By Sunny Awhefeada
The title of this intervention will have a familiar ring among students and scholars of Nigerian poetry. It recalls Ibiwari Ikiriko’s Oily Tears of the Delta, a collection of poems which the late poet published in 2000. Ikiriko’s dedication reads, “This collection owes its inspiration to the need to save the Niger Delta/It is dedicated to the famished and fed-up people of the Delta including the dead and the dying”. The poet goes on to offer poems which engage the parlous condition of the Niger Delta region. In poem after poem, Ikiriko meditates on the disaster that the exploration and exploitation of oil turned out to be for the hapless region. Historical, political and deeply philosophical, the poems attest to the rape and despoliation the Niger Delta homeland has been subjected to for decades. The crushing poverty, political marginalization and repression also throb on the pages of the collection. The leitmotif is the inversion of a hackneyed saying to killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
The Niger Delta has been a plundered territory for centuries. The plunder was inaugurated with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade that went on for three hundred years during which a sizable population of the region was shipped as cargoes to the New World. The abolition of slavery bred another monster in imperialism. This time the oil palm resources of the region became the attraction for Europe.
European marauders raided many flourishing kingdoms and forced them into signing treaties which ministered to the greed of Europe. The palm oil from the region became the major lubricant for Europe’s Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Many Niger Delta leaders who refused to sign the treaties or concurred to the terms were deposed and exiled. King Jaja of Opobo, Oba Ovoramwen of Benin, Nana Olomu of Ebrohimi, King Pepple (Perekule) of Bonny and others fell to British military bombardment and their kingdoms were laid to waste.
The discovery of crude oil in the region beginning from 1956 opened a new trajectory of exploitation. Independence four years later consolidated the palm oil to crude oil matrix in the despoliation of the region. The region produces the crude oil which drives the nation’s economy, yet the region is held down by acute poverty and gross underdevelopment. The environment is scorched, the rivers are dying, sources of livelihood are threatened, the people are poor and dying, but the wealth form their homeland is turning Lagos and Abuja into paradise on earth. It was the incipient manifestation of this crass injustice that provoked the 12-day Revolution led by Adaka Boro, Nothingham Dick and Sam Owonaru in February 1966. Boro and his comrades had thought of creating a Niger Delta republic and free themselves from the parasitism of the Nigerian state. But the big bully, Nigeria, crushed the rebellion.
Boro’s revolt presaged the Nigerian Civil War during which the headquarters of oil companies operating in the region were compelled by a decree to relocate to Lagos.
The entrenchment of the central command structure of military rule also robbed the Niger Delta region of the revenue accruing to it as everything had to go to the central government from where peanuts were thrown at the states.
The condition of the region deteriorated and Boro begat sons who continued with the struggle. Ken Saro-Wiwa, writer and environmental rights activist, became the face of the struggle for much of the 1990s before the Nigerian government murdered him in 1995. The struggle entered a new phase with the Kaiama Declaration of 1998. The return to civilian rule in 1999 gave fillip to the struggle which had evolved into agitations, both intellectual and militant. Central to the new phase of the struggle were the concepts of federalism and resource control. Kidnapping, bombing of oil facilities, creek battles and other forms of hostilities became the order of the day. The sons of Boro became the lords of the creeks and the central government was forced into making concessions. Post-1999 Nigeria saw to the payment of 13% derivation fund to the Niger Delta states. The period saw to the establishment of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), the Presidential Amnesty Programme and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs. What has been considered as having the potential to be the most far reaching and beneficial intervention for the Niger Delta region is the proposed Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) which has ambled in the Nation Assembly for too long a time.
Last week, stakeholders, they are actually steakholders, were invited to a public hearing on the PIB at the National Assembly. It was in the course of the public hearing that some of the steakholders showed to the world that Mike Tyson and Anthony Joshua were amateur pugilists. Reports in the media claimed that a melee resulted from the “struggle” for who to speak for which group and who should speak first. A video that circulated widely showed the pugilists with their hands speaking for them instead of their tongues. Both men wore the traditional wrapper with aghighon the insignia of being a chief decorating their necks. They threw caution to the wind and threw heavy punches. Tyson would have been frightened with the ferocity of the punches.
What was at play in the brawl at the National Assembly is symbolic of how infighting has become the bane of the region. At the centre of this is avarice which has bred many a communal crisis that has led to the destruction of lives and property in the region. It has also led to the deposition, exile and killing of monarchs in the last thirty years. It is also the spirit behind the notorious deve a kind of illegal fee extorted from property developers in many parts of the region. Those who claim to be fighting for the good of the region have actually become her despoilers. The altruism which drove Boro and Saro-Wiwa has been supplanted by self-seeking attitude of the region’s rapacious elite. This struggle by the elite to rape the region and loot her resources remains the albatross of the NDDC, the Presidential Amnesty Programme and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs. Many of the states in the region have also set up development commissions for oil producing areas. But there is absolutely nothing to show for their existence.
These commissions and other interventions set up to remedy the region’s travails have become vaults where the elite steal money to contest elections. This is the debacle encumbering the NDDC right now. The leading hawks in the region have targeted the Commission as the warehouse holding the money they needed to prosecute the 2023 elections.
The punches that were thrown by the steakholders at the National Assembly were oily punches motivated not by the interest of the region, but by self-seeking tendencies. This is the reason why the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs has, for more than ten years, not been able to complete the East-West road which is the only mandate under it. The NDDC has also been turned into a carcass with thousands of abandoned and uncompleted projects across the region. The Presidential Amnesty project has also turned out to be a colossal failure. The oily punches only tell us that the Niger Delta people have become their own enemies. The punches were not thrown by Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba or Tiv.
The punches were thrown by Niger Deltans at Niger Deltans in the same way that the NDDC, the Presidential Amnesty Programme and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs were/are not raided and looted by Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba of Tiv, but by Niger Deltans.