"WHAT THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
OF NIGERIA IS DOING IN THE NIGER DELTA
November 23, 1999
President Olusegun Obasanjo
Head of State
Federal Government of Nigeria
Aso Rock, Abuja
Your Excellency President Obasanjo:
WHAT THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT OF NIGERIA
IS DOING IN THE NIGER DELTA IS WRONG
I am a Nigerian currently living in North America. I have held a few leadership positions among Nigerians who reside in North America. However, I want to make it clear that I am writing this letter to you on my own behalf as a citizen of Nigeria. I also want to acknowledge that I hail from the western Niger Delta, which is currently troubled by circumstances that existed long before your current presidency began. I may add, as I stated publicly several times long before it became fashionable to speak on your behalf, that we all need you to succeed because the alternative to your successful tenure as President may well be catastrophic for Nigeria.
I have said in several places that the Niger Delta is one region of the country that will test your presidency’s capabilities to govern. The reasons for that statement are two-fold. First, the accumulated problems of the Niger Delta are formidable for any Government, even if it was interested in resolving them. For a cash-hungry Federal Government, it is easy to become agitated if the prime source of its revenue in the oil resources of the Niger Delta were ever threatened. Second, the Niger Delta is a region of the country against which a Federal Government can be tough and arbitrary and yet get away with such an act of bad governance. This is because it is the quintessential minority region of Nigeria.
Permit me to elaborate on each of these reasons for suggesting that you should pay greater attention to the problems of the Niger Delta. Nigeria is able to hold itself together today only because its enormous petroleum oil wealth comes exclusively from regions of powerless minority ethnic groups. If this source of wealth were located in lands owned or controlled by the powerful Fulani or Yoruba establishments, Nigeria would long have been torn apart. In my way of viewing Nigerian affairs, this means that the Niger Delta is a blessing to Nigeria. It is sad, however, that the exploitation of this enormous wealth has become a curse to the peoples of the Niger Delta. Most of the billionaires and millionaires in Nigeria in the post-Civil War era made their money from petroleum oil, mostly through means that are nationally and internationally considered crooked. Lagos, Nigeria’s old capital city, was built into a megapolis from oil resources. Abuja, Nigeria’s new splendid capital, is the consequence of oil wealth. Other cities like Kaduna have benefitted as well.
Such consequences of oil wealth might be morally tolerable if the people from whose lands this diverse wealth is made had not been so brutalized. The waterways of the Ijaws and Itsekiri have been turned into visible polluted water that earns a new term of “sludge.” The lands of the Urhobos, Isokos, and Ukwuanis – to count areas of the less-publicized western Niger Delta – are littered by Shell BP’s fire-traps. Where else can a thousand innocent persons, some working in their own farms, be roasted to death, as happened in Idjerhe on October 17, 1998, from a petroleum oil fire, without any sense of responsibility to the victims of such a massive accident from their own Government, except in the Niger Delta? We acknowledge that that horror occurred during military rule. But eleven months later at Ekakpamre in the same region, under your Government’s watch, a vast acreage of lands, waterways, animals, fish farms, boats, etc., were destroyed by fire resulting from decrepit equipment owned by Federal Government’s major partner, Shell BP. Many in the Niger Delta say that such horrors would not be tolerated if they had occurred in areas owned by Nigeria’s powerful ethnic groups.
The great disappointment for many people in the Niger Delta is that the anxious peoples of the region probably reposed too much faith in the transition to a civilian rule as a source of a turn-about in their circumstances. Many of us had hoped that a civilian regime would quickly show some sign that it was interested in solving the huge problems of the area. It does not take much to establish good faith in the Niger Delta. On the contrary, there is now a widespread view in the Niger Delta that this area is not of much concern to your new government. If this is not the case, then many of your well-wishers are baffled as to why you have not bothered to correct that impression. Or is it just possible that strategically, it is unwise to pay attention to the Niger Delta’s pressing problems before satisfying the needs of the more powerful ethnic groups? For better or for worse, history will record that the first major act of your Government in the Niger Delta region is mass punishment rather than attending to problems of its disadvantaged masses.
I have read Your Excellency’s letter to the Governor of Bayelsa State threatening a state of emergency, several times. It will be analyzed for years in Nigerian political science. Needles to say, lawlessness in any region of the country is bad. Strong governments would move to arrest the perpetrators of the heinous act of killing twelve policemen. But Your Excellency’s letter admits that the Government is not strong enough to arrest these people. Instead, it is deploying an invasion army. Can we be assured that the victims of the invasion are those who killed the policemen? Is there not a sense here that everyone in the culprits’ hometown is condemned? We assume that the police who died in the line of duty will be buried with honors, with their names known, as they fully deserve. Can your Government, Mr. President, assure Niger Deltans that a full list of those killed in the region as a result of this military action will be published? Can your Government, Mr. President, assure us all that there will be no mass graves and that those killed and wounded by Nigerian Military Forces will be buried and treated by their relatives? Will there be an independent confirmation of those killed? It is painful for a person like me to be asking these questions of my own Government. But trust in the justice and honesty of Government has been declining in the Niger Delta for quite a while.
I am particularly attracted to the portion of Your Excellency’s letter concerning the anger in the National Security Council over the death of the twelve policemen. We wonder how many of these people in that privileged body are from the Niger Delta. The whole scenario reminds one of colonial times. Your government seems so distant from these people in the Niger Delta. Was there any consultation with their elected representatives other than the governor who was “invited” before that august National Security Council?. We fear, Sir, that Abuja is treating Niger Deltans as conquered and colonized peoples.
The best comparison for the circumstances facing Niger
Deltans is from colonial times. Of all the European acts of conquest and
colonization in Africa none were as harrowing as the experiences of the
Congolese people who lost close to half their population during King Leopold
II’s reign of terror in the “Congo Free State.” The problem of the Congolese
people was that they had the vastest deposits of the most valuable resources
of any lands that Europeans conquered. Niger Deltans’ chief problem is
that they have precious resources which your Government needs. Many Deltans
doubt that members of your National Security Council would worry very much
if the unfortunate and condemnable incident of the murder of twelve policemen
had taken place in Modakeke-Ife in Yorubaland where there are no minerals
to mine. I know that you are a God-fearing man and a patriot. I am sure
that any comparison with the Congolese experiences during the evil reign
of Leopold II will sound odd to you. But we urge you to put yourself in
the place of Niger Deltans. Maybe in the future you will calm down your
National Security Council, urging its members that mass punishment of a
whole people for the wrong acts of a few
of their youth is not compatible with good government.
What Is the Solution?
Niger Deltans are accommodating in matters affecting the integrity of Nigeria. They have sacrificed agreat deal for the country. The recent invasion of Bayelsa by the Military Forces should remind us all that the bad days of military rule are not far away from our affairs. Rather than bemoan forever what your National Security Council has wrought in Bayelsa State, we should strive to ensure that constitutional government returns to Nigeria permanently.
One of the most vexing constitutional problems in the country is the centralization and militarization of the Nigeria Police Force. There is no federation of Nigeria’s size anywhere with a single police formation. There is no reason why the Federal Government should monopolize the control of the police forces. Unless the states are allowed by the constitution to build their own civilian police forces, it will be morally wrong to blame a State Governor for not maintaining law and order. The Nigeria Police Force should attend only to federal policing functions. It can hardly be blamed for becoming so grossly inefficient when its responsibilities spread from settling little quarrels between husbands and wives to grave state security matters.
In this regard, Mr. President, we are alarmed by the recent pronouncements of Mr. Jemibewon, your minister in charge of police matters. He was reported as saying that your Government might invite the international oil companies to assist it in the training of the Nigeria Police. We in the Niger Delta feel utterly threatened and offended by such suggestions. The international oil conglomerates have already done a lot of damage in the Niger Delta. Many of us in the Niger Delta find it painful that our Government feels no shame in proposing to ask foreign companies, which have been accused of heinous acts against various communities in the Niger Delta, for help in the matter of training Nigeria Police Force. By the way, such arrangements permitting mining companies to participate in the maintenance of law and order were common during the last decade and a half of the nineteenth century and during the first decade of our fading twentieth century in Leopold II’s Congolese colony which he called “Congo Free State.”
I have raised many questions in this letter. As of now in the Niger Delta, there are more questions than answers. We hope that your Government will be able to retrace its steps and plot some meaningful answers. But let them be the answers of a free people. We pray that your Government will be granted the wisdom to treat Niger Deltans as free peoples, not as peoples conquered and colonized by the establishment forces sitting in the National Security Council in Abuja.
I wish you God’s guidance and good governance for the
remainder of your terms in office.
Professor Peter P. Ekeh
State University of New York at Buffalo