Saturday, 19 May 2012

Intellectuals and the Crisis of Nation-statism in Nigeria: The Oil Minorities of the Niger Delta

Several intellectuals have been at the forefront of the struggle for self-determination and local autonomy for the ethnic minorities of the Niger Delta – Nigeria’s oil producing region. Examples include Professor Ebiegberi Alagoa, Professor Tekena Tamuno, Dr. Ben Naanen (former Secretary-General of the Movement for the
Survival of Ogoni People, MOSOP),Alfred Ilenre, leader of the Ethnic Minority Rights Organisation of Africa(EMIROAF), the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, among others. Since the death of Saro-Wiwa, Oronto Douglas, a lawyer, and vice-chairman of the Environ -mental Rights Action (ERA) and a leader of the Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC), and Dr. Ike Okonta, have continued to articulate the case of the oil minorities of the Niger Delta, both locally and globally.

For the purpose of this paper, the focus will be mainly on the work of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a poet, writer, environmentalist, Ogoni nationalist and activist, who was able, through his writings speeches, and networking activities, to take the case of the Ogoni demand for self-determination to the front burner of national and global discourse. The case of Ken Saro-Wiwa is particularly instructive not just because under his leadership MOSOP was able to success -fully globalise its struggle against the Nigerian Federal Government and Shell, but also because Saro-Wiwa had been an ally of the federal side during the Nigerian civil war, and a friend of Nigerian military officers. Yet, by the1990s up till his hanging on the orders of a tribunal in November 1995, Saro-Wiwa had become an implacable opponent of the federal government and Nigeria’s military rulers.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, considered himself first and foremost as a writer. To a large extent he devoted his literary skills and ideas to the promotion of the Ogoni cause, which placed him on a collision course with the Nigerian state. In his closing statement to the military-appointed tribunal that was to convict him and eight others, Saro-Wiwa pointed out that:

…I am a man of peace, of ideas. Appalled by the denigrating poverty of my people who live on a richly endowed land, distressed by their political marginalisation and economic strangulation, angered by the devastation of their land, their ultimate heritage, anxious to preserve their right to life and to a decent living, and determined to usher to this country as a whole a fair and just democratic system which protects everyone and every ethnic group and given us all a valid claim to human civilisation. I have devoted all my intellectual and material resources, my very life to a cause in which I have total belief.

As an intellectual, Saro-Wiwa was embedded in the politics seeking to transform the Ogoni from a marginalised community to one that was equal with other ethnic groups in the federation, and that could control ‘its’ oil resources. In his days as a supporter of the federal government, hoping that this would translate into the recognition of Ogoni rights and a measure of autonomy and access to oil, Saro-Wiwa had exhorted the Ogoni ‘ reassert ourselves side by side with all other nationalities in the Nigerian federation. We cannot let this opportunity slip past us. If we do, posterity will not forgive us, and we shall disappear as a people from the face of the earth.

In Saro-Wiwa’s calculation, his people, the Ogoni, would have no future in Biafra, since in his view they would continue to suffer under the Igbo who had dominated the Eastern region, and who had marginalised the minorities there. To him liberation would come from siding with federal forces to remove Biafran claims to the oil in the Niger Delta. Yet, by the end of the war, Saro-Wiwa lamented that ‘even before the war ended, the Federal Government had begun a plot against the Ogoni and other minorities’. A Commission (the Dina Commission) was set up to explore ways of expropriating the rights of the inhabitants of the oil-bearing areas.18 At the heart of Saro-Wiwa’s complaint lay the fact that in spite of Ogoni support for the federal side, they had been severely shortchanged, and even lost access to oil, in a context where as a minority they were not well represented in federal institutions. In his view the nation-state project had betrayed Ogoni trust and support.

Thus, by 1980, the federal government had left the oil-bearing areas with only 1.5 percent of the proceeds of oil production. Before the military seized power, the governments in the areas were entitled to at least 50 percent of such proceeds, in addition to rent and royalties. The point is thus made that the Ogoni had been deceived and cheated by an integrative hegemonic nation-state project, that was also threatening them with genocide. Saro-Wiwa therefore claimed that:

...the minorities of the Niger Delta and its environs in particular must remain awake to the real threat that is posed to the very existence by the politics of competitive ethnicity and involuted loyalty of the majority groups. Indigenous colonialism and blind materialism of international capitalism which prospects for oil in the belly of the delta ring the death knell of these peoples.

In this way he sensitised the people to the dangers that the integrative nation-state project, controlled by the big three ethnic nationalities in Nigeria(Hausa-Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba), and global oil capital posed to their survival. Beyond this he also proposed a solution embedded in self-determination in a federation of equal ethnic units. It was this that informed the MOSOP ideology of ERECTISM, and the Ogoni Bill of Rights (OBR). ERECTISM – Ethnic autonomy, Resource and Environ mental Control – was designed to win back the control of oil from the federal government, and provide a constitutional recognition for the respect of their rights as minorities. But these demands struck at the very heart of federal hegemony and the centralised and homogenising nation-state project. It therefore raised suspicion and anxiety among the hegemonic elite, who depended on oil to reproduce themselves as a class-in-power, and to keep Nigeria connected to the international capitalist system as a supplier of cheap oil. They were afraid that if the oil minorities gained control of oil, they would have too much wealth and power at their disposal and might attempt to secede and break up Nigeria. There was also another view, that for the purpose of balanced national development and stability, the oil wealth should not be the exclusive property of the oil minorities, but should be held in trust by the federal government. The response of the federal government was largely anti-intellectual, relying more on the use of co-optation and force. But this is not to gloss over the group of intellectuals that loyally served the Nigerian military in justifying the repression of the Ogoni, and other obnoxious policies.

Saro-Wiwa devoted a great deal of his energy to his writings: poems, novels, books, newspaper articles and speeches in which he articulated the case of the Ogoni, and campaigned against federal expropriation of the oil resources in the Niger Delta. He argued that this was immoral and unjust, and threatened the very survival of the people of the region. These ideas caused a heated debate within Nigeria as well as across the world over issues of minority rights, environ mental rights corporate (oil) responsibility in the third world, the inequities of military rule, and the national question. Saro-Wiwa’s intellectualism also connected with his activism as a leader of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP).

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