Poetic reconnaissance of Niger Delta in songs of fuellessness and testament of hope- Part 1
In recent times, considerable accretions of literary works have generated so much scholarly engagement in the sphere of environmental literature. This is a welcome development, considering the indispensable role of the environment to man’s existence. Hence, the environment has been described as one of the liveliest and topical issues of our day. However, the wholesomeness which should sustain the environment globally has been breached in many instances. A good example is the Niger Delta environment which is in a pathetic condition with absolute devastation. Many scholars hold the view that the region hosts a dozen of multinationals and also produces what accounts for 80 percent of Nigeria’s annual revenue. As a result of the destructive impact of oil exploration and upstream activities in the region since the 1960s, the entire environment has been severely vandalized. Over the years the people of the region have sought better ways to articulate and advance their interests in the form of petitions to the oil companies, without yielding the desired result. This neglect by the stakeholders is what has erupted and escalated the present crisis in the Niger Delta region.
Crisis, often times, is provoked by official neglect, denial of the rights of the individual, sense of injustice and other allied factors. The Niger Delta situation is not an exception. Consequently, diverse experiences abound in the region such as the vehement resistance against repression by the rebellion of Isaac Adaka Boro, a radical nationalist of Ijaw descent who championed a revolt against the criminal neglect of the oil producing Ijaw communities.
Another example is the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) once led by the late environmentalist rights activists and writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, a movement which has been described as the most articulate and coordinated in the Niger Delta region. Its demands place emphasis on the pre-colonial autonomy of Ogoni land, the degradation of its eco-system by oil exploration, the total marginalisation of its people within the present federal structure and also for it to be granted autonomous status within the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others, however, paid the supreme price for the struggle when they were brutally killed by hanging during the late General Sani Abacha’s regime, on November 10, 1995.
The razing of Odi, a Niger Delta Ijaw Community by the Olusegun Obasanjo-led government in 1999 is not left out as part of the experiences of bloody repression in the region. A critical evaluation of the entire scenario shows that the waves of acrimony and perceived utter neglect, relegation and discrimination against the Niger Delta people and environment by past and successive governments are that which informed or engendered the present crisis in the region. However, the crisis in recent years has taken new dimensions of protests. Protests in the Niger Delta region are as a result of poverty in the midst of plenty.
This is glaring in the dearth of basic infrastructures and the degradation of the entire eco-system. The continuous interest of the government in maintaining the region only for revenue purposes, militarization of the region and suppression and killing of dissenting voices could probably be the reasons why the locals protested greatly through aggressive hostage taking and hijacking of oil workers and so on as a way of relieving their pains and sufferings.
In addition, the pattern of repression perfected by military response in the region has resorted to the formation of numerous radical local militant groups who felt that the exploration of oil is destroying their environment and source of livelihood. These radical groups include Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), The Niger Delta Youth Coalition(NDYC), Ijaw Youth Council(IYC), and Joint Response Command (JRC). What obtains in the Niger Delta is a fight for national identity and a quest for self-determination by an oppressed postcolonial people of Nigeria who seek a means of liberation and meaningful identity. Barrett echoes this when he remarked that the story of the underdevelopment and neglect of the Niger Delta is well known in the world. Almost all of Nigeria’s oil and gas resources come from or around the region but the social and infrastructural development there is abysmally inadequate.
This tendency to enslave and dehumanise the people of the region was what led the late Ken SaroWiwa, to label the whole situation as war. He remarks, “In this most sophisticated and unconventional war, no bones are broken, no blood is spilled and no one is maimed. Yet, men, women and children die, flora and fauna perish, the air and water are poisoned, and finally, the land dies”. Thus, the war for emancipation from the avaricious hold of the government and multinationals has not only taken the foregoing into consideration, but also attracted polemical literary responses.
Darah argues that the radicalization of the political space of the Niger Delta has had its effects on the works of writers, thinkers, activists and cultural mediators. With the wave of the present crisis in the region, the Niger Delta has attracted so many curiosities. The essence and trajectory is to bring a radical change in the region’s political spheres.
Benji Egede is one poet from the Niger-Delta whose dimension of poetic imagination consciously condemns the nefarious and brutish activities of the Nigerian state against the region. A close look at his poetry reflects themes that overtly castigate the present disadvantaged experience of the region globally. Egede’s poetry, employing with astonishing success diverse literary styles of poetic engagement, painstakingly highlights the basic problems of the region as well as a way out of it as this discourse intends to unveil through selected poetry from his poetic oeuvre. What one finds in Egede’s poetry is a vehement cry against the intolerant postcolonial subjugation of the Niger-Delta.
His poetry does not only project its verbal essence, it also anticipates a physical intervention by daring the dictators in the crusade against the dastard and murderous exploitations in the region. His poetry brings to the fore the harsh realities of a region that is degraded, devastated, humiliated, harassed and molested. Thus, his thematic focus is on the present African world of social degeneracy, political chaos, inept leadership, exploitation, futility, poverty, dehumanization and on those things that have ceaselessly cogged Africa’s wheel of progress.
As a chronicler and a watchdog of his world, he uses language to capture the very essence of his message and ideas. So, in terms of subject matter, Egede, as a poet, is not distant and also does not write art for art’s sake; rather, he familiarises his subject so that the people can read and also recognise their experience. This remarkable trend embraces Osundare’s remark that a writer in Africa “is a person that people look up to, in whose work people are trying to see how they relate to the social, cultural and political problems that we are facing in Africa”. Egede’s work exposes the social rot and moral degradation in postcolonial Niger Delta.
His works show deep concern for his environment where there is intensive struggle against oppression and postcolonial slavery. His works bring variety of vigour and freshness to Nigerian poetry. Ojaide remarks that in “Modern African Poetry, as in Traditional African Songs, there is the focus on current socio-political issues that affect the poet’s people.” A writer is seen as a sensitive voice in the society. He represents the voice of the voiceless using literature as his medium of expression.
Ojaide further asserts that literature has to draw attention to the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots and that it has become a weapon against the denial of basic human rights. In trying to build a great society that we all aspire, writers play a significant role, holding a very crucial position in the creation of literary works that will meet the aspirations of the society, especially, the age long problem of leadership which Osofisan explores as follows:
First by the fiat of colonial masters, then under the post-independence local rulers, we have had no other experience of governance but unfortunate leadership. Virtually, all our governments have been illegitimate—-either it is a government of civilians who have rigged themselves into power or it is a government of soldiers who have shot themselves into power.
Consequently, the writer’s response arises naturally to such barrier that is plaguing his environment. To close his eyes to this acrimony is to betray the land; not just the land, his role as an African culture producer and to deny himself a place in the history of the struggle as contended by Ushie.
Egede, as a social reformer, is devoted to the challenges in the region, serving the exploited Niger-Delta peasantry and by extension Nigeria at large. His poetry, in its own right vividly conveys his concept on the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressors in the Niger-Delta enclave. His aesthetic cravings navigate the miserable and parlous condition of the region vis a vis unrestrained exploitation and dictatorship by the federal government and oil multinationals.
Egede’s poetry collections namely Songs of Fuellessness and Testament of Hope articulate varieties of shocking experiences that confront the region of the Niger-Delta as perpetuated by villains and treacherous tyrants. The poem “Aboh Bye-way” captures the poet’s unhappy disposition about the degradation of the region. This poem, in all subtlety projects a landscape falling into ruins as a result of the absence of vision by the government. Here, Egede tries to expose to the reader in its simplest form the ecological degradation and derelict situation of the region. This is evident in the discriminatory access to development captured through parallelism couched in simple imageries of ‘raw courtesy’, ‘nocturnal beings’, ‘thorny canes’, ‘cold encounter of tse-tse’, ‘feel of clay soil’, etc. The images capture the nemesis of these neglected “rural folks” who suffer unjustly. The essence of suffering portrayed here is but an iota of death sentence passed on the people of the Niger-Delta where their good potable water is polluted by oil spillage.
The problem of the Niger-Delta is mainly from the discovery of oil but was further complicated by the economic conspiracy of the waning Nigerian regimes in collaboration with various exploiting multinational oil companies. The inhabitants of the oil rich area are kept in agonizing conditions because their environment contains natural reserves. The underdevelopment of this region amounts to official neglect as x-rayed in the lines below:
The raw courtesy of rural folks/ the cold encounter of tse-tse,/ the feel of clay soil/ caked and sun beaten/ the lake of oil exploited/ and yet uncared for …/ they all welcome us ( “Aboh Bye-Way”(1)
Of course, the picture here reflects a structural dissonance and aberration of the environmental policies. The lines depict the region as a world that is famished and therefore demands urgent attention.
In “August Greenery”, Egede metaphorically continues in conveying the dehydrated nature of the Niger-Delta region from its original state. The excerpt below showcases a land in a state of mess. Taking a cue from the excerpt, one understands that the land, in its totality, is under the conquest of capitalists. In other words, the lines capture vividly the capitalists’ tendencies in the region:we are witnesses/ witnesses on wheels across the land/ … All nature is green and great/ but pale and greedy is the land/ the land of a thousand tricks/ the land of a thousand holes/ the land of a thousand mice. (“August Greenery”(61)
The poem, “Songs of Fuellessness” projects Benji Egede’s campaign against the leadership of the nation, its subterfuge and insensitivity towards the plight of the people. The poem reflects the “fuelless” condition that plagues the entire region and the nation at large. The poem interrogates some overwhelming issues that have remained unresolved for too long —— the Niger Delta question, the national revenue sharing formula, lack of social amenities and so on. All this is recorded through various unprintable indignities best expressed by the citizenry. The unhappy shift is represented in the scenario of the endless waiting by the neglected citizenry for petroleum, a basic necessity of life, which is now minutely felt as a result of the demonized nature of the product, as x-rayed in the following lines:
Someone said we’re a funny people/ because we export what we lack/ and import what we have…/ Show me just one ignoramus/ Who doesn’t know how laboriously/ we ‘ve moved here and there/ this long cheerless season…/ one lead-tinted bag of sin/ filled with odds and ends, scraps/ of familiar labels —/ the Niger delta question/ the national cake sharing formula/ bureaucracy and power shift/ NEPA, NITEL, discontents and so on./ Must we continue to move about/ with this crushing load of sin…/ we wait, endlessly, longingly, painfully/ at filling stations,/ we wait anxiously, bitterly/ at filling stations/ When shall they end,/ these joyless songs of fuellessness?
What one anticipates in the above poem is an aesthetics in which images are employed by Egede to emphasize an idea that human rights struggle is fundamental in seeking to restore the well-being of the people.
“I Had a Dream” is an example of a biting criticism against political oppression. Here, Egede outlines exilic conditions or incarceration as the height of human abuses. Although, it is presented in the form of a dream, yet the entire scenario illustrates the intricacies of the content as recurrent decimals in the region. This kind of abuses often surface when one is physically involved in the struggle towards the emancipation of his or her people.
I had a dream
I was crowned a ruler,/ as a ruler/ I fiddled with a small ruler/ from my empire maths set/to sketch lines for Occult/ BODMAS of live-and-let-live diplomacy/ I had a dream/ as a ruler/ I lost my mathematical will…/ to big eyes and fast legs./ I had a dream/ I was sent on an exile/ in another land… (Egede, 1998b:9)
The imaginative effulgence of the poem depicts a land that used to be absolutely serene before the emergence of the invaders who came as colonialists and oil multinationals. Prior to the coming of the invaders, the various ethnic groups of the Niger-Delta had a peaceful life of bliss and calm. This kind of calmness is revealed in the poet’s language. Stanzas 1 and 2 capture the loss of such peaceful coexistence by the intrusion of the invaders referred to as ‘big eyes and fast legs’, while stanza 3 trails an abrupt catastrophe which ends where the persona laments greatly of his anguish as a ruler in the land. To Egede, this exilic or political condition, which has been one of the dominant vogues in neo-colonial Africa, is the peak of human relegation.
In “To the Foetus”, Egede’s artistic ideology is brought to the fore. Here, the Niger Delta is conceptualised through the use of sensual images. Egede, in this poem, conceptualises the womb as a humanising environment in sharp contrast to the degraded environment he finds himself. His imperative idea anchors his complete distrust for his environment as a result of inherent social and environmental degeneracy and, as such, he utters his dissatisfaction through warnings that are shocking:The Salem city of the womb/ is no brewery for sorrows/ so stay another nine/ then another nine…/ outside this wall of tears/ and jet-age rage/ Here there’s no butter…/ here there’s no bread/ because there are profuse bakers/ of lies and ideas/ in our mismanagement factory/ so, stay another nine… ( “To the Foetus”(39)
A close study of this poem indicates that the most striking quality of the verse inheres in its symbolic sense. Here, one needs to visualize Benji Egede’s poetic purview in order to capture his ideological essence. In the poem, the land of the Niger Delta is metaphorically captured as a ‘wall of tears’ and ‘jet-age rage’. Egede sees the Niger- Delta environment as an unsafe region, a region beclouded by profuse bakers of lies and ideas, a place where societal values are irredeemably perverted. Part of his grief is as a result of the political and social acrimony that has engulfed the region. The ideological essence of this poetry is to project a contrast between the regions of the Niger Delta and the foetus. He sees the ‘foetus’ as a perfect environment or world for habitation, unlike the Niger-Delta region pervaded with all sorts of crisis and diverse oddities instigated by villainous and treacherous leaderships.
• Edem lectures at the Nigeria Police Academy in Wudil, Kano.
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