|Urhobo Historical Society|
URHOBO AND THE NIGERIAN FEDERATION:
Peter P. Ekeh
The State University of New York at Buffalo
A guest lecture presented at Urhobo National Assembly’s Seminar on Whither Nigeria? The Position of the Urhobo at Petroleum Training Institute, Effurun, Delta State, Nigeria on October 27, 2001. I thank Dr. Igho Natufe, Senior Policy Research Advisor for the Government of Canada, Ottawa; Mr. Onoawarie Edevbie, an engineer in City of Detroit Water Resources, Michigan; and Professor Isaac James Mowoe, State University of Ohio, Columbus, for their important help in reading through the draft of this paper and for several suggestions for correction in it. They are my worthy colleagues in Urhobo Historical Society from whose chair I serve the Urhobo people, the Niger Delta, and Nigeria.
In its ideal form, a nation-state is a human organization that is constructed for the purpose of promoting the welfare of the people and communities that own it. Ideally, a nation-state is an enduring political arrangement that is informed and supported by norms and desires of such of its constituent cultural and social ensembles as ethnic nationalities. That is to say, a worthy nation-state exists and survives on fundamental principles of human organizations and on respect for grounded norms of the component communities that are its support. In the normal course of the state’s existence, these axioms of governance remain largely unstated and are only implicit in its actions for as long as the nation-state adequately performs its responsibilities of serving the needs of the people. Few citizens will ordinarily probe the purpose and meaning of the nation-state if there is reasonable harmony in its domain and in the relationships between the public means of the state and the cultural and social needs of its individuals and citizens. When, however, there are major problems in these areas, there is a tendency for citizens to raise questions about the purpose and meaning of the state in their lives
It is an indication of the stress and turbulence of our times that Nigerians are everywhere reexamining the purpose of the Nigerian state and the relationships between their ethnic groups and the Nigerian federation. There has been no other occasion in our history when men and women, otherwise engaged in professions far removed from politics and public affairs, have been so concerned about the future of their ethnic groupings and about the purpose of their country’s political arrangements. I believe that this is an important and forward-looking development that wise leaders would do well to embrace and to help advance. In worrying about their future and about the prospects of their ethnic groups, Nigerians have leaned backwards to probe their own foundation histories. In that process, they have raised important questions concerning the nature of Nigeria’s constitutional arrangements that have implicated their cultural groupings.
These considerations and points of view will inform this lecture. Its purpose is fourfold. First, I want to reaffirm the point that Urhobo, a major ethnic group in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, has an ancient history that antedates Nigeria’s existence. Second, I will examine the governmental principles of British colonialism in Nigeria into which Urhobo and Nigeria’s other ethnic nationalities were unwittingly incorporated at the turn of the twentieth century, a hundred years ago. On this score, I will characterize the political principle that was developed by Nigerian leaders in the 1950s, that is, in the decade of decolonization in our history. Third, I wish to state, as clearly as I can muster, the nature of military rule and what damages it has done to Nigerian history and politics. Fourth, I will argue that the baneful legacies of military rule have remained with us, even after its formal termination. Accordingly, we must restore the purpose of the Nigerian state that was fashioned in the 1950s, which is to serve the needs of its people and their ethnic nationalities, that military rule subverted. I hold the view that Nigerians will only overcome the destructive consequences of military rule if and only when they endorse manifest constitutional principles of government that the ethnic nationalities of the Niger Delta and Nigeria’s other ethnic groupings can live with.
THE QUEST FOR ETHNIC ORIGINS AND PRECOLONIAL HISTORIES
Inside the Urhobo homeland, in the Niger Delta, and in the Urhobo Diaspora in Europe and America, there is a strong resurgence of interest in the history and origins of the Urhobo. This urgent quest has coincided with the difficulties and dangers that threaten the integrity of Urhobo culture from the claims of those who seek to control our lives by using the powers of Nigeria’s intrusive central government. It is probably related to the anxieties instigated in our lives by such dire calamities as the great petroleum fire disasters at Idjerhe in 1998 and Ekakpamre in 1999 and other uncertainties arising from bad actions of the Nigerian state, particularly in the Niger Delta.
Such renewed quest for the origins and history of ethnic nationalities is not unique to the Urhobo. All across Nigeria, various ethnic nationalities are boldly restating their histories and the cultural foundations of their existence. This vast search for ethnic meaning and for a redefinition of the historic relationships between Nigeria and its ethnic nationalities became manifest at the twilight of military rule. It has continued into the post-military era. In my view, this is an intellectual movement that has been fomented by vast and untoward changes in the functions of the Nigerian state. I believe that it is in the interest of humanity and good scholarship to probe the sociological underpinnings of this pervasive intellectual yearning for the meaning of our political and cultural existence in Nigeria.
Sadly, the pursuit of this important search is being hampered by a faulty and pervasive assumption that has tormented the Nigerian history enterprise for quite a while. It is the flawed notion that kingdoms are the points of origins of human communities. It is widely assumed that it is respectable to search for the origins of peoples by looking for kingdoms from which they originated. It is a supposition that violates common sense. Kingdoms arise from communities of ordinary people. It is the cultures of common folks that give birth to kingdoms. It is not kingdoms that beget cultures. Nor is it true that all human migrations have kingdoms as their points of origin. There are many documented instances of people and groups that have moved away from ordinary communities and settled in new lands.
The exaggerated significance of kingdoms in Nigerian historiography has led to such outlandish claims as one which contends that the Yoruba originated from Mecca and the Middle East or that the Urhobo have their origins in Ife. The Yoruba, I daresay, are much older than Mecca whose importance was the fruit of Prophet Mohamed’s religious ministry in the sixth century. By historic standards, Mohamed is young in comparison to the age of the Yoruba. Is anyone seriously suggesting that Oduduwa, the famed progenitor of the Yoruba, was younger than Jesus Christ or Mohamed? Nor is it necessary to claim that the Urhobo have any ties to the kingdom of Ife. If the Urhobo have any ethnic relationships with the Yoruba, they need not lie in royal connexions.
There is internal evidence in Urhobo culture and language that demonstrate that close ties existed between various Urhobo communities and the lands of the Ogisos, centuries ago. We should cherish that aspect of our lore and history. But it should not be misinterpreted to suggest that there were no human beings in our lands before the arrival of our ancestors who escaped from Ogiso’s realm. Those original indigenous people of our lands are as much our ancestors and progenitors as the subsequent arrivals from Ogiso’s kingdom. They had been in these lands, probably for tens of thousands of years, before Ogiso’s kingdom arose from communities that were no less ancient in their existence. The history of our region can only make sense if it is integrated into the human history of Africa. There is now abundant evidence which demonstrates that humankind began its long existence on our earth inside Africa, only a few thousand miles away from our lands. It makes no sense to suggest that our region of Africa had no human existence, whereas humans were migrating to Asia Minor and the rest of the Old World from Africa. I daresay that the Urhobo and the other ethnic nationalities of the Niger Delta abundantly share in the heritage that belongs to Africans, namely, that we are the oldest humans in God’s creation (see Lewis 1988).
I have staked out these claims for an important reason. Dr. Bala Usman’s (2001) recent assertions to the contrary, the lands that we inhabit in the Niger Delta have been handed over to us from immemorial ages by our ancestors. We are a sedentary people who have cultivated these lands and protected our rivers and lakes with utmost care, long before Nigeria emerged. Our ancestors and our own good selves value them. In a vital sense, our lands and waters in the Niger Delta are our greatest possessions. Just as we have inherited them from our ancient ancestors, we must fight to ensure that our descendants will inherent these lands and waters from our generation. If we fail to preserve them for their sakes, then we will have failed to uphold the imperatives of our history.
BRITISH COLONIALISM AND URHOBO AND NIGERIA’S OTHER ETHNIC NATIONALITIES
The British understood such historical imperatives in their ventures into the Niger Delta in the nineteenth century. When the British government empowered the Royal Niger Company by its charter, shortly after the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, to engage in treaty making on its behalf, the clear understanding of its commitment was that it would negotiate with Niger Delta’s ethnic nationalities. It so did in Urhobo country with our ethnic sub-nationalities, “agreeing to pay native owners of land a reasonable amount for any portion [the Company] may require” and promising “to protect the [signatory] Chiefs from the attacks of any neighbouring aggressive tribes” (see Royal Niger Company). That is to say, right from its inception British imperialism acknowledged the reality of our ethnic nationalities as the owners of our lands and the political actors of our circumstances of the 1880s.
In the early 1890s, the British moved beyond the surrogacy of the Royal Niger Company to create the Niger Coast Protectorate. One of the first steps British agents took in order to give a semblance of legality to their imperial action was to sign treaties throughout the 1890s with Urhobo kings and chieftains and those of other ethnic nationalities of the Niger Delta. In many ways, these treaties were unjust because they were pro forma documents formulated and printed in England and shipped to the Niger Delta. They were clearly biased in favour of British interests. Even so, the treaties carefully recognized the authority of Urhobo ethnic subgroups, as it did acknowledge the authority and ownership of all ethnic nationalities of the Niger Delta, over their lands. For instance, the first article of the British Treaty of March 14, 1893, with the people of Agbassa [that is, Agbarha in Warri] reads as follows: “Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, in compliance with the request of the Chiefs and the People of Agbassa hereby undertakes to extend to them, and to the territory under their jurisdiction, Her gracious favour and protection” (see Agbassa Treaty 1893).
How did the British intend to keep the promise that they made to “the Chiefs and People of Agbassa” and what did they demand in return? In order to give a meaningful answer to this worthy question, we need to make a clear distinction between two aspects of public affairs in any normal society, such as the Urhobo and other Niger Delta communities with which the British signed these treaties in the 1880s-1890s. In the first aspect, before the British arrived in our lands, our people engaged in politics by deciding on how to govern their communities. Sometimes, such acts and policies involved friendship or hostilities with other groups within their boundaries as well as with those whom they regarded as foreigners and strangers outside their territories. The chieftains and people of these communities took part in making decisions and policies on how best to govern their affairs. That is what happens in most free communities which engage in politics. There is a second aspect in the management of the public affairs of any political community. It is the administration of the policies and decisions arrived at by the political community. Certain designated authorities and agencies execute the political community’s policies and decisions. This distinction between politics and administration was already very well established in imperial circles in England in the nineteenth century when British agents signed treaties with Urhobo and other Niger Delta communities in the 1880s-1890s. Indeed, this distinction between politics and administration was well reflected in the treaties that the Agbarha and other Niger Delta political communities were compelled to sign with British agents in the 1880s and 1890s (see British “Treaties of Protection”).
The British treaties with Niger Delta communities dealt separately with these two aspects of public affairs. On the one hand, they enjoined our communities to give up the right to practise politics, except in a very narrow sense. Thus, Article II of the Treaty with Agbarha says as follows: “The Chiefs of Agbassa agree and promise to refrain from entering into any correspondence, Agreement, or Treaty with any foreign Nation or Power except with the knowledge and sanction of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government.” This diminution of the power of our communities to practise politics was reinforced by Article IV which states as follows: “All disputes between the Chiefs of Agbassa or between them and British or foreign traders, or between the aforesaid Chiefs and neighbouring tribes, which cannot be settled amicably between the two parties, shall be submitted to the British Consular or other officers appointed by Her Britannic Majesty to exercise jurisdiction in Agbassa territories for arbitration and decision, or for arrangement.” This article in effect abrogated the right of our people to take decisions and to make policies, that is to practise politics, in ways that they were accustomed to before the arrival of the British.
On the aspect of administration, on the other hand, the so-called “Treaties of Protection” solicited the help of Chiefs for the administration of their territories. Thus, Article V of the Agbarha Treaty states as follows: “The Chiefs of Agbassa hereby engage to assist the British Consular or other officers in the execution of such duties as may be assigned to them; and further, to act upon their advice in matters relating to the administration of justice, the development of the resources of the country, the interest of commerce, or in any other matter in relation to peace, order, and good government, and the general progress of civilization.” It is noteworthy that the all-important matter of commerce was included in this aspect of the colonies’ public affairs. Indeed, free commerce and economic competition were recognized in a separate article of the Treaty. Article VI stipulated that “The subjects and citizens of all countries may freely carry on trade in every part of the territories of the Chiefs party hereto, and may have houses and factories therein.”
The foregoing statement of details from the so-called British “Treaties of Protection” is necessary because they will help us to understand the character of British colonialism in the Niger Delta and Nigeria. First, British colonial rule was based on ethnic nationalities. Second, the British fully recognized the territories and lands of these ethnic nationalities as belonging to their chiefs and people. Indeed, they understood that it was British obligation to protect these lands and territories for the future of the ethnic nationalities with which they entered into agreements. This was the case in all parts of what became Nigeria except in those territories that the British acquired by acts of warfare, as it was the case in the Sokoto Caliphate. Third, British colonialism entailed the banning of politics, especially in matters affecting inter-ethnic regimes. The British achieved this goal by segregating the affairs of the ethnic nationalities which became the administrative units of colonial Nigeria. In this regard, Indirect Rule was a dual colonial artefact that enabled the British to segregate the political affairs of Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities and then to administer these segments of the colonies. Fourth, while banning politics, and then restricting administrative matters to the sphere of ethnic nationalities, British colonialism entailed a degree of liberalism in matters of commerce and economic competition.
The consequences of these attributes of British colonialism range wide. I will limit this analysis to two issues that concern us. First, the banning of politics had major consequences for our people. The British did not consult us for our consent before we were incorporated into the Niger Coast Protectorate that was in existence in the 1890s when Urhobo communities signed treaties with British imperial agents. When later the British decided to create the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria in 1900, we were not consulted for our consent before we were incorporated into it. Nor was our consent sought when the British decided to embark upon the Amalgamation of Southern and Northern Nigeria in 1914-18. Nonetheless, it is significant that under British colonial rule we serially belonged to three different political arrangements: Niger Coast Protectorate, which covered the area that we all now call Niger Delta; then Southern Nigeria; and finally Nigeria.
I will like to call attention to a second feature of colonialism from which we as a people profited. Despite the political restrictions occasioned by British colonialism, there was ample room for economic competition. Furthermore, there was opportunity for migration to various other regions of Nigeria. Famed for hard and intelligent work, the Urhobo people profited enormously, not from what the colonial government did for us, but from the opportunities that economic competition afforded our people. In addition, British colonial rule permitted and encouraged ethnic associations that took care of their people’s welfare. I need not repeat here what Urhobo Progress Union did for us as a people. We only need to look around in Nigerian universities to see what Urhobo College, founded and managed by Urhobo Progress Union during British colonial times, has wrought in the academic sphere by producing some of the most innovative of Nigeria’s university professors. I am told that Urhobo’s first Nobel Prize in Literature is most likely to be claimed by Urhobo College. Despite its handicaps, and despite British colonialism’s duplicity in several instances in its observance of the terms of its treaties with Urhobo communities, we as a people were enabled to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps under the economic regime of British colonialism.
THE DECADE OF DECOLONIALISM AND THE IMPERATIVES OF ETHNIC NATIONALITIES
The mandate and methodology of British colonialism were altered considerably in the post-World War decade of the 1950s. The entirety of this decade was devoted to decolonization, in preparation for Nigeria’s independence from colonial rule. The decade began with the Ibadan Conference of January 1950, in which Nigerians initiated the process of discussing their future political arrangements. It ended with Independence in October 1960. The colonial ban on politics was lifted by stages as the decade wore on. By 1951, Nigerians began to engage in inter-ethnic politics for the first time, as Nigerian Leaders of Government were appointed in the three administrative Regions of Northern, Eastern, and Western Nigeria. In 1954, Nigeria moved into full-fledged federalism, as the scope of politics was expanded and Nigerians for the first time emerged as largely unfettered decision-makers in the Houses of Assembly, with Premiers as heads of their governments, in the Regions. (See Arikpo 1967, especially.)
The results of the fresh expansion of politics in the 1950s were awkward. Many saw politics as conquest, as opportunities to revive old powers in Northern Nigeria or to establish new ones in Southern Nigeria. But these conflicts led to reactions and negotiations, which are the essence of politics. For instance, when the Urhobo felt aggrieved that the name of Warri was used to designate the title of a particular traditional ruler, thus falsely suggesting the expansion of his domain, the Action Group Government of Western Nigeria, headed by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, changed the name of the Province from Warri to Delta. In one form or the other, either by way of approbation or disapproval, ethnic communities of Nigeria contributed to the outcome of the negotiations that marked out the 1950s in Nigeria’s history as a unique era of political freedom.
Above all else, the decolonization decade of the 1950s was devoted to intense negotiations for the constitutional format for governing Nigeria’s public affairs. The choice of federalism that emerged was driven by the deliberate desire of Nigerians who preferred a system of government that would be close to them. Remarkably, each of the Regions had its own Constitution. Important governmental powers lay with the Regions. The powers of the Federal Government were those that the Regions allowed it to exercise. One of the most remarkable indications of where political power lay in the 1950s could be seen in the fact that the powerful Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, great grandson of Uthman Dan Fodio and Premier of Northern Nigeria, decided to remain behind in Northern Nigeria while delegating his deputy, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafewa Balewa, to become Prime Minister in the central government in Lagos.
It is important that we label the style and character of government and public affairs that were worked out in these intense negotiations in the 1950s. First, Nigerians and their leaders accepted ethnic nationalities as legitimate political actors. Indeed, they accepted the basic premise of British colonial rule, namely, that ethnic nationalities constituted the basis of governance. What changed was the introduction of politics in intra-ethnic as well as inter-ethnic matters which colonial rule had disallowed. Second, the British colonial principle that lands and territories of ethnic nationalities in Southern Nigeria belonged to them, not to the government, was fully assumed and accepted by those who negotiated Nigeria’s constitutional matters in the 1950s. Third, there was a subtle new assumption in Nigerian public affairs that emerged in the decolonization decade of the 1950s. It had been assumed during colonial times that the state and its government belonged to the British colonial rulers and their distant Britannic Majesty in England. During the 1950s, Nigerians increasingly assumed that they owned the state and its government. Some ethnic nationalities were cheated in this new development, as larger ethnic groups were much advantaged in the contest for power. However, there was the overall assumption that independence meant the transfer of the ownership of the state from the colonizer to Nigeria’s political communities. It was from this latent assumption that so much pride and attachment were generated in Nigerians for their country.
There was another underlying assumption that empowered these achievements of he 1950s. Although it was not given any explicit expression, it was a formula that was paramount and pervasive in the political thinking of our founding fathers from the 1950s. This was the assumption that what was good for Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities was good for Nigeria. The pursuit of a constitutional formula in the 1950s was therefore a search for those principles that were regarded as providing the most common good for Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities. That was what the negotiation for a constitutional arrangement was all about. The outcome was maximum federalism that was entirely homegrown, not borrowed from any international templates.
Sadly, despite the innovations of the 1950s, the newness of political practice in Nigeria and the brash notion that politics was a game of conquering other ethnic nationalities bedeviled Nigerian politics after Independence, leading to political violence and the arrival of military rule in 1966. To the awesome difficulties created by military rule we must now turn.
MILITARY RULE AND ITS VICISSITUDES
In major ways, military rule has changed the course and landscape of Nigeria’s political development. It overthrew the political achievements of the 1950s. Military rule challenged and rejected the central precept of British colonialism, which was incorporated in decolonization, namely that ethnic nationalities were central to Nigeria’s political welfare. It destroyed Nigerian federalism, substituting in its place an unworkable form of central government that breeds inefficiencies in governance and generates deep alienation in the body politic. Military rule not only banned politics; it made administration the sole province of Nigerian public affairs. It reduced the constitutional process to a mere administrative exercise, producing administrative handbooks that are forced on Nigerians as their constitutions. No matter however one cuts it, those thirty years of military rule have changed our lives for ever, with far-reaching consequences that will stay with us for a long time to come (see Ekeh 1997).
The question posed by this important Seminar is as follows: Whither Nigeria? I daresay that the only meaningful way to answer that weighty question is to ask, in the first instance, whether Nigeria has the will-power to beat a retreat from the ways of military rule or whether we will be compelled to live with its baneful consequences for ever. I seek your permission to outline the character of military rule and its role in the current political crisis that rides Nigeria’s political affairs. Since we are all familiar with its facts, I will dwell on my own characterization and interpretation of military rule.
To begin with, military rule operated on two key assumptions that attacked the achievements of decolonization as well as a central element of British colonialism in the Niger Delta and the rest of Nigeria. First, military rule confronted the underlying master formula of decolonization. Nigerian leaders of the 1950s had operated on the assumption that what was good for Nigerian ethnic nationalities was good for Nigeria. Military rule reversed that formula and worked on the premise that what is good for Nigeria is good for its ethnic groups. Indeed, military rule regarded the political salience of Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities as inimical to national progress. Accordingly, it abolished the agencies and associations of ethnic nationalities, such as Egbe Omo Oduduwa, Ibo State Union, and Ibibio State Union, although our own Urhobo Progress Union was graciously spared.
Second, military rule operated on the assumption that the ownership of the state belongs to its rulers. In other words, it assumed that rulers own the state and its government. In doing so, it upturned and vitiated the claims of average Nigerians who were increasingly becoming assertive about their ownership of the Nigerian state, following independence. Under military rule, the political space of Nigeria was exclusively occupied by Nigeria’s military rulers. What are nowadays labelled as civil societies were pushed out of Nigeria’s political space. For instance, on the strength of the assumption that the state belongs to its rulers, the military government took over elementary and secondary schools that were owned by individuals, ethnic associations, or Christian missions.
Ruling under the aegis of these two assumptions, military rule dismantled much of what it inherited and then instituted new political structures that have remained with us. Despite the fact that it retained the label “Federal Military Government” throughout its control of Nigeria’s affairs, military rule effectively cancelled the federal arrangements that were worked out in the 1950s. The practice of politics was disallowed. Indeed, politics and politicians became double dirty words. Public affairs were reduced to military administration. In the event, there was large room for arbitrariness and personal rule. From Decree No 1 onwards, military rule was a web of administrative misadventures. As the late Professor Billy Dudley, a close observer of military rule put it, “Decree No 1 empowered [the new military Head of State] to suspend the legislature and to transfer the full executive power of the state to himself, power which he was free to exercise at his sole discretion and for which he could not be held accountable to anyone” (Dudley 1982: 80)
The uniform governance of Nigeria was tolerable for as long as it was restricted to the banning of politics. During the Civil War years (1967-70) and for five years thereafter, that is under Yakubu Gowon’s segment of military rule, regional military governors exercised important administrative powers that gave a semblance of federalism. In the second segment of military rule, under Murtala Muhamed and Olusegun Obasanjo, those regional administrative powers were lost. This development led to a brutal regime of centralization that issued, for the first time, new structures for virtually every aspect of government — extending downward to elementary schools and local governments. Flushed with abundant oil revenues, the central military government took over all Nigerian universities and other institutions built by state and regional governments. Meanwhile, arbitrary dismissals from the public service and universities weakened professional standards in the public sphere.
The consequences of military rule have been severe for Nigeria. First, it makes governance a very precarious matter. When Shehu Shagari’s civilian government (1979-1983), which succeeded Olusegun Obasanjo’s military regime, appeared to be inefficient it was blamed on personal ineptitude and corruption in his political party. In fact, however, his predecessor Olusegun Obasanjo’s return to governance under a civilian regime is now dogged with the same failures as we witnessed in Shehu Shagari’s government. In these circumstances, we should search for a deeper meaning of these failures. In my view, they lie in the mode of centralization that military rule has forced on us. Our present system of government relies on distant governance, which is inimical to the principles of federalism and is rarely exercised anywhere else in the modern world. I challenge anyone to cite the equivalent of the Nigeria Police Force in any country of Nigeria’s size. The Nigeria Police Force is expected to be involved in resolving domestic quarrels between husbands and wives as well as quarrels between ethnic and religious groups; in arresting miscreants in local land disputes as well as prosecuting white collar crooks involved in “419” and corporate corruption; in fighting petty thievery as well as armed robbery; in detecting and prosecuting the heavy volume of political frauds and corruption in Abuja, and then in overseeing corruption in its own ranks. How can a policing body loaded with so many grave functions in the large expanse of Nigeria’s space be expected to perform its duties efficiently? And yet the central government, which we have inherited from military rule, forbids any other policing bodies in Nigeria.
In precolonial times, and even during the colonial era, every community had its own policing structure. Now, we are being persuaded to accept the view that all policing matters must be managed from Abuja on the grounds of a specious argument that communities and even state governments do not have the capacity and temperament to run such policing functions as the Nigeria Police Force currently exercises. The question is, would local and state police be worse than the Nigeria Police? I assume that some will be. But others will attend to local problems much more efficiently while broader federal matters of security are left to a Federal Police Force. That is how a federal system of government works.
By the way, the argument about the Nigeria Police Force should not be about the word “Force” in its title. It should be about the word “Nigeria.” British colonial rulers so named the Nigeria Police Force because it began as an instrument for colonizing Nigeria. It therefore did not belong to Nigerians, just as its parent colonial body, the West Africa Frontier Force, did not belong to us. At its inception the Nigeria Police Force was an alien body in which Nigerians were used for forcibly winning converts to British colonial rule. (2) It is sad that after more than a hundred years, the word “Nigeria,” and not the possessive Nigerian, remains in its original title. I suggest that it is high time we change the name to “Nigerian Police.” But we should do so under a different charter that will make it to belong to Nigerians in word and in deed. Such a charter should be a constitutional matter that empowers different layers of policing. A slim Federal Police Force and a targeted State Police Force, along with local police forces in cities like Lagos and Warri, should be helpful.
But that begs the problem of local governments. Why should there be the same type of local government for communities in rural Zamfara State and for urban Lagos or Warri? The uniformity of local governments was imposed on Nigeria by military government in 1978. Why does anybody believe that Abuja has more common sense in the management of our local affairs than the people who live in the localities. Anyone who believes that there would be more justice from Abuja than in the locality should weigh the decision to locate the capital of Delta State at its northernmost periphery. Is there any doubt that if that matter were left to local decision, that the capital of Delta State would be somewhere else — either in the old headquarters of Delta Province at Warri or in a more central location? Such are the wages of military rule.
Over-centralization has led to a major political ailment that is difficult to root out from any nation where it has grown big and intense. It is what political scientists call alienation. In simple terms, Nigerians no longer regard the government that runs their affairs from Abuja as their own. Rulers, including elected legislators, are presumed to be trustees who take care of the affairs of the political community on behalf of its significant constituents. When that expectation fails, the rot of alienation settles into the public square. Alienation is aggravated by the reckless practice of election rigging. On the elections that were conducted in 1998 and 1999 in the Niger Delta, the respected Human Rights Watch has noted as follows:
Between December 1998 and February 1999, local, state and federal elections were held in Nigeria, which led to the inauguration on May 29, 1999 of the first civilian government in Nigeria for sixteen years. In the Niger Delta region, these elections were marked by such widespread fraud that, though pleased to be rid of military rule, few members of the electorate regard those “elected” as their real representatives. The current problems in the delta are exacerbated, if not partly caused, by these problems in the electoral process (Human Rights Watch 1999).
It is remarkable that many state and local governments, which are close to the people, have since moved to remedy those electoral abuses by forceful governance for the benefit of their people. On the other hand, Abuja remains distant from the Niger Delta. Its chieftains may rely on another round of rigging of elections in the Niger Delta. If so, the gulf between the Niger Delta and Abuja will remain wide. We expect those who desire victory on account of our votes to come to the Niger Delta, take off their flowing robes, and wade into the mud of the Escrovos River and the fishing boats of the Cross-River. Let them watch at close distance the flaring of gas at Erhoreke. Let them visit polluted ponds. Let them visit Idjerhe to see the source of their wealth. Yes, let them touch the sludge in the Escravos. We do not want them to steal our votes. That will only worsen the rot of corrosive alienation in the Niger Delta. We want them to come and work for our votes. That is the meaning of democracy. The rigging of elections is robbery, a heinous political crime. Worse, it breeds apathy and alienation in the body politic. We should do everything in the Niger Delta to discourage it, because it victimises our people and belittles our chances of ensuring self-determination. The continued rigging of elections under a civilian regime will make it extremely difficult for us all to crawl out of the abyss of political alienation that military rule created in the Niger Delta.
ETHNIC REACTIONS TO MILITARY RULE
Military rule began with the banning of ethnic associations. Ironically, in the end military rule was terminated by refreshed ethnic associations. In the Niger Delta, the activities of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People and the martyrdom of its leaders, Ken Saro-Wiwa and his associates, did much to delegitimize Nigerian military rule in the international community. The vigorous and open opposition of Yoruba ethnic associations, at home in Nigeria and in the Diaspora, presented formidable obstacles to the continuation of military rule. Everywhere in the Niger Delta, ethnic youth movements challenged the quiet acceptance of military rule by their leaders . Declarations of ethnic Bills of Rights (see, e.g., Ogoni 1990, Kaiama 1998, Urhobo 1998, Oron 1999) weakened the leadership claims of military rule and exposed the growing crisis of governance in Nigeria. It is fair to say that from about 1995 to1999 military rule had become fully discredited in all areas of Nigeria. Nigerians no longer looked to their government for justice and fair play or even security. Instead, they turned to their ethnic associations, of varying grades, to protect their interests.
In the aftermath of military rule, the succeeding government at Abuja has not been able to wean itself from the bad ways of military rule. Its chief claim is that it has prevented military rule from further continuation. But such acts as the reckless military invasion and destruction of Odi Town in the Niger Delta in November 1999 (see Ekeh 2001) have scared many Nigerians of the evil that their Government can do to them and their futures. There is little doubt that the legitimacy of, that is to say the amount of Nigerians’ regard for and trust in, the central of government at Abuja remains abysmal. On the other hand, there is a strong indication that Nigerians appreciate the work of their state governments which they tend to separate from the central government at Abuja.
In these circumstances, Nigerians look to their ethnic associations for mapping out their future. In the Yoruba southwest, Afenifere has emerged as a full replacement for Egbe Omo Oduduwa. In the southeast, the Igbo’s Ohaneze has risen to replace Ibo State Union that was abolished at the onset of military rule in 1967. In the far North, Arewa Consultative Forum has claimed the mandate of Northern Peoples Congress that collapsed with the coup d’etat of 1966.
What about the ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta and in Middle Nigeria? In these regions, we may well be on the threshold of a major political development in Nigerian history. There are fresh movements that seek to combine the cultural and political resources in each of these regions to form supra-ethnic associations that will protect their people’s interests. The Union of Niger Delta has been a pioneer in this new venture. We must salute Chief David Dafinone and Chief Johnson Ukueku for providing the leadership that has enabled the rise of this important development. The state governments of the Niger Delta have also sought to work together for their people’s interests. We salute Chief James Ibori for his leadership in this effort and for his campaign on behalf of control of our resources by Niger Deltans themselves. These efforts seek to maximize the capabilities that are available to the people of the Niger Delta by working together. Ten years ago, Akwa Ibom appeared distant from us. Today, Ibibio and Effik, Annang and Oron, Ogoni and Ikwerre, Itsekiri and Ijaw, etc., have become our neighbours in a common struggle for survival in the Niger Delta. Nationally, what is so very healthy in this development is the fact that the activities of the Union of Niger Delta and of the Governors of the Niger Delta have not offended the leaders of Afenifere and Ohaneze. On the contrary, they seem willing and ready to work with the conglomerate associations emerging from the ethnic nationalities of the Niger Delta. For that we salute Afenifere and Ohaneze. We would urge Arewa to follow the worthy examples of these formidable ethnic associations and work with the Union of Niger Delta for the sake of mapping out the future of Nigeria.
In Middle Nigeria, Middle Belt Forum has arisen to cater to the interests of this vital region of Nigeria. Its uniqueness cannot be accommodated under the overall umbrella of Arewa Consultative Forum. Nigerians in Middle Nigeria deserve to state their own case for their future choices in matters constitutional. We trust that the conglomerate representation of the ethnic nationalities in Middle Nigeria by Middle Belt Forum will receive the support of Union of Niger Delta, Afenifere, Ohaneze, and Arewa Consultative Forum. We need the strong representation of the ethnic interests of Middle Nigeria for preparing for a renewed future for Nigeria.
There is much work to be done. Hopefully, Nigerians will understand that a strong and prosperous nation takes a large effort to build and that it does not follow automatically from oil revenues. That type of work requires leadership and commitment. No area of the preparation for our future political welfare calls for greater leadership than the crafting of a new constitutional order for Nigeria. It is a task that is necessarily invested in a leadership that the people trust. At the present time, that is clearly the leadership of the various ethnic associations.
I am aware that there are those who believe that the government makes constitutions for the people. That position reverses the process of legitimate governance. Legitimate governments are empowered by constitutions which the people and their trustees make. The notion that constitutions are administrative handbooks which are handed down to the people is a cruel and irresponsible consequence of military rule that must be denounced. In this regard, we all must respectfully say that our President is doing what history will regard as important. President Olusegun Obasanjo’s significant role in history at this time is to secure the assurance that military rule does not come back. He is in a unique position to ensure that the transition from abnormal military rule to a normal governmental process is permanent (see Ekeh 1999). We cannot ask him to do more. Nigeria must rely on an enthusiastic leadership in this quest for a renewed constitutional order. My reading of Nigerians is that they prefer to entrust this important task to the leaders of their ethnic associations. Nor must Nigerians who were elected to the National Assembly over-interpret their mandate to include in their powers an imposition of a defective constitutional order on their country. We all hope that Abuja’s chieftains will avoid dry legalities and do the patriotic thing of allowing Nigerians to work out a new constitutional order for the future existence of the nation. The President and the National Assembly will be lending an important hand to the making of history by creating a serious environment for discussing Nigeria’s constitutional affairs that is free of intimidation and violence. Those of them who want to be engaged in discussions of constitutional matters should do so without acting like military officers who have imposed on us numerous administrative handbooks which they have falsely labelled as constitutions.
An important reason for entering such a plea before the Nigerian public is that currently there is an attempt to hang on us the so-called 1999 Constitution. Before embarking on the making of a valid Constitution, it is important that we offer reasons why the so-called Abdulsami Abubakar Constitution of 1999 is an abnormality in the annals of constitution-making. It was a document that was drawn up in a hurry at the behest of the Military’s Provisional Ruling Council in 1999. Various groups of Nigerians advised against such haste. In this regard allow me to quote from the views of Nigerian Scholars For Dialogue in its submission to the Justice Niki Tobi Panel that the Provisional Ruling Council gave the task of sifting through civilian views on the Constitution. In 1999, Nigerian Scholars for Dialogue wrote:
Nothing is more important in the political culture and history of a nation than the Constitution by which its citizens are ruled. Nigerian Scholars for Dialogue therefore view with utmost seriousness the debates that the Military Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, has asked for under the auspices of Constitution Debate Co-ordinating Committee (CDCC). We assume that General Abubakar wishes to hand over to a civilian regime a constitutional mandate that will enhance the legitimacy of his civilian successor in office. We note with regret that this difficult task has been given a time span of less than two months.
There is a grave danger that the constitutional process for Nigeria will become a trivial undertaking which is viewed as a ritual that should be ventured into several times in the course of a decade or two. A nation’s constitution is its most solemn document. Preparing it is a sacred and weighty undertaking that should not be addressed lightly. The disrespect for the Nigerian Constitution by the history of military rule should not be compounded by an assumption that the supreme law by which Nigeria will be ruled under a democratic order can be rushed through with military dispatch. Nigerian Scholars for Dialogue strongly advise those on whom this solemn responsibility falls to understand the full weight of their charge. If the process and substance of the resulting constitution are damaged, history will judge those entrusted with this sacred duty harshly for endangering the nation’s political future. On the other hand, history will be benevolent toward General Abdulsalami Abubakar’s regime if he does the right thing. We plead for a reasoned approach to this serious obligation.
Justice Niki Tobi added his caution in doing his military duty as commanded by the Provisional Ruling Council when he presented his “report” to the Military Head of State.. After noting the “short notice” and the hurried work of his Committee, he added “It is the hope of the Constitution Debate Co-ordinating Committee (CDCC) that the Provisional Ruling Council will implement the desires, wishes and the views of Nigerians in the making of the Constitution and enthrone a truly democratic polity.” It was a vain hope and the document that resulted from that administrative exercise by the Provisional Ruling Council is an abnormality.
A major provision of that Constitution has already been flagrantly violated. One of its clearest statements concerns religion. Article 10 of Chapter One of the so-called 1999 Constitution reads as follows: “Prohibition of State Religion: The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.” What else does the regime of Sharia in numerous states of the Nigerian federation mean if it is not the establishment of a state religion? It would be wrong for its authors to preach adherence to the other provisions of the so-called 1999 Constitution when a major article in it is violated by forces that its authors support.
The irregularities in the authorship of the so-called 1999 Constitutions provide us all with the strongest reason for rejecting its validity. It was secretly made by a military council that in no way represented Nigeria’s magnificent diversities. The Military’s Provisional Ruling Council in 1999, which rushed through the secret deliberations on the Constitutions, left out huge areas of Nigeria.. There were no women in its ranks. No one in that secret military enclave was up to the age of sixty in 1999. The Niger Delta and Igbo regions of the country were sparsely represented in that Provisional Ruling Council. Nor can it be shown that Yoruba West was adequately represented. The customary notion that in constitution-making the final verdict is made by the people in a referendum or by their representatives was forbidden in the making of this so-called 1999 Constitution. In other words, Nigerians and their ethnic nationalities were left out at the making of the document that is being forced on Nigeria as its Constitution. It is a recipe for continuing illegitimacy of the institutions of our government. It is wrong to push for the amendment of what is an obvious abnormality. The Nigerian people had no choice when the so-called 1999 Constitution was offered by a military dictatorship as the basis for the conduct of a civilian regime whose election, be it remembered, preceded the so-called 1999 Constitution.
In my view, Nigeria has no choice but to make a fresh Constitution. In doing so, we must learn from the lessons of the 1950s. In that decade, Nigerians asked fundamental questions of their future. Various regions and peoples of the country had to decide whether they could function together as a modern nation-state and if so on what common grounds. There was no assurance in the 1950s that amalgamated colonial Nigeria would stay together. The self-government of Western and Eastern Nigeria took place in 1957 whereas self-government for Northern Nigeria was in 1959. That was possible because each of Nigeria’s political units was weighing its future. In the end, commonsense and compromise and the forging of a national consensus allowed us all to remain as one Nigeria. It should be clear that after military rule, Nigerians are once again faced with daunting problems that require the posing of fundamental questions that will be understood by average Nigerians and it ethnic nationalities. The answers to these fundamental questions will provide the groundwork for any new efforts at making a people’s Constitution for Nigeria.
Two such fundamental questions have emerged from our colonial and postcolonial history. They are as follows. First: Who own the Nigerian State? Second: What is the purpose of the Nigerian State? These questions were implicit in the Constitutional deliberations of the 1950s. The sordid era of military rule and some recent national contentions require that they be spelt out carefully and made the basis of our new efforts at rebuilding our national existence. Every meaningful constitutional charter — ranging from the pioneering English Magna Carta of 1215 (3) to the rebellious Dutch Declaration of Independence of 1581 or the daring American Declaration of Independence in 1776 or the comprehensive French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789 or the sagacious African National Congress’s Freedom Charter (1955) — in every one of these instances, there is a seed idea that is gleaned from the political history of the society that seeks a constitutional order. I argue before the Nigerian people that the two central questions of our times concern (a) the ownership of the Nigerian State and (b) the purpose of the Nigerian State. It is upon these precepts that any future Nigerian Constitution should be founded. Permit me to elaborate on their implications.
First, Nigerians and their ethnic nationalities own the space, culture, and resources that make up what is known as Nigeria. By their Constitution, they agree to empower a Federal Government and Regional and State Governments to act as trustees for the development of these assets and to manage their common affairs for the benefit of the Nigerian people and their ethnic nationalities. Therefore, only the laws made by the Federal Government on behalf of the entire Nigerian people or by Regional and State Governments on behalf of relevant fractions of the Nigerian people, and on the grounds of Nigeria’s Constitution and the Constitutions of Regional and State segments of Nigeria, shall hold sway. Having suffered from regimes of decrees from colonial rule and military rule, Nigerians and their ethnic nationalities reject any further decrees — be they clerical or secular. Any laws that are not made within the space of Nigeria shall not be applied in Nigeria unless they are international conventions that are compatible with Nigerian laws and that are adopted by Nigeria’s legislative assemblies as authorized by Nigeria’s Constitution. On no account, shall the Federal or Regional and State Governments alienate lands and waters from Nigerians and their ethnic nationalities who own these resources.
Second, the supreme purpose of the Nigerian State is to enhance the welfare of the Nigerian people and of their ethnic nationalities and to contribute to the development of human civilization, ensuring that peoples of African descent receive their due respect in the international community. While Nigerians and their Constitution will acknowledge and respect the diverse religious views that Nigerians hold, none shall take precedence above others and none shall dictate the purpose of the Nigerian state.
These are statements that I believe average Nigerians will understand. Once we arrive at a consensus on these fundamental issues, we can craft a sound constitution whose articles will reflect the values that Nigerians treasure. Such a Constitution will necessarily be similar to the 1963 Constitution in the sense that it allows Regions or States to draw up their Constitutions which, while being compatible with the Constitution of the Federation, will attend to their unique wishes and circumstances. Matters concerning resource control and management of economic resources, which the 1963 Constitution largely consigned to Regional Governments, will logically follow from the above statements of the master principles of a Constitution. The Land Use Decree of 1978 will disappear from our public affairs by the force of such a Constitution without the embarrassment that a repeal will create for President Olusegun Obasanjo who was its author.
Such fundamental assumptions group together men and women who hold these principles as a valid basis for co-existence. I believe the above statements reflect the consensus that was worked out in the 1950s by Sir Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and their followers. What was good for Nigerian pioneers of the 1950s ought to be good for Nigerians of our generation. However, in the spirit of the 1950s, there should be a window of opportunity open to any regions and their ethnic nationalities that do not accept the fundamental Constitutional axioms that most Nigerians regard as a proper basis for our common existence. Such regions and states should exercise their choice of exiting from the Nigerian federation if they disagree with the rest of Nigeria on these fundamental issues.
Once we arrive at a common consensus and definition of what master principles should guide our future Constitution, such as those that I have canvassed above, then I believe it is proper for those sections of the country that accept them to explore the prospect of drawing up a constitutional document that should be presented to a National Conference on the Constitution. The strategy of calling a National Conference without such a document is unattractive and leaves too much room for mischief-making. The idea of the Constitution is sufficiently important to propel those Regions and States that accept a common grounded definition of its master principles to begin work on it. There should be a forum open to the recognized ethnic associations — Arewa, Afenifere, Middle Belt Forum, Union of Niger Delta, and Ohaneze — to indicate their choices in the matter of the fundamental assumptions of the Constitution. Indeed, I can see no legal or moral impediment in the path of the leadership of any of the recognized ethnic associations, which accept common assumptions underlying a new Constitution, from moving ahead to pave the way for a new Constitutional document. In my judgement, they would be performing a patriotic act if they would empanel a task force to work out a Constitutional document for the consideration of their people and for possible presentation before a National Constitutional Conference. Such a procedure need not be left to a Government that is reluctant to embark on a new constitutional order. Nor does its venue need to be some expensive Abuja hotel. Great constitutional documents are rarely ever conceived in places of such extravagant splendour as Abuja.
SOME CONCLUDING THOUGHTS: THE CHALLENGES AHEAD
I have come before you with an idea that is national in scope. There are good reasons why many of you will ask whether attending to Nigeria’s Constitutional problems is a responsibility about which Urhobo National Assembly, whose duties properly focus on Urhobo welfare, should bother itself. There are some of you who are comfortable in life or at least who have some access to the largesse at Abuja. Some of you may well ask, why not leave these matters to the Almighty Federal Government at Abuja to handle?. Others may wonder whether these leadership ideas should not be left to the three big ethnic groups to resolve and then we follow their decisions.
In concluding this address, I wish to attend to these questions by arguing before you that it would be suicidal for our people and culture to let Nigerian constitutional problems remain as they are currently or for those of us in the Niger Delta to entrust our destiny to the leadership of other ethnic nationalities outside our region. I wish to offer you three reasons why our leadership is not only desirable but indeed imperative in the present depressing circumstances in Nigeria.
First, we should not assume that we are as handicapped as we were in the 1950s. Then, we were the awkward followers of some national leaders. Now, in the year 2001, there are significant groups inside the Niger Delta, and outside of it, who look to the leadership that we can provide in our common affairs. The intellectual resources that Urhobos and other Niger Deltans can provide in the matter of the theory and practice of constitutions are considerable and will rival what is available to any of the majority ethnic nationalities in Nigeria. Moreover, we do have a voice in Nigeria’s public media. If, despite these endowments, we turn away from helping to shape our constitutional future, we may discover to our sorrow that the outcome will lead to the utter endangerment of our future and our children’s future.
Second, the absence of a vigorous constitutional government in Nigeria is posing enormous problems to all regions of Nigeria. But no area is suffering more than the Niger Delta. There are vested interests in the nation who reap fortunes from the Niger Delta in circumstances of confusion in the constitutional affairs of Nigeria. Our people will suffer the most in the face of constitutional chaos because there are groups and individuals who regard the Niger Delta as their “cash cow.”
Third, there is a deep-seated reason why we in the Niger Delta should push for reform so that the resources in our region will be much better managed. This grave reason may be stated as follows: If the exploitation of the Niger Delta continues at its current pace, then it is almost certain that the Niger Delta as we know it will not last into the next century. Our culture, our lands and waters, and the survival of our peoples are at risk with the infinite greed of those who believe that the petroleum resources of the Niger Delta are there for them to harvest in any manner available until they are exhausted.
That last reason calls for a citation of concrete instances of threats to our ways of life. I will provide two classes of these instances that have especial significance for our corner of the Niger Delta, but about which the rest of the Niger Delta will feel our pain.
First Instance: Oil and Gas Pipelines and Petroleum Oil Fires
Twenty five years ago, in 1976, the Nigerian military dictatorship, which Murtala Muhamed and Olusegun Obasanjo led, laid oil pipelines through several Urhobo communities. Their construction was undertaken in order to drain crude petroleum oil from the Niger Delta to a refinery at Kaduna, in privileged Northern Nigeria, hundreds of miles away from the Niger Delta. There was no consultation for the consent of the Urhobo communities through whose homesteads and farms Nigeria’s central government’s oil pipelines carelessly crossed. Now these pipelines have aged and they are tormented by sophisticated thieves who have access to privileged information and equipment for siphoning oil from the pipelines.
On October 17, 1998, a huge oil fire broke out at Idjerhe, a western Urhobo community, from one of these pipelines owned by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. It killed more than a thousand people in minutes, roasting to death hundreds in their own homes and in their farms where they labored for their own survival. If a tragedy of such size and causation had occurred in Great Britain, France, or Japan, a national day of mourning would be declared and a strong accounting of the government’s conduct would be requested. If Idjerhe’s hell fire had occurred in India, Pakistan, Greece, or any nations elsewhere where governments value their citizens, the relevant government would cry out for international help, attracting billions of dollars to help the victimized communities. But Abuja did not care about a thousand lives in the Niger Delta. Indeed, the military Head of State, Abdusalami Abubakar, without any investigation, denounced the victims of the Idjerhe Fire Disaster as the cause of their own death and troubles!
A year later, on September 17-18, 1999, a similar fire broke out at Ekakpamre in eastern Urhobo from an oil spill in facilities owned by Shell in which the Federal Government of Nigeria has shares. The affected communities had complained in vain about the dangers that the oil spill posed to their lives and properties. In the year 2000 alone, in quick succession, a rash of petroleum oil spills and fires destroyed whole communities along the Federal Government’s ageing oil pipelines in the Warri-Sapele corridor. On February 12, 2000, a major oil spill at Amukpe ruined a vital portion of the Ethiope River, destroying fish resources and plant and animal livelihood. On July 10-14, an inferno of fire consumed the town of Egborode. A BBC reporter who caught the destructive power of this fire in its raw state likened it to a “World War scene” (see Phillips 2000). A more spectacular oil spill fire occurred at Elume River on November 16, 2000, destroying everything in its path.. (See Petroleum Oil Fire Disasters 1998-2000).
What is frightening about these fires is that they only betoken the dangers ahead. There is no indication anywhere that Abuja is following any strategies that will lessen these dangers of great fires in our lands. On the contrary, pursuing a headstrong policy, Nigeria’s Federal Government insists on constructing a West African Gas Pipeline Project which will carry gas from the Niger Delta to the West African nations of the Republic of Benin, Togo, and Ghana (see UN Integrated Regional Information Network 2000). This project, in the course of time, will definitely worsen the potential for graver fires. These are the evil that a government can do to its people. Should anyone be surprised at the statement that the Niger Delta as we know it may not last into the next century, if these destructive fires continue, combined with oil spills and gas flares?
Second Instance: Blocked Rivers and Dredging of the River Niger
Less than fifty years ago, rivers, streams, and lakes criss-crossed the entire Urhobo landscape — as they did the lands of many other ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta. They constitute the water networks of the Niger Delta. They are all mysteriously connected in the vast framework of what is called the Niger Delta — in ways that are not visually obvious.
Today, these invaluable assets are in grave danger. Many of the streams and lakes have dried up. Others are threatened by weeds which form sediments that can, and do, turn our streams and lakes into solid lands.
Why is this happening? One can take a guess from the timing of their occurrence. These water bodies have been with us for thousands of years. Their decay has occurred in the last forty years or so. It is entirely possible that there is a multi-faceted causation involved in this matter. Foreign fast-growing weeds that have drifted into our region have contributed their share. But the decay of our rivers, streams, and lakes have occurred at the same time that dams have been built on the River Niger, causing unusual interference on the water level and distribution of the Niger’s tributaries. In these circumstances, the proper thing to do is to reclaim these rivers and lakes which already have their natural water ways. The World Bank has been engaged in such reclamation ventures in various regions of the world.. Our own Professor Austin Egborge (1998), from the University of Benin, has suggested very simple and sensible ways of making these important efforts. Any wise government in the Niger Delta would increase its value in the eyes of the people if it engaged in the restoration of our endangered rivers and streams.
Not surprisingly, the Federal Government of Nigeria at Abuja has not cared anything about the tremendous cost to our people and to Nigeria from the loss of these waterways, which is linked to Kainji Dam. However, it has responded to the political needs of well-placed Nigerian communities in a manner that will complicate our problems in the Niger Delta. Of the many questionable contracts that Abdulsalami Abubakar’s military regime gave out before leaving office was one for the dredging of the River Niger. Its purpose is overtly political. It is said to be for the sake of providing river ports for Niger State and Anambra State. It seems to matter little that there are numerous ports in Nigeria that are underutilized — at Sapele, Burutu, Port Harcourt, Warri, Koko, Calabar, etc. The present civilian government at Abuja has brushed aside the cry from environmentalists and from Niger Deltans that the dredging of the River Niger may cause enormous damage to the Niger Delta. Without any credible impact studies, the Federal Government is hurrying to embark on this dangerous scheme of dredging the River Niger.
What dangers will the dredging of the River Niger pose to the Niger Delta? First and foremost, it will lead to enormous flooding. There are currently low-lying islands and peninsulas in virtually every state of the Niger Delta, including Ilaje areas of Ondo State, that will be flooded. Many of them may be wiped out of existence. This is a problem that will touch many ethnic nationalities, including low-lying communities in Igboland, that are largely in the riverine areas. One can imagine several lands in Itsekiri, Ijaw, and Efik areas of the Niger Delta that will be fully endangered. Houses and human beings may be washed into the sea.
There is another type of flooding that will come with the dredging of the River Niger. Blocked tributaries — rivers and streams that were fed from the Niger before the damming mania of the 1960s-70s — will no longer be able to receive excess water from the Niger. Such water may now find new avenues which may well be the streets of Ughelli, Port Harcout, Calabar, or Warri. We who own these lands should be informed of these dangers. We who own the Niger Delta should fight to ensure that any dredging of the River Niger is postponed until its consequences are well understood, allowing us to secure our lands and waters.
But these dangers also remind us that we need a government that fights for us, not one that does not care whether we are burnt to death from government’s oil fires or whether we are washed away into the Atlantic by man-made floods. That is to say, we need constitutional reforms that will allow us to own the government that is responsible for managing our resources. That is the essence of the doctrine of resource control for which Senator David Dafinone, Chief James Ibori and quite a few others have spoken. Only maximum federalism, which will bring government close to our people, can ensure that Urhoboland and the Niger Delta will last into another century and beyond. Therein lies the power of the intellectual argument which Professor Itse Sagay, Dr. G. G. Darah and quite a few others have laboured to outline. The status quo is unacceptable. Under the current constitutional impasse, Abuja will bury the Niger Delta in hell fires, uncontrollable floods, and poisoned environments. We must summon all our resources and leadership attributes to prevent such fate. We must organize to realize a constitutional form of government that will protect the Niger Delta and our futures and children’s futures. What does it profit a man if he amasses great personal fortunes but suffer the loss of his homeland? Yes, our homeland is worth fighting for. The stakes are high. We should not be intimidated. We should join with others to accomplish a new constitutional order for Nigeria — or for those parts of Nigeria that accept with us a common definition of our desired future.
2. Tekena Tamuno, the respected Ibadan historian, tells us that the origin of the Nigeria Police Force is the [British] West African Frontier Force, a paramilitary organization with quasi-police functions formed in 1898: “By far the most crucial factor in understanding the existence in Nigeria of semi-military police lay in the nature of Nigerian opposition to British jurisdiction and rule. …. These sources of friction … emphasized the need for troops and police as the ready instrument of enforcing government orders when peaceful overtures failed…. In the circumstances, the police formed the front line of defence in Britain’s attempts to maintain law and order while soldiers afforded the last — at least in theory. Where however the Constabulary housed, as it were, both the soldiers and the police, the distinction was meaningless” (Tamuno 1970: 39):
3. Thus, consider the import of Article 39 of this document of the early thirteenth century: “No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseized or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimised, neither will we attack him or send anyone to attack him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.”
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French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen (1789). Reprinted in Seymour Martin Lipset, ed. The Encyclopedia of Democracy, Volume IV, pp. 1445-1446. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1995.
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Usman, Yusufu Bala. 2000. “Ignorance, Knowledge, and Democratic Politics in Nigeria.” Paper presented at a symposium on “Good Governance in Nigeria: The Legacy of Mallam Aminu Kano” Organised by the Centre for Democratic Research and Training, Mambayya House, Bayero University, Kano, Tuesday, 17th April, 2001.” Available at http://waado.org/NigerDelta/Essays/BalaUsman/Usman.html.
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