When I visited Bayelsa State recently, the sense of home hit me as an original of the Niger Delta. As I traversed lands, saw creeks and peeped through forest barks, I sank into a state of nostalgia. The term “my land,” the word “legitimacy,” the phrase “resource control” and the epithet “state rights” all percolated me like water through the sieves of the heart.
My feeling deepened when I witnessed the ground breaking of a refinery, the first of such in the state and that region in a generation. Whole swaths of swamp land were being translated, by cash, technology and human brawn, into a manufacturer’s hub of refined oil and power.
As I entered the premises, I recalled what my late father told me many years ago. ‘’Oti,” that was how he addressed me, “the last time I went to where I was born, I pointed to it from hard ground. It is now water. Thanks to government greed, neglect and bigger thanks to the destruction by the oil companies.” His face was a network of furrows and his lip at its verbal tether. No more to say.
The dozy village on the outskirts of Yenagoa drew some of the mainstays of the oil industry, including former president Olusegun Obasanjo. The Owu chief’s soulful dance on stage was an eerie reminder of his famous former dance. The stellar percussions came from an internationally acclaimed child band from Akwa Ibom. This time, thankfully, no letter of explosive proportion was unleased from his undercroft of rage. For that region, rage is no stranger. For irony, Baba’s dance in Bayelsa lacked the militant gyrations that preceded his epistolary umbrage to the president.
But the speech that stirred the crowd came from the chief host, Governor Seriake Dickson. The walking stick twirling, heft of a figure, was for a space of 30 minutes, looking more like a spokesman for the Niger Delta, a tongue for oil for oil producers, for resource control, for legitimacy. He spoke not with the register of the creeks but indignant polish. But both creek renegades and city conformists cheered.
No one could deny he said the truth when he thanked the President for granting the CEO of Azikel Group, Eruani Godbless, for installing the refinery. No one can deny, too, his truth when he questioned why licences were being given to install refineries “thousands of miles away” from where it is located. He lamented oil blocks given to persons who did not live there, feel the people’s entrails, thumb the pulse of their poverty, deprivation and dreams.
No one could boo when he said oil majors were drawing wealth from beneath their earths but enjoying them in far-flung areas, in lavish life style while those who owned it only sniffed it, saw it, cringed at its environmental carnage, diseases and privations. In a similar interview with Governor Ifeanyi Okowa for my television show on TVC running on Saturday morning, the Delta State governor spoke on the decline of Warri and how the big companies, including Shell and Agip have packed up to Lagos and other safe havens. They only come to the place to tap oil and leave, their taxes are almost pittances. Agip, for instance, does half its business in Bayelsa but has no significant office there. This is selfish, cynical primitivity in the 21st century.
The oil majors are a leech on us. As a native, I weep for Nigeria, and condemn all governments that we have had for treating the people as lost causes while they lust like carnivores for our inheritance.
Said Dickson: “I do not know the business case that justifies the construction of expensive wells, expensive pipelines, crisscrossing rivers, creeks, rivulets and oceans from Bayelsa, Rivers, Delta, Edo, Ondo and Akwa Ibom down to several areas. I know but I don’t want to mention names. I am told that there are refineries being conceived and being built in Niger Republic.” Imagine: from Niger Delta to Niger Republic. Not a republican conscience, that move!
This is the story of legitimacy. As Dickson noted, it is not about exclusive ownership of the oil resources. Others must be welcome to enjoy the wealth anywhere in a federating unit. But the locals must get the pride of place. This is not the case when the majority of the valued workers in the oil firms are not from the Niger Delta. They make them welders, cleaners, labourers, an act of contemptuous tokenism.
Oil blocks go to those who have never moulded a block in the region. They see the Niger Delta like what the Jamaican writer John Hearne describes in his famous short story, Lost Country. Niger Delta is the lost country, where those who go and lust for gold but not the people’s good. It is where people go and never survive except those who control labour.
Oil blocks put the region on the chopping block.
If the advocates of the herdsmen’s rights to ancestral routes want to make their case, they should realise, as the Bayelsa State governor says, that “what you call an oil block is a piece of our ancestral property carved out by surveyors that you are giving away at our expense.”
Dickson marked his six years in office showcasing some of his doings like the revolutionary Ijaw Academy, the diagnostic centre, boarding schools, roads and bridges, sprawling fish farms, all need resources to raise his people from the backwaters. They need to use their resources while they have them.
Niger Delta is now Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Mr. Kurtz is the white man who represents the western, white interlopers, just like the herdsmen of rapine. The oil majors and their official collaborators come for the resources, while the inhabitants are dismissed as howling, dirty, ugly savages who should work for their leases and pleasure. I saw this when I visited the Niger Delta as a reporter for the African Concord, before insurgency blasted the nation. Gulf Oil, now Chevron in Arunton, was like a western suburb with electricity, pipe-borne water, television and other luxuries. The village beside them belonged to the middle ages, racked to a rump from exploitation. The youth had no jobs. The girls were whores for the white man. I wept, as I had to pass the night in a hut.
The story of the 21st century has been about bread and blood. Those who do not belong to my blood line should not have bread. That is the savage reality of our century, and it has thrown up Trump in the United States and herdsmen in Nigeria. Both are savages who exaggerate human divisions instead of addressing fair play and justice.
Dapchi girls, enemy’s poison
Nothing can justify the Dapchi girls story, not after we were irate that Goodluck Jonathan was dancing Azonto in Kano while the goons carted away our Chibok schoolgirls. It is not enough that the President does not deny it like Jonathan or calls it a disaster. That is no solace for the mothers and fathers and the community who threw stones as Governor Ibrahim Gaidam’s convoy whirred by.
Yobe Governor Gaidam may have displayed optimistic naivety with his first press statement celebrating the rescue of some girls. But the media was also naïve for using the word rescue when there was no narrative as to how it happened. Were there shootouts, casualties, arrests?
I accept Gaidam’s apology but not stories of our security forces who had no inkling of what was happening in a long stretch of land. No security forces saw trucks carrying many school girls, even if we accept that they came looking harmless into the town.
This is an era when the top men of Nigeria security forces are fighting turf wars in Abuja, while the president looks almost impotent.
Gaidam is taking responsibility for what belongs to the DSS and inspector general of police all under the presidency. The governor does not control the police or intelligence forces yet we call him the chief security officer. Hence some of our northern governors now back state police. Facts, Charles Dickens writes, is compelling.
Gaidam should save himself by naming those who misled his government. Or else he will bell another foe’s cat, or eat the enemy’s poison.