Urhobo Historical Society

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Friday, October 19, 2001

 Meandering Pains of Resource Control

By Mark Nwagwu

Mark Nwagwu is Professor of Zoology at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria

IT must have happened to you at some time. You are enjoying a meal, hand, mouth and swallowing all well co-ordinated. You roll a ball of eba or iyan, immerse it in the draw-draw, okro soup laden with chunks of goat meat, stock-fish and dry fish, scoop some vegetables onto the ball, everything firm in your grasp. You then swirl and swirl the ball a few times to 'cut' threads of okro threatening your immaculate white shirt. Somewhere along the way, between hand and mouth, something goes wrong! Just as you steady your hold to deliver the bolus into its gaping destination, the whole thing mindlessly slips off your fingers on to the floor. While all this is going on, however, the hungry mouth, believing it has wolfed down the iyan now delectably shuts its gates. But alas! there is really nothing there, no satisfaction. You feel empty. This is something akin to how the inhabitants of the Niger Delta must feel. The oil in their backyard just slips off their fingers into the greedy federal account. Do the rest of us really care how the people of the Niger Delta feel? Are we not laughing all the way to Abuja, there to share the booty from oil? After all, the rest of us are in a majority and when we cast lots, the majority carries the day (or is it the oil), is that not democracy?

I recall one evening at the Staff Club, University of Ibadan, just after Gen. Babangida had announced the creation of Delta State with the capital at Asaba. Professors David Okpako and Peter Ekeh were extremely bitter and wailed and wailed over Asaba being the capital instead of Warri. They, like other Urhobo-Itsekiri-Ijaw Deltans felt this was clearly a 'bedroom' decision influenced by the President's beguiling spouse, Miriam, who is from Anioma. The people of Anioma had urged the government for a state, instead they got the capital of Delta State. That same evening, another friend from Anioma was ecstatic though not before Peter and David. "We'll use the oil money to develop Asaba," he exulted. I felt very sorry for my friends, the real Deltans. Nothing, no argument however well constructed, no reason, no appeal would assuage their gross disaffection. They saw this as one more case of the 'majors' imposing their will and their way on the 'minors.' As Godfrey Ekikerentse wondered, in The Guardian of June 29, "what difference would the form of a federal/state structure make to the people of an oil producing area of a state, if the revenue from their oil became controlled by the state but ended up being squandered or used in developing places other than their areas within the state?"

Nigeria is blessed with great minds, more so with patient, longsuffering and self-giving mothers and with ingenious technicians and artisans  call them 'mechanics.' No one talks about controlling these priceless resources or how best to put them to use. Perhaps the only control one would hear would be how husbands should control their wives and get them to do their bidding (or is it the other way round?) And yet the most vital resource we have is our human capacity  our people  and we just let this waste away or run off to foreign lands. Peter Ekeh, one such illuminating resource now lights up the intellectual landscape of New York University at Buffalo. He is someone to listen to, absorb and digest. His recent writings in The Guardian on the absence of a national consciousness as especially illustrated by the internecine fights over resource control are a masterpiece. We have such opinions expressed frequently in diverse ways in our dailies but none has set the problem precisely within the context of personal animosities emanating from our blind devotion or loyalty to our respective ethnic nationalities. Put differently, Peter Ekeh clarifies that our belonging to different ethnic groups need not cloud our sense of fairness and national consciousness.

The issue of fairness is not easy to adjudicate on. The Federal Government in its hasty and insatiable appetite for the 'black gold' has asked the Supreme Court to rule on the ownership of the littoral areas of Nigeria. However you look at it, the issue is not so much a matter of legal systems or judicial rulings. It is much more a matter of simple fairness. 'Justice as fairness' has been discussed by the 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics, Amartya Sen who, in a brilliant series of lectures at the World Bank, showed that the issue of a theory of justice is very much at the heart of the concerns of economic development. He also appropriately showed just how complex the issues become when we know more and more about them. Indeed the problems of fairness have been troubling philosophers for centuries. The dilemma is summed up in a beautiful story told by Amartya Sen in which he suggests that we meet three children, and between them, they have but one flute. The children ask us to arbitrate who should get the flute.

Child A says: "I have no toys at all, and these other two children, B and C, have enormous amounts of toys, and surely I should be entitled to have the flute." The facts are correct, and not contested by children B and C. If that is all of the information we have, we would probably say yes, Child A should get the flute. But let us hold off and go back to the same three children with the flute. Child B. says: "In fact, I am the only one who has any musical talent. I can play the flute, these other two children cannot. I have to express myself as a musician. They enjoy listening to me. Both of them only blow on it as a whistle. They have no capacity to use it whatsoever. I should really get the flute." Once again, this is not contested by A and C and if this was all the information we had, we would say B should get the flute. But let us go back. We come to the three children and Child C says to us: "Look, I am the one who made the flute, and it is mine, why should somebody take it from me after I have made it?" Again, the argument is very compelling, and it not disputed by the others. And again, if that is the only information we have, we would say Child C should get the flute." Now, what we have here are three perceptions of the issue of fairness that touch upon principles that we technically refer to as equity, utility, and entitlement, within certain capability domains. But whatever the case, whether or not we can come up with a definitive answer is not as important as recognising that we must engage these problems, that we cannot turn our backs on them.

Let us follow the analogy of the three children, A, B and C. In our context, Child C would be represented by the states of the Niger Delta: the oil is in their waters and, therefore, should belong to them. Ah, but wait, the rest of us query, is the oil really theirs? Does not section 44(3) of the constitution unquestionably give the right of ownership to the Federal Government? Is this not why the Federal Government has gone to court, seeking a legal pronouncement on the ownership of oil reserves offshore? The Supreme Court is already handling this case. My contention is that the foundations of Nigeria are not built on oil, or on the wealth of any given area, that if our unity were based on our natural resources then we would continuously be involved in one type of conflict or another, ethnic and otherwise, all in the quest for control of those resources. If oil is a resource for unity it will inexorably also become a source of divisiveness of incalculable proportions.

I DO not subscribe to the statement of Bala Usman quoted by Prof. Ekeh that "The Nigerian state is superior to the ethnic groups and therefore has a superior claim to the land and the resources there in". The whole notion of the 'Nigerian state' has been called to question not so much because we do not feel we belong to Nigeria but mainly because what is known as 'Nigerian state' does not involve the inhabitants of that state. Tell me, is Obetiti, Nguru, my home town 'in' this country? Do the people of Obetiti believe the Nigerian state cares about them? Does the Nigerian state come to their assistance? The people of Odi, do they feel they 'are' Nigerians? It would appear this insidious state has been foisted upon us! You might point to the Nigerian constitution as the embodiment of this state defining the tenets and very essence of the Nigerian people. It is not a document given by the people to themselves. Someone else gave it to them and decreed that they accept it as a binding force.

This is a constitution that is better described by a series of negatives, of what it is not, than by what it is. I do not know what to make of it. So many sections contradict one another, what it gives in one place, it takes in another. The Sharia and Local Governments issues are just two extant examples with which we now contend with no apparent resolution in sight. What we have is a constitution made by the military, for a brutalized civilian population. It seems a document formulated by thieves detailing how they would share any booty they happened to loot. I would like to see a state where the people actually took their lives in their own hands and gave themselves the type of life they would like to live, not one prescribed for them by an insufferable group of military brigands. It took a popular revolution to establish the doctrine that it is not nation, not country but the people that are supreme. Eugene Delacriox captured the will of the French people ñ and indeed of all peoples  to determine their lives in his breathtaking painting, Liberty guiding the people (translated), which remains for all time a penetrating symbol of the rise against oppression. The people are supreme, but this does not immediately translate to mean the ethnic groups are supreme. But here I must tread carefully because the Yoruba nation fighting for its 'life' might not agree. Can you explain why we have OPC? Or why do we have the cry for a sovereign national conference? If the Nigerian state as we know it is supreme why is a large number of groups clamouring for a reordering of our national life, giving to each what he or she most longs for?

Stanley Macebuh in a brilliant, scholarly piece reminds those amongst us who are clamouring for a sovereign national conference based on the supremacy of the people that "The most enduring bequest of American democracy to the world is not so much its national insistence on the sovereignty of the people, but rather its conviction that this sovereignty can most efficiently be expressed through elective representative government". Sure. To Macebuh, it seems disingenuous to distinguish between the supremacy of the people's representatives (read the National Assembly) to make the constitution and their supremacy to make 'ordinary' laws. As he sees it, the clamour is for the substitution of the sovereignty of the people with the sovereignty of ethnic nationalities. Macebuh's arguments are quite persuasive ñ why all the hue and cry about the sovereignty of the people when the people themselves have expressed their sovereign rights in the election of their representatives who should now be trusted to do everything else the people want them to do? Could it not be that the people now want to express their sovereignty in some other way, that there are things they do not want to entrust to the National Assembly?

Could it not be that the people see a different between their elected representatives as politicians and another category of representatives, trusted and non-partisan, who would now negotiate the kind of country they want to live in and who would fashion for them a constitution that reflects their distinct ethnic and cultural aspirations? An Igbo, for example, might not vote for Prof. Nwabueze as her representative in the National Assembly but she would readily vote that he represent her at the sovereign national conference. In fact, Prof. Nwabueze has never been voted for in a national election and one could conclude that he is not interested in partisan politics. And the same can be said of Dr. Shetima Mustapha, Chief F.R.A. Williams, Alhaji Lal Kaita, Mr. Felix Ohiwerei, Prof. N.M. Gadzama, Prof. Idris Mohammed, and others.

To me there is a big difference between these types of representatives: the first were elected on the platform of the various political parties, the latter would be elected by the ethnic nationalities - no political parties recognized. I recognize the difficulties this would raise, such as, how do we determine which nationalities would make up this conference, what would be the nature of representation, would it be based on population, etc. Charles Njoku provides some clues in his piece on Sovereign National Conference in The Guardian of August 15. Already the Ooni and other national kings are negotiating these with the apparent blessing of the Federal Government. Chief Frederick Rotimi Williams (amiably referred to as 'Timi the Law' by the late President Nnamdi Azikiwe), a man not given to public political statements, has given us words of wisdom. At the recent Soyinka Yearly Lecture, Williams firmly insisted that for "effective resolution of Nigeria's nationhood problems, a conference of ethnic nationalities is inevitable because it is through such a platform that sovereignty could rightly be devolved to the people". Prof. Nwabueze also canvasses the view that a conference of ethnic nationalities is a necessity. We should listen to them: such minds are rare.

As far as our president is concerned, the unity of Nigeria is not a matter for argument: it is a given. Others question why we should be talking of a national conference to discuss the terms of our togetherness when we have been living as a sovereign nation for over 40 odd years, and have long had strong interactive cultural and commercial links. The question is not whether or not we should be united; rather it is what type of union should this be? The origins of this question go far, far into our history. We can recognize seven phases of this history (surely there are several themes and sub-themes of these): a pre-colonial past of nations and kingdoms; colonial formulation of Nigeria; post-colonial democracy (Tafawa Balewa; Shagari); post-colonial misguided military (Ironsi, Gowon); post-colonial purposeful military (Mohammed-Obasanjo, Abubakar); post-colonial zealously and ruthlessly military (Buhari, Abacha); post-colonial insidious military (Babangida) and what we now have, which could be described as a transitional democracy in search of ideals. You will immediately recognize that I am somewhat careless of time in arriving at these periods putting, for example, Shagari alongside Tafawa Balewa and Abubakar together with Gowon and Mohammed-Obasanjo. This is to draw attention more to the characteristics of these periods as they relate to our national cohesion or lack of it. With what we now hear about General Abubakar, I am not sure that he qualifies to be placed with Mohammed-Obasanjo. I have done so only because he conducted the 1999 elections and successfully transferred power to civilians. We may now pose the question, in which of these periods was our cohesion as a people highest? What held us together? Is this cohesion increasing in tenacity? And when this cohesion was threatened what were the causes? Have these causes now disappeared or simply festering?

To attempt this question we first must ask, what is Nigeria, a nation or a mere 'geographical expression?' This has been addressed by several renowned authors, Profs. Billy Dudley, Tekema Tamuno, Peter Ekeh, Obaro Ikime, Emmanuel Ayandele (these are the ones I know from the University of Ibadan). Amongst others, including the unforgettable Awo who, in fact, first described Nigeria in those uncomplimentary terms. The balance of argument suggests that there was a 'Nigeria' before British Nigeria: that before the colonial period peoples in what became Nigeria co-existed, practised good neighbourliness, engaged in inter-ethnic trade and did cultural borrowing. Within this context, however, we learn from our history books of the inter-and intra-tribal wars of conquest as illustrated by the Oyo and Bini empires, the Islamic wars of conquest in the North, the wars of expansion of the Aro and Abonema Kingdoms. It would appear that this level of interaction did little, if any to promote multi-ethnic, participatory arrangements for a unified social structure.

We may therefore conclude that the pre-colonial period was not characterized by strong cohesive forces of nationhood. It is my contention that it was only in the colonial period, arising from a stubborn, relentless and unstoppable will to dismantle imperialism and win independence that there was some semblance of a national cohesion. The entire country was agog with the excitement of national independence. We all felt one, behaved like one, and believed in Nigeria. As Bola Ige put it in The Discovery of Nigeria, "When I came up to the University College, Ibadan in October 1949, I came into what I honestly believed to be a thoroughly Nigerian community... Until I left this place in 1955, young men and women from different parts of this great country found the University College, Ibadan a melting pot of a country we dearly loved and which we looked forward to serving so that Nigeria could be the greatest black nation in the world".