This month I yield this pages to the nobel laureat, Uncle Wole:
Between amnesty and amnesia
By Wole Soyinka Friday, June 26, 2009
Bleak as the Delta situation appears to be, given the recent escalation of violence, we may actually be approaching a stage of possible resolution – touch wood! This is why, albeit with much reluctance, I feel I should respond publicly to the spate of entreaties and expressions of anxiety coming my way over my perceived adoption of a ‘siddon-look’ attitude towards the troubled region.
Such pressures have increased dramatically over the past few days, following – perhaps non-coincidentally - public responses by presidential candidate Pat Utomi, Ambassador Segun Olusola and others to President Yar’Adua’s latest offer of an Amnesty offer to Delta militants.
Let me begin by conveying my full endorsement of the position of these two. The offer of amnesty is worthless if it is not all-inclusive, and embraces those who are currently in state custody and/or on trial. The attempt in some quarters to confuse issues by refusing to separate the principled militants, such as members of MEND and its affiliates, from the opportunistic mercenaries and criminals, has always struck me as dishonest and diversionary. Separating the wheat from the chaff is a simple enough process, one that can be undertaken by a miniaturized Truth and Reconciliation version of the South African original, adapted to our own unique set of circumstances – and preferably with a change of emphasis that substitutes ‘Restitution’ for ‘Reconciliation’, keeping the latter on the agenda however as the implicit, ultimate destination. This has always been my position even over the South African process.
May I comment here also that the excitement over the ‘discovery’ of documents in one over-run insurgent camp, implicating well-heeled citizens as backers of the resistance has been nothing but amusing.
Did anyone seriously believe that it was nothing more a bunch of ‘rascals’ who have bent the nation, literally, over the oil barrel these past years? That ‘respectable’, high-placed citizens, including many not from the oil-producing region, did not share their yearnings?
Rascals? Extortionists? Hostage takers? Thrill killers? Since when was any liberation movement throughout history exempt from its quota of deviants! Was the Nigerian Federal Army itself even free of such human dregs when it was launched to prosecute a war dedicated, with all due sanctimoniousness, to ‘keeping the nation one’. We shall bypass for now, the question of what, and whose nation it has proved – an imperial delusion, or the genuine product of a people’s will? The urgent task for us at this moment to climb out of the pit of amnesia, recall that the army was not without its quota of psychopaths, looters, mass murderers and rapists – one of whom even became a Head of State, headed for a Life Presidency.
Those who wish to dispute that had better visit army records and find out whether or not Sani Abacha – whose name is still proudly flown on Abuja streets - had been recommended for dismissal from the military for ‘conduct unbecoming’ during the Civil War. Ironically, he obtained reprieve from yet another Head of State whom he later attempted to reward with a first-class ticket to the Great Beyond. These are not irrelevant asides – we must learn to cast a glance backwards periodically in dealing with the present. Records are also available, internationally, over the criminal conduct of sections of the Nigerian contingent of the ECOWAS ‘liberators’ in Sierra Leone, despite the heroic virtues displayed the Army as an entity.
My withdrawal into a seeming ‘siddon-look’ posture over the Delta has been inevitable, a product of disgust and bitterness over callously wasted opportunities. Disinterested but concerned interventions with the Obasanjo government, and next, its present offshoot, have not been wanting. I know of several – including from the diplomatic Corps, individually and as groups, speaking both for their governments and from their own concern as observers on the ground, but will restrict myself to the one in which I have been personally involved – the Nobel Laureates’ initiative.
That Commission, after a extensive visitation to the embattled areas, with frank exchanges with the people of the Delta at grassroots – or more accurately, at the deepest mangrove roots level – with government officials and representatives of oil companies, forwarded its recommendations to the government. The Nobel document, let me hasten to add, proved to be quite in tune with prior recommendations and agreements entered into between the government and Delta representatives. In tandem with his predecessor Olusegun, President Umaru Yar’Adua must be made to recognize that he shoulders a moral and political responsibility for failure to make a decisive breakthrough in the quest to terminate hostilities in the Delta region. Much of the toll of death and destruction could, and would have been avoided if only these two rulers had lived up to their charge.
I should reveal at this point that the Nobel initiative did not end with a transmitted report. David Philips, Secretary to the Commission, sought and obtained an audience with President Yar’Adua in New York during his visit to the United States for the 2008 THISDAY event – NIGERIA MEETS THE WORLD. He came away from that meeting with uncomplimentary observations on the lack of informed seriousness on Yar’Adua’s part over this ticking time-bomb. Phillips concluded that he expected nothing of value to emerge from his meeting with the Nigerian Head of State, any more than could be expected from the Commission’s report itself. He has been abundantly proved right. The Delta crisis is not the Middle-East dilemma, and does not require the high-powered serial rituals of negotiations that still characterize the Middle East, or indeed the Yugoslavia scenario in a not so distant past. The matter is straightforward. As MEND statements have periodically emphasized, the Delta crisis is the mere purulent tip of the Nigerian boil, now prodded into a violent eruption in a particular region. Over and over again it has been stressed that nothing but a holistic approach to internal re-structuring will serve the nation.
Not only is this historically inevitable, such an approach provides a context within which the aggrieved oil-producing areas can feel a genuine relatedness to the national question.
The stubborn retention of the status quo, and its manifest rejection by component parts, is at the heart of the Delta crisis. President Yar’Adua’s lackadaisical approach towards these contentious issues has become increasingly clarified as not one of governance indifference or lack of understanding, but of complicity through inaction. It is studied and purposed, the complement of the frenetic inaction of his predecessor. The only difference is that the Ota farmer fabricated a lot of deceitful motions – what I have termed frenetic inaction - to provide a cover for ensuring the status quo, while his successor cannot be bothered with such pointless exertion. His preference is the posture of a somnolent spider that has learnt to outwait and outwit noisome flies.
Is the Delta crisis an exception? Not in the least. The chronic concession of amnesty through national amnesia cannot extend that far, not even in this nation of self-censured memory. Parallels surround us in Yar’Adua’s treatment – or more accurately, neglect – of burning issues. Candidate for the most provocative is unquestionably the continuing retention of the INEC head, Maurice Iwu, in his theatre of gross abuse of national trust, where a people’s democratic yearnings have been treated with contempt and derision in the confidence of immunity.
It is not for nothing that MEND, in a number of its dispatches, has stressed not just the flawed antecedents of the Nigerian project in general, but the incorrigible cabalism of governance that makes a mockery of the democratic process, and thus robs the citizens of dignity and voice. MEND has interjected its communiques with reminders that the Delta contestation is a product of the desperate sustenance of the very immorality of the Nigerian state – and the continuing, corrupt desperation of power. That MEND took pains to state this in such stark terms is superfluous; even without this denunciation, the insolence of the democratic exercise of 2007 cannot be discounted as a crucial factor in the stiffening of militant intransigence in the Delta.
Governance is built on trust.
Trust is earned through transparent legitimacy. “ONLY A FEW TAKERS FOR GOVERNMENT’S AMNESTY OFFER” - reports an international headline. Surprise? “There is widespread distrust among Niger Delta’s Youths for government’s amnesty offers”, continues the sub-heading. Yes, indeed, that summative word – distrust! How has the Obasanjo-Yar’Adua diarchy acted to erase a distrust that began since Isaac Boro and his colleagues took to arms against a rapacious Nigerian state? What adjustments in approach – beyond tokenism - has the state made in its policies since the Ogoni tragic forewarning? Yet even far more ancient calluses of mistrust have been peeled off in other histories, and the Delta could have been relieved of its own by now, if the government had acted with transparent sincerity in general spheres of governance. After two years in power, can one objectively state that this is a government that deserves the trust of Nigerians?
Umaru Yar’Adua made several avowals of intent on taking office. He even backed his words up with one or two credible moves, such as disowning and dismantling his predecessor’s scaffolding of governance by illegality - witness his compliance with some long obstructed judicial directives and the bravura order of new investigations into unsolved political murders etc. However, just how far have these been pursued and sustained? Beside those few gestures, the nation has been confronted with nothing but the immobility of will, punctuated by sudden spasms that generate spidery vibrations, only to subside without any effective result. One’s anxiety therefore is that the Amnesty reach-out, and its potential, may end as yet another cocooned victim of purposed inertia.
Amnesty, after all, is something that Yar’Adua should know about. The Nigerian nation has granted his government an amnesty that has now endured two years, and is set to run its full four-year course. In my political dictionary, there is no political offence graver than organising, condoning, participating in, or benefiting from, the thievery of a people’s political will. On taking office through the gba’ju e tactics of the last incumbent, Umaru Yar’Adua made noises that conceded that a robbery had indeed taken place – an excellent starting point that paved the way for the people to reconcile themselves to what amounts to no more than a political Amnesty. But then, what steps has the beneficiary of this generosity taken to ensure that we put an end, once for all, to this cycle of electoral impunity that steadily takes its toll on a people’s forbearance? What are the concrete, not rhetorical measures taken?
The answer is easily read in the Uwais Panel report on electoral reform. Instead of principled and transparent pro-activity on the document, presidential efforts have been committed to attempting to water down or expunge critical recommendations, so that the commencement of implementation is currently stymied under procedural delays even as the next election looms ever closer. Knowing how ressure of time was deliberately fomented, then exploited, by the Head of INEC – the Institute for National Electoral Chicanery - it surely should be clear to the nation by now that our electoral organizing genius is, without question, being encouraged to utilize the same alibi of ‘decision-making’ to justify what is already looming as another electoral debacle, in which last-minute disorganization will be used to confuse and befuddle the electorate and the electoral process.
The tribunals - and judiciary – will then be coopted once again on the interminable rounds that surrender the electorate to another cycle of aggravated assault and eventual concession of – Amnesty to the seasoned, incorrigible, and cynical assailants. The fount of all electoral malfeasance rests firmly in the director’s chair. So firmly, so confidently is our man that he offered to instruct the United States of America how to run their democratic elections. Not surprisingly, that reluctant student, Barack Obama, decided to give the Iwuruwuru Nigeria Incorporated school a wide miss on his way through the African continent.
Other credibility gaps? Status quo – no, retrogression - on power generation. Status quo on electoral reforms. Status quo – no, again - retrogression on anti-corruption pledges. Related to that of course, the presidential ‘absenteeism’ throughout the Nuhu Ribadu travail and its nationally embarrassing denouement. The retention of an openly, repeatedly compromised Attorney-General, despite the spirited and elaborately argued case for his removal by the Nigerian Bar Association and others.
The unprincipled removal of the Head of the Law School, Lagos, for no other crime than presiding over a formal event, a normal feature of an institution that trains its students to be defenders of the fundamental right of free speech. For a president that swore to restore the integrity of the judiciary, and thus of justice, this certainly was a high water-mark of matching word to deed. Presidential torpor over the Halliburton scandal while the point man, the Attorney-General scurries to and fro, filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing.
A head of state consistently rumoured to be so weak as to be barely able to receive the accreditation letters of foreign envoys nevertheless finds sufficient motivation and energy to invade the politically charged zone of Ekiti for a heated electoral re-run, sending – yes, exactly what signals to the nation? Or shall we diverge to the insensitive, nauseous extravaganzas of the self-declared Servant-Leader’s daughters’ betrothals, weddings etc., reminiscent of those decadent Roman days that have bequeathed to the world the expression ‘fiddling while Rome burns’?
That truly is leading by example! Shall we anatomize the discredited company that the President so clearly loves to keep? But why continue? I know that I have repeatedly described Yar’Adua as a president on permanent sabbatical, but professors do not proceed into unproductive hibernation during this physical absence from teaching – indeed, very often, much ground-breaking work is done during this period, and the question under constant study has been: what grounds has this incumbent has been breaking during his two years of sabbatical retreat? Our findings – the ground under the feet of democracy, the completion of the mission embarked upon by his predecessor. Two years have been more than sufficient to test President Yar’Adua’s sincerity, and it has been found wanting. The mistrust that is voiced by the Delta militants only responds to vibrations from the web of deception that Umaru Yar’Adua has spun around his hibernation.
As I stated at the ‘Town Hall Meeting’ in London – that plain, ordinary, routine, and legitimate entitlement to community gathering that Yar’Adua’s representatives in London made such strenuous efforts to scuttle - a passive posture may disguise systemic aggression.
That is commonplace actuality. It lies at the core of certain forms of martial, or indeed marital art, since either form of conflict is often conducted on such terms – a cultivated passivity on one side as strategy for the attrition of the opponent’s resistance. It is only a matter of time before the latter discovers how weakened he has become.
Yar’Adua’s strategic indolence is in that mode. He has been given two years to prove otherwise; he has used both years of comatose affectation to lull the nation also to sleep. Nothing is happening, yawns the citizenry, as it dozes off, or else sleep-walks aimlessly.
Wrong. Just like the godfather, the Spider never sleeps. No, indeed, I have not been indifferent to the Delta crisis – very much the contrary. My position is that, after decades of military dictatorships that have brought a nation to its knees where she had no choice but to endure the dribble of international opprobrium, TEN, repeat TEN years of amnesty to post-military civil governance is no longer an act of generosity by any people, but a sign of resignation and/or supineness. Nevertheless, we need to remind the one to whom the nation’s over-extended arm of accommodation has been stretched that his government is not emplaced on any high moral ground that permits quibbling or dawdling over this offer of amnesty.
Well, the gesture is on offer, and will, I am confident, be soberly and positively considered by the disaffected region. To ensure the result desired and deserved by the nation, it must be backed by structures and procedures that testify to its sincerity, with transparent guarantees placed before the nation. It should not be rejected out of hand by the militants – this we must also strongly urge - despite the fact that the offer comes from one whose credit has been exhausted.
Some of that credit-worthiness can be regained and injected into the process through a serious encounter that brings both sides together, brokered – I strongly recommend - by international neutrals. This is not a novel solution, on the contrary! It had been embarked upon several times before, only to be abandoned through passive procrastination, punctuated by acts of bad faith – such as the ill-considered appointment of a chairman of deeply flawed credentials for one such exercise. Was that a mere error of judgment? Or was it a diabolical exercise in advance sabotage?
Finally, should such an Amnesty be broad enough to embrace even the criminal opportunists of the struggle? Absolutely not. That would be as much as to say that Amnesty also embraces those accused, or proven guilty of war crimes, such as the officers who took part in the cold-blooded shooting of two brothers – among similar, less publicised crimes – against the innocent citizens of the Delta region. Indiscriminate bombings and saturation bombardment of villages ‘suspected’ to harbour sought militants must be investigated and the guilty charged. Orders began somewhere.
Those orders were given, and those orders were carried out. Who gave the orders? Has Umaru Yar’Adua yet launched a commission to enquire into the extra-judicial, cold-blooded murders of the two Gbaramatu brothers? I hope not. There is no need for a commission. Names, locale, time and witnesses – including video records - are sufficient to have initiated an internal enquiry that should now move to the public sphere as criminal proceeding. Will Yar’Adua seize this chance to dissociate himself from the peacetime massacres that became commonplace under his predecessor, and commit the nation to a humane morality even in time of war?
That question hangs for now but, like the question of detainees, constitutes a strand in the fabric of Amnesty that will either enfold the militants or catapult them deeper into the violent zone of alienation.
These are the choices before Anansi, the spider of West African folk-lore, and current tenant of Aso Rock. Those who dispute this categorization are destined to become fodder for that seemingly inert web that is spun ever wider, and with so little energy, while the rest of the nation sleepwalks, mesmerized by yet another receding chimera: Vision 2020. The question posed by the Delta region however, in tune with the rest of the nation is: whatever happened to Vision 1960?