Britain, Hiss- Hiss- History, and the Ni- Ni- Niger Delta

by Pius Adesanmi

“The trouble with the English” stutters Whiskey Sisodia, a character in Salman Rushdie’s famous novel, The Satanic Verses, “is that their hiss- hiss- history happened overseas, so they do- do- don’t know what it means”. Sisodia’s is, in my view, the most famous stutter in literature, offering, as it were, a priceless window into the mindset behind British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s generous offer of British military assistance to Nigeria’s murderous Federal government to quell “terrorism” in the Niger Delta. Naturally, Mr Brown did not stop at lecturing Nigeria’s illegitimate President on the need for robust actions in the Niger Delta during the latter’s ill-advised state visit to Britain last week, he even felt sufficiently enamoured to make a public show of his impatience with the situation in Nigeria. The “terrorists” in the Niger Delta are beginning to have a serious impact on the wallets of the English whenever they approach the gas station and Mr. Brown would have none of it. If President Yar’Adua has forgotten the Dan Fodian art of pacification, the English still have one or two tricks to teach him in that department. After all, they are history’s most prolific pacifiers. Mr. Brown only needs to dust one or two volumes of the Colonial Library… And that is precisely what he did.

Mr. Brown’s offer of British munificence and President Yar’Adua’s obsequious predisposition in London have generated the usual internet lather among angry and embarrassed Nigerian pundits. Such condemnations of President Yar’Adua are a tad harsh and uncharitable. If he went to London to grin from ear to ear as he was lectured on how to put his house in order, its only because the visit to No. 10 Downing Street is the second most important day in his life, going by the logic of his own brilliant declaration that his visit to the White House last year was a day he would never forget in his life! The extraordinary privilege of being able to say “yes sir” to the American president in the Washington is followed so closely by the celestial privilege of being able to say “yes sir” to the British Prime Minister in London. Allah be praised! Those who expected behavior better than that of a three-year-old child in a candy store from President Yar’Adua still have a lot to learn about the sheepishness of African leadership in the presence of their Western overlords. Let’s cut President Yar’Adua some slack. He did not disappoint. He behaved admirably to type.

Now to the more serious business of his English host. I have read several engaging analyses of Gordon Brown’s sudden interest and desire for peace in the Niger Delta. The thrust of most of these analyses is nicely summed up in Kennedy Emetulu’s robust intervention, “Anglo-Nigerian Relations: An Oily Romance”. We do, however, need to move things beyond the international political economy of oil and bring the historical provenance of Gordon Brown’s mindset to bear on our discussion in order to fully understand not only his “ways of seeing” (apologies to John Berger) but also and, perhaps most importantly, the limited range of the vocabulary available to him to frame his idea of the Niger Delta. Put differently, whenever the Niger Delta intrudes into Gordon Brown’s consciousness – as it obviously does frequently these days -, how does his peculiar history, which mostly happened overseas, enable him to deal with the situation? What imagery, symbologies, and vocabulary does this history place at his disposal to frame reality? Could he have seen anything other than a military solution (final solution?) to the Niger Delta question?

Whereas history avails President Yar’Adua of only two words – militants and infidels – to describe the freedom fighters of the Niger Delta, it is even far less generous with Gordon Brown. There seems to be a miserly logic to history’s distribution of vocabulary in the province of oppression. The higher up you are on the ladder of oppression and historical transgressions, the more impecunious your vocabulary becomes in terms of your capacity to describe, name, and engage your victims. For instance, across the Atlantic, the theo-conservative lunatics in power can only see terrorists. The same historical logic makes it impossible for Gordon Brown to see neither people nor Nigerians in the Niger Delta. His own history avails him of only one descriptor, buried deep down in the psyche: natives.

But that is only part of the problem with this English man whose history happened everywhere except England. When his history happened in India at the expense of the Indian, he saw only natives undeserving of liberty and self determination; when his history happened in Jamaica, cannibalistic natives haunted his dreams; when his history happened in Kenya and Zimbabwe, it was the same story of ungrateful natives indulging in violence to secure their freedom. Even female natives in Aba, Nigeria, overstepped their bounds! It is in contemplation of native will to freedom that history becomes a bit generous and the oppressor’s vocabulary is upgraded to five words. Five words that he regurgitates repetitively to describe the actions of his natives: revolt, rebellion, riot, mutiny, uprising. Consequently, from Morant Bay to Meerut, from Mount Kenya to the Chimurenga fields of Matabeleland, our friends the English saw only low-level, despicable actions like riots, revolts, rebellions, mutinies, and uprisings. Strange descriptions dignifying such events with names like decolonization, liberation struggle, freedom struggle, and wars of independence would enter the picture only when the native decided to seize the narrative through the pens of African nationalists and folks like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Frantz Fanon.

Well, the situation had to be addressed and the natives put in their place. History became miserly again, granting the oppressor only one word to describe his praxis: pacification. We all know how successful the pacification was in the second half of the 20th century. After five centuries of bloodshed across the globe, history returned to its small island in England, to cower as an inconsequential entity in the shadow of the Frankenstein it created: America. This is the historical baggage that determined the atmospherics of the Brown/Yar’Adua encounter in London. Each man came to the table with an historically determined mode of perception of current reality. History is stubborn. The collapse of Empire does nothing to the atavism of its diction. Its vocabulary persists in the subconscious and the wounded psyche of Empire’s scions and is surreptitiously deployed in erroneous renderings of the present. Hence, there is only one constricted formula available to Gordon Brown: in his mind, the Niger Delta is a space filled with mutinous, riotous, or rebellious natives in dire need of pacification. His history leaves him no other option of perception. That essentially is the formula he sold to a gullible Yar’Adua. Lest I forget, the resource-laden environment of the native is always more important than the native in the calculus of the oppressor.

There is of course the usual throng of happy African intellectuals who roam internet listservs, claiming that history has nothing to do with these things. If Mr. Brown sticks his foot in his mouth, we must not consult his history for an explanation. We should just explain it away as a passing bout of Athlete’s foot. We must look beyond the distractions of such comical intellectuals and insist that there is a name for Mr. Brown’s foray into the Niger Delta situation: imperialist nostalgia. One of the world’s leading anthropologists, Renato Rosaldo, has a classic scholarly essay on the symptoms of this disease and I do not need to rehash his submissions here. Suffice it to say, however, that whenever the disease afflicts the English, it manifests in the shape of an uncritical reproduction of the scripts of Cecil Rhodes, one of the British Empire’s greatest sons. It was Rhodes after all who declared that he could only conceptualize the relationship between the British and their colonized natives as the partnership between the horse and its rider. Mr. Yar’Adua and his sycophantic entourage may deceive themselves that they discussed “friendship”, “partnership”, “cooperation”, and “bilateral agreements” with the English, my kindergarten cousin in Nigeria knows that Gordon Brown was operating from Cecil Rhodes’s rule book. There can only be a partnership in which the English would be riders and the Niger Delta the horse. That’s the only way the English are able to cling to the illusion of Empire in an era when the likes of Germany and France have rendered them irrelevant even in small Europe!

Gordon Brown’s strategy is going to be even more crucial to his country as we enter, thankfully, a global phase that seems to mark the beginning of the unraveling of the American Empire. It is one thing to live in the shadow of the Americans after the sun set on the Union Jack only to shine on the star spangled banner. How does one live under the red banner of China? British answer to the specter of China is to ensure that their irrelevant present, like their past, happens overseas. To this end, Tony Blair and, now, Gordon Brown have ensured that the English present is happening tangentially to the American present in Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and the Niger Delta. Empire never learns.

Let’s not kid ourselves about the sorry nature of Nigeria’s leadership. Mr. Brown’s offer will either be accepted brazenly and publicly or through the back door in some attenuated form. If President Yar’Adua opts for a brazen public acceptance, he will be counting on Nigerians’ legendary capacity to make some noise before shrugging and proclaiming: God dey. If Gordon Brown successfully pacifies the Niger Delta, I wager that Dokubo Asari, Henry Okah, Ateke Tom, Jomo Gbomo and all the freedom fighters involved in the struggle will meet with a slightly better fate than Okonkwo whose story ends up in “a reasonable paragraph” in the District Commissioner’s book at the end of Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo and Umuofia had no crude oil and could not be expected to be anything more than trifle anthropological exotica in the English man’s book. The people of the Niger Delta are luckier. They have oil and should, hopefully, be promoted to two reasonable paragraphs in Gordon Brown’s memoir.

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adew July 30, 2008 - 7:28 pm

Excellent job Pius! Let every Nigerian dripping with lust for the “intervention campaign” of Gordon Brown read this article and properly understand the narcissitic mindset of the British political elite, drunk on a false sense of superiority and willing to accept the destruction of humanity for their obscene pleasure.

Tokunbo July 29, 2008 - 6:07 pm

Well written and very interesting point of view.


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