Monday, July 17, 2017 2:57 am
Professor Wole Soyinka, J P Clark and other Ijaw egg heads seize the opportunity of a colloquium at the Ijaw National Academy, Kaiama, Bayelsa State, to speak on restructuring of Nigeria
By Ademola Adegbamigbe
The train, led by hefty Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State, entered the cavernous hall at exactly 1 pm on Friday 14 July 2017. By his side was the much expected star, Professor Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate, his tuft of white hair moving like a hallo at a distance. The venue, the inside of which looks like a giant cathedral or an aircraft hanger, exploded in frenzy as the students of Ijaw National Academy, Kaiama, Bayelsa State, cheered when their great guest arrived with his host. As policemen and plain clothed sleuths cordoned off the surging crowd of pupils, school staff, towns people and other Bayelsans who had come to witness the great occasion, Dickson led Soyinka, Professors John Pepper Clark Bekederemo- another literary Maharajah this side of the Atlantic- Ebiegheri J Alagoa, a well celebrated historian and others to their seats. It was for a programme, A Day with Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka” at the Academy.
The location of the school (Kaiama), themes of the literary performances, the colloquium itself, the backgrounds of the guests, all seem to unite in a symbolic whole in the dominating subject matter of the day: restructuring of Nigeria.
Kaiama, the birthplace of Major Isaac Adaka Boro, an Ijaw nationalist who in 1966 proclaimed “the Niger Delta Peoples Republic,” is a small town in Western Ijaw, about half an hour’s drive from Yenagoa, the state capital. It was also in Kaiama that, on 11 December 1998, 5,000 Ijaw people representing over 40 Ijaw clans, chose Kaiama to, apart from articulating their aspirations to “demand an end to 40 years of environmental damage and underdevelopment in the region, formed the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC). They adopted a declaration which attributed “the political crisis in Nigeria” to “the struggle for the control of oil mineral resources,” while asserting that “the degradation of the environment of Ijawland by transnational oil companies and the Nigerian State arise mainly because Ijaw people have been robbed of their natural rights to ownership and control of their land and resources.”
Moreover, they presented the Kaiama Declaration and one of the most striking resolutions was: “That the principle of Derivation in Revenue Allocation has been consciously and systematically obliterated by successive regimes of the Nigerian state. We note the drastic reduction of the Derivation Principle from 100% (1953), 50% (1960), 45% (1970), 20% (1975) 2% (1982), 1.5% (1984) to 3% (1992 to date), and a rumored 13% in Abacha’s 1995 undemocratic and unimplemented Constitution.”
That day, there were literary performances like drama and poem presentations: The Casualties of Clark and The Call of the River Nun written by Gabriel Okara. Abiku, a poem by Wole Soyinka was rendered by a student of the school, Ojiakor Faith, while the same poem was performed as drama by the Bayelsa State Council for Arts and Culture. Just like the transmigration trips of Abiku in Yoruba mythology is a torment to the child’s parents, environmental degradation and economic exploitation is a recurring evil in the Nigeria Delta.
One of the most poignant of the messages came when Sophia Obi, a product of the Creative Arts Department of the University of Port Harcourt, read Oloibri, from her collection of poems, Tears in a Basket. Oloibiri was where oil was first discovered in commercial quantity in 1956, and as Okara wrote in his forward to the anthology, “it has been abandoned as an old spent lady, when the oil wells went dry.” Here is her poem:
I lay on the altar of faded glory,
Oily tears rolling through my veins ,
To nourish households in the desert
…I hear the echo of years gone by
In my vicinity, there is the quake of discovery
A zebra string of pipelines running through my belly
Causing me to ache from relentless exploitation.
…Yet I quench the thirst of the desert dwellers
…While my children wallow
in the crude mud peculiar to my swamp
Now with my fertility gone,
I carry a begging bowl, unable to form
A sovereign body to build a monument
to my forsaken glory.
Dashing from one end of the “arena” to the other was the coordinator of the colloquium, Odia Ofeimun, a poet himself who hit limelight in 1975 when his work appeared in the anthology, Poems of Black Africa, edited by Soyinka. Ofeimun was in his elements (those who know him will not be surprised that this is an ambience that he enjoys) as he keeps scratching his beard, his Adam’s apple making satisfactory vertical clicks. He called Soyinka, Clark, Alagoa and Dickson to the stage (they all helped Okara, now 96, up the steps).
The colloquium began with students firing questions at the literary icons. Benstowe Justice, a Student of the school, asked Soyinka how he felt when he first learnt about the Nobel prize. “It was unexpected. It was at the airport when I returned to the country that it began to sink in. My friend, J . P Clark was there.” And which comes first, the title of a story, idea or structure? Ebiye Praise asked him. An idea, as Soyinka explained, may come. “You may go out and it remains in the subconscious. The structure is determined by events on the streets. All are not in particular order.” Johny Juliet also asked him what it takes to be a Nobel Laureate and how many books must the winner write? Soyinka answered: “It is not quantity but quality and relevance. A lot also depends on the literary taste of the jury deciding the winner.” And in what ways has the Nobel prize affected him, Soyinka told the audience that he lost his anonymity and “my priorities changed because of pressure.” Another student asked Alagoa what specific time he writes or should anyone write. In his words: “Any writer has to develop a pattern of work. I am at my best early in the morning.”
Then Ofeimun addressed the elders, asking them, “tell us that this country will not break up.”
Soyinka, the first among the elders to answer, argued that all countries the world over were products of negotiations, stressing that Nigerian leaders who hold a contrary view were missing the point. In his words: “We are mixing up the argument. When people say, especially former leaders and especially those who bear enormous responsibility for the question of breaking up or not breaking up, our roles in the first place, it always sounds hypocritical, dogmatic and dictatorial and that statement is that the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable. Now, that for me is a fallacy. Anything is negotiable. The right of people to determine their future is what is non-negotiable. Most nations came to be through negotiations”, he asserted.
In other words, Soyinka maintained that it was wrong to assume that a country where a part bears the burden of taking care of a wieldy whole should not be negotiated. “Sometimes when people say negotiate, what they really mean is restructure. Should Nigeria break up? And my answer to that is no, but please don’t tell me that Nigeria as it stands is not negotiable. For me, it is a fallacy. The nation has got to be negotiated. Negotiation includes ensuring that there is no marginalisation.”
He explained further: “Negotiation has to do with control of resources; negotiation has to do with structuring the nation in such a way that the components, constituents are not feeding an over-bloated centre to the detriment of their own development. So, Nigeria is negotiable. What we should say is: what are you willing to sacrifice? What efforts are you willing to make to ensure that Nigeria remains intact? That is the citizen question.
Professor Alagoa, argued that historians rely on what happened to tell us who we are. “On Niger Delta, the people use archeological findings to explain their culture. But they are united or linked with the Igbo, to the West, up to Lagos and beyond. Our lives and fortunes are united. That is what we historians can tell.”
Governor Dickson, in his own response to Ofeimun’s question, agreed with Soyinka, saying that for the benefit of the young people present at the occasion, everything must be questioned. As he put it: “Let me for the benefit of our young people make this clear, God in his infinite wisdom has endowed mankind with several gifts and one of the most important is your ability to reason and use your mind. I believe that there is every reason for us to say that we will not circumscribe our minds on any issues. In the course of our education, throughout your life, however illustrious, your education is meaningless unless you have the capacity to question any and every notion”, the governor said.
He noted further that though it was desirable to have a united Nigeria, it was nevertheless important to renegotiate the terms. He continued: “I believe that the continued existence of our nation as an indivisible entity is desirable. There is a very strong case to be made for that. After all, our people have been funding the Nigerian experiment for the last 61 years. From your backyards they carve out portions of land in Lagos and Abuja and other capitals of the world and call them oil blocks. And I have said that what they sit down in their cosy offices and call oil blocks and give to whoever they choose to give are actually your (Niger Delta communities) ancestral properties.
“That is why we continue to raise issues about environmental justice. What is going on in all your communities I have described severally as environmental terrorism. Nobody should tell us that there is nothing to negotiate. There are too many things to negotiate. In this state we have only eight local government areas as decreed by the powers that be. And yet there are states that have forty. So, we get less than one quarter of what others get. The local governments can no longer pay salaries because they have no control over what we produce. The continued existence of Nigeria is desirable, but Nigerians, all of us have issues to bring to the table for amicable resolution so that we can make our union more enduring and sustainable. There is no shame; no crime in doing that.”
Later that day, Dickson conferred on Soyinka, a Honorary Education Ambassador for the state to “attract goodwill and support to the state government’s initiatives in the education sector.” Presenting the Letter of the Honorary Ambassadorial Award to the guest in Government House Yenagoa, Dickson said Soyinka deserves it because of his achievements and democratization of knowledge across the world.
A day before this, a former head of state, General Yakubu Gowon was in Bayelsa to commission some projects, one of which was the Ijaw Academy, praising Dickson’s revolutionary approach to educational development. Earlier the same day, Gowon commissioned the new Governor’s Office. At the occasion, he praised Dickson for his “commitment to infrastructural development and building bridges of unity across the country.” Gowon who described the edifice as exceptionally beautiful was earlier conferred with a chieftaincy title of “Se Ebi Daubo” meaning, ‘Benevolent Father of the Nation’.
Gowon’s reference to infrastructure was not just political platitude. Journalists who had been around were conducted round many ongoing projects. There was the Yenagoa’s First Flyover Bridge on Isaac Boro Express Way down to the Transparency Building, the Oxbow Lake, the Bayelsa Drug Mart, the Bayelsa Diagnostic Center and the Bayelsa International Cargo Airport.