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By Nnimmo Bassey

The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive tree, Reign thou over us. But the olive tree said unto them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees? And the trees said to the fig tree, Come thou, and reign over us. But the fig tree said unto them, Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees? Then said the trees unto the vine, Come thou, and reign over us. And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees? Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us. And the bramble said unto the trees, If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow: and if not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon. (Judges 9:8-15, KJV)

I first reflected on this scripture, with regard to our country Nigeria, during the reign of Nigeria’s immediate past maximum ruler, General Sani Abacha. The quote presented itself to me as a parable fit for modern day Nigeria and even with the demise of the dictator it still remains poignantly relevant. Although first made about 3000 years ago by Jotham (to people of Sechem when they made the wrong person king over themselves) its import is very pertinent to our situation.

The bramble as we all know is another name for "any rough and prickly shrub" or thornbush. The reign of the military over this nation has been more than a visitation of hornets on an unprepared people; it has been a most excruciating experience in every facet of life. Untrained in the art of governance and totally unprepared for dissent they reply with bullets to protest songs and reduce the worth of human life to near zero.

A check on all past military regimes reveals a catalogue of woes, but that is not our focus in this piece. Our concern is more with the reign of the present bramble. When the last "thornbush" extinguished itself on the bed of sin many Nigerians rushed to the street in celebration. That may not have been wrong, but it has become very clear that it is not time for dancing yet.

General Abubakar in September last year announced a wage increase for Nigerian workers and a few weeks later on withdrew it. He claimed that his advisers messed him up. And, who is messing up the people now? We are not aware of any adviser that has been called to order in this human tragedy.

With regard to the horrible fuel price hike that General Abubakar visited on the people, he had this to say in his New Year’s day broadcast: "Government is not unaware of the reaction of our people to the recent increase in the price of petroleum products by the oil marketers. GOVERNMENT IS THUS ENCOURAGING THE PETROLEUM MARKETERS TO ENTER INTO DISCUSSIONS WITH CONSUMER REPRESENTATIVES WITH A VIEW TO MODERATING THE PRICES to sustainable levels." The more I look at this statement the more I am convinced that either General Abubakar does not live in Nigeria or he must have peculiar understanding of petroleum products pricing mechanisms in Nigeria. He spoke of "marketers" of whom we know. Who are the "consumer representatives"? As far as Nigeria is concerned, that refers to the government. Dear General, you and your PRC are the representatives of the Nigerian consumers. No ostrich posturing, please.

That it is not yet time for dancing on the streets is what the youths of the Niger Delta have just been reminded of. Following the Ijaw Youth Council’s Kaiama Declaration of December 11, 1998 and the near expiration of the deadline given to the oil multi-national companies to extinguish their gas flares (and thereby give the people the chance to see a dark night sky for once in several decades) they decided to issue reminders through "ogele" or street dances. The government showed its disdain for dialogue when it rolled tanks into the streets of Bayelsa State, killing and maiming and raping the people. The dead count on the pages of newspapers has been put at about 20 whereas other sources place it at over 200. The deaths widely reported are those recorded at Yenagoa while nothing is heard of the mayhem at Kaiama and other spots in the creeks.

In his New Year broadcast, General Abubakar showed absolute disdain to the suffering people of the Niger Delta when he hissed that his "administration is also aware of the dissatisfaction among certain segments of our population arising from certain government actions or in-actions in the past. GENUINE AS SUCH GRIEVANCES MAY BE, we cannot allow the continued reckless expression of such feelings." My caps, please.

He went ahead to say that he noted the actions of "rampaging youths" in the area. This characterising of the Niger Delta people was not surprising because he had called the thousands who perished in the petrol fire caused by government neglect at Jesse last October "vandals and saboteurs". Once a people have been labelled lawless it becomes easy to ride roughshod over them. Mow them down, gag them, or do whatever you like with them. In other words, all you have to do is call them savages then you can have them for lunch.

Some questions have arisen from the current happenings in the Niger Delta. Is it possible that the so-called Ijaw violence is organised and sponsored by fifth columnists? Could it be encouraged by those who want to disunite the Niger Delta peoples so that the neglect of the area may be entrenched and so that the wealth from this region may be perpetually enjoyed by those who do not have to bother with the severe environmental and human rights abuses of the area? It certainly does not make sense that the Ijaw people would set out to antagonise all their neighbours. What would be the purpose of this? It seems more plausible that someone or some people outside of the Ijaw nation have found it expedient to create this atmosphere so as to annihilate the people and strike fear into the heart of others.

Today, many are seeing the repression in Ijawland as an Ijaw problem. Many are saying "good for them". How wrong can we get? It happened to the Ogoni. Whose turn will it be next?

Think of it: if the entire people of the Niger Delta had risen up with one voice to say to the government, enough is now enough, we want justice, what would have been the response? Would maximum force have been used on peaceful protesters?

Apart from the unacceptable level of environmental degradation in the Niger Delta, one sore point that should anger anyone is the insult called revenue sharing in today’s Nigeria. The derivation principle was the key to the strength of the regions in the First Republic. In fact between 1952 and 1970 the derivation principle accorded producers between 100% and 45% of revenue accruing from their area. By 1992 this was whittled down to a mere 3%. On paper, the 1995 proposal is 13%. The present situation is that the best that can be obtained is 3%. Even this figure is not a percentage of the gross revenue generated. Many deductions are made for items such as "special projects" of which you and I never know anything about.

If the people in whose vice-grip would reflect on the fact that oil business will not flourish for ever and that the resource is a finite one, they would understand why the Niger delta people need justice now. It is also instructive that it is the youth that are spearheading this drive for the respect of rights and for fairness. These youths will be the elders of tomorrow. And, if this is so, the government and the oil companies cannot win this battle through the weapons of oppression. There will be very few collaborators in the near future.

The youths have a right to worry about their future. The chiefs have already had theirs. For the youths, their future is bleak, very bleak. They have neither land, nor sea, nor sky to look up to. Everything has been so badly despoiled. They must stand up. NOW! The military administrator of Bayelsa State, Lt. Col. Paul Obi, has been quoted as saying that traditional rulers who do not bring the youths in their territory to order will be dethroned. He is also quoted as threatening to withdraw their "entitlements" which mean nothing more than cash payments. These threats underscore the suspicion that the payments made out to traditional rulers are little more than bribes.

The oil companies and government often talk of dialogue. But this has been with tongue-in-cheek. Consider, for instance, the meeting that is being planned to be held at Sheraton Hotel, Lagos. A new report has it that the budget for the meeting is about 20 million naira or 250,000 US dollars. This financial outlay is a scandal to any person who knows the depth of deprivation in the Niger Delta. Just think what impact that amount would have had on a community in the distressed area. And then consider the futility of the meeting itself!

Why can such a meeting not be held in the oil producing communities? There are many answers to that. First, there are no facilities/infrastructures to support such a meeting. The aim of the meeting is to score public relations point and Lagos is the best place to do that and not a village on the creek in the backwoods of the Niger Delta.

Let us conclude this piece by taking another look at General Abubakar’s response to the Niger Delta crisis as recorded in his speech: "We are no doubt committed to freedom of expression, the right to dissent, and all other basic freedoms and rights that are the hallmarks of a decent, civilized open society. The recent activities in the Niger-Delta region are a flagrant abuse of our commitment to such rights and freedoms." That sounds as would be expected. Recent events have shown that this regime as an offshoot of the Abacha regime has been tolerating some dissent with utmost reluctance.

The speech went on to read the Riot Act: " This administration will not allow lawlessness and anarchy to camouflage as right or freedom. We will not accept brazen challenge to the State authority under threat of violence as recently happened in the Niger-Delta region. Government has a responsibility to safeguard the State and the security of life and property of all its citizens and those of foreign nationals our soil carrying out their legitimate pre-occupations. This administration is resolved to do just that." Did the youths who merely danced on the streets (as attested to by the police) violent by any means? It does appear to me that those to have only hammers in their hands see every problem as nails. Where there was no violence or threats of violence, it had to be invented to drive home the point that the Niger Delta people are a conquered people. The more such a position is pushed the more it will become clear that the era of slavery is gone.

I will end this piece by urging the military government not to allow itself to prosecute a dirty war for the oil companies. Dialogue is the way out and this is what the real representatives of the people of the Niger Delta have always advocated. And never forget that the weapons being used on the defenceless people of the Niger Delta were purchased with revenue got from the oil exploited from the Niger Delta. The present course should only be pursued if the regime is telling us that their transition project is another race for the brick wall.

It is true, however, that bramble can only beget bramble.