We must stop insulting Niger Deltans

by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku

By this piece, I wish to recommend to anyone who is not familiar with the Niger Delta to be a little more circumspect in discourse related to determination of issues that affect that hapless region. I read MacNezer Faseun’s piece, The Fault Dear Niger Delta and I could not help but feel discomfort with the author’s position on the way forward for the region. Writers like Faseun command respect, readership and he has a large audience. If he was a columnist plying his trade in the United States or Canada, Faseun’s pedigree would in no way be less than that of Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek. He is senior to me both academically and in the profession and I usually read his pieces avidly with a great admiration for his mastery of the language. On this occasion however, I am disappointed, not so with the structure of the piece but with the content thereof. It seems to me that Faseun wrote his piece more to meet a deadline rather than a deep conviction for the resolution of the fracas which years of despoliation of the Niger Delta have engendered. He spent a lot of time going back and forth as if he was not sure what he wanted to say but when he eventually did, he left me utterly bewildered. From his piece, it was clear that he had never visited the Niger Delta, had never spoken to the people, had not seen burrow pits and gas flaring in villages like Uzere, Kwale etc before concluding that since the present acting president is Niger Deltan, then ‘peace’ must now reign in the region. What non-sequitor! It was clear from his Shakespearean quote that he wants everyone to deduct that the fault is not with the rest of Nigeria but with the people of the Niger Delta, who have altruistically fed this nation for 45 of its 49 years.

Before I go on to try to deconstruct Faseun’s panacea to the woes of the Niger Delta, let me use the opportunity of the visit of George Bush, Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice to quickly take my place behind that auspicious queue and concur that the presidency is not the same as being the president. As people who have been under the jackboot of the military and under the civi-military government of Olusegun Obasanjo, we have been nurtured to think that everything must revolve around the personality of a Mr President. In fact, two years ago in Accra Ghana, West African journalists at a German-sponsored capacity building training programme on ECOWAS institutions got to know that there was a paradigm shift from Nigeria’s Africa-the-centre-piece-of-our-foreign-policy to ‘when the president arrives’. Ordinarily, it should not be so, and this gives kudos to the fact that our institutions of governance are weak. We are all so used to the mentality of expecting to be rich overnight as soon as somebody from our villages either becomes commissioner, governor or president to the extent that a columnist as cerebral as Faseun is now saying that the Niger Delta is expected to begin to develop just because Goodluck Jonathan is acting president. Sometime ago, a former boss told me that all of my patriotic sentiments at turning the fortunes of this country around were utter clack. ‘When you get there, it is your village people who will come to you first of all and say, “Our son, this is our turn to chop. It is God that has put you there for us so that we too can chop”. When I protested, he wished me good luck and said that if I refused to do their bidding I would have an unhappy retirement in exile.

But why should the ethnic antecedents of the person in power be reduced to the you-chop-I–chop-them-don-chop-now-our-turn-to-chop argument? Don’t misunderstand me please: there is nothing wrong in using our positions to develop our villages and hamlets and our people but surely we do realize that the minute a villager leaves his village and mounts the national stage his constituency metamorphoses overnight, don’t we? That was the point Mazrui pointed out in his book, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo. The key question in that book was: should I clean up my village before cleaning up my country or should I clean up my country and clean up my village later? In drawing the line between being an uomo universale [a person of the universe] and a social collectivist [a tribal jingoist], Mazrui suggested a blend of individualism and universalism rather than a fusion of social collectivism and individualism. And I agree with Mazrui together with the isms that went with his brief.

But all of this is an aside. My real grouse with the writer of The Fault, Dear Niger Delta is his call to Niger Deltans to lay down their arms and go to school, somehow helping to orchestrate the widely held belief that all my kinsmen do is sit at home, drink sapele water and harass multinationals for stipends. I want to say here first of all that education or going to school is not the answer. I want to say in fact that we have gone to too much school to the extent that even those who have gone to school with doctorate degrees are yet unemployed, unempowered. Most took up arms out of frustration when they realized that even with their education and the oil deposits in their grandfather’s lands, they are still regarded as minority and consigned to the backwaters of the nation’s affairs. I want to say that nearly three quarters of the people enjoying oil wealth in Nigeria today have not seen the four walls of a university. In addition, I want to say that the Niger Delta boasts of so many eggheads in banking, commerce, politics and in the academic community to the extent that we can compete just as keenly with any geopolitical zone in any of these areas. So why are we being marginalized, even with our oil contribution and asked to go to more school to be able to participate in the distribution wealth from oil proceeds? Why are we not given some form of preferential treatment in the allocation of what comes from our backyards? Why?

As far as I am concerned, Yar’Adua or no Yar’Adua, Goodluck Jonathan or no Goodluck Jonathan, the Niger Delta must continue to fight either on the field or on an intellectual battkeground as this one. My space here is taken up, unfortunately. If there was space, I would want to add that a columnist of Faseun’s pedigree should know better than to pursue the agenda he pursued. My position is radically different from his, and I said my piece on that on www.nigeriansinamerica.com 15th September 2009 under the title, Why Niger Deltans Must Continue To Fight.

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