Vanguard Interview By Sam Onwuemeodo, Port Harcourt
November 28, 1999
HIS Royal Majesty, King Alfred Diete-Spiff was the military
governor of the old Rivers State, from 1967 to 1975. He was also a member
of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) under General Yakubu Gowon's administration,
King Diete-Spiff is an Ijaw from Bayelsa State, and currently, the Amayanabo
of Toun Brass, Bayelsa State. In this interview, he spoke on a number of
current national issues, including the causes of the youths restiveness
in the Niger-Delta, which he said, should be blamed on the
Abacha two-million-man march in his desperate bid to succeed himself. He spoke on the struggle of the Ijaw nationality and reasoned that the Ijaws had been so cheated in the Nigerian nation, and added that, of all the governments Nigeria had had, it was only governments of General Gowon (rtd) and late General Abacha respectively that had been fair to the Ijaws to an extent.
With the prevailing circumstances now, the Ijaws seem to have woken up from their slumber when did this Ijaw struggle actually start?
I like to see myself as a Nigerian and an international figure. And an Ijaw by tribe. But I believe that the whole idea of putting tribe first in Nigeria will one day become irrelevant. I don't need to see you as a Yoruba, Hausa or Igbo man. On your question, the Ijaw struggle as it stands now is worst than a potato. It has been a long outstanding struggle. It has been on since the time of Ernest Ikoli, an outstanding figure in the struggle for independence. But today, nobody has thought about him again, because he is an Ijaw man. The Ijaw man is always forgotten, but the tribe is the fourth largest in Nigeria after the main three ethnic tribes. The Ijaws are heavily marginalised, so the struggle for justice and fairness has been on.
No group fights without having reasons. What have been the philosophies of the Ijaw struggle?
You know the Ijaws are spread. They do not have enough concentration of people. So the philosophies of the struggle have been to have self-determination and resource control. If you have solid mineral, you control, but if you have liquid mineral, government controls it. What it means is that all the oil in the Niger-Delta belongs to the government. When cocoa was available, the West was controlling it because they had it. And there used to be Cocoa House. Th e East had palm oil. the North had groundnut. But when oil came, the government took it over. We had 50% derivation principle during the Gowon administration. I was a member of the Supreme Military Council in that government. When we were overthrown, the 50% derivation was removed. The assumption was that the Ijaws are nonentities, who are not entitled to any good thing. In the time of Shagari, we tried to get the derivation principle reestablished. Then 1.5% was given to the oil producing areas. It later became 3%, but it has never been implemented. So, the Ijaws see themselves as been grossly marginalised. They produce the money, but they don't touch the money. Every group wants to have a sense of belonging. There is need for the creation of more states for rapid development. How many cities have the Ijaws produced. Yenagoa came three years ago. There is nothing there, even light. The state has not been connected to the national grid. There is nothing extra-ordinary in the Ijaw struggle. Let us be fair to all concerned. Give to Caesar what is Caesar.
But the struggle seems to have taken a new dimension since the inception of the nascent democratic rule?
The struggle has been on. I have always said that the Ijaws should not be taken for granted. Isaac Boro created the Niger-Delta Republic before Biafra. We started before any other group in Nigeria. Systematically, we were edged out and we have lost everything. Our youths had been comporting themselves until Abacha had his two-million-man march in Abuja. the Niger Delta youths got to Abuja and saw wonderful structures, and said, o!, this is where our money is being used, while the government had continued to tell them that there was no money. The youths then believe that they are being taken for a ride. That is why you are seeing what you are seeing today. The Niger Delta people want their rewards now. the Ijaws want their reward now too. The country has taken the Ijaws for a ride.
The issues of kidnapping, killing and hijacking have become rampant among the Ijaw youths. Are these criminal acts part of the Ijaw struggle?
No. In every gathering, you get the over-zealous ones. Some people have released money for the struggle to continue, and the over-zealous ones want to be seen to be working. That is life. But it is most unfortunate. Government should do something to contain some of these problems before they get out of hand. I want the government to be doing something before the Niger-Delta bill is passed. The East-West road should have been dualised by now. the Ijaws have shown enough patience. They are known as very patient people. But now that they are talking, people are saying we are talking too much. We are not troublemakers. The Ijaws stood for, and will always stand for one Nigeria. So, kidnapping, hijacking and killing are not part of the Ijaw struggle. it should not be equated with the Ijaw struggle. They are being carried out by the over-zealous ones. The Ijaw youths had also helped to liberate people who were kidnapped by hoodlums and pirates.
How do you react to the alleged killing of police officers by Ijaw youths in Odi, Bayelsa state?
It is most unfortunate. But the police walked into a trouble spot, which they knew was being controlled by hoodlums and criminals. So, it was not the Ijaw youths that killed the police officers, but criminals dislodged from Yenagoa a month ago. So when the criminals saw the policemen, they felt they had come to attack them. Then they attacked the police first. it was not part of the Ijaw struggle. They died in active service. the culprits will be apprehended and be forced to face the music in line with the law. We have been patient for so many years. I left government in 1975. I had awarded a road to be built to Bonny, Nembe and Brass and another one from Akukuterai to other places like Etchee and Ndoni. But none of these roads has been built till date. And my government came to a close in 1975. Is that not enough patience. We have been on our knees begging at every level. It is just like a stammerer, who does not talk, but now wants to talk and people are saying he is talking too much. That is the case.
Some people seem not to be comfortable with the
approach adopted by the Niger-Delta especially their youths in prosecuting
their struggle. Other nationalities also complain of marginalisation, and
they appear to be more matured in their approach
You are wrong. We don't want the government to appear to be doing everything for us when nothing is being done. Give us the money due for us. Let us do our things the way we want. We asked for the Niger-Delta Trust Fund, and nobody did that. We would have been happier. Abubakar government was told that, and we thought he had bought the idea. But nothing at the end of the day. Gowon created Rivers State, and that was a single strike for the Ijaws. Next, General Abacha created Bayelsa State. The Ijaws are asking for more states to be created for them. Bayelsa State has only eight local government area, when every other state has more than fourteen. We were told to go and manage.
The sort of sophisticated weapons these restive youths have at their disposal, have made some people to believe that they are being sponsored by some prominent people in the area. Do you subscribe to this contention?
I do not know. But remember that the ECOMOG soldiers are back. And a lot of weapons are exchanging hands. So, some of these weapons must have fallen into the youths hands. The Ijaws had extended their patience since the death of Abacha, and they are still hoping that the Obasanjo government will be more understanding being a civilian and democratic government. The Ijaws had been patient all the years. They moved a local government headquarters from Ijaw area to another area. This is part of the marginalisation. So, it seems, the youths' patience is running out. We can only advice and we have been advising. But how long can we hang onto this charged up youths, who think we are part of the problem.
In the process of showing their anger they (youths) had also killed their own people. So, how do you reconcile such trend with the struggle against the marginalisation of the Niger-Delta region vis-a-vis the Ijaw nationality. For instance, the Ogoni police officer killed by Odi youths?
They did not kill the policeman. It was criminals that killed them. And they did not kill them because they were from this or that place. The police dislodged the criminals, who came from various tribes. And they saw the policemen as agents of the government that didn't want them to exist. they had no living place than the market where they were dislodged, and that was how they got to Odi. they were able to settle in Odi. The police went to dislodge them again. And you can not dislodge them until they commit a crime. The policemen went and were ambushed by the criminals who then used them as human shields.
What do you think can be done to bring the Ijaw struggle vis-a-vis the struggle of any other group in the Niger-Delta to an end?
Justice and fairplay. This is the best healer. Give the
Ijaws their due. A dog with a bone in his mouth does not open its mouth.
the Ijaws want to be in full control of their resources or enough to make
the territory passable and livable. Something needs to be done and urgently
too. Not words. We won't eat words. We the older ones are patient. But
we are not too sure of the young ones, because they have got such inelastic
patience, showing that some of us should be commended for patience and
durability. Give us what is due for us, the problem will be over. We are
not asking for what is not ours or due for us. We are demanding for what
is ours, and due for us from every basic principle. No principle says,
you produce and do not eat. You produce and eat. That is the basic principal
of life. But in Nigeria, those who produce do not eat. The reverse is entirely
the case. And that should
not be the case.
The President has threatened to declare a state of emergency in your state, Bayelsa. The ultimatum given to Governor Alamieyseigha just expired last Wednesday. Do you think such step would serve any useful purpose?
No. I think the Federal Government should hasten slowly with regard to the threat of declaring a state of emergency. In Bayelsa State, there are seven local government areas not affected by the Odi crisis. Odi is only in one local government area out of the eight in the state. We are all worried in Bayelsa State, as the president and his men are in Abuja. We are equally embarrassed. The President should exercise caution. I am happy that actions are being taken to get some first aid action. I believe the President is into the task. He is the father of the nation, of every family.
How do you rate oil and multi-national companies in terms of contributions to the development of their host communities?
With the issue, don't forget that the Federal Government is a senior partner of the oil companies. The oil companies are only operators. They take cover under the Federal Government because they believe that they are paying much to the Federal Government. There is no law compelling the oil companies to do anything for their host communities. It is left for the companies to use their judgement or discretion in doing that. What the host communities ought to do is to negotiate and dialogue. A beggar has no choice. Unfortunately we have been reduced to that level of being beggars. We do not blame our marginalisation on the companies. It is not compulsory that they should develop their areas of operation, but they should know that it is always recommendable. The host communities should only talk with the companies, and make them see reasons for such steps to be taken. This must be understood and made clear to the people of the region.
Lack of proper coordination or unity of purpose seems to be the problem with the Ijaw struggle. They seem to be singing discordant tune in their struggle for self-determination and resource control. What is your reaction?
If some people say they want eba, and others say they want garri, the summary is that they want food. the place needs development, and the people said give us our due, let us develop ourselves. Ideally, we are saying give us full control of our resources, if we squander it, we come back as prodigal son, and you can then treat us the way you like. But in this case, we are not in control of our resources and nothing is being given to us from what is realised from the sale of our resources, to enable us develop our place. We are not asking for what does not belong to us. But we are asking for what is ours. Even the Niger-Delta Development Commission Bill, (NDDC) is a means to an end and not an end itself.
OMPADEC was there, what happened?
The money meant for the Commission was used for Abacha's self-succession campaign, and the commission became crippled. Modification was its worst problem. it would have been allowed to stay. But some people wanted it killed because PTF had been scrapped. So, let the bill be passed so that certain things can be put together, and that also depends if the right people are selected to operate it.
People have continued to complain about the structure of the country. As an Ijaw man, what is your view about the Nigerian nation?
Nigeria is a collection of a lot of tribes and nationalities until we have respect for each other, and given our due, forever, there will be no lasting peace or progress. When one set of people are being robbed and the money got from the area, is being used of others, then the country suppose not to have a name, and the crisis will go on until the good Lord says, stop. We are one people, and we want to remain as one. But give the beggar his due. So, what is good for Nigeria is a true federation where resources go back to the area of origin. The natural oil for instance, no national station in Brass, Nembe or anywhere in the area. None in Yenagoa. No central bank, no prison, etc in Yenagoa, or have we not asked for all these. the Ijaw man is treated as the troublemakers. But now, they are trying like a stammerer to say a word. Give the beggar a chance. But we are the providers of all that have kept Nigeria moving, and we allowed our resources to be used to develop everywhere, excluding the area that produces the resources. We produce, we don't touch what we produce. We must continue to say it even at the risk of being misunderstood.
How do you react to the military operation in Odi, Bayelsa State?
The government ordered in the soldiers, and the government should also order them out when they are satisfied. You can not intimidate any one from asking for his rights. But the troops are not in Odi to intimidate any one but to enforce law and order. That is my belief. Nigeria is a sleeping beauty waiting to receive the kisses of life.
The crisis in the Niger-Delta region has been blamed on the military seen to have squandered Nigerian wealth all these years. Do you share this contention?
No. the military had never run a dictatorial government. The question is, how military was a military government. The bulk of the operators were civilians - advisers, ministers and otherwise. The entire machinery for executing decisions were civilians. How many military officers were permanent secretaries or directors, were there? True, we have few military millionaires, but how many civilian millionaires. No point saying the military was heinous. The Niger-Delta problem should be treated an emergency matter. Let there be first aid, first. This is why there is need for a sovereign national conference. There has to be one. There is need for it. We need to look at certain issues, and decide the way to handle such issues.
We the Ijaws would like other Nigerians speak out for us. The impression is that other tribes are ganging up to dispossess us of our possession and wipe us out. Some of my friends have jokingly asked me whether we would like to be resettled in other lands, so that the whole of Niger-Delta will be for oil operation. But it is not laughable.
The fear is that all these crises in the Niger-Delta could lead to the breaking up of the country if the situation is not brought under control...?
God forbid. The civil war would have been in vain. But
as they say in politics no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.
But you can pick your own friends, and you can not pick your brothers or
sisters. So as Nigerians we are lumped together for better for worse. And
we should learn to be each other's keepers. But I am proud to be an Ijaw