For Immediate Release
Tuesday, December 14, 1999
IGNITING THE HAYSTACK IN ORDER TO SECURE A LOST NEEDLE
The British colonial army's siege on Benin City in 1897
was called "punitive expedition" by historians and others because of the
timing, intent and consequences after the raid. More than one hundred years
later, another punitive expedition ordered by a Nigerian at Nigerians in
Odi town in Bayelsa State, took place on Saturday, November 20, 1999. President
Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo sanctioned the siege because of what he called
"threat to law and order" in Bayelsa State in his crude, crass and
condescending letter to the Bayelsa State Governor some days earlier. The devastation of Odi and its brutal transformation to an eerie, desolate wasteland is unconscionable. Odi community members are classic victims of a jungle justice. It is the height of malfeasance for any government to condemn an entire community to death and destruction because of a culpable act by a few in that community.
To apprehend the "militant youthful terrorists" was like looking for a needle in a haystack, given that they naturally are more familiar with the topography and terrain in which they were operating. Which is why, up to this moment, President Obasanjo could not tell the world unequivocally that his punitive expedition yielded the expected result which was to apprehend the youths and bring them to justice. The official statement that federal troops have "...finally succeded in dislodging [the youths] from the town" is not consistent with President Obasanjo's earlier mandate (in his uncivil letter to Governor Alamieyeseigha) to "arrest the killers" because they committed the murders in broad day light and "it should be quite easy, therefore, to arrest the killers".The culprits were undoubtedly a menace to the society. They are verily a discordant note in the symphony of righteous agitation by a people for a virtuous cause. Bayelsans in particular and Nigerians in general, therefore, have a right to a categorical pronouncement about their status--whether all of them or only some of them were killed, captured or whether all of them escaped during the confrontation. The moral platitude contained in President Obasanjo's infamous letter to the Governor of Bayelsa State about the need for "security of our dear country" and the necessity to "protect law-abiding citizens" also imposes a legitimate obligation on him to tell Nigerians and the rest of the world that his soldiers have, indeed, captured or killed the culprits. Assuming the youths escaped (as it appears to have been to embarrass President obasanjo), is he going to repeat his "kill-and-destroy" order to ravage Agbere, Odoni, Sampou and other neighbouring towns where they might, for reasons of proximity, be spotted while seeking refuge in the wilderness? Utterly reprehensible as the youths' conduct are, President Obasanjo's action equally evokes righteous moral outrage as he ignites the rancher's haystack in an effort to secure a lost needle.
Current unrest in the Niger Delta in general and the geographic area known as Bayelsa State in particular, is the result of years of criminal neglect arising from repressive decisions to which President Obasanjo is a party by virtue of his ethnicity and also his (previous) profession as a soldier. The "threat to law-and-order" in Bayelsa State, therefore, has been in gestation for several decades. President Obasanjo has a rare second chance to undo the damage he wrought upon people of the Niger Delta for promulgating the detestable "Land Use Decree" and other repressive edicts while being the Hausa-Fulani-guided military Head of State. Instead, he has chosen to repeat another "Operation Tail Wind", thus, confirming his propensity for brutality and predisposition to impel deference to him. Typical of his predecessors within the "Big Three" who have misruled Nigeria since Independence, riding roughshod over the Ijaw and most other ethnic minority groups is a golden, unbroken, unwritten rule.
To many Nigerians, it is superfluous to say that the political machinery in Nigeria has always been structured to favour the Hausa-Igbo-Yoruba triad. The "threat to law-and-order" is the "baby" delivered of the political alignments, gerrymandering and indeed, logrolling that characterised politics of the "Big Three". The resulting statutes, decrees and edicts since independence have systematically created and sustained two distinctive gates for a supposedly monolithic federation. One is an exhilarating revolving access door to the treats and trappings of power and privilege exclusive to the "Big Three" and the other, a daunting and traumatizing trap-door into which the Ijaw and others assigned the "minority" status have been pushed.
To remove the butt hinges of this trap-door which seems like a Divine encumbrance has brought out the best and worst in the strategy and endeavour to be free, acknowledged and respected. For decades, the Ijaw and others in the Niger Delta have constantly initiated avenues for peaceful dialogue with successive rulers of the country. For decades they were ignored at worst, or at best, issued "bad cheques" like the Niger Delta Development Board (NDDB), Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC), or the current Niger delta Development Commission (NDDC) which is another "bad cheque" about to be issued. The abhorent manipulation of the "derivation formula" to the detriment of the Ijaw and others in the Niger Delta, laws like the "Petroleum Act" of 1969 and Obasanjo's 1978 "Land Use Decree" are among the numerous morally reprehensible laws that perpetuate inequity. Understandably, President Obasanjo has not made any public statement specifically addressing these laws which, in effect, articulate "what belongs to the triad is theirs and what belongs to people of the Niger Delta also belongs to the rulling triad".
Ironically, there are whimpers of "marginalization" within the triad, allegedly due to the structure of the current dispensation; cries about not being able to effectively dance and prance on the table of wealth and opportunity reverberate. The Ijaw and others in the Niger Delta, on the other hand, have been literally incapacitated with the handicap of having no legs. So, the prospect for reaching the table, not to talk of dancing on it seems nil because President Obasanjo has also clearly demonstrated that he is steadfast in maintaining the status quo. In other words, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Hence the struggle will endure and inevitably bring out the worst in humans.
The decision to send more than 2,000 armed soldiers with scores of armoured tanks and trucks to Odi, equally brings out the worst in humans. President Obasanjo knew quite well that a massive loss of innocent lives and destruction of property would be the inevitable outcome. Once again, it confirms a typical unbridled disdain for the Ijaw and the assumption that as far as Nigeria's rulers are concerned, the Ijaw and other ethnic groups in the Niger Delta could easily be dispensed with while their mineral resources are indispensable. Which is why Kaiama, Choba, Yenagoa, Umuchem or Odi have been killing fields for President Obasanjo and his predecessors' military tanks and troops, mandated to kill, maim, and destroy all in the name of "keeping law and order" but in fact designed to keep the oil wells open for unimpeded suction. Regarded as a dispensable people, President Obasanjo does not care whether Choba is in Rivers State or Bayelsa State so long as the oil wells keep spouting in Choba. Considered as dispensable and perceived as culturally subordinate group of people, it does not matter to Obasanjo if he obtrusively disrespects the cultural norms of the Ijaw. For a culturally-relevant and appropriate chant during a visit to Port Harcourt, President Obasanjo demanded an undeserved apology from Ijaw youths who echoed the chant. Apart from the insensitivity and political-incorrectness of such an action, it is another demonstration of the ankle-high esteem in which President Obasanjo, like his predecessors, holds for the Ijaw and her culture. All cultures have certain norms, observed as an imperative at certain occasions. A caring, sensitive leader would do his homework to be familiarised with some of the fundamental customs of the host prior to the trip. And when in doubt, such a leader would certainly be more diplomatic rather than explode with a fit of anger coupled with denigrating remarks like "look at his Ijaw-man face" like President Obasanjo made.
When people are so unjustly trampled upon for decades upon decades, it is not unusual for the angels and other forces to join them in the fight for survival just as some hitherto silent prominent Nigerians and organizations from the other ethnic groups are now speaking out against the egregious inequity. The town of Odi and its community will triumph. The Ijaw and other ethnic groups in the Niger Delta will certainly remove the butt hinges of the detestable trap-door. It is, indeed, time for a Sovereign National Conference.
Dr. Joseph Miebi Ebiware.
North Adams, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
Affiliated Associations: Ijaw Peoples Association Of Great Britain & Ireland,
Ijaw National Alliance Of The Americas - INAA, Ijaw Forum Germany, Izonebe
Group - Japan, Izon Ebi Association - Washington DC, Izon Association Of
Greater Kansas - Kansas City, USA - Niger Delta Sister Cities (KC - PH)
Foundation, Kansas City, Ijaws Of Northern California - INCAL, Izon
Association Of Southern California, Izon Ibe Association - Michigan, Ijaws in
Canada, Ijaw United Fund - Houston, Texas, Ijaw American Caucus -
Minneapolis/St Paul, Bayelsa State Union - Georgia, Independent Members.