. So, Mr. Prime Minister, as a dyed-in-the-wool Nigerian patriot and a son of that beleaguered region known as the Niger Delta, which has witnessed over five decades of oil-related environmental destruction and human rights abuses, I have chosen to not only set the facts before you and the world, but to also appeal to your conscience that you may do the right thing, for as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Mr. Prime Minister, in 1957, on the cusp of the nation’s independence, your country, which was then our colonial master, and by whose act of amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates in 1914, we exist as a nation, heeded the cry of the Niger Delta minorities and set up a commission under Sir Henry Willink. After working for about a year, the Commission came up with a set of recommendations, including the one that a separate region be created for the Niger Delta minorities to enable them escape majority ethnic domination and to bring development to them. However, Mr. Prime Minister, your country dragged its feet on the issue, as it asked for an extension of colonial rule to enable it implement the recommendations of the Commission. The alternative was independence without further delay and the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations by a new government of an independent Nigeria.

Mr. Prime Minister, colonial Britain dropped the ball on the Niger Delta Problem, or perhaps it chose to use the problem as an instrument of realpolitik to elongate its rule in the country, or perhaps it had too much faith in the ruling elite of the majority ethnic groups that would control the new government of an independent Nigeria. Whatever be the case, Mr. Prime Minister, the withering consequences of that decision are still with us and still torment us. As you know, Mr. Prime Minister, after the Major Kaduna Nzeogwu coup of 15 January 1966, the Northern Region, afraid of domination from the center, wanted to secede from the nation, but was persuaded by your country’s government to remain in Nigeria because of the enormous oil wealth that had been discovered in the Niger Delta. And after the pogrom against the Igbo in the Northern Region in 1966, saner council would have prevailed over Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu’s decision to secede from Nigeria if the Niger Delta minorities had not been part of the Eastern Region, but had had a region of their own, for while the grievance of the Igbo was uncontestable, the overwhelming verdict of history suggests that the oil in the Niger Delta was too tempting for Colonel Ojukwu.

So, Mr. Prime Minister, Britain would not let the Northern Region secede because of the oil in the Niger Delta, and Colonel Ojukwu wanted to secede because of the oil in the Niger Delta. Oil, therefore, came to distort the country’s development and personality. By many accounts, over a million souls perished in the totally avoidable war that was the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War. Meanwhile, the central government, under General Gowon, reinforced the unitary structure of government, which the ruling elite in the Northern Region had severely criticized as an instrument of domination, and because of which elements of Northern extraction in the Nigerian military had brutally murdered General J.T.U. Aguiyi Ironsi, the man who originally instituted it, in July 1966.

Mr. Prime Minister, the Niger Delta became an internal colony of the central government, which was and still is in the hands of the ruling elite of the majority ethnicities. Oil pollution was allowed to systematically destroy the fishing-based rural economy of the region. Gas flares introduced noise and gaseous pollutants into the air that destroyed farmlands and the health of the people. Meanwhile, the colonial master of the region, the central government, summarily reduced the constitutionally allocated fifty percent derivation revenue to the region to 1.5 percent, even as the country transited from a robust agro-based economy to a mono-product, oil-based economy that started importing foods in which it had been self-sufficient. Furthermore, Mr. Prime Minister, the central government systematically shut out indigenes of the oil-bearing communities from participation in the oil sector. Of course, Mr. Prime Minister, a few people from the region have licenses to operate in the sector, but these are like drops of water in the ocean, a miserly token that does not represent any meaningful financial empowerment of the oil-bearing communities.

As a result, Mr. Prime Minister, what we have witnessed over the years is a shantytown pull that has taken many severely impoverished inhabitants of the islands of the region, who used to thrive on a fishing-based economy, to the shantytowns of the cities of the Niger Delta. Therefore, Mr. Prime Minister, we have a scenario where the central government goes into contractual agreements with multinational oil companies, and simply watches as oil pollution destroys rivers, and the fishing-based economy of the region disappears. Meanwhile, against repeated pleas, the oil companies still flare gases that destroy the environment and the health of the people. To crown it all, Mr. Prime Minister, the central government has put a sign on the gates of the oil-bearing communities: Oil-Bearing Communities Cannot Participate in the Oil and Gas Sector?

Mr. Prime Minister, this train of abuses and deprivation stand because in its dealings with the Niger Delta minorities, the central government obeys the Philip Asiodu Principle. Mr. Prime Minister, Mr. Asiodu, is a former super-permanent secretary, who said that the central government could do whatever it wants with the Niger Delta minorities, because the latter do not have the numbers to constitute any threat to the central government. But Mr. Prime Minister, you are a historian, and you know that history has shown that a people oppressed too long with invariably revolt.

Mr. Prime Minister, on 23 February 1966, eight years after the submission of the Willink Report, eight years after the refusal of the central government to grant a region to the Niger Delta minorities, and eight additional years into the total neglect of the region, Isaac Boro, a young ex-police officer, and former student union president at the University of Nigeria, landed at Tontonbau with less than two hundred men and declared war against his fatherland. After initial victories against the Nigerian Police, Boro was defeated by a contingent of the Nigerian Army. He was subsequently tried for treason, and condemned to death on 21 June. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Boro was given the rank of Major in the Nigerian Army, and sent to liberate the Niger Delta from Biafran forces. By all accounts, he was an extraordinary soldier, and died according to many under mysterious circumstances o

n 16 May 1968, after the war was almost over.

Mr. Prime Minister, the problems of the Niger Delta—destruction of rivers and of the fishing-based rural economy through reckless oil spillage, flaring of gas, back-breaking and endemic rural poverty, the absence of even the most basic amenities of modernity in most of the region, the shutout of oil-bearing communities from participation in the oil and gas sector, etc.—threw up another champion of the rights of the region, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Through the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, Saro-Wiwa adopted the methods of Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in a peaceful campaign for the human and environmental rights of the region. On 10 November 1995, General Sani Abacha summarily silenced Saro-Wiwa and eight of his Ogoni kinsmen. It was an execution that shook the world, because not only did the Ogoni Nine not receive a fair hearing, the intention of General Abacha was also very clear: to execute the Ogoni Nine and send a message to the Niger Delta minorities regarding the fate that would befall any from the region, who dares to raise his voice in protest against the slew of injustices against the region.

Mr. Prime Minister, the world did nothing to solve the problems of the Niger Delta, and emboldened, General Abacha sent a pacification force into Ogoni land. The leader of the force, Major Paul Okuntinmo, boasted that he had 204 ways of killing the Ogoni. Major Okuntinmo’s forces carried out a campaign of bloodshed and rape against the Ogoni, but the world looked the other way, so long as oil flowed from the oil wells of the Niger Delta.

Mr. Prime Minister, after the Ogoni, 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 Olusegun 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. Prime Minister, the world did nothing to find lasting solutions to the Niger Delta Problem, even though the Odi Massacre and Major Okuntinmo’s campaign of rapine in Ogoni land were only two instances in a long chain of gross human rights violations that includes the cold-blooded killing of tens of peaceful protesters in Umuechem in 1990.

Mr. Prime Minister, you are aware that oppressed groups all over the world love to quote the words of the late John F. Kennedy, namely, “Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” They quote the statement because it is a truism. When all doors of peaceful protest are shut in the faces of a people, when they are repeatedly massacred, and when their leaders are subjected to show trials in Kangaroo courts and summarily executed because they had chosen to exercise the unalienable human right of peaceful protest, they become desperate, and turn to that immortal revolutionary cry of Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty, or give me death.”

That is the face of the current insurrection in the Niger Delta, Mr. Prime Minister. Mr. Prime Minister, I am a firm believer in Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of peaceful protest, but I have found myself pondering the following question again and again, What options are available to a people who get killed again and again for engaging in peaceful protest, even as they see the wholesale destruction of their centuries-old rural economy, their air rendered un-breathable by decades of gas flaring, their communities completely shut out of participation in the very sector that has caused them so much harm, and their villages and towns bereft of even the barest minimum of modern amenities and economic opportunities for them to change the course of their lives and of their children? Mr. Prime Minister, I ponder this question all the time.

Mr. Prime Minister, I chose to write this letter to you not only because you are the current Prime Minister of Britain, Nigeria’s former colonial master, which still has a lot of influence with the ruling elite of the country, and the Prime Minister of the country to which Chief Demola Seriki made its appeal for military assistance to crush the insurrection in the Niger Delta, but also because your country is heavily invested in Nigeria’s oil sector, and you are a reasonable man. When you were Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, you were one of the champions of development in the developing world, particularly Africa, in the West and the developed economies, in particular the Group of Seven. Mr. Prime Minister, I presume that you are still the champion of development in Africa, and in Nigeria, Britain’s former colony and the most populous black nation on earth, now that you are Prime Minister.

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the king says to Gloucester, “There is some soul of goodness in things evil, / Would men observingly distil it out.” Out of the current state of anomie is at last emerging a consensus that the country needs to be restructured, and that part of the restructuring should involve a diversification of the economy to avoid the perennial instability in the country and for the country to achieve its full potential. The Northern Senators Forum (NSF) came up with a list of suggestions, some of which will have profound and positive impact on the country if they are implemented.

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