From the Fireside Critic
This letter would have come a lot sooner if I had not been attending to my health. A couple of weeks ago I started experiencing severe chest pains, and realized that the stress from my last year of doctoral studies and adjustments to a new job and city had caught up with me. In other words, I knew that there was nothing wrong with my heart, since I used the treadmill frequently, sometimes piling up as many as ten miles at one time when watching a football (American) or basketball game. Nonetheless, I needed a doctor to confirm my diagnosis and to recommend the needed treatment: rest. I start the letter with this little bit of information about my health not with the intention to broadcast the state of my health to the rest of the world or to win sympathy from anyone, but to make it abundantly clear as to why I had written nothing on the current hostilities between you and the Joint Task Force and the loss of hundreds of lives, according to media reports.
These are indeed very difficult times, and as your brother I will take the liberty of speaking straight from the heart. Several years ago, a friend of mine and I stumbled on Kenny Rogers’s famous song, “The Gambler.” We were very moved by it not because we drank, or smoked, or gambled, but because we recognized in it one of the most profound philosophical statements on life. The part that stirred us the most is the injunction of the old gambler to the young man that he should know when to hold on to his cards, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, know when to run, and, finally, to never count his money until the dealing is done. In the subsequent weeks and months that followed our encounter with “The Gambler,” we often caught ourselves singing these lines to each other when we met, as if to remind ourselves that in the long course of the rest of our journey in life our success will depend on how well we kept the old gambler’s precepts.
Brothers, I recall my encounter with “The Gambler,” because I want to use it to frame my discussion with you. I do not know how each of you came by his role in the very tragic story of the Niger Delta. I came by mine the day I visited Bundu Waterside shantytown in Port Harcourt and saw the miserable shacks that people called homes, and made the connection between the bone-jarring poverty that clung to them and the various islands of the Niger Delta where reckless oil exploitation had created an environmental nightmare in which once healthy creeks and rivers had gone fallow. I wrote a poem, “The Hermit Crab,” to capture my existential agony, and to achieve a level of catharsis by purging myself of the unbearable feeling that these islands may fall silent one by one, and only the hermit crab would be left wandering back and forth in the abandoned wastelands.
I needed to speak. I needed to act. I needed to lift up my voice and scream. But whatever I did I knew that it would never involve taking the life of another, or hate, or despair. I knew too that whatever I did must never embrace a separate nation for my ethnic group, because like many other young men and women who had passed through the Federal Government Colleges and made friends from all over the country and shared the same hopes and dreams of a Nigeria that would one day find itself and grow into the fullness of its great promise, and subsequently show the way to a very robust democracy and economy to the rest of black Africa, I was too invested in Nigeria. In the woes of every child, woman, and man of black Africa I saw myself, not in the sense of racial insularity, nationalism, or romanticism, but as a recognition of the fact that if there was anywhere on the face of the earth where the need to raise a sea of humanity out of existential misery was greatest, it was black Africa, and I saw my own country, Nigeria, as playing a leading role in that effort because of its vast endowments in natural and human resources.
So no matter how I thought of the Niger Delta and its seemingly intractable problems, it was always within the context of a thriving Niger Delta in a thriving Nigeria in a thriving Africa. It was never in the context of a thriving Niger Delta unmoored from all its neighbors, an oasis of vast abundance made possible by oil wealth, while all around it was human misery. Such a narrative did not appeal to me, for it sounded hollow, irredeemably vulgar, and an offense to all that I held dear about my role, no matter how little that may be, in the journey of humanity.
In casting about for how best to play my role, I stumbled on three great Americans, Thomas Jefferson in The Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln in The Gettysburg Speech and his Second Inaugural Address, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the man who challenged his country to live up to its highest ideals with regard to its population of African descent, who had endured centuries of slavery, and as he put it, “nobodyness.”
I remember the first time I read those famous lines in The Declaration of Independence, namely, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” I came very close to developing goose bumps, made more so by the fact that I put Jefferson in the Nigerian context, and held the nation to account with regard to what was going on in the Niger Delta, the unchecked oil spills, the devastation of the rivers and creeks and of aquatic life, the gas flares, and the massive displacement of people from their ancestral homes into slums in the cities, and, above all, the back-breaking poverty, misery, and existential angst in the midst of a sea of oil wealth drawn from the bowels of the land, creeks, and rivers of the inhabitants of the Niger Delta.
But I was also a Christian, and as I said, a great lover of my country, and so I knew that in trying to find a solution to the problem, I must not create a situation where at the end of the day I could not sit at the same table with my brethren from the rest of the country, because the methods I had used in fighting for my rights had created a permanent breach between us. This was the appeal of Martin Luther King’s tactics to me.
King, by many accounts, including that of his older sister, Christine King Farris, had in addition to his very strong Christian faith come under the powerful influence of Henry David Thoreau, in “Civil Disobedience,” and Mahatma Gandhi, who had employed Thoreau’s insights in non-violent ways to bring down British colonialism in India. King also developed great affinity for Søren Kierkegaard, whose philosophy, like that of Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher, engaged the individual and how he acted in the midst of others. The individual, any individual, had personal worth that cannot be reduced to nothingness, “nobodyness,” or, as Aime Césaire would put it, be “thingified,” that is, the individual cannot be turned into a thing.
One of the core principles that King embraced in this vision of life was that in the attempt to throw off the shackles of his dehumanization, he must not dehumanize others, and that beyond the differences between him and the other stood another human being, a brother, a sister, a mother, a father, an uncle, a cousin. And so, in trying to cure the psychological and existential wounds inflicted on African Americans, King did not want to inflict new ones of his own. He wanted to be a healer. He wanted to help create a more perfect union where black and white and people of all color and faith could live together in harmony.
Now, brothers, you have a right to point out that, yes, King’s house was bombed, a deranged woman stabbed him with a letter opener and almost
killed him, and he was eventually felled by the bullet of an assassin; but that after all was said and done, King spoke to those in authority who had the conscience to listen to him. In other words, had King faced in the American government or people a people who had decided to act toward African Americans the way Hitler had acted toward the Jews, nothing would have come of King and his message. And I am sure, brothers, you will also remind me that Gandhi only succeeded in throwing out the British because as Césaire puts in Discourse on Colonialism, Hitler’s mass extermination of the Jews and his onslaught on the rest of Europe had very clearly and unmistakably spelt out the underlying racist basis of colonialism and its logical conclusion in his so-called Final Solution. In other words, if the colonizer could exterminate all the “brutes,” there will be none between him and the land and the resources of the colonized. And because the West was careful to make it clear that it was not Hitler, it could not employ a final solution to Gandhi and his harmless followers. Therefore, from the moment Hitler stepped into history, the death of colonization was only a matter of time.
Brothers, I am sure you will also remind me that when our own Ken Saro-Wiwa employed Gandhi’s principles under the rule of a military tyrant, he and key leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People were quickly picked up, framed, and summarily executed. You will also remind me that the very document that enabled me to do an adequate intellectual evaluation of the condition of the Niger Delta, The Declaration of Independence, came out of a push toward a violent overthrow of the yoke of British colonialism. You will also remind me of the immortal lines of Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty or give me death.” Furthermore, you will remind me that when all peaceful strategies have failed to produce results, John F. Kennedy’s immortal dictum will ultimately come into play: “Those who make peaceful change impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” You will perhaps also remind me that it was the realization of this stark truth that made the great German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer to agree to take part in an assassination plot against Hitler.
Brothers, I am aware of all these arguments and now want us to make a systematic examination of the Niger Delta condition and the work of those to whose mantles you claim heir. Many of you claim heir to Isaac Boro’s mantle, and it is important that we do a brief examination of Boro’s engagement of the Niger Delta condition.