Category Archives: Niger Delta

Anti-Gay Laws and the Unification of Nigeria

From The Feminist Wire, an excellent article by Adejoke Tugbiyele “Sexual Identity and Nigerian Culture”   which examines the challenges presented by  the recently signed Same Sex Marriage Bill and the resulting explosion of homophobic violence across the country.

“I spent the latter part of 2013 living and working in Nigeria under a Fulbright Scholarship.  My research dealt with the cross-section of spirituality and sexuality among LGBTQ communities living in that country and how they navigate a largely conservative, religious society.  My first three months in Lagos were very productive.  I attended gay parties with my friend and activist Williams Rashidi, with whom I had many engaging debates about how to bring about change in the minds of others towards queer communities.  I also filmed a panel discussion organized by The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS) at their screening of the new documentary Veil of Silence.  I visited the Shrine of Osun, based in Oshogbo, and interviewed a Yoruba Priest and Priestess about homosexuality within traditional Yoruba culture. I engaged LGBTQ communities in Lagos, as well as Nigerians abroad, about what it meant for them to be queer and Nigerian. The responses I got mirrored many of the issues one would find in mainstream society.  Just like straight people, queer people also need access to good health care, clean drinking water, a better educational system, and so on.  In other words, LGBTQ people are people, and their sexuality does not necessarily make their daily experiences remarkably different from the average Nigerian, African or global citizen.

My research and my self became threatened when President Goodluck Jonathan signed the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMP) earlier this year. It is essentially an anti-gay law, as it includes the banning of all gay parties and organizations. It also states that any public and private display of affection is punishable with 10 years imprisonment. Practically overnight, LGBTQ people, who are worried about things like getting to work on-time just like everyone else, now fear leaving their homes altogether.  Their beloved country had just labeled them criminals. I, as an out-lesbian artist living in Nigeria at the time, had also been criminalized.  Police have essentially enacted a “witch-hunt” for gays, and these were just the stories we could access in the papers. Apparently, other evils have emerged within the past two weeks that have not been covered in Nigerian news outlets. For instance, I just learned that a “gay convert” just stabbed his gay friend to death in Lagos last weekend.  The fear this new law has raised in LGBTQ communities has led people to turn on each other.

The fundamental problem with Nigeria’s anti-gay law is that it unites supposed enemies within Muslim and Christian sects, and it validates and empowers their extremist, conservative views on how we ought to live.  The empowerment of hate groups is not only happening in Nigeria.  With the events unfolding in Russia regarding the Sochi Olympics, the world is beginning to wake up to LGBTQ rights.  Along those lines, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently argued that LGBTQ rights are one of “the civil rights challenges of our time.”

I am concerned, however, that the West would not be pressing this hard on global LGBTQ rights had the events of the Sochi Olympic Games not unfolded. After all, the “corrective rape” of lesbians has been rampant in places like South Africa for decades now. And it was just over three years ago when LGBTQ activist David Kato was brutally murdered in Uganda.  Further, the extortion and bribery of LGBTQ people has become common place in Nigeria, as depicted in a handful of homophobic Nollywood films, such as Hideous Affair (2010). “The Video Closet” by Lindsey Green-Simms and Unoma Azuah thoughfully examines how mainstream homophobic views are reflected in within the regulated Nollywood film industry. Regarding sexual identity, we can argue that this historically dominant view still holds—the African/Black body as “less important” than that of the Western/White body. The sexual revolution that begun in the West must not fall prey to the mistakes of the feminist revolution in the U.S. in order to be considered truly global. We must remember that the emergence of writers like Angela Y. Davis, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde was a response to racist feminisms that excluded Black women. Similarly, African female writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have emerged to continue the feminist wave across the Atlantic. In short, with all the work that still needs to be done globally to combat discrimination, the additional fight for sexual rights in Africa and throughout the diaspora makes the work even more difficult. The sexual revolution must be global and inclusive of all peoples for it to have lasting impact both socially and politically.

Internal problems certainly don’t help. In the case of Nigeria, there are still too many parents that won’t allow their Yoruba daughters to marry Igbo sons. Many Igbo people are calling on the federal government to apologize for the genocide of Biafra. A lot of Hausa people in the North believe that Nigeria belongs to them, since it was handed to them one hundred years ago by the British during the Amalgamation of 1914. Therefore, national unity and identity is not as defined in Nigeria as it is in the United States. To a large extent, believing that the masses will “do nothing” is partly what empowers the federal government to sign such hateful and demeaning laws in the first place.   Continue reading on the Feminist Wire.

 

 

 

 

Odi Massacre & Origins of Militancy in Ijawland

Kaiama – December 1998

Kaiama is a small town in Western Ijaw, about half an hour’s drive from Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa State. Historically Kaiama is famous for being the birth place of Major Isaac Adaka Boro, an Ijaw nationalist who in 1966 proclaimed “the Niger Delta Peoples Republic.”  In December 1998 5,000 Ijaw men and women re presenting over 40 Ijaw clans, chose the historic town of Kaiama to articulate their aspirations for the Ijaw people, and to demand an end to 40 years of environmental damage and underdevelopment in the region.

On the 11th December, 1998, they assembly presented the Kaiama Declaration.  What followed is a series of military attacks which provide an historical context and  understanding  to the present day militancy in Ijawland which has also contributed to the violence against women.  In some instances whole villages have been abandoned by women due to fear of militants and gangs.

On the 1st of January 1999 the Nigerian Military Government declared war on the Ijaw people. Following the Yenagoa massacre, the army invaded Kaiama on the 2nd January.  On the 4th January, soldiers using Chevron helicopters and sea trucks invaded Ikiyan and Opia towns.  Other towns, Odi, Sabama, Patani, Aven, Bomadi were all occupied by military. The mayhem continued unabated throughout January and February.  These communities were ransacked and looted, men and young boys were murdered, tortured and beaten.  Women were molested, harassed, beaten and raped.  Many people are still missing almost 18 months later.  The Nigerian army and Mobile Police engaged themselves in a blood bath which left over 200 dead and thousands wounded.  Once control of the area had been established by the military they settled down to occupy Ijawland and continue up to the present time to terrorise communities of mostly women, children and the elderly and commit endless.

Invasion.of Kaiama

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In Kaiama and across the region, many women and girls were raped and forced into prostitution by the Nigerian army.  They also suffered bereavement and were further impoverished through the death or disappearance of family members.

 “I stay in my house at that time, soldiers were everywhere.  Three of them came to my house and broke the door down. They take my son and I have not seen him since that day. I have no money as my son used to look after me.  Before I used to farm but I no fit farm now, I am weak. I no feel to do anything I just wait make I die, I no fit eat, every day I worry what will happen now.”

” My husband dey [was in] Yenagoa with his wife.  When he hear what happen in Kaiama he come see for himself.  Since that day when the soldier came and take him I have not seen him.  I stay in Yenagoa but they I hear say they kill people and start to worry for my husband.  Sometime those who have wounds they bring them to Yenagoa but I check and did not see my husband.  After I come hear that they kill my husband at the Motor park. (the Chief was one of many townsmen that were taken to a nearby army camp and tortured after which he was murdered).
Helen, Widow – On the day the soldiers came I ran with my 3 children to the bush. At that time I was pregnant.  My husband lock the house then follow me run.  I think that he is at my back but I am hearing gun shot.  After I come and see my husband is shot by the soldier when he is running.  They steal all my property and break everything.  Now I have no money, I can only collect firewood to sell and some small farming.  Some time the church help me.  Now my heart is cut.”

” At  that time when the soldiers came I was at home with my husband.  The soldiers came and arrested my husband and took him to the motor park.  When there he was beaten and tortured with the others. His face was cut, nose broken, lips swollen and wounded everywhere.  He had be cut on his head with an axe.  When they took my husband I ran with my children to Opukoma (nearby village) to my father’s house until after 2 days I came back to Kaiama.  At that time there was no one in the town, no medicines. After my husband went to Yenagoa but by that time it was too late for him to recover.  My husband died three months ago from the wounds he received”

Odi Town Massacre.

In the early hours of the morning of the 20th November, 1999, 27 trucks carrying over 2000 soldiers plus 4 armored personnel carriers mounted with machine guns drove into Odi Town in Bayelsa State. Between 2pm that afternoon and 6pm the following day, the town was bombarded with artillery fire. By the end of the two days, practically every building in the town was flattened, set on fire and/or looted. In all 2,483 persons – mainly women, children and the elderly were massacred in 24 hours. Thousands more fled in canoes or on foot to the forests where they hid, some up to a week with no food or shelter.

The order to invade and destroy Odi town was given by the then head of state, President Olusegun Obasanjo. The reason given for the attack at the time was that two weeks before, 9 policemen had been kidnapped and killed in the town by a criminal gang.

Odi was not the only town in the Niger Delta where people were massacred and property destroyed during the Obasanjo years. Kaiama just a few miles from Odi was attacked January and later Oleh Town, in Delta State and Erema in Rivers State were also invaded to name a few. Then there was the terrible rape that took place in Choba, Rivers state where Nigerian army soldiers were photographed raping women. No one has ever been held to account for these past and present crimes against women and other civilians.

Odi Town November 1999

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“My 15 year old son is missing. I came back and couldn’t see him. I could not see my son even his corpse I cannot see him even till now – 15 yrs – we were all in this house but when we heard the gun shots everyone take on his heels. My son ran to a different direction to myself and others.  I ran to the bush, there was no food to eat there was nothing.  I stayed in the bush for 12 days as the hunger was so much we started plucking leaves to chew and water to drink – my husband ran on his own too. We were scattered. When the soldiers left I came back and  I saw my husband.  He is looking for our son but we cannot see him.”
” You know you could not stand on the ground, the ground was shaking even the houses were shaking as if they want to fall down.  So I started running down with that fear – I heard the army shooting, even the ground was shaking from the noise of the guns, the houses too.  I had no canoe.  Everything was burnt – books, my properties, my things for teacher’s college, NCE and University of Port Harcourt certificates, everything.”

“Other people ran into the bush. Those who could not get boats ran into the nearby bushes, they were all here most of them were just right inside.  You know that time was a flood period and water everywhere, the whole of the bush was covered with water and some of them were standing on top of trees, hanging like that for days.”

Displaced women from Gbaramatu – May 2009

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On May 14, 2009 at about noon, Gbaramatu Kingdom,Delta State, was in a festive mood. There had been an influx of guests into the community from far and near. They all came to witness the presentation of the Staff of Office to the Pere of Gbaramatu Kingdom, His Royal Majesty Ogie the third. The palace located in Oporoza was filled with well- wishers as the day also marked the King’s one year anniversary. Suddenly, three low flying helicopters were seen approaching the Kindgom. The community people initially thought they were flying dignitaries to the ceremony or that they were part of the glamour for the ceremony. They were wrong. Dead wrong!

 “ Most“Most of the students like me who tried to escape during the deadly incident are dead. Some in the streets, forests …they were killed by the bombs. I lost my mother and six of my brothers in the incidence. Two of my three sisters are still trapped in the forest. The place is too dangerous for them to come out now. They can’t cross with boat and they can’t risk swimming. The JTF people have blockedhave blocked the waterways. One of my sisters has been missing.

Nobody seems to know her whereaboutwhereabouts. The military people were using their helicopter chopper to destroy everything we have ever had. I saw war with my naked eyes. I saw my mum’s dead body. I saw my brothers lying helpless on the ground (here she started sobbing). Everyone was running without direction. It is a bitter experience.

They are wicked people. They are heartless. I don’t have any family member as militants. We used to survive with fishing. It was through fishing business that my mum pays our school fees. Why will the FG send military men to kill us, to destroy our community? We don’t have anywhere else to go now. No home, no place to go. My OND certificate, my only hope for a better tomorrow has been destroyed”. Miss Peres Popo, 21, ,21 from, from Okporoza .

“I was sleeping but suddenly I woke up due to the endless sound of gunshot. It was after twelve in the afternoon. I was confused. When I peeped through my window, I saw people running and screaming. It was a hot afternoon. I slept with only my pants on. I had to run without even knowing that I was naked I was not conscious of my nakedness. It was when I managed to find my way to Warri town that I was able to clothe myself with the help of a relative. I am afraid I have still not seen my younger sister. Her name is Mary. We started running together from the house but at a point Ipoint I was ahead of her. After some time, I didn’t notice her again. I pray she is alive. She is my only sister.
- Mrs. Vero Idolo ,27, mother of two.

“They bombed everywhere and everything. They don’t have feelings at all. I was lucky to have my children and husband alive. My neighbour lost his pregnant wife in the incidence. She was my friend too.” – Evelyn Emmanuel.

“We were warming up for the king’s party. All of a sudden we started seeing helicopters roving in the air. The next thing something was dropping from it and it was landing as fire and exploding and burning and killing. I was scared stiff . I have never seen this kind of thing in my life.
-Timi Tonfawei

The attack on Gbaramatu  brought a huge humanitarian crisis to the region. Besides, an estimated 20, 000 persons believed to be trapped in the forests and swamps.   Those who managed to reach Warri were eventually given shelter in a disused clinic.  Most of the displaced have now returned to their villages.

Gas flaring has been continuous for 40 years.  Gas flaring is the process used in the Niger Delta to separate petroleum from the by product, natural gas.   The process wastes a potentially useful product as well as fills the atmosphere with carbon monoxide, smoke and soot.  The gas flares are right in the middle of farmland and villages burning 24 hours a day every day.  Some of the flares are on the ground in pits, spewing out huge flames and soot and leaving the ground unusable for farming for years to come.   People literally live in fire and oil.

Gas flares

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US Expansionism by stealth: Militarism from Africa to the Pacific Islands

From Guernica – The Pivot to Africa.  The US [AFRICOM] claims it has a limited military presence in Africa with just one military base in Djibouti however when each small ‘footprints’ is counted, we see the whole is alarmingly expansive.

The proof is in the details—a seemingly ceaseless string of projects, operations, and engagements. Each mission, as AFRICOM insists, may be relatively limited and each footprint might be “small” on its own, but taken as a whole, U.S. military operations are sweeping and expansive. Evidence of an American pivot to Africa is almost everywhere on the continent. Few, however, have paid much notice.

The U.S. Military’s Pivot to Africa, 2012-2013 (key below article) ©2013 TomDispatch ©Google
The U.S. Military’s Pivot to Africa, 2012-2013 (key below article) ©2013 TomDispatch ©Google

If the proverbial picture is worth a thousand words, then what’s a map worth? Take, for instance, the one created by TomDispatch that documents U.S. military outposts, construction, security cooperation, and deployments in Africa. It looks like a field of mushrooms after a monsoon. U.S. Africa Command recognizes 54 countries on the continent, but refuses to say in which ones (or even in how many) it now conducts operations. An investigation by TomDispatch has found recent U.S. military involvement with no fewer than 49 African nations.

In some, the U.S. maintains bases, even if under other names. In others, it trains local partners and proxies to battle militants ranging from Somalia’s al-Shabab and Nigeria’s Boko Haram to members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Elsewhere, it is building facilities for its allies or infrastructure for locals. Many African nations are home to multiple U.S. military projects. Despite what AFRICOM officials say, a careful reading of internal briefings, contracts, and other official documents, as well as open source information, including the command’s own press releases and news items, reveals that military operations in Africa are already vast and will be expanding for the foreseeable future.

The US strategy has been to open small units or bases which initially appear small scale and then expand their usage so for example the military base in Niger was initially set up to deploy one predator drone. Now it is being used to deploy larger multiple drones on a daily basis.  Another example is the military base at Entebbe, Uganda which in 2009 was just a ‘barebones compound’ with a few aircraft. Now it is a much larger complex with fleets of helicopters and aircraft.

AFRICOM also provides a  massive role for private military contractors such Berry Aviation who provide “Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance” services…

In July, Berry Aviation, a Texas-based longtime Pentagon contractor, was awarded a nearly $50 million contract to provide aircraft and personnel for “Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing services.” Under the terms of the deal, Berry will “perform casualty evacuation, personnel airlift, cargo airlift, as well as personnel and cargo aerial delivery services throughout the Trans-Sahara of Africa,” according to a statement from the company. Contracting documents indicate that Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia are the “most likely locations for missions.”

At present the US has agreements to use 29 international airports in Africa for refueling which technically at least can be interpreted as the US having a foothold in each of these countries in addition to all other bases and or training facilities.

When the US presence in  Africa is placed side by side with the expansion  in the Pacific – the Pacific Pivot, and the Middle East we begin to see the true picture of US globalized militarization which includes bases in all four corners of the world.   The frame now is no longer that of  outreach policeman,  but of grand patriarch and protector of the  homeland – of the women and the children, a horrible heteronationalism led by a black saviour astride a white horse.

It’s not hard to imagine why the U.S. military wants to maintain that “small footprint” fiction. On occasion, military commanders couldn’t have been clearer on the subject. “A direct and overt presence of U.S. forces on the African continent can cause consternation… with our own partners who take great pride in their post-colonial abilities to independently secure themselves,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel Guillaume Beaurpere earlier this year in the military trade publication Special Warfare. Special Operations Forces, he added, “must train to operate discreetly within these constraints and the cultural norms of the host nation.”

On a visit to the Pentagon earlier this summer, AFRICOM’s Rodriguez echoed the same point in candid comments to Voice of America: “The history of the African nations, the colonialism, all those things are what point to the reasons why we should… just use a small footprint.”

And yet, however useful that imagery may be to the Pentagon, the U.S. military no longer has a small footprint in Africa. Even the repeated claims that U.S. troops conduct only short-term. intermittent missions there has been officially contradicted. This July, at a change of command ceremony for Naval Special Warfare Unit 10, a spokesman noted the creation and implementation of “a five-year engagement strategy that encompassed the transition from episodic training events to regionally-focused and persistent engagements in five Special Operations Command Africa priority countries.”

Though Nick Turse’s article doesn’t comment on land and water grab, mineral resources, oil etc, it seems to me that it is important to at least ask how US militarism in Africa and the Pacific facilitates corporate America’s involvement with all of these issues and ultimately what is the purpose of the massive presence in these regions if not to protect these  interests?

Read  The Pivot to Africa: On the startling size, scope, and growth of U.S. military operations on the African continent.” in full on Guernica.       

 

Key to the Map of the U.S. Military’s Pivot to Africa, 2012-2013
Green markers: U.S. military training, advising, or tactical deployments during 2013
Yellow markers: U.S. military training, advising, or tactical deployments during 2012
Purple marker: U.S. “security cooperation”
Red markers: Army National Guard partnerships
Blue markers: U.S. bases, forward operating sites (FOSes), contingency security locations (CSLs), contingency locations (CLs), airports with fueling agreements, and various shared facilities
Green push pins: U.S. military training/advising of indigenous troops carried out in a third country during 2013
Yellow push pins: U.S. military training/advising of indigenous troops carried out in a third country during 2012

My grandmother was a fisherwoman………

she used to fish on the Sombrero River and the adjoining creeks but then came the  oil, and  greed, and pollution and war, now most of the fish are dead, fat men and women fight over the overspill of their bellies and men with guns terrorize people trying to live in peace!  This could be a long story and maybe one day it will be but for now….

From Platform London

The picture above captioned as A Niger Delta Village In the 1960s (Before Oil) has sparked much discussion on online forums in Nigeria. While there have been debates about its veracity, what is interesting is the way that it provides a catalyst for people’s memories about the region before oil.

Here is one comment that I find particularly moving and evocative:

As a young Niger Delta boy even in the early 70s such good looking natural environment existed in the Niger Delta.

1. I remembered going to pick periwinkles in the swarms meeting blue coloured water that is reflecting the blue skies in a hot afternoon like that.

2. I remembered especially on a rainy day and especially at night going to creeks with only Calabash and bare hands coming home with good catch of fishes

3. I remembered using such clean (so to say) sea waters tasting salty to soak my garri padling my canoe while returning from Kaa or Iyanaba market

4. I remembered not bothering about tap water every morning to bath to school but jumping into this river like you do in this modern day swimming pole, wash mysely come out robe high scenting pomade and off to school

5. I remembered having my canoe capsided on the sea and I swarm to safety without any polluted water with oil to choke me

6. But I also remembered afterwards on Sobiekiri river many canoes with people on the water, someone mistakenly threw a cigaret stub on the water and it caught fire and so many people were burnt to dead including good swimmers who jumped into the river to see if they could dive past the burning oil on the water

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50 years on and Shell STILL has not cleaned up it’s mess – despite the 2011 UN Environmental Programme’s  [UNEP] damming report on Shell’s and the NNPC activities

The report found that, without exception, all the water bodies in Ogoni was polluted by the activities of oil companies – Shell Petroleum Development Company (Shell) and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Indeed the report stated that some of what the people took as potable water had carcinogens, such as benzene, up to 900 times above World Health Organisation standards. The report also revealed that at some places in Ogoniland, the soil is polluted with hydrocarbons to a depth of five (5) metres.

The UNEP report revealed that the Ogoni homeland had indeed been turned into an “ecological disaster,” as the Bill of Rights asserted. We remind ourselves that the UNEP report made recommendations that most of us saw as low hanging fruits that government could easily have responded to assuage the pains of the people and commence a process of restoring the territory to an acceptable state. The apparent inaction is nothing but a squandering of opportunities to rescue a people and for impactful political action.

A total clean up of Ogoni land will take a life time or about thirty years at the least. That is the length of time UNEP estimates it would require to clean up the water bodies in the territory. And it would require an additional five (5) years to clean up the land. How is that a lifetime? Well, life expectancy in the Niger Delta stands at approximately forty-one years.

 

 

Haiti: KOURAJ: “Be True to Yourself”

The evangelical churches responsible for driving homophobia in Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia and the USA have begun a campaign of violence and hate in Haiti. On Friday, an all faith coalition of homophobic haters called [The Haitian Coalition of Religious and Moral Organizations ] held an anti-gay protest in downtown Port-au-Prince.

Homosexuality is not criminalized in Haiti and although ostracized socially within Christian faith communities , LGBTI people are very much a part of the Voudou practicing community, who themselves are facing increased hostility from these same moral crusaders many who receive huge financial support from churches in the USA.

LGBT activists from Kouraj and Facsdis explained that whilst homophobia is rampant, it is not murderous and many activists are out to their families. Kouraj is working with lawyers from the Defenders if the Oppressed to draft anti-homophobia and anti-discrimination law and also to,push for an open dialogue on sexuality and fixed notions of gender.

With the rise of the religious haters what progress has been made is likely to be compromised and the possibility of murderous acts increased as two men were beaten to death during Fridays protest.

In response to ‘Anti-Gay” protests

Shocking extent of oil pollution in the Niger Delta

Shocking photographs of  showing the extent of oil pollution in Niger Delta rivers, creeks and ponds.  Via National Post for more photos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more on the Niger Delta environment see Nnimmo’s Reflections 

 

 

 

 

 

Redux: Odi & Filling Nigeria’s Memory Hole

After 14 years, Nigerian courts have ordered the government to pay compensation to Odi Town in the sum of nearly $240 million within 21 days. He described the attack on Odi as

“brazen violation of the fundamental human rights of the victims to movement, life and to own property and live peacefully in their ancestral home.”

Odi Town Massacre

In addition to the compensation the people of Odi town have demanded an apology and the rebuilding of the town.  Odi town was one of many towns and villages invaded, destroyed, burnt, people were killed and injured during the rule of Olusegun Obasanjo – hopefully now they will one by one begin to receive justice.

Odi Town Massacre.

In the early hours of the morning of the 20th November, 1999, 27 trucks carrying over 2000 soldiers plus 4 armored personnel carriers mounted with machine guns drove into Odi Town in Bayelsa State. Between 2pm that afternoon and 6pm the following day, the town was bombarded with artillery fire. By the end of the two days, practically every building in the town was flattened, set on fire and/or looted. In all 2,483 persons – mainly women, children and the elderly were massacred in 24 hours. Thousands more fled in canoes or on foot to the forests where they hid, some up to a week with no food or shelter.

The order to invade and destroy Odi town was given by the then head of state, President Olusegun Obasanjo. The reason given for the attack at the time was that two weeks before, 9 policemen had been kidnapped and killed in the town by a criminal gang.

Odi was not the only town in the Niger Delta where people were massacred and property destroyed during the Obasanjo years. Kaiama just a few miles from Odi was attacked January and later Oleh Town, in Delta State and Erema in Rivers State were also invaded to name a few. Then there was the terrible rape that took place in Choba, Rivers state where Nigerian army soldiers were photographed raping women. No one has ever been held to account for these past and present crimes against women and other civilians.

Mother and child outside their burnt home in Odi

In the original report on the invasion of Odi the term used for those who killed the police was “criminal gang’. This has now been revised in line with the ubiquitous use of the ‘war on terror’ narrative, to ‘militants’ and ‘terrorists’ by both President Obasanjo and Jonathan. Remember this was in 1999 and rather than put an end to militancy – there wasn’t any at this time, it is very likely the action gave birth to the militancy they now claim was the reason for the invasion. In response to Jonathan’s claim that the massacre of Odi people did not put an end to “terrorist’ acts Femi Fani-Kayode wrote

“The Governor [Alamieyeseigha, the then Bayelsa State governor] said that he was unable to do so and President Obasanjo, as the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, took the position that security personnel could not be killed with impunity under his watch without a strong and appropriate response from the Federal Government. Consequently he sent the military in, to uproot and kill the terrorists and to destroy their operational base which was the town of Odi. The operation was carried out with military precision and efficiency and it’s objectives were fully achieved. The terrorists were either killed and those that were not killed fled their operational base in Odi.” The people of Odi town have denied the charge that the men were militants and that Odi was ‘an operational base’.

I use the invasion of Odi as an example of the extent to which militarism pervades governance and all aspects of Nigerian society – cultural, social, economic and gender justice, in Nigeria. Successive Nigerian governments both military and civilian have always chosen violent responses, under the guise of protecting citizens, to silence political protests, punish ethnic and religious conflict, evict street vendors, destroy informal settlements and remove beggars from the streets.

Group of elderly Odi women after the invasion

The award winning environmental and human rights activist, Nnimmo Bassey describes the responses to the Odi massacre and destruction of property and livelihoods in the Niger Delta as a’Blanket of Silence”. The impunity with which the murder of civilians and the extra judicial execution of alleged  criminals is never questioned.  Such is the desensitization to violence. No where in the media reports or in any other statement on the invasion, does anyone question the use of collective punishment – the massacre of 2,483 people and the total destruction of a town which can only be described as a war crime.  What arrogance and shamefulness it is that an ex-President can attempt to justify the murder of 2,483 unarmed women, children and elderly men.

When I speak of violence, I am speaking of an inclusive violence. Women have been at the center of this violence and they continue to be so.   Women have always been at the center of these acts of violence which are psychological, sexual, physical, emotional and verbal, as well as  the fear of those acts.   The true nature of the gendered violence which comes from the relationship between the militarized ruling elite and multinational oil companies, is obscured by the focus on supposed militants and or criminal gangs. In June 2009 the government of the late President Yar’Adua bombed Oporoza town, Gbaramatu Kingdom, in Delta state supposedly to ‘root out’ militants. Yet not a single militant was killed and there is no real evidence that any were present. Once again women, children and elderly men were killed and driven out of the town to hide in the swamps. Many trekked for days before reaching the city.  Later some 2000 women and children were placed in a refugee camp outside Warri run by women’s rights activists from Rivers State.

In the post amnesty period, 2009 to the present much of the violence against women has come from cultist and criminal gangs empowered by the culture of violence around the protection of oil production and bunkering. At the same time women have become increasingly disempowered through the perpetual violence and the loss of their livelihoods as market traders, farmers and fishing. Many women have had to move to Port Harcourt and despite the hardship and poverty of living in the city, they remain fearful of returning to their villages.

It is now 2012, the militants have been given amnesty yet the region remains heavily militarised and it is impossible to move by water or land from village to village or town to town without facing a checkpoint. In a 2011 audit of security forces carried out by myself and Emem Okon of Kebetkachie Womens Resource Center, Port Harcourt,  we listed the following security in the region.

Nigerian security forces: The River’s State Internal Security Task Force – used against the Ogoni people. The Special Naval Task Force, regular forces of the Nigerian Army, Mobile Police and police units, and more recently the Joint Task Force [JTF].

On the militant’s side there were [are] two main militias: the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force led by Asari Dokobo and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta [which has a number of splinter groups]. In addition there are various other militias some being splinter groups of the main two such as the Coalition for Militant Action in the Niger Delta (CMND), South-South Liberation Movement (SSLM), Movement for the Sovereign State of the Niger Delta (MOSSEND), DE Gbam, DE Well, Niger Delta Vigilante, and Meninbutus. There has also been at various times a Joint Revolutionary Council whose aim was to bring together leaders from all the militias.

The multinationals [Shell, Chevron, Agip, Elf, Mobil] all have their own private security personnel as well as a close political, economic and general working relationship with the various Nigerian security forces. Since the 2009 amnesty many of the ex militants have been employed by oil companies as security. In addition there are criminal / cultist gangs at work in urban centers and villages especially in those where there are oil facilities; There are also ex militants, church and other institutional security forces.

The culture of militarism is thus an all pervasive one which impacts directly on the rights of women as it extends into the domestic sphere, traditional spaces and the environment through a systemic destruction of the ecological system.

* The phrase ‘Memory Hole’ is taken from an article by William Finnegan in the New Yorker.

“We Remember Differently” – Oil is Everything in Nigeria

From Bella Naija – Chimanada Ngozi Adiche responds to some of the criticism of Chinua Achebe’s memoir “There Was a Country”.   I finished reading ‘There Was a Country’ a few days ago and was contemplating my own response to some of the critical reviews of the book.  Fortunately for me Adichie has said nearly everything I wanted to say and probably much better too.   She unlike Achebe’s few lines of reference and unlike all of the reviews I have read, has at least mentioned  one of the two elephants in the room – the Biafrian minorities.     My memory of this period is a vague which probably shows that the war had little impact on our lives.  I do know that our Igbo workers did not leave the compound and there were large numbers of soldiers and check points everywhere – something which has never gone away.    In that sense it was a frightening time – the soldiers were frightening.  Young men with machine guns and red eyes and limited vocabulary.   I do know that families were split between those  who supported Nigeria and those supporting Biafra.   My parents were on the Nigerian side – then.  The Biafran side were in Port Harcourt or thereabouts.    A good question to ask is how much choice did minorities  have but to stay when Biafra was declared and they woke up to find they were in another country?

The other elephant in the room is oil.  I do think it’s worth asking the questions – Would there have  been a war without oil? Would there have been a secession?  Would there have been a succession of coups?  Because Oil is everything in Nigeria.   It would be another 20 years of dance and thievery in what was known as the ‘oil boom’ for some and for others the ‘oil doom’ before the Ogoni people, drowning in oil polluted swamps, would rise up and set in motion a new consciousness amongst Nigerian minorities of the east.
“Chinua Achebe at 82: “We Remember Differently” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie”

” I have met Chinua Achebe only three times. The first, at the National Arts Club in Manhattan, I joined the admiring circle around him. A gentle-faced man in a wheelchair.

“Good evening, sir. I’m Chimamanda Adichie,” I said, and he replied, mildly, “I thought you were running away from me.”

I mumbled, nervous, grateful for the crush of people around us. I had been running away from him. After my first novel was published, I received an email from his son. My dad has just read your novel and liked it very much. He wants you to call him at this number. I read it over and over, breathless with excitement. But I never called. A few years later, my editor sent Achebe a manuscript of my second novel. She did not tell me, because she wanted to shield me from the possibility of disappointment. One afternoon, she called. “Chimamanda, are you sitting down? I have wonderful news.” She read me the blurb Achebe had just sent her. We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers. Adichie knows what is at stake, and what to do about it. She is fearless or she would not have taken on the intimidating horror of Nigeria’s civil war. Adichie came almost fully made. Afterwards, I held on to the phone and wept. I have memorized those words. In my mind, they glimmer still, the validation of a writer whose work had validated me.

I grew up writing imitative stories. Of characters eating food I had never seen and having conversations I had never heard. They might have been good or bad, those stories, but they were emotionally false, they were not mine. Then came a glorious awakening: Chinua Achebe’s fiction. Here were familiar characters who felt true; here was language that captured my two worlds; here was a writer writing not what he felt he should write but what he wanted to write. His work was free of anxiety, wore its own skin effortlessly. It emboldened me, not to find my voice, but to speak in the voice I already had. And so, when that e-mail came from his son, I knew, overly-thrilled as I was, that I would not call. His work had done more than enough. In an odd way, I was so awed, so grateful, that I did not want to meet him. I wanted some distance between my literary hero and me.

Chinua Achebe and I have never had a proper conversation. The second time I saw him, at a luncheon in his honor hosted by the British House of Lords, I sat across from him and avoided his eye. (“Chinua Achebe is the only person I have seen you shy with,” a friend said). The third, at a New York event celebrating fifty years of THINGS FALL APART, we crowded around him backstage, Edwidge Danticat and I, Ha Jin and Toni Morrison, Colum McCann and Chris Abani. We seemed, magically, bound together in a warm web, all of us affected by his work. Achebe looked pleased, but also vaguely puzzled by all the attention. He spoke softly, the volume of his entire being turned to ‘low.’ I wanted to tell him how much I admired his integrity, his speaking out about the disastrous leadership in my home state of Anambra, but I did not. Before I went on stage, he told me, “Jisie ike.” I wondered if he fully grasped, if indeed it was possible to, how much his work meant to so many.

History and civics, as school subjects, function not merely to teach facts but to transmit more subtle things, like pride and dignity. My Nigerian education taught me much, but left gaping holes. I had not been taught to imagine my pre-colonial past with any accuracy, or pride, or complexity. And so Achebe’s work, for me, transcended literature. It became personal. ARROW OF GOD, my favorite, was not just about the British government’s creation of warrant chiefs and the linked destinies of two men, it became the life my grandfather might have lived. THINGS FALL APART is the African novel most read — and arguably most loved — by Africans, a novel published when ‘African novel’ meant European accounts of ‘native’ life. Achebe was an unapologetic member of the generation of African writers who were ‘writing back,’ challenging the stock Western images of their homeland, but his work was not burdened by its intent. It is much-loved not because Achebe wrote back, but because he wrote back well. His work was wise, humorous, human. For many Africans, THINGS FALL APART remains a gesture of returned dignity, a literary and an emotional experience; Mandela called Achebe the writer in whose presence the prison walls came down.

Achebe’s most recent book, his long-awaited memoir of the Nigerian-Biafra war, is both sad and angry, a book by a writer looking back and mourning Nigeria’s failures. I wish THERE WAS A COUNTRY had been better edited and more rigorously detailed in its account of the war. But these flaws do not make it any less seminal: an account of the most important event in Nigeria’s history by Nigeria’s most important storyteller.

An excerpt from the book has ignited great controversy among Nigerians. In it, Achebe, indignant about the millions of people who starved to death in Biafra, holds Obafemi Awolowo, Nigerian Finance Minister during the war, responsible for the policy of blockading Biafra. He quote’s Awolowo’s own words on the blockade — ‘all is fair in war and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder’ and then argues that Awolowo’s support of the blockade was ‘driven by an overriding ambition for power for himself in particular and for the advancement of his Yoruba people in general.’

I have been startled and saddened by the responses to this excerpt. Many are blindingly ethnic, lacking in empathy and, most disturbing of all, lacking in knowledge. We can argue about how we interpret the facts of our shared history, but we cannot, surely, argue about the facts themselves. Awolowo, as de facto ‘number two man’ on the Nigerian side, was a central architect of the blockade on Biafra. During and after the war, Awolowo publicly defended the blockade. Without the blockade, the massive starvation in Biafra would not have occurred. These are the facts.

Some Nigerians, in responding to Achebe, have argued that the blockade was fair, as all is fair in war. The blockade was, in my opinion, inhumane and immoral. And it was unnecessary — Nigeria would have won anyway, it was the much-better-armed side in a war that Wole Soyinka called a shabby unequal conflict. The policy of starving a civilian population into surrender does not merely go against the Geneva conventions, but in this case, a war between siblings, people who were formerly fellow country men and women now suddenly on opposite sides, it seems more chilling. All is not fair in war. Especially not in a fratricidal war. But I do not believe the blockade was a calculated power grab by Awolowo for himself and his ethnic group; I think of it, instead, as one of the many dehumanizing acts that war, by its nature, brings about.

Awolowo was undoubtedly a great political leader. He was also — rare for Nigerian leaders — a great intellectual. No Nigerian leader has, arguably, articulated a political vision as people-centered as Awolowo’s. For Nigerians from the west, he was the architect of free primary education, of progressive ideas. But for Nigerians from the east, he was a different man. I grew up hearing, from adults, versions of Achebe’s words about Awolowo. He was the man who prevented an Igbo man from leading the Western House of Assembly in the famous ‘carpet crossing’ incident of 1952. He was the man who betrayed Igbo people when he failed on his alleged promise to follow Biafra’s lead and pull the Western region out of Nigeria. He was the man who, in the words of my uncle, “made Igbo people poor because he never liked us.”

At the end of the war, every Igbo person who had a bank account in Nigeria was given twenty pounds, no matter how much they had in their accounts before the war. I have always thought this a livid injustice. I know a man who worked in a multinational company in 1965. He was, like Achebe, one of the many Igbo who just could not believe that their lives were in danger in Lagos and so he fled in a hurry, at the last minute, leaving thousands of pounds in his account. After the war, his account had twenty pounds. To many Igbo, this policy was uncommonly punitive, and went against the idea of ‘no victor, no vanquished.’ Then came the indigenization decree, which moved industrial and corporate power from foreign to Nigerian hands. It made many Nigerians wealthy; much of the great wealth in Nigeria today has its roots in this decree. But the Igbo could not participate; they were broke.

I do not agree, as Achebe writes, that one of the main reasons for Nigeria’s present backwardness is the failure to fully reintegrate the Igbo. I think Nigeria would be just as backward even if the Igbo had been fully integrated — institutional and leadership failures run across all ethnic lines. But the larger point Achebe makes is true, which is that the Igbo presence in Nigerian positions of power has been much reduced since the war. Before the war, many of Nigeria’s positions of power were occupied by Igbo people, in the military, politics, academia, business. Perhaps because the Igbo were very receptive to Western education, often at the expense of their own traditions, and had both a striving individualism and a communal ethic. This led to what, in history books, is often called a ‘fear of Igbo domination’ in the rest of Nigeria. The Igbo themselves were insensitive to this resentment, the bombast and brashness that is part of Igbo culture only exacerbated it. And so leading Igbo families entered the war as Nigeria’s privileged elite but emerged from it penniless, stripped and bitter.

Today, ‘marginalization’ is a popular word in Igboland. Many Igbo feel marginalized in Nigeria, a feeling based partly on experience and partly on the psychology of a defeated people. (Another consequence of this psychology, perhaps, is the loss of the communal ethic of the Igbo, much resented sixty years ago. It is almost non-existent today, or as my cousin eloquently put it: Igbo people don’t even send each other.)

Some responses to Achebe have had a ‘blame the victim’ undertone, suggesting that Biafrians started the war and therefore deserved what they got. But Biafrians did not ‘start the war.’ Nobody with a basic knowledge of the facts can make that case.

Continue reading on Bella Naija

 

#16Days: – Nigeria’s Memory Hole*

In the early hours of the morning of the 20th November, 1999, 27 trucks carrying over 2000 soldiers plus 4 armored personnel carriers mounted with machine guns drove into Odi Town in Bayelsa State. Between 2pm that afternoon and 6pm the following day, the town was bombarded with artillery fire. By the end of the two days, practically every building in the town was flattened, set on fire and/or looted. In all 2,483 persons – mainly women, children and the elderly were massacred in 24 hours. Thousands more fled in canoes or on foot to the forests where they hid, some up to a week with no food or shelter.

The order to invade and destroy Odi town was given by the then head of state, President Olusegun Obasanjo. The reason given for the attack at the time was that two weeks before, 9 policemen had been kidnapped and killed in the town by a criminal gang.

Odi was not the only town in the Niger Delta where people were massacred and property destroyed during the Obasanjo years. Kaiama just a few miles from Odi was attacked January and later Oleh Town, in Delta State and Erema in Rivers State were also invaded to name a few. Then there was the terrible rape that took place in Choba, Rivers state where Nigerian army soldiers were photographed raping women. No one has ever been held to account for these past and present crimes against women and other civilians.

In the original report on the invasion of Odi the term used for those who killed the police was “criminal gang’. This has now been revised in line with the ubiquitous use of the ‘war on terror’ narrative, to ‘militants’ and ‘terrorists’ by both President Obasanjo and Jonathan. Remember this was in 1999 and rather than put an end to militancy – there wasn’t any at this time, it is very likely the action gave birth to the militancy they now claim was the reason for the invasion. In response to Jonathan’s claim that the massacre of Odi people did not put an end to “terrorist’ acts Femi Fani-Kayode wrote

“The Governor [Alamieyeseigha, the then Bayelsa State governor] said that he was unable to do so and President Obasanjo, as the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, took the position that security personnel could not be killed with impunity under his watch without a strong and appropriate response from the Federal Government. Consequently he sent the military in, to uproot and kill the terrorists and to destroy their operational base which was the town of Odi. The operation was carried out with military precision and efficiency and it’s objectives were fully achieved. The terrorists were either killed and those that were not killed fled their operational base in Odi.” The people of Odi town have denied the charge that the men were militants and that Odi was ‘an operational base’.

I use the invasion of Odi as an example of the extent to which militarism pervades governance and all aspects of Nigerian society – cultural, social, economic and gender justice, in Nigeria. Successive Nigerian governments both military and civilian have always chosen violent responses, under the guise of protecting citizens, to silence political protests, punish ethnic and religious conflict, evict street vendors, destroy informal settlements and remove beggars from the streets.

The award winning environmental and human rights activist, Nnimmo Bassey describes the responses to the Odi massacre and destruction of property and livelihoods in the Niger Delta as a’Blanket of Silence”. The impunity with which the murder of civilians and the extra judicial execution of alleged  criminals is never questioned.  Such is the desensitization to violence. No where in the media reports or in any other statement on the invasion, does anyone question the use of collective punishment – the massacre of 2,483 people and the total destruction of a town which can only be described as a war crime.  What arrogance and shamefulness it is that an ex-President can attempt to justify the murder of 2,483 unarmed women, children and elderly men.

When I speak of violence, I am speaking of an inclusive violence. Women have been at the center of this violence and they continue to be so.   Women have always been at the center of these acts of violence which are psychological, sexual, physical, emotional and verbal, as well as  the fear of those acts.   The true nature of the gendered violence which comes from the relationship between the militarized ruling elite and multinational oil companies, is obscured by the focus on supposed militants and or criminal gangs. In June 2009 the government of the late President Yar’Adua bombed Oporoza town, Gbaramatu Kingdom, in Delta state supposedly to ‘root out’ militants. Yet not a single militant was killed and there is no real evidence that any were present. Once again women, children and elderly men were killed and driven out of the town to hide in the swamps. Many trekked for days before reaching the city.  Later some 2000 women and children were placed in a refugee camp outside Warri run by women’s rights activists from Rivers State.

In the post amnesty period, 2009 to the present much of the violence against women has come from cultist and criminal gangs empowered by the culture of violence around the protection of oil production and bunkering. At the same time women have become increasingly disempowered through the perpetual violence and the loss of their livelihoods as market traders, farmers and fishing. Many women have had to move to Port Harcourt and despite the hardship and poverty of living in the city, they remain fearful of returning to their villages.

It is now 2012, the militants have been given amnesty yet the region remains heavily militarised and it is impossible to move by water or land from village to village or town to town without facing a checkpoint. In a 2011 audit of security forces carried out by myself and Emem Okon of Kebetkachie Womens Resource Center, Port Harcourt,  we listed the following security in the region.

Nigerian security forces: The River’s State Internal Security Task Force – used against the Ogoni people. The Special Naval Task Force, regular forces of the Nigerian Army, Mobile Police and police units, and more recently the Joint Task Force [JTF].

On the militant’s side there were [are] two main militias: the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force led by Asari Dokobo and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta [which has a number of splinter groups]. In addition there are various other militias some being splinter groups of the main two such as the Coalition for Militant Action in the Niger Delta (CMND), South-South Liberation Movement (SSLM), Movement for the Sovereign State of the Niger Delta (MOSSEND), DE Gbam, DE Well, Niger Delta Vigilante, and Meninbutus. There has also been at various times a Joint Revolutionary Council whose aim was to bring together leaders from all the militias.

The multinationals [Shell, Chevron, Agip, Elf, Mobil] all have their own private security personnel as well as a close political, economic and general working relationship with the various Nigerian security forces. Since the 2009 amnesty many of the ex militants have been employed by oil companies as security. In addition there are criminal / cultist gangs at work in urban centers and villages especially in those where there are oil facilities; There are also ex militants, church and other institutional security forces.

The culture of militarism is thus an all pervasive one which impacts directly on the rights of women as it extends into the domestic sphere, traditional spaces and the environment through a systemic destruction of the ecological system.

* The phrase ‘Memory Hole’ is taken from an article by William Finnegan in the New Yorker.

Civitella 2: Interview with Uche Umez

Uche is the author of two collections of poem: Dark through the Delta, and Aridity of Feelings; a short story collection Tears in Her Eyes, and two children’s fiction: Sam and the Wallet and The Runaway Hero.  The Boy Who Throws Stones at Animals, a collection of Children’s stories and The Outsider, a Young Adult novella, are due to be published in 2013 by Melrose Books, Nigeria, while another children’s book The Christmas Gift is due with Funtime TV Enterprise in 2014.

Uche has won awards in the Bath Spa University Creative Writing Competition, UK; Commonwealth Short Story Competition, UK (2006 & 2008); ANA/Funtime Prize for Children’s Fiction (2006 & 2008). Also, he has been shortlisted twice for the Nigeria LNG Prize for Literature in 2007 and 2011 respectively, and was a runner-up for the 2007 ANA/Lantern Prize for Children’s Literature.

Uche is an Alumnus of the International Writing Program (IWP), USA, a UNESCO-Aschberg Laureate, and a Fellow of the Chateau de Lavigny, Switzerland. He is currently a writer-in-residence at Civitella Ranieri Foundation, Italy.

Photo of Uche Peter Umez by Fabio Bracarda – Civitella, Italy.

Sokari: Yesterday I spoke with Diego Mercaroni, the programme coordinator for the Civitella Foundation fellowship. One of the questions I asked was “what does Civitella expect in return from the fellows?” His response was nothing – the foundation does not wish to place any burden on the shoulders of the fellows. For some reason the word ‘burden’ has stuck in my mind so I’m going to start with a couple of questions around the word. I also note you use the word repeatedly in your poem “I’m Set in a Burden to Sing**”.

How have you managed the past 5 weeks without any expectations and the freedom to really do as you please; no daily chores, no concerns and no burdens? Is this an artist’s paradise – a blank sheet of paper? Or has it been difficult not having any expectations placed upon you?

Uche: Civitella Ranieri is a residency for composers, writers and visual artists. They do not place any expectations on any of the fellows. I think the only expectations are the ones you place on yourself because you come to Civitella and you hope to get some artistic work done. I am struck by the two metaphors you use – one the ‘artists paradise’ and secondly ‘blank sheet’.

I’ll start with ‘artist’s paradise’. I wouldn’t want to put that utopian burden on Civitella Ranieri. Be that as it may, I believe Civitella is a haven for creativity and one of the things I find fascinating about Civitella is the serene backdrop of the castle: the rolling mountains, the winding roads, the expansive verdure, and the bewitching mist. Particularly during my stay, I have seen a lot of mist. Sometimes it makes me think of heaven’s breath. Of course I don’t know what heaven’s breath look s like but that’s the best description or to use your term, metaphor, I can think of any time I gaze out in the morning. I’ve composed two simple poems inspired by the mist at Civitella and I feel so thankful to be able to behold the beauty of the mist, its ephemeral quality. More beautiful than any postcard of the Swiss Alps you can ever receive. I think Civitella Ranieri is awesome, also because of its generosity; all the facilities are tremendous, its repository of books! For someone coming from a country where a lot of things are left to rot and fall into disrepair, in terms of government functionality and social amenities, this has been a powerful experience of what an artist’s paradise might seem like. I feel a little guilty though, because I have a wife and children and I think of my loving wife having to shoulder all the responsibilities in my absence; most of which I should have been handling if I were back home. So while I am in paradise my wife is on the other side.

Sokari: You mentioned your wife and family are on the other side of paradise, where exactly is that?

Uche: [Laughing] I was speaking with a friend yesterday who was wondering how many heavens there are. The Christians have their own vision of heaven. The Muslims have their own vision of heaven. And then other religions also have their own vision of heaven so is heaven going to be like a very big hotel, he asked. A penthouse, deluxe suite, different kinds of rooms and suites, I simply told him we would find it once we get there. So the other side of paradise is Nigeria. I believe you are aware of the latest bombing of a Catholic church in Kaduna? It has become so tragic that every Sunday you wake up and another bombing has just occurred. It’s so painfully sad; that whatever paradise that’s still left of Nigeria is being threatened.

Sokari: Speaking of Boko Haram, do you get the feeling that the bombings and attacks against people are becoming so regular and have become so much part of our every day experience that the way we respond to each successive bombing or killing becomes less of an outrage than the previous one? Are we now so used to the killings that unless the numbers suddenly treble or quadruple, no one is really taking any notice?

Uche: I may not be correct but I feel Nigerians are fast getting used to tragedy and in getting used to tragedy, we become empty of feelings. Once you get used to tragedy you take it as a way of life. The sad part is that these are things we can avoid but because we are getting used to it the outrage is going down. We pour so much ire on Facebook and Twitter, perhaps, and yet none of us have cared enough to scribble down such strong opinions in the dailies or online media. Sometimes, condemnation of such ghastly atrocities comes from certain quarters, while it is so shockingly silent in others; it is as if we have ethnicized tragedy. We know which region of the country to sympathize with and which region to laugh at. Nigeria is not a complex country, as we tend to think; it is just that we are complicit in so many ways which, in turn, complicate how we handle pressing national issues. Achebe has reminded us time and again that writers should be bold to ask hard questions than bury their heads between their palms. By the way, I think his memoir “There Was a Country”, is his own singular attempt to ask questions of himself and many key actors in the Nigerian tragedy; questions which everyone would rather not want brought to the fore. You see the complicity, I just mentioned?

Sokari: So do you feel that writers are in any way burdened by the responsibility of having to ask hard questions and why is it that most Nigerian writers, novelists and journalists tend not to do so?

Uche: In a way, my own generation of writers seems not to be burdened with any political vision as two or three generations before. There seems to be more exploration of the self, identity, personal longing and follies, the whole individual experience, in most current Nigerian literature I have come across. In those days, for instance, most of the poems you read had a very strong indicting political tone; they were not afraid of asking the questions that “brought about headaches” to the ruling elite. But these days, a good number of us shy away from protest writing, and instead some would rather comfort themselves writing a kind of lament poetry.

Sokari: You think that the new generation, let’s call it, the post military dictatorship generation of writers are not so focused on political or social commentary compared to pre and post independence writers?

Uche: Their focus is not as overtly political as the pioneer generation of writers. Look at Achebe’s books, Soyinka’s. Niyi Osundare’s, etc. In their work, you will see that they were direct and unequivocal in their political indictment. But it seems that our own generation is not much bothered about the political; we are more concerned about the personal. This is how I feel; someone else may refute much of what I have said. Maybe because these Achebe’s generation inherited the insidious burden of colonialism, nationalism and independence, whereas the only burden we have so far inherited was military rule and the overwhelming ineptitude of civil rule. But still that doesn’t explain the less political engagement. Well, we have all become global citizens, exploring new identities, subjectivities, sexual orientation and experiences at home and abroad — so, I think, all these largely define our vision.

Sokari: Don’t you think that one of the roles of writers is, to use a rather trite phrase, ‘to be the conscience of the people’. To use their pen or art form as critical thinkers and express that through their work.

Uche: Despite the argument between aesthetics and commitment, or between art for art’s sake and social realism, I believe that every artist should use their art to engage with society in asking the hard questions and then hoping he or she can provoke a dialogue which will bring better understanding, more empathy and make us more human. Sometimes I have this fear that we are losing our humanness, which is why I titled my last collection of poems “Aridity of Feelings”: we are becoming more arid, more barren of feelings. Nobody wants to sympathize with anyone anymore, and to think this wasn’t the case in the 80s.

I can still recall in 2006 Professor Charles Nnolim, a foremost literary critic, criticized the present generation of writers for indulging in ‘carnal literature’ that is, literature of the flesh, literature that prances between the kitchen and debauchery. That our own vision is just to entertain, there is no strong political content or statement. He went on to challenge the present generation to use their writing ability to provoke or engineer social change. For me, he is right to a large extent, even though as writers we are wary of prescriptive literature. But then, every form of writing depends on the writers’ personal vision. For instance, my first book of poetry “Through the Delta” was very political. A reviewer said it was so full of passion and anger. My second collection of poems was also political. You mentioned my poem “I’m Set in a Burden to Sing” – and you will recall I said in that poem that I wasn’t going to talk about maidens or romance, but would hold up a montage of familiar sights of despoliation in the Niger Delta — which, even as we speak, the government seems quite indifferent to. So I feel in my own little writing I should be able to “indict the political structures for not being responsible and responsive to the people”.

Sokari: How important is it to draw from history when creating new writing because although the world is constantly changing, in another sense it remains the same? Is making the connection between the past and the present something that only concerns the older generation and is otherwise burdensome?

Uche: History enriches our writing, enhances perspective. I was reading an article by Teju Cole, I think, a piece on photography which can be summed up as photography is not about capturing people’s faces but about capturing an age. So when you see a photograph you begin to think of the era, the memories it stirs up in you. But reading some of the poems by younger people, I feel they are not strongly rooted in history, by this, I mean culture — and I’m at fault in this area too. While my generation is ambitious — nothing worn with that, you know — and trying to be very globalised or post-modern we are losing affinity with our own idioms, rhythms, myths and symbols, which primarily enriched the poetry of previous generations. I find it puzzling that we can easily and delightfully appropriate idioms and symbols from other foreign cultures and suture our writing with it, and yet we can barely draw on imagery from Ijaw, Tiv, Efik, Nupe, Isoko, and so on in our poetry. The poems of Niyi Osundare, JP Clark, Tanure Ojaide, and even the late Ezenwa Ohaeto, etc, are rich storehouses of history and culture. If you look at our own poetry it lacks the cultural ferment which has always made reading the poetry of the poets I just mentioned a vintage experience. You cannot do without history which is the backstory of our writing, a signpost, a necessary foundation. What I am saying is that you cannot escape history entirely in your art. Even when you create a dystopian [or utopian?] literature the back drop is still going to be essentially history.

Sokari: I wonder, would someone like Ujubuonu writing historical novels, ever get selected for the Caine prize

Uche: The Caine prize is for short stories, though. If Odili’s strong cultural-driven stories would be recognized and appreciated by a western audience, if that’s what you mean, I can’t yet say for sure. I have met a handful of westerners who don’t even know anything about Nigeria as a country, how then can they really appreciate the context and cosmology of an ethnic literature? Now whether we like it or not western readership defines African literature for the most part. I recall a friend sending his manuscript to a publisher who claimed it was ‘too unpalatable’ for an American audience. Now some people would have reworked the book to suit an American audience. With this kind of tricky situation one finds himself in Nigeria, it becomes rather justifiable for people to strive to get accepted in the west. So unless we are able to take control of our own narrative which will also depend on how well and viable our publishing and distribution structure are — the west will decide whom to celebrate and whom it would rather pass over.

Sokari: This raises the question of who are you writing for when there is such a paucity of bookshops, book sellers and libraries leaving so many Nigerians without access to literature. Maybe in Abuja or Lagos but the country is well beyond these two cities.

Uche: It’s a question which keeps recurring and one is faced with its grim reality. Sadly, humanities have not been given so little support by the government or private sector. The only government that has been consistent in this area is the Governor of River State, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi. As it were, every scholarship or support goes to sciences and petroleum fields. How ironic can that get? We spend billions of naira sending and training Nigerians overseas, and yet we can’t manufacture a wheel spoke or produce good quality kerosene. Well, if we can successfully run Petroleum Trust Development Fund, why can’t we set up same for visual artists, composers, creative writers, curators and other art practitioners? Estonia, Finland, and other forward-looking countries keep sponsoring and it is a fact that some of the great contemporary composers are from those countries. Here in Nigeria, we keep lamenting that nobody is reading, how can people read when the spotlight on literary activities is so dim you can’t even feel your knees? Private companies as well would rather dole out millions in sponsorship to small-minded reality shows which nearly every youth has become hooked on, like crack, and now half of the youth aspire to become instant celebrity — how small-minded can we get? I don’t know but we are nurturing a demographic with tube-mentality, simply one-dimensional.

Take Civitella, for instance, it didn’t take heaven to start it. Over the years, it has encouraged humanities and can access funding from private individuals and the government. But should you start something like that in Nigeria no one will support you. It will look like a drainpipe. It is even laughable an idea, a government that barely pays its workers salaries, or pensions, promptly, how then can it support humanities or the arts? So in a society like ours where nothing functions properly the creative artist will attempt to explore other opportunities and find a way to seek acceptance from whoever may be interested in their work. Everyone who is an artist is then tempted, or even compelled, to pander to outside, foreign interests; so if you can get a good publisher you will have no qualms about writing the kind of book they want. The way things are going if we don’t try to revive a strong cultural foundation in Nigeria we may find it difficult to even tell a Nigerian story because the publishing industry is not there. There are small independent publishers but they are also challenged so it becomes like getting stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Sokari: We in Nigeria are always reminding ourselves of the richness of our oral literature. I think we all grew up hearing stories told by our parents and relatives. My point is that if we are not reading and we are not hearing these stories particularly those living in urban centers then what happens to these stories? In 10, 20 years they could be lost

Uche: I wouldn’t want to be that pessimistic, but it is not unlikely. It sure could come to that. How many youths of today speak their own languages fluently? Either we are speaking English or pidgin. Some people get ashamed of taking part in certain cultural activities or things since they feel it conflicts with their religious beliefs, say, Christianity, for instance. It will be a big challenge no doubt, but I hope someone will collect these oral stories and history. This is an art form that dates back to a time before Nigeria was formed. Even till this day, puppetry is still much a cherished tradition in Romania, Japan and China. In Nigeria, a good number of the functionaries in the Ministry of Culture barely give two kobo about culture except, at times, the culture that celebrates young girls in skimpy outfits parading themselves in a pageant. You’ll be stumped if I told you the number of pageant proposals I receive in my office. Now, I have nothing against pageant since no one forced the girls to objectify themselves for the male gaze, to begin with. Can’t we be more creative than laying out a number of attires and encouraging girls to slip them on, so we can admire their contours and curves? Oh, and now, a few states have become crazy about organizing carnivals every year, and sadly enough, the theme is largely alien in scope, more Brazilian than African. How we Nigerians not simply amazing? See, some of us are quick to celebrate Halloween in Nigeria than we would New Yam festival. The Truth is that, you can’t speak about culture without nurturing and supporting a virile foundation for humanities. As I said earlier, I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but the age-old culture of storytelling is fast dying out.

Sokari: You mentioned that you were writing a “comic tragedy” and we need laughter. Can you tell us about the place of comedy in Nigerian writing?

Uche: We need laughter a lot, it’s a crazy world, what with all the ghastly news that stare us in the face every minute. I do think people sometimes forget to laugh as you get so weighed down by the basic challenge of being a Nigerian. These days, I meet a lot of people, and they can’t even crack their lips open. They look so grave-faced that Medusa herself might have recoiled from view if she had bumped into them. I don’t blame them, especially if you have to be heckled by traffic, potholes, and then you come back home and where is the light? The taps not running, or at times it takes you about an hour to fill a bucket to bathe with. Anyhow, I try to laugh as much as I can. I have to commend Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani who wrote “I Do Not Come to You by Chance”. It’s one of the most hilarious books by an African writer, about a 419 scam. Then Chuma Nwokolo , his “Diaries of a Dead African” is a very funny book in the same vein as Amos Tutuola’s books. And there is Burma Boy by Biyi Bandele. As for my work-in-progress, I am hoping I can pull it off effortlessly, perk up the story with some humour.

Sokari: I didn’t know you had written children’s books?

Uche: I have written a couple of children’s books. But I had one terrible experience with a publisher though. Meanwhile, two of my manuscripts have been accepted for publication here in Nigeria. One is for 7 and 12 year olds, while the other is a young adult novella.

Sokari: The last question, James Baldwin, the writer cannot write out of his [her] time. What time are you in Uche and what time is Nigerian in? And are you in harmony with each other?

Uche: A tricky question.

Sokari : What I am asking you is what point are you in your career as a writer, are you just beginning or where are you? .

Uche: For me, these are early days. As a writer you keep on having to improve your craft. I never studied literature at school or university and I discovered literature in my twenties quite accidentally, and like most things I am a latecomer. But I have been working hard to improve my craft so I think I am in my teenage years and I think Nigeria is equally in her teenage years! [laughing] So we both are in harmony even though her life is much more dramatic and volatile than mine. I have some control over my life but I don’t know if Nigeria has any control over hers.

Timeline of corporate human rights abuses in Nigeria

Platform have created this excellent Timeline which documents the actions and interactions of all those directly and indirectly involved with the exploration and exploitation of oil in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. The timeline is based on the examination of 4,521 leaked US embassy cables from Nigeria and builds on the report: Counting the Cost….: Corporations and human rights abuses in the Niger Delta

The 4,521 leaked US cables came from Nigeria between 2001 to 2010. The idea behind the timeline is to provide easy access to the wealth of information contained in these cables on the role of oil companies, private security firms and Western governments in the Niger Delta crisis as well as highlight the responsibility of the Nigerian government and other actors. The timeline is a work in progress – it’s not a comprehensive list of even the major events in the Niger Delta but it holds important insights into the roles of key players. Over time we will add other sources of information to it, using Freedom of Information requests.

You can learn more about the US embassy cables in this article on the anatomy of cables, and this piece by a former diplomat.

The timeline was researched and created by Ben Amunwa and Pip Brown at Platform. Platform is a London-based oil industry watchdog that campaigns in support of communities and individuals whose rights are affected by the impacts of oil. If you have any comments or feedback, or would like to collaborate with us, contact ben AT platformlondon.org.

Africa still pumping oil in the age of solar!

An insightful talk by Nigerian environmental activist Nnimmo Bassey  - “Africa still pumping oil in the age of solar”.

Nnimmo advocates keeping the oil in the soil and strong discounts the argument that oil is in any way beneficial to Nigeria or any other African country -

Oil has been the destruction of the Nigerian economy. It destroys the relation between the people and the state….”People say that crude oil is an easy and cheap form of energy. But it’s not the truth. Crude oil may be cheap but only because people are not paying the price. If you see what is going on in the oil fields: The pollution, the degradation, the human rights abuses, the murders and the killings – I would like you to tell me how much one drop of oil should cost.” (4:07)

 

Africa is surrounded by water and located at the center of the world -  the Chinese from the east, the US from the west and Europeans from the north.  Historically it  has always been an “accessible store house for energy”, from human energy to palm oil to biofuel and agrofuel to the present exploitation of gas.  In the Niger Delta alone  violence against oil communities can be traced back 100 years,  for example the destruction of Akassa in 1895 by the British to stop palm oil  merchants selling their produce direct to Europe.

Bassey points out the power of multinationals such as Shell and Exxon which have taken over the colonisation project begun by imperial powers such as Britain and France.  Such is their power that neither Nigeria nor the US can stand up to Shell and other giant multinationals. So the question and the challenge facing us is how to destroy the power of the corporations and in effect “socialise them”

Listen to the full talk here. 

Black Gold: “We are rebels of the struggle”

Black Gold: The Struggle of the Niger Delta” is a feature film written and directed by Nigerian filmmaker, Jeta Amata. Based on the film synopsis, Black Gold sounds fairly straightforward. A  community protests against multinational oil companies and the Nigerian government but to little effect. Enter militants and war is declared. Its not possible to evaluate a film based on a 2 minute trailer but there are a number of reasons to feel positive about the film. Apart from a BBC production some years ago, most films on the region have been documentaries which have to a very large extent been accessible only to western audiences. As a feature film and a Nigerian production Black Gold, has the potential to reach local audiences.  This is especially important now as the US Supreme Court rules on whether US based corporations can be sued for human rights abuses committed overseas with specific reference to  Ogoni activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others [Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuinewho] who were executed on November 10th 1995 for protesting against Shell.

Over the past two years there has been a growing number of literary ventures focusing on the Niger Delta:   Ayo Akinfe’s “Fueling the Delta Fires”, Helon Habila’s “Oil on Water”, the yet unpublished graphic novel, “Light Sweet Crude”, a collaboration between Kenneth Coker and Chris Feliciano Arnold; and Christie Watson’s, “Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away” [I will be reviewing this shortly]. The film’s timely release is further evidence that the region is finally seeping into consciousness of Nigerians.

Not a pretty picture: A short documentary on Nigeria

Via Sahara Reporters TV

No Spring in West Africa

 

Occupy Nigeria has come and gone. Senegal’s week of mass protests continues in sporadic outbursts and it remains to be seen if people will respond to Youssou N’dour’s call for a mass rally next Sunday. N’dour’s candidacy was suspiciously rejected by the Constitutional Council on the grounds he was unable to collect the necessary 10,000 signatures. But maybe it is not such a bad thing he is not running in this year’s election. It is possible he will be far more influential in bringing about change outside the formal political arena as support for Wade falls with many defections from his camp.

No matter how much mind pushing we engage in, the ‘African Awakenings’ have been sporadic with short-lived dream-like moments of intensity followed by exhaustion. However, there has to be a starting point and the political dynamics have forever changed and at least all of us now know that ‘We can’. Whether we will or not is another question. But a more considered truthful analysis is needed where people stop exaggerating and ignoring realities on the ground. Some Ghanian bloggers have been expressing their thoughts on the real or imaginary African awakenings. Nana Yaw Sarpong [Ready to Go] is rather scathing and calls for a more sustained mobilisation rather than intense street moments…

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Was Nigeria a 14 day dream?

 

Is the Nigerian ‘revolution’ over? Was it just a brief moment in our history when everyone came together believing that this time things would be different? Or has there been a permanent shift in consciousness? Emmanuel Iduma likens Nigeria’s 14-day revolt to a dream from which we awoke and returned to normalcy.

‘The horizon of your dream was of a better life, a different form of existence, a tangible and measurable difference. You saw that the debate about fuel subsidy removal was the opportunity to dream of change, because this was a protest above all protests, because this protest seemed naturally logical. But you forgot that in dreaming one does not feel; the night happens so fast, and very soon you are awake.’

Nigerians may well have woken up and it may appear that it’s business as usual but people do not experience such an outpouring of solidarity and power and remain unchanged. The apathy barrier has been broken and yes there has been a ‘shift in consciousness’ – how deep and how lasting remains to be seen. The momentum was lost when on 13 Friday, when the labour movement called for a two-day weekend break to ‘recuperate’. It would have been better if the NLC had just said we needed time to negotiate than lead people to believe this was only the beginning rather than the end. It was hardly a surprise to learn by Monday that the unions had sold out after a N100 fuel price was agreed with the government. Threats by PENGASSAN to shut down oil production and thereby bring the government to its knees turned out to be merely hot air. On his blog Notes from Atlanta, Farooq A Kperogi speaks for many when he comments on the NLC sellout.

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Is This The End of The Nigerian Revolution?

Something dies in you. You feel disconnected from your dream of a glorious aftermath. For the first time in your life you felt whole, framed within a bigger picture. You spoke, chanted, demanded. You were a witness, you and a million others. You were a revolutionary. Now things have returned to normal. Normal because there are moving cars, stores are open; the street is calloused, as before, by the movement and the people. And the normalcy. You hate that things are normal. This was not what you dreamed of. At all.

But what did you dream?

The horizon of your dream was of a better life, a different form of existence, a tangible and measurable difference. You saw that the debate about fuel subsidy removal was the opportunity to dream of change, because this was a protest above all protests, because this protest seemed naturally logical. But you forgot that in dreaming one does not feel, the night happens so fast, and very soon you are awake.
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Ken Saro-Wiwa on how it was, how it remains & how it could be

KSW reminds us of a struggle Nigerians have largely ignored or at best dismissed. The Nigerian media [pre social media] has to take major responsibility for the lack of information and analysis no doubt bullied as usual by military and pseudo military governments including Goodluck Jonathan’s. He reminds us of our right to stand up to oppressive leaders. He reminds of the misery oil has brought to people’s lives and how this has been ignored by multinationals and western governments. He reminds us of the existence of a ‘political cabal’ and an ‘oil cabal’. He reminds of our right to the fruits of our land and our resources and that we as people are part of an ecology system not outside of it.

We know that nothing has changed since this interview in 1995 except today we the people have the media in our hands. We can, if we choose and are prepared to make the effort and the sacrifice, do things differently so people do not have to feel they have no stake in this geospace called Nigeria and therefore have to chip a bit off and create their own space. The Niger Delta IS an Occupy Nigeria issue so far as it is part of Nigeria and so far as it is the source of all Nigeria’s income for the past 55 years. Oil is and has always been central to the Nigerian political economy and one cannot act and speak as if the source of that oil is not central to the oil equation.

There is no such thing as a “Niger Delta” issue that is not a Nigerian issue – to say so is to imply that the region is not part of the country and the people are not Nigerians. To do so is to disconnect the misery oil production has brought to millions of Nigerians from those who have benefited at their expense; from the benefit of free flowing oil including fuel subsidies; from political corruption, government waste, the terrible poverty in the north, south east and west and all the other social and economic ills we have faced as a nation.

This could be an opportunity for Nigerians to finally stand up and support the struggle of all Nigerians not just their own little corner and this works all ways. I hope people will have the imagination and vision to really move beyond the status quo. Because if petrol returns to N65 and political salaries are halved, fraudulent oil marketers are prosecuted but gas flaring and oil spills continue to destroy peoples lives, then we havent moved very far!

Part I

Part II

Video via @zulagroup

Needing This Revolution

“La résistance est une forme de collaboration” — Albert Camus

There are no groupings in my head.

I am not being spoken for.

No one will speak for me if I do not speak for myself. Tell this to those who have formed groups and begotten labels in my name: I will join you if only I hear my voice in yours. Not earlier. In this regard, I refuse to be called ‘the Nigerian on the street’ because there are Nigerians OUT OF the street.

If I am on the street it is not because of anybody. It is because of me.

I say this because I must divest myself from every resistance that collaborates. Clearly, there are those who wish that a revolt continues because it creates for them an ‘other’, thereby perpetuating their actions, their desire to stay on. These people wish to look at me and nod their heads, ‘yes, someone is agreeing with me in my irresponsibility.’
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The Nigerian revolution just begun

On Monday 9 January, the first day of the Nigerian nationwide indefinite strike, my fellow blogger, Emmanuel Iduma, wrote a post ‘See, The Nigerian Revolution Has Begun’. Emmanuel is a young man, a writer, modest and maybe a little shy. Sometimes there is hesitancy about his writing, as if he is not quite sure whether the stone he steps on will bear his weight or if his foot slips he will maintain his balance. But the important thing is, he never fails to take that step. ‘See, The Nigerian Revolution Has Began’ is an eloquent, assured statement of a young Nigerian at the point of a new beginning. Behind him lies years of scorn, thievery, greed, opportunism, political thuggery, untold violence, scammers, the occasional great football team and some of the world’s most innovative and accomplished musicians.

‘The revolution has begun. I am part of it. Do not be fooled that it begins and ends with placards, strikes, Twitter hashtags. I am certainly wiser than that. Yes, I will keep hashtagging, placarding, striking, until I am convinced that I have been de-stereotyped. Until I am convinced that I am not a matterless blur in the narrative of my country.’

Yes, we can play football and we can make music and dance! But now we can also make revolutions, or can we?

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