The Ijaws: A nation in distress
Continued from yesterday
I HAVE been accused of being like Mark Anthony making a speech after Caesar’s assassination : “I come to bury Caesar, and not to praise him.” As far as corruption is concerned, Mr. President must use the same broom to sweep it out in both the PDP and the APC. We wait with baited breadth.
The Ijaws are bigger than the Urhobos, the Tivs, the Idomas, the Ibibios yet they lack the power of these groups. The oil that feeds the Federal Government is mainly from Ijaw land and waters. Has anyone thought of how much it would cost to clean these lands and waters?
The reality is that when the oil dries up, the IOCs will pick up and leave. This has been the lot of small powerless people the world over – look at what has happened to Southern Louisiana where the blacks and poor whites live.
Less than 30 years ago, there was one petrol station in Yenagoa in the whole of Bayelsa. There was none anywhere else: in Buguma, Tombia, Bakana, Abonnema, Okrika, even Bonny. None in Brass, Nembe, Oporokuma, etc. In all these places till to-day Kerosene, which is their main fuel for cooking, costs more than anywhere else in Nigeria? Children still go to school in canoes and buildings are still on sticks jutting out of the water. There is nowhere in Ijaw land with potable water to drink. We drink from wells. The toilets are still at the water side, next to where they bathe. This degree of poverty is no excuse for the excesses of our ministers and governors who obviously have not learnt the art of hiding their wealth. What wealth is there to hide when 80 per cent of the buildings are made of mangrove trees. There is no need to go to Brazil to see how the natives live – just a few miles out of Port Harcourt or Yenagoa or Bomadi or Patani and you are in Ijaw country. The water has the inevitable shine of oil spillages.
The people stand by the waterside and watch their land being drained of its wealth as the service boats and badges speed along to destinations unknown. The Ijaws are a modern misfit; cannot move speedily because the boats cost too much. Cannot keep nurses and doctors in the cottage hospitals built because these people have no after work recreation; there is no recreation club in any Ijaw town that I know, so no football, tennis, billiards, etc. The people are just emerging from ravages that insect parasites visit on their hairs, their legs and feet – lice, jiggers, etc. The men have to go further afield for fishing; the women sell next to nothing. Yet their culture is rich and calls for wealth. The Chiefs are so poor that they are no better than beggars and their Local Government Chairmen know this and treat them with the ignominy beggars deserve. Chiefs go to parties with plastic bags to carry away food and drinks. The elegant chiefs’ dresses many see when these chiefs go to Abuja, Port Harcourt, Asaba, Yenogoa – are a chimera – a phantom of an age long gone to which they pretend to succeed. No serious Ijaw man stays in his village – to do what?
He may have a decent house in Port Harcourt, Yenagoa, Asaba, Warri and visits home like a holiday maker at the weekends to see what he can get.
If an Ijaw man is president or governor, he will try to sleep with five or six women every two or three hours of the day. He will drink, usually with his friends, with complete abandon. It is not that he does not realise the weight of his office. He does. But it does not matter to his psyche. We drink with one glass out of a basin of home-made spirit. If it is a woman and she has money, she will spend it like water. She will order containers from China that will seat for six years without opening it. If she sees new things, she will order more; she has no recollection what she has ordered or how much. She will beg her husband to kingdom come for more money for more orders. If she is rich enough she will buy houses in almost all cities and may never enter one of them. She will have no idea where her documents are.
All the above is obviously a caricature. Even so, given the resources he so abundantly has, if Nigeria’s law on minerals were different, the Ijaws would react differently.
In conclusion, the Ijaws have to stop being small minded and come together. The Federal Government destroyed an Ijaw town which today remains destroyed. If we apply the same rule, how much of the North East, Niger, Abuja, etc would be destroyed, flattened, because of Boko Haram? The Ijaws were being punished for failure to stop an insurgency. The Ijaws are consumed by small minded jealousies: Okrika vs Ogoloma vs Bakana; inter chieftaincy fights in Bonny and Finima; Abonnema vs Buguma, Nembe vs Brass and so forth. These divisions sap Ijaw power and make them open to exploitation. Their land is polluted, their rivers are non-habitable, their people remain the poorest; the pollution in Ijaw land cannot be ended given decades of pollution by oil and gas; their livelihood is precarious. And now to the rest of Nigeria, the Ijaws are saying that no one has the right to ask an Ijaw man “what have you done with the money we gave to you.” When last I checked, you cannot give me what is mine.
• Dr. (Ambassador) Cole, OFR, writes from Lagos.