The current condition of statehood in Nigeria calls to mind two seemingly far-flung and historically divergent analogies, one rooted in Roman Catholic rites of passage for the dying and the other lodged in the fate that awaits anybody who stands in the path of freedom and justice in Greek mythology. The analogies shall remain, I hope, only tentatively far-flung and divergent as I weave them into a workable allegory of the Nigerian tragedy in the light of President Yar’Adua’s ongoing festival of murder in the Niger Delta. Viaticum, the Eucharist or last communion administered to the dying in the Catholic tradition has been made familiar to Nigerians of a certain generation by the Senegalese poet, Birago Diop. Those who went to secondary school when Nigeria still had an education sector worthy of that name will remember Birago Diop’s poem, “Viaticum”, an Africanized, mytho-ritualistic rendering of that Catholic rite as a passage to life in the shadow of the breath of the ancestors. Diop’s “Viaticum” was included in Donatus Nwoga’s West African Verse in order to introduce Anglophone audiences to African writing in French.
The ancient Greeks imagined Polyphemus as a one-eyed Cyclops who trapped Odysseus and his men in his cave during their journey home from the Trojan War. Polyphemus had plenty of common sense before the homeward bound Greeks got trapped in his cave. That singular development led to a lot of things that would affect the entire history of narration and human imagination from Homer through Ovid to our times. For our purposes here, it is sufficient to recall that the presence of the Greek hostages in his cave marked the moment of transition to a pathology of food and consumption in the psyche of Polyphemus. Drooling at the prospect of gorging, Polyphemus redefined the entire atmospherics in his cave around that primal instinct: food, gorging, and the politics of the belly. Exit commonsense. Exit fairness. Exit justice. One or two entrapped Greeks for dinner, some wine, sleep, and another one or two Greeks for breakfast before taking his sheep out to graze. That became the bacchanal clockwork of Polyphemus’s life until Odysseus and his men taught him a vital lesson: the desire for freedom is the only food that nourishes the human spirit. Not even a one-eyed cannibalistic Cyclops, with all the legitimate and illegitimate apparatuses of power and violence in his possession, could kill the spirit of freedom. That spirit defeated him. It was predictable.
For me, the moment Polyphemus redefined the meaning of his cave as food upon discovery of the trapped Greek travelers is also the very moment that he became the direct ancestor of the Nigerian state and the scrofulous characters who constitute its rulership at all three levels of normative misgovernance. The parallels are too obvious and tempting. Witness the behavior of this state since it struck oil in the Niger Delta. The fruit of rulership in Nigeria has never been able to fall far from the tree of Polyphemus. The Greek monster discovered food in his cave, lost common sense, and redefined his territory and entire world around gorging and food. Nigeria’s rulers and the Nigerian state discovered oil in the Niger Delta, lost common sense, and redefined Nigeria and the Nigerian state around food and gorging. Anyone minimally familiar with the story of Polyphemus and his behavior at the mere thought of losing that source of food and gorging that had become the very basis of his ontology will have no trouble understanding the unbelievable imbecilities of the Nigerian state in terms of her handling of the food cave that is the Niger Delta. Even the renewed viciousness and murderousness – in fact, state terrorism – that we are currently witnessing have perfectly logical explanations in the trough of the Polyphemus narrative: the closer the monster got to a sense of the imminence of the end of his stabilized order of food and gorging, the madder and more vicious he became.
At no other time has Nigeria’s thieving rulers felt such a compelling imminence of the beginning of the end of a predatory order that one of them, Chieftain and Stakeholder Vincent Ogbulafor, reminded us recently would last another sixty years. At the level of international symbolism, they are finally beginning to wake up to the fact that the despicable system they run has transformed them into a continental open sore that everybody – except the truly inconsequential – now avoids. They lobbied for a state visit to Washington by President Yar’Adua. No luck. The G20 poured cold water on them. FIFA is also now diplomatically rubbing their incompetence in their nose. Not content with predicting the implosion of Nigeria, the American state has now made a loud statement with President Obama’s first trip to Africa. Nigeria is left to hosting an inconsequential French Prime Minister and President Faure Gnassingbe of Togo who even allowed himself the indulgence of having ideas on what we could do to improve ourselves! When you are felled by a macro-indignity, you become the foot mat of all sorts of micro-indignities. When South Africa, Ghana, Botswana, Namibia, and even Benin Republic become the leaders of the continent and Nigeria is reduced to receiving advice from the thirty-something-year-old son of Gnassingbe Eyadema who, but for the accident of his birth, should still be writing and submitting term papers in a graduate programme here in the West, you know that we are truly finished. Next, Blaise Compaore’s daughter will have ideas on how to move Nigeria forward. Unfortunately, no dictionary in Aso Rock has an entry for shame.
The dwindling fortune of oil in global geo-politics and international economy is another reason for the renewed desperation of Nigeria’s rulers. Finally, this visionless class is waking up to the fact that the cookie jar has lost considerable value. The crash in the value of oil has considerably affected what is available to humor their gargantuan appetite. Simply put, oil is no longer fetching the kind of money that these guys are used to stealing. Green is in big time all over the world. President Obama takes independence from oil as seriously as the founding fathers of his country took independence from Britain. A significant number of the oil states in the Arabian Gulf are now only oil states in name. They have diversified massively into non-oil sector mega-earning. Dubai is buying up everything in the West and transforming itself into the world’s number one tourist destination to secure non-oil earnings. Every Nigerian should make it a habit to read at least one English language newspaper online daily from countries like Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Read their financial/economy pages, a treasure trove of daily information on the giant strides they have made to free their national budgets of oil dependency and you feel truly sorry for Nigeria. You will wonder how cerebral conservative Muslims are building some of the world’s most amazing postmodern societies while Nigeria’s conservative Northern Muslims can only boast a paltry legacy of selective sharia for the poor after decades of chokehold on Federal power and oil money.
The imminence of a new post-oil global order has caught Nigeria’s unimaginative rulers pants down. Too busy gorging on easy money and easy food, our Ali Babas in Abuja never envisaged the current threat to oil and are too intellectually lazy to begin to envision post-oil national budgets this late in the day. Here is a ruling class that couldn’t even envisage post-war Angola as the end of Nigeria’s continental oil dominance and plan strategically for it. Non-oil earning also implies the sort of hard work, planning, and execution that has never been the forte of this class of indolent rulers. With oil, all you really need to do is sit down in government guest chalets in Abuja and a
ward oil blocks over pepper soup and easy women while waiting for rent and bribes to pour into your onshore and offshore accounts from Shell, Chevron-Texaco, Julius Berger, and other Western 419 multinationals. Consequently, the only strategy that the cerebral limitations of the Nigerian ruling class allow for is to increase the tempo and scale of the gorging while the party lasts, hence the need to clamp down viciously on militants – even if it means exterminating the entire civilian population of the Niger Delta in the process.
The tragedy in the Niger Delta has, sadly, brought out the beast in us and our polity. In the absence of a formally declared state of war, a civilian President orders air raids and bombings of civilians in broad daylight – a violation of our collective humanity that not even our worst and most vicious military despoilers ever imagined – and there is no national uprising. We had somehow naively believed that we couldn’t possibly experience anything worse than the spectacle of General Sani Abacha’s tanks in Lagos. What exactly will it take for Nigerians to rise up and drive these crazy baldheads out of town? Add mustard and serum gas to President Yar’Adua’s pacification of his own people and you get Saddam Hussein. Surely, the Mollah of Katsina is methodically applying everything he read in the Handbook on the Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Middle Belt and the Niger Delta by the Nigerian State.
Rather than take the full measure of President Yar’Adua’s unbelievable crimes against humanity and begin to work to ensure that he gets the Omar Bashir treatment before or after he leaves office, we have a divided commentariat, with some preferring to focus on the criminality of the militants and the right of the Nigerian state to defend itself as the only legitimate repository of the instruments of violence and the only entity vested with the right to discipline and punish. As if history avails them of any freedom struggle that does not produce sanguinary and selfish criminals who could potentially undermine and derail the cause. This, of course, does not justify the criminality of the militants but to focus on that and ignore the catalytic criminality of the Nigerian state is beyond me. The high point of these vacuous forays into Political Science 101 came from a Nigerian doctoral student in Germany who published an apologia for President Yar’Adua recently in The Guardian. What these emergency aficionados of political science and theories of the prerogatives of the Westphalian state fail to tell us is that the rights of the state to legitimate violence are predicated on numerous obligations to the citizen in the context of the social contract. I have written elsewhere that the Nigerian state cannot be accused, even by her most generous defenders, of having the slightest understanding of her obligations to the citizen. She does not guarantee their security and right to the pursuit of happiness. She does not guarantee their right to life and human dignity. When dead, she leaves them to rot in the streets.
Where the state meets her obligations to the citizen, we all agree to submit ourselves voluntarily to her regime of discipline and punish. This is where the state derives her hegemony from: our voluntary submission to her authority because she is meeting her own part of the deal. Absent this, enter “dominance without hegemony”, a concept made famous by Ranajit Guha, one of India’s most prominent historians, in his masterful work on colonialism. Guha owes his thought on hegemony to the famous Italian Marxist thinker, Antonio Gramsci. The colonial state, Guha argues, had dominance because it successfully enforced its structures, institutions, and regimes of violence on the people but she lacked hegemony because the people never willingly surrendered their subjecthood to her nor did they ever recognize her as the repository of legitimate violence. Anybody recognized the Nigerian state in this description yet? The Nigerian state, embodied in the Federal Government of Nigeria, is one of the best postcolonial illustrations of Ranajit Guha’s dominance without hegemony in Africa. Because it is in the hands of the most venal characters we have to offer, and who get there only by rigging or plotting coups, our state does not command the loyalty of the people. Our state exists mainly in a relationship of force and violence with the citizen, having legitimacy and hegemony with only those who are gorging: less than 1% of all 150 million of us.
To concede the right to pacificatory and legitimate violence to a state that is 100% dominance and 0% hegemony as some commentators have been doing beats me. It betrays their poor reading of history. Worse are the commentators who bring ethnicism to the table. Good for those Niger Deltans! They did not support Biafra. Considerable strategic thought is then wasted on the intermesh – or lack thereof – of Biafra and the Niger Delta struggle. Those who are taking their eyes off the ball of genocide in the Niger Delta assume that the discourse and history of secession in Nigeria are tied singularly to Biafra. As early as 1964, Isaac Sha’ahu of the UMBC had threatened in the Northern House of Assembly that the Tivs would “pull out of the North and the Federation as a whole. We shall be a sovereign state, we shall be joining nobody. We are 1000,000 in population, bigger than Gambia and Mauritania”. Two years later on February 23, 1966, Isaac Boro seceded and declared his Niger Delta People’s Republic. Boro’s new ‘country’ lasted a total of twelve days.
Although Boro declared his Republic in response to his and his people’s perceived Igbo domination of eastern minorities, the broader point I want to make is that it is intellectually dishonest to claim that Biafra and the Niger Delta struggle are not interlinked. It is equally specious to claim that the people of the Niger Delta should somehow have preferred what they felt would be domination in Biafra to domination in Nigeria. It is like asking Cameroonians if they preferred French to German colonialism. As an outsider to both struggles who must reflect on them with humility, what I see are two histories of oppression and two struggles against the injustices of the Nigerian arrangement that are being weakened by the divide and rule strategies of the centre. Let’s keep the Igbos and the Niger Deltans busy arguing over who is more victim and who betrayed who in order to better exploit and marginalize both of them. That strategy works and has served the Nigerian state very well.
Biafra seats at the heart of a long history of discontent with and resistance against the myriad injustices of the Nigerian arrangement. Because it is the only discontent with Project Nigeria that led to a civil war and more than a million dead, it has become the grand organizing metaphor of all other localized discontents with Project Nigeria. Biafra and the Niger Delta – as indeed all other agitations such as the increasingly loud calls for a possible Oodua Republic – form a continuum of discontent with Project Nigeria and we must engage them as such while respecting the singular circumstances and the ethno-localized integrity of each struggle. Biafra also provides the pathway for hope that Polyphemus will never defeat the spirit of freedom at the core of the agitations in the Niger Delta.
Freedom is spirit. Freedom is a way of being. A way of being certain that Polyphemus represents your Absolute Negation and you can only genuinely be when you negate that Absolute Negation through a process Frantz Fanon calls therapeutic violence. This dialectic explains why a traumatic war, permanent exclusion from the Presidency, and the periodic slaughter of the Igbo in the North have never uprooted a single hair from the head of Biafra. Biafra is spirit. Biafra is identitarian
immanence. So also is the Niger Delta. That struggle too is spirit. Every struggle for freedom by any oppressed nationality in Nigeria is spirit and immanence. President Yar’Adua’s bombs will stop nothing in the Niger Delta. I feel so sorry for him. He is a University Professor and should ordinarily have no trouble understanding this but Polyphemus is too set in his predictable ways.
I wager that nobody in Abuja has any doubt that we are beginning to approach the end of the road for Polyphemus. There can be no doubt in the minds of our enemies now that they cannot sustain the monumental injustice that is currently Nigeria for much longer, hence the viciousness and the need to acquire more before the cookie crumbles. The Niger Delta is their last vicious throe. Their road map going forward is predictable. They will leave the Niger Delta desolate after the current orgy of blood to prepare the next orgy: 2011. This is where, hopefully, they will kill and rig their way to implosion. As the Yoruba put it: those who eat gbi will surely die gbi. Polyphemus is now on an inexorably course to dying gbi in Nigeria. This thieving, murdering, and gorging Polyphemus must die for the Nigeria of our dreams, hopes, and aspirations to emerge. Freedom, for me, is not the disintegration of Nigeria but the annihilation of the system that has held Nigeria and Nigerians in bondage for so long and has refused to let us renegotiate the terms of engagement. That system is Polyphemus and I am glad to be present at her Viaticum.