A Tear For The Niger Delta
Francis Kizito Obeya
Sometime in the first quarter of this year, the National Geographic magazine did a story on the Niger Delta titled:Nigerian oil, Curse of the Black Gold: Hope and Betrayal in the Niger Delta. Around this period as well, this author was honored to meet three wonderful Americans who, incidentally, have read the same article via the National Geographic. 'You are from Nigeria! Oh, by the way I read this story about the Niger Delta and ...' can be summed up as the nature of our conversation. A topic like this instantly makes one the spokesperson for the South-South (my people call themselves the Middle Belt, these days), regaling strangers with stories about the region that supplies the bulk of the nation's wealth still remains the poorest, the least developed and a perpetual loser in a vicious love-hate relationship between its communities and the Federal government-multinational companies alliances. In telling the story of the Delta, one is forced to explain the saga of corrupt governments; be they federal, state and local; of fragmented communities and their opportunistic chiefs and elders; and of oil companies like Shell and Chevron which must squeeze out profits from this shark tank of a divided house for its oft ignorant shareholders. Furthermore, in telling the tale of the Delta, one must make a place for MEND, MOSOP, for Isaac Boro, for Ken Saro-wiwa , for Asari Dokubo, Shell, Chevron (yes, again) and the kidnapping of foreigners (including three year old babies.) This long and complicated epic will of course not be complete without a mention of OMPADEC and NDDC or any other stillborn initiative concocted by government but failed to meet the expectations of the people in the Delta.
I was opportune to visit Port Harcourt in 1997 during my ATBU days. The object of my trip was in search of an opportunity to serve as an intern in any of the oil companies that existed in that state which either explored for oil or provided required services for the ones that did the explorations. One of my major observations was the lack of potable water in a state that was practically named after the liquid stuff. So frequent was my purchase of water that I was reminded of Achebe's Chike and the River in which a frugal personality in that prose was described as 'living near the ocean but washing his hands with spittle.' I also found it ironic that although water ran on the streets of Bauchi which is nearer the Sahara than the Atlantic , I had to pay good money for it in the capital of Rivers State which is awash with tributaries that fed the great ocean.
Had the world been a fair place, the streets of the Niger Delta would have been paved with gold. It would have been a model region, lacking nothing by way of good roads, potable water, boasting of electrified towns and villages ; a high percentage of educated people, low infant mortality; a reassuring Federal presence (no, not soldiers sacking Odi) and an excellent quality of life. Had the world been a fair place the children of the Delta should not have had to lack anything in the semblance of poverty, unemployment and general marginalization in their own lands. But alas! We live in an unjust world and the only song the Delta sings is that of deprivation, of poverty, of murdered sons and daughters; denied opportunities; litanies of dashed hopes and broken promises, frustrations and stillborn dreams; of fishermen, dead fishes and a polluted river.
Why should my eyes water for the Niger Delta? the unconcerned will ask, I am neither Ijaw, Ogoni, Ikwerre, Andoni ,Igbo nor any of the tribes that fall under the demarcation of the Niger Delta, why should I bother?Although these claim may have some truths to them when it boils down to geography and regions, the rest of us must realize that something greater than political geographies and tribalism is here and must grab the attention of every Nigerian. Since the Niger Delta is a bread basket from which we have all eaten, it is the responsibility of every Nigerian to clean that basket and preserve it. This writer must also point out that in our short history; we observe that each time we display nonchalance towards any events that occurs in one section of the country, a domino effect often occurs which results in another event that will eventually sweep through the whole country. Take for example, the events that led from the majorsf coup to the civil war, the pilfering of June 12 mandates to the consequent despotism and dictatorship of Sani Abacha. Along the same lines, one can only wonder where the happenings in the Delta will lead. Furthermore, we must remember that the region hosts a kaleidoscope of races from the world over and an escalation of hostilities (yes, the children of the Delta want their oil back) will be felt on a global scale. In all honesty, had we been truly our brother's keepers, the children of the Delta would not have taken up arms struggle for any reason. Each passing day, the militancy of MEND brings nearer home the desperation and frustration that afflicts the Niger Delta.
We must also bear in mind that a tear for the Delta is a tear for all Nigerians, lamenting wasted years, wasted resources and wasted opportunities. Tears over years of corruption that have seen public funds diverted into private hands. Tears of failed projects and policies, poor infrastructure, shortsightedness of national leaders and the despair which accompany their leadership. Aye! The Delta laments as do the rest of us.
An outcry should be raised by the international community on account of the goings on in the Niger Delta just as issues like Darfur , Rwanda , Iraq and Somalia have grabbed world's attention. The situation needs not degenerate to unmanageable levels before the world realizes that a ticking time bomb is the Niger Delta. However quick reactions have never been a characteristic of the international community (some of them want Nigeria to break up anyways,) and hence we must wait for events to spiral out of control in the Niger Delta before the world raises eyebrows. The question that watchers and experts are failing to ask is where will this lead? The attacks on facilities, the kidnapping of oil workers (and yes, three-year olds), the call to arms in the south, what will come out it?
Nigeria is an amalgamation of hundreds of tribes and for years the South has been decrying its marginalization by the government (we all are, actually.) The Niger Delta sticks out as a sore thumb as evidence of this marginalization. As generations succeed previous ones, children brought up in poverty amidst plenty can only be filled with the conviction that the only way to win a share of the national cake must be through brute strength, armed struggle and, militancy, thus lending credence to the words of the late John Fitzgerald Kennedy: "They who make peaceful changes impossible make a violent revolution inevitable." This should not be the case in a fair and equitable society.
It is the hope of this author that the Niger Delta become the foremost priority of the present regime (no, not because Goodluck Jonathan comes from there.) President Yar'Adua must work to ensure a comprehensive identification and understanding of all the problems facing the Niger Delta (and the rest of us) and take honest and convincing steps to provide lasting solutions to these problems. This is the only way to defuse the ticking time bomb that is the Niger Delta.