Brothers, one of you was reported as saying that the current central government onslaught, which I will soon come to, will force the international community to see the Niger Delta as another Kosovo, and ostensibly it will move to create the structures for separation of the Niger Delta communities from the rest of the country. Pardon me, but that is a very poor reading of history and international politics. As an entity, Kosovo holds no economic or strategic importance to the major Western countries or to the rest of Europe. Whether it is part of Serbia or not makes no difference, but the West finally got tired of generations of ethnic strife and animosity between ethnic Kosovans and their neighbors.
Not so Nigeria. Nigeria may have been cobbled together by Britain, but it has come to hold a strategic importance both to the West and to Africa that even if the West chooses to do the unthinkable and support the balkanization of Nigeria, many Africans on the continent and in the diaspora will put up a stiff fight against such balkanization. Such an effort will be seen, even if wrongly, as an attempt by the West to compound the problems of Africa and to further make it prostrate. It is instructive that even when such balkanization could have yielded its greatest dividends, when the Western Region of the country was a rapidly developing economy largely based on cocoa, and when the Eastern Region of the country was one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and when the Northern Region of the country was an agricultural behemoth with mighty groundnut pyramids and a thriving cotton sector, Britain refused to pull the trigger, and was ready to take on all comers to protect the integrity of the country and Britain’s economic interests.
It is also instructive that when Ken Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP put the travails of the Niger Delta on the map of the world, a conservative held sway in Britain and a “bleeding-heart liberal” held sway in the United States of America: Prime Minister John Major and President Bill Clinton. Had they wished, they would have treated the subsequent military onslaught against the Ogoni as a human rights issue that required creating safe havens for not just the Ogoni but also the other Niger Delta minorities, and they would have had great support, perhaps even the grudging support of pan-Africanists, because one of the most sadistic dictators of all time presided over the affairs of Nigeria at the time. Neither Prime Minister Major, who rightly characterized the execution of the Ogoni Nine as judicial murder, nor President Clinton, who condemned the execution in the strongest terms, thought that the balkanization of Nigeria was in the interests of Britain or the United States or even Africa.
Today, such a move is totally impossible. Why? One, the West is engaged in a mortal battle with a foe, Al Qaida, that seeks to destroy its way of life. It cannot and will not make a move that will likely destabilize a region that could subsequently provide safe havens for Al Qaida operatives. Two, in stepping up to stop the fratricidal wars in Liberia and Sierre Leone, Nigeria demonstrated beyond every shadow of doubt that Africa and indeed the rest of the world needs it to play the role of big brother in sub-Saharan Africa. Three, we have a president of African descent in the White House, and he more than most also recognizes the strategic importance of Nigeria to the development of sub-Saharan Africa. He will, therefore, be the last person to authorize the balkanization of Nigeria. So, brothers, we must never equate Nigeria with Kosovo. It is not.
Brothers, we should also realize with regard to oil-based development of the Niger Delta that time is not on our side. As I have already pointed out, the world is in a new race to space in the search for a viable alternative to fossil-based fuels. If the Niger Delta continues this way, a place where innocents are waylaid, robbed, and slaughtered in the waterways, a place where indigenes and foreigners are kidnapped, a place where armed gangs terrorize construction workers who are key to modernizing the infrastructure of the region, a place where because of all of these, foreign investors, including those in the highly profitable oil industry, are beginning to stay away, we will one day wake up to realize that our oil is worthless and there is no money to develop a non-oil sector that will then be key to our survival as a people. This is where borrowing a leaf from Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” makes all the sense in the world.
The old gambler tells the narrator of the song: “You go to know when to hold ‘em,/know when to fold ‘em./Know when to walk away, and know when to run./You never count your money, when you’re sittin’ at the table./There will be time enough for countin,’ when the dealin’s done.”
In other words, as Scripture would say, a man should have the maturity to realize that there is a time for everything under the sun, knowing what to do and to do it at the right time is the key to success and sometimes even survival. When a person ignores this fundamental lesson of life, he is likely to end up paying a stiff price for his mistake.
Brothers, in the present fight between you and the Nigerian military, I do not know who first attacked whom, as truth in these situations is often very hard to come by, but I am aware that one of you speaking publicly on behalf of his own faction of MEND told President Yar’Adua that it was the central government that needed amnesty when President Yar’Adua offered amnesty to all militants. Now, we know that the Nigerian government has indeed carried out unconscionable acts against the people of the Niger Delta on numerous occasions; the leveling of Odi readily comes to mind. But we also know that at no time was President Yar’Adua responsible for these acts. (We will find out what is really going in Gbaramatu, when the Press and Relief organizations are allowed into these towns.) And, so, it was very necessary to deal with him as a new face, a new person, instead of burdening him with the history of his predecessors in office. The young man, whoever he was, disrespected not just the man, but also the office of the president. It is such acts of misguided bravado that cause great harm and sorrow.
I no gree, I no gree, na im dey cause wahala, as we are wont to say in Nigeria. Brothers, drawing from Rogers’ “The Gambler,” when the president dropped the cards of amnesty and the possible enjoyment of shares in oil companies by oil-producing communities on the table, you should have quickly embraced and shifted the battle back into its intellectual phase. Such a move would have been a display of impeccably brilliant strategy. In fact, brothers, the President of the Ijaw Youth Council, the parent body of all Ijaw youth groups, Dr. Chris Ekiyor, called on you to close your camps, and turn in your weapons. He was roundly denounced. Yet it was obvious even to basic thinking that a national military that can put down Biafra, a vastly bigger, better funded, better armed, and better prepared rebellion, will any day it chooses to treat you as a full-blown insurrectionary force take you out of operation. Indeed, brothers, even recent history should tell us that a national army that could go to two foreign countries with only a few battalions and stamp out full-blown and seemingly intractable fratricidal wars is not an army against which you stood a legitimate chance.
Those of us who spend many of our days, heads bent over books on the affairs of humanity and of nations, knew these facts and also knew that as a bargaining chip, armed insurrection was quickly coming to its limits. Meanwhile, as developmental activists, we also realized that armed insurrection had by nearly all indices of measurement become very counterproductive to development and to the maintenance of law and order.
Even for those who believed in armed insurrection, we believed that it was time to turn the page.
But, yes, brothers, armed insurrection did show us the acts of incredible sacrifice that Ijaw youth are capable of and opened up new vistas of development. Newly colonized islands, which are presently the sites of armed camps can be developed into new sites of industry and residence that will suck away the thousands of youth currently living aimless lives in the slums of major cities in the Niger Delta. If Tom Polo’s Camp Five, with its ocean-green water is what CNN showed in its documentary on MEND and on the Niger Delta, then our brother Tom Polo was literarily sitting on millions of dollars in fishing and tourism. Camp Five with its white sandy beaches and green water, instead of the usually brackish water of the Niger Delta, could have been quickly developed into a major tourist resort. Our brother Tom Polo would have been able to offer hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs in the fishing sector to many of our jobless youths. Just off Camp Five, our brother Tom Polo would have been able to engage in massive aqua-pod fishing, an environment-friendly fishing. He would have been able to employ hundreds of people in his various marketing outlets, as he grew his business. Working with an organization such as Habitat for Humanity, he would have been able to help his workers to live in the lap of luxury in homes on nearby islands, which he would be able to connect with passenger vessels.
From our brother Tom Polo’s business would have grown other businesses to fuel the rapid development of Gbaramatu and Western Ijaw. Brothers, this is the other face of the current insurrection. It is a better way to go than an armed rebellion that has visited untold misery on our villages and towns, misery not from enemy troops, but from our own brothers. Brothers, this amongst other things is the reason why we should have quickly turned the page on armed insurrection as soon as President Yar’Adua offered amnesty to all militants. But, brothers, some of you will say, what about brother Henry Okah, he is still in jail? And what about the white paper on the work of the Technical Committee on the Niger Delta, the president is yet to release it? And what about the outstanding funds for the NDDC that the president continues to withhold? And what about the current illegal practice of the central government of not giving the NDDC its full monthly allocation? Yes, but these we could achieve with intellectual militancy.
Finally, brothers, what is happening in Gbaramatu Kingdom gives me great grief, not just because the lives that are lost are those of my kith and kin, but also because as the poet John Donne aptly puts it, these are fellow human beings in whose suffering and death I should see myself as a human being. Their suffering and death diminish me. And, brothers, if there is any lesson that we must draw from this narrative of misery of our kith and kin in these towns, it is the lesson that it is time to turn the page on armed insurrection, and as our own WS, a man who figuratively tried to put himself on the path of the freight train that was the then impending civil war between Nigeria and Biafra, put it, it is time to turn to intellectual militancy. As we know, WS was put in prison and in solitary confinement because of his efforts, an experience that he turned into one of the most poignant and philosophical prison stories of all time, The Man Died.
Brothers, I wish you well, and hope that some day you and I will be able to sit down after the guns have fallen silent and the battle swords have beaten into ploughshares in our business suits and etibos, or just simple T-shirts and jeans pants to fashion ways to bring rapid development to the Niger Delta, to our great country Nigeria, and to our poverty-ridden continent.
With very warm regards,