Urhobo Historical Society

Bala Usman:
The Picture and Portrait of a Parochial Prince

By Larry Arhagba

Professor, prince, historian, and eminent scholar, Dr Bala Usman was on a familiar terrain when he took the podium at the Bayero University Kano, the other day. To hundreds of students and others who had squeezed into the venue for the symposium, it was a time to listen anew to the master communicator and to have a deeper and more informed appreciation of the Nigerian polity.

It was also another opportunity for the professor of history, it seems, to put the last nail on the coffin of trouble makers and the growing army of resource control agitators that have irritated him for a while. The history teacher, no doubt, must have been impressed by his performance on both counts. Unquestionably intelligent, clever, passionate and driven, if Bala had problems in the past, it was not for lack of articulation

With his new theory on the geology of the formation of the Niger Delta oil has primary, secondary and may be tertiary producers. And -- the North, as the undisputed "primary oil producers" -- could lay claims to all oil wells in Nigeria, other parts of West Africa including the Cameroun and beyond. Ethnicity has no place in Nigerian politics. Land Use Decree, a military concoction which vested the ownership of land on the Federal Government was the best thing that ever happened to Nigeria. He ridiculed the claim for "resource control" by the oil producing states "as narrow and parochial outlook." Brimming with intellectual arrogance, the professor was deliberately provocative. Almost every reference he made to Niger Delta indigenes who are demanding a fair share of oil revenues had a tinge of animosity to it. He was and always the master of the game, and every now and again, he resorted to the tool, which had proved remarkably effective and durable for him for so long -- demagoguery..

If a man is a prince, a professor, and on first name basis with most of Nigerian former heads of state, then he is obviously next to Allah in the Nigerian context. Were it not so, the history teacher should have been summoned to answer a query or two about the findings of his curious oily research .Nor can this version of history be a boost to his beloved profession.. By this exercise, he merely played into the hands of critics who disparage history as a "tangled web of conflicting recollections". What a way to utilize the considerable talents of this scholar in the service of democracy and country !
Not for one moment during his speech did he spare Nigerians who share contrary views or demand "resource control" the sharp edge of his tongue ... Throughout, the compassionate tolerance of a reputable scholar was utterly lacking. He defied expectations on every score. He struck with laser quickness at those who think ethnicity carries much weight in Nigerian politics. Regionalism, the weapon which the Prince has wielded so deftly in time past, he says, has no relevance in Nigerian democracy. He downplays regional interests or affinity in Nigerian politics even though the driving force behind his recent "studies" were undeniably regional. Those who disagree with him lacked foresight and true knowledge of Nigerian history. Others were either ignorant, plain silly .or exhibiting " slave mentality." He threw jabs at dissenters from all directions. He punched away relentlessly and literally dared anyone to view things from different lens.

But Bala's presentation which is basically the Arewa position was not borne out of personal whims or sudden outbursts. It was focused, pointed, deliberate and well rehearsed. Nor was this a lonely enterprise. His comrades in research included like minded scholars and analysts of our center of excellence and scholarship, with the full complement of staff who were at the disposal of the powerful prince. The research, we were also told, was oven-fresh and hot and the strategic findings from the research laboratories of Nigeria's first rate research institution., Center for Democratic Research and Training, Mambayya House, Bayero University, Kano.

While Bala's strange findings may sit well with some in the North where the rakandede culture prevails, such views will not and cannot find fertile grounds in the South. Those who bleed from oil exploration cannot sit by idly and watch the history teacher pour acid into their gaping wounds. His latest thesis can only resonate with the hopelessly naïve who are on the wrong side of history. If Bala cannot see regionalism in Nigeria, even the blindfolded can point to it at every turn. Late Ahmadu Bello whom Bala says is his mentor saw a distinct North with crystal clarity. The Sarduana pointed to this distinction again and again in his life time. When Yakubu Gowon emerged on the National scene and introduced himself as "another Northerner," the young army officer was merely coming to terms with the Nigerian condition. and confronting the reality on the ground. At Aburi in Ghana, regionalism was the name of the game. These elements of regional differences or uniqueness do not and will not dissolve when you expose Nigerian demography to the light of day.

If any man or woman who lived  in Nigeria 50 years ago read Bala's recent contributions to the latest debate on" resource control" and other related issues, it would give the picture of another country and another system.. That sadly is the way of most Nigerian debates. Excuses, deceptions and denials are a standard fare even in the face of obvious culpability. Our experts who claim to have monopoly of knowledge use everything including a dizzying barrage of self serving data and charts to blur the picture and confuse the public. Distortions and misconceptions are hauled at the unsuspecting public. Deviousness is glorified and deliberate lies are considered an integral part of strategy. Our intellectuals and academics and public officers are terribly shortsighted. Like poor discoverers they tend to think there is no land if all the encounter for a while are expansive seas and rivers. They deny the existence of problems as if mere denials eliminate problems. Regional and ethnic politics, just as racism and bigotry, will not go away when we deny their existence, pretend and look the other way.

Bala clearly misreads the mood of the Delta communities if he thinks his misinformation campaign can turn back the hand of the clock of the struggle for an equitable derivation formula of oil revenues. Far away in his comfort zone in the North, Bala is not in the position to appreciate the terror in the lives of the indigenes of the oil producing environment. Delta indigenes wear the shoes and know where the shoes hurt. Oil production is a very emotional issue because it touches on the means of livelihood of the peoples. And the tragic history of oil exploration in Nigeria is well known. These peoples were mostly farmers, fishermen and traders long before the monster of oil exploration landed on their shores. . A typical housewife in Delta returns from her farm or market in the evening and dispatches her teenage daughter or son to the nearby stream or river to catch some fishes for dinner, while she turns around to prepare the family soup. In less than an hour, the daughter returns with a container filled with fresh fish for the soup which is eaten with eba, fufu, starch, rice, yam or plantains. Within moments the family settles down to a rich meal of fresh fish, replete with proteins, carbohydrates, and all the essential minerals needed for a healthy life.

Four decades of oil plunder has completely devastated their farmlands and aquatic life. Their lands, once their most cherished possession, have been reduced to quicksand. Today, the unmaintained oil pipes hovering above their heads like the sword of Damocles are mere tunnels of monsters and fire to speed their doom. And a familiar ritual such as going to the stream, hunting or similar adventure could turn sinister and lead to early grave. The peoples are inconsolable. They have endured every assault and deprivation and they are tearful.

Burnt farm lands, polluted air , streams and rivers, dark clouds of fumes and smokes that envelope the envelope the landscape.

Lung cancer, miscarriages, birth defects and other ugly turn outs are among the more familiar harvests. How can Bala far away in his safe haven in the North with his retinue of servants cutting capricious rakandede salute to him at every turn understand the plight of .these unfortunate peoples. ? How can the prince appreciate the state of unease and vulnerability under which these people spend their sleeping and waking hours.?.

Just as intriguing is Bala's frequent claim to democratic and progressive ideals. Those close to Ahmadu Bello University point to a powerful prince who rules with an iron fist even though he does not reign., a strategist who would organize a northern caucus to ensure a united northern voice and interests during university meetings. They point to a demeanor which screams out loud: "This is my domain. Have it my way or get out " To be sure former colleagues who crossed his path or scoffed at his reach have the scars to show for it. Continued tenure in ABU or any other neighboring university became mission impossible for them. And while these dons who trained in some of the best Universities in the world could not function at ABU or other strike-infested Nigerian Universities, they are basking in an exciting era of scholarly activism and contributing prodigiously to research and scholarship in other Netherlands.

The picture and portrait of Bala that emerges from all this is that of a parochial prince who tends to chill dissent, not a democrat or a progressive. Most of the greatest views of democracy from statesmen and scholars that I have read locate the power in the people, not in their tormentors. Says Sir Winston Churchill, the sovereign definition of democracy has not changed. It is government by the people and for the people. Woodrow Wilson points to its unstoppable, explosive energy. I believe in democracy, he says, because it releases the energy of every human being. And Albert Einstein was even more forthright: My political ideal is democracy. Everyone, he says, must be respected as an individuals, but not idolized. Nor is the bar for progressiveness any less. Progressiveness and stagnation go ill together. Progressives stand for total reforms in the liberal, social, political, and economic spheres.

At a time in the 21st century when nations all over the world are apologizing for past wrongs is it not a wonder that a Nigerian professor is romanticizing the cruel treatment meted to the Indians in America? .Even now the Indian question is on the surface of the American conscience and the thrust of research and government is not to dispute the Indian claims but to seek ways to relieve their distress and ensure their children have a better deal. No historian or archaeologist is posing the hilariously irrelevant question of land ownership. None throws aspersions on the Indians. Has Bala heard of all the moves to reconcile with the Indians, and all the various programs to mitigate their plight? Every day a noted scholar like Bala assail our ears with heartless phrases in his determination to re-write history especially at a time when the images of Yenogoa, Kiama, Ogoni Nine, Idjerhe and its environs are still seared in our collective memory, he peels away a little from his stature. .

. Government's tactics for dealing with the oil producing areas has not changed in 40 years-- hunt the "devils and the saboteurs," arrest and intimidate them, deployment of the police and military backed by helicopters, mount more check points on the highways and byways, step up the militarization of the oil producing areas and gang up with the oil companies and treat the oil producing areas as the common enemy. What follow are Government sponsored probes which tell the government all that they want to hear.

No nation on earth has as many natural and human resources as Nigeria, yet none is so afflicted by its leadership and intellectuals.

The case for the demand for the equitable distribution of the nation's oil revenue and its tumultuous turn did not happen overnight. As the ravages of oil exploration multiplied and the peoples started making representations to the powers that be, they were swiftly rebuffed. To break the will of the people innocent protesters have been slaughtered by the government that was supposed to protect them. When Late Isaac Adaka Boro, moved by the deteriorating condition of his people and his community, packed up his books, rolled up his trousers , stormed out of the University campus and gave a loud signal of the dangers ahead, his protests fell on deaf ears. And while each member of the Supreme Military Council, Nigeria's highest ruling body during the military era, had allocation of oil worth millions of dollars annually, cries and protests from the communities which sit atop the oil wealth were greeted with arrogance and indifference.

Since Olusegun Obasanjo came to Aso Rock new dynamics which we never witnessed in the past have since entered the Delta landscape. When in recent times Nigeria's maintenance inadequacies and the activities of oil bunkers started resulting in major accidents roasting Delta indigenes to death, the communities were again to blame even though evidence pointed to the use of sophisticated equipment which only the rich and the powerful, such as the military class, could afford. Our rulers instead of taking charge take refuge

The heart breaking reality is that the pipeline disasters are a horrific consequence of a chain of irresponsibility and callousness shared by the oil companies, oil barons and ultimately past and present Nigerian Governments.

Every time a pipeline accident happened President Obasanjo like others before him was quick to send the traditional condolence message to the Governor and the peoples of the Delta State. Nothing happens beyond these.

When pipeline fires swallowed over a thousand Idjerhe youths leaving a gaping crater in the community's spirit former military ruler, General Abubakar in full military regalia stormed Jesse and told the gathering mourning elders who were  pale, grey and stooped with age that they would not be compensated for the loss of their children in what went down as the worst public relations disaster by a head of state in living memory.

Right from when General Obasanjo indicated his interest for the presidency this time around, well meaning Nigerians saw his second chance as an opportunity for the apostle of land use decree to redress the ills of his own creation. Optimists predicted that his first move would be to rise above Abubakar's short-sightedness and seek some form of compensation for Idjerhe community, at least on moral grounds. Now we know better.

Why must Nigerian rulers and intellectuals like the Green Eagles Soccer Team always put up their worst performance when only the best would do? It is a sad irony that a man who came to office with the determination to soothe the pains of the oil producing areas as his proudest promise is today presiding over the bloodiest era in the nation's history of oil production. Odi was not an accident. The mission was calculated, deliberate, brazen, focussed and well rehearsed.

This sickening record of neglect, indifference and ill intentioned stereotyping cries for corrective action. The crude truth about crude oil production in Nigeria is that the Niger Delta peoples have been ripped off for so long.  Even if we were to accept Bala's version of the origin of settlers in Niger Delta, uninterrupted occupation of these lands for over a century confers the rights of ownership on the communities in Niger Delta.

Those who talk of resource control or the legitimate entitlements of oil revenue for Delta communities in academic terms miss the point. All the Delta State Communities are seeking is for the Federal Nigeria Government to give back to the communities and its peoples what it is daily sapping away. These hapless communities will no longer allow those who dim the lamp of freedom to have a field day.

They are now well aware that they need more than a lion's roar to stem the tide of deviousness and tyranny now engulfing the nation. The people have nothing to fear because they are already down. Nigeria will be the loser if this growing tendency to lionize mistakes continue. Nothing, not threats, intimidation, mischief, not even a bomb can extinguish the spirit and determination of the Delta peoples to press for their rights.