In the euphoric days following the end of military rule, with Olusegun Obasanjo settled into his job as Nigeria’s President and the specter of Shari’a law still in the northern horizon, I was asked to review a new, non-commercial magazine published by the Nigerian chapter of a non-governmental organization interested in environmental issues.
Folks at this NGO probably expected me to provide a formal analysis of the magazine, commenting on the layout, design, the content of the occasional political opinion, and suchlike. They also invited a friendly political activist and lawyer to chair the event, and I knew right away what was afoot—with “a literary person” you didn’t want to leave things to chance.
They got the obligatory review, of course, but the context of my commentary was larger. After the general elections in February of 1999, I had come to the conclusion that the popular struggle for democratic change which began in earnest in the late 1980s and peaked during the regime of General Sani Abacha had been taken over by precisely the same people it had meant to drive out. Political struggle in the Niger Delta had been prosecuted on the highest level of personal sacrifice—witness the judicial murders of the Ogoni Nine.
Yet the global scale of the struggle also ensured that issues of life-and-death faced by the ordinary people in the Niger Delta were now to be consigned to the administrative side of things.
I said this much in my review: that the language of political struggle had changed to that of bureaucracy, symbolized by NGOs, but that realities in the delta region ought not to be subsumed to the logic of bureaucracy. In his closing remarks, the chair of the occasion essentially debunked all my claims, and with a touch of bad taste (or good, depending on how one sees it), commented on the cologne on my shirt as proof of my political outlook. I was more amused than offended.
Perhaps there was an inevitability to the bureaucratization of the struggle for environmental rights in Nigeria. In Western Europe and North America, environmentalism was a routine part of political life, and much of the material support that Nigerian activists received was meant to reinforce the liberal view that all politics was about negotiations, contracts, and who got what.
Did the tenor of that non-governmental patronage anticipate the militancy of the mid- to late-2000s, the hostage-takings by the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, MEND, and other groups? What were/are the links between the militias and the political elites that have come to and gone out of power in the South-South in the past decade and a half?
The current travails of MEND’s Henry Okah, the near-complete rehabilitation of DSP Alamesigha, the extremely complicated political feuding in Bayelsa and Rivers states all come across as politics-as-usual, without the narrative of victimhood that ruled the 1990s, from the anguished cry that was the Gideon Orkar-led coup to the judicial murders of the Ogoni activists.
Again, it is political naiveté to expect denizens of the Delta, the swamp dwellers, to forever hymn the wreck that had been their reality since the find at Oloibiri. Afterall, power blocs rise and are consolidated from the resources that have impoverished the Niger Delta, the same blocs using the power thus gained to make the impoverishment a fact of life. If they wanted to live like that forever, there would be no point in struggling against the pervasively oppressive system to begin with.
Yet, yet. A close attention to the power games being played throughout the year between the allies of President Goodluck Jonathan and those of Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State, and against the background of the history of the Niger Delta after 1990, may reveal several things. One coming to mind, for sure, will relate to the famed dictum about history repeating itself as farce.
Why are those who have suffered so much due to the primitive exploitation of oil resources from the Delta so eager to continue with things as they are? Why do they want to best the records of immiseration that spurred the struggles from which they now benefit? Is it asking too much to expect that, with the balance of power in favor of the once-marginalized, greater concern for ethics will carry the day?
There is something of the clown about the wife of the president, Dame Patience Jonathan. Barely literate but tremendously articulate, she is ready to do battle with anyone perceived to stand in her way. She would invoke her identity as an Okrika woman into the bargain. A clown she may be, but she has a spectacular starring role in an exquisite tragedy, the tragic dance of the swamp dwellers.