By Simon Ebegbulem, Benin City
Former Head of Department atÂ theÂ Â University of Benin (UNIBEN) and Professor of English and Literature, Professor Tony AfejukuÂ is a household name in the Niger Delta struggle. In this interview, the blunt defender of the rights of his Itsekiri people, critic of the President Umaru Yarâ€™Adua policies in the Niger Delta and controversial commentator on contemporary issues, says the amnesty programme of the Federal Government will fail.
He gives an insight into the formation of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), and warns that the much attention being paid to the Ijaw as if they are the only ethnic group in the region will backfire. Excerpts:
The amnesty programmeÂ seems successful.
Militant leaders have agreed to lay down their arms. As an Itsekiri activist, how do you review the entire situation?
I want to tell you that this so called amnesty is not a farewell to arms. It is not at all any good bye to arms in the Niger Delta. What they have now is a kind of lull and sooner or later,Â I will tell you that the Niger Delta leopard, sooner or later will proclaim its leopardhood.
In other words, I am saying that the Niger Delta shark will sooner or later proclaim its sharkhood. Having said that, with what has happened, the impression this government is driving at is that it pays to loot, to kidnap.
It pays to be a looter, a rapist, to be a murderer of innocent persons. That there is some kind of reward for carrying out some kind of criminality. And they also underscored the point that it does not pay at all to take measures that pertain to due process, justice and equity when those who committed various acts of criminality as it were, in the name of so called militancy, are put in a presidential jet and flown all over the place.
Then, you are sending some kind of message that will reverberate for a very, very long time. Not just to select so called Niger Delta militants who have been priding all over the place, who have been given the status of governors and presidents.
Other people will copy the examples sooner of later. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), went on strike for more then three months and when there seemed to be some break way, the President in his wisdom, did not think it wise and necessary to even invite the President of ASUU to come inÂ a Presidential jet to resolve academic matters.
What I am trying to say is that this amnesty is not a remedy to this situation. In medical science, we are told that every drug has its side effect. What I am saying is that the amnesty drug that was prescribed, those in government are aware of the side effect of the action they have taken. You do not solve a problem by creating another problem.
We solve a problem with an answer. I will not tellÂ them the answer but I am saying that this is wrong prescription. It is a wrong remedy.
If this is not the remedy, what is it?
I just told you that I am not in government and not a Political Adviser. I will not talk. Let them solve their problem. But these guys now will fade away, others will re_generate and come up. That is number. Another question you will ask is that the Ijaws, are they the only owners of the Niger Delta? What have they given to the Itsekiris.
What have they given to the Ibibios, the Binis, the Isokos, the Urhobos, the Effiks, the Ndokwas? So, people are watching. The Ijaws do not own the Niger Delta and I will say that as an Itsekiri man. They call us the South South but nobody consulted us before they put us in the South South.
Why donâ€™t you establish a Midwest zone and let us determine where we want to go? Who even said the Itsekiris cannot belong to the South West or South East zone? Who consulted us? The point I am trying to make is that those in government who feel that they have all the wisdom, let them see how it will go.
Like I have just said, the war is not over. Amnesty is just a lull. It is not a farewell to arms. What the government has done now is that, there is this kind of idiotic feeling to say that you want to go to school.
What the government is saying now is that go and carry the gun. The point I am making is that if tomorrow I leave the classroom to become a gun runner, I go to Angola, Lebanon, Pakistan and negotiate for arms, I hope I will be given amnesty too for being a gun runner.
Looking at steps taken so far by the President UmaruYarâ€™Adua- led administration, doesnâ€™t the Niger Delta need peace for development?
I am one person who believes in due process, equity and justice. We know those who looted and raped the Itsekiri kingdom. We know who kidnapped people and this has gone all over the place. And do you think that this is the answer? What I am saying is that amnesty is a horse that wonâ€™t run; it is a fish that wonâ€™t swim. We will know sooner or later.
In the scheme of things, where do we belong? In the point of human rights, where do the Itsekiris belong. People who are trying to establish kingdoms in Itsekiri lands and you are trying to pacify them. So what the President is trying to demonstrate is that he is a kind of pacifist but this is pacifism that is standing on his head.
A President who believes in granting what I will rightly refer to as compromise and concession that will lead to no where. I am telling you, if you know this about me, I am only trying to resist the conformity of the conformity of compromise.
The President should not because he wants to be a pacifist, go ahead and continue to do that which is wrong. This country has laws. Are we saying that what he is doing is in the spirit and letter of the constitution? The politics of appeasement never pays.
Tomorrow too, other groups will come up. Then you now appease them. That is why I said I may decide to resign tomorrow and become a gun runner, and if I am apprehended, I will ask for amnesty. You do not give concession to one group to the detriment of other groups.
That will lead to anarchy. Something leads up to some thing and something cannot stand on nothing. Justice must be allowed to prevail.
The FG is yet to implement the reports of Justice Muhammed Uwais Electoral Reform committee and the Niger Delta Technical Committee.
The President is only conforming to precedents.So, what he is doing is not abnormal. Right from the time of the Willinks commission to right the wrongs of the Niger Delta, they do not have the heart to it. The Niger Delta and Nigeria as a whole is a country of contradiction.
And our men in power have always followed the part of contradiction. So, let me try to contradict my self too, by saying that he is trying to do the right thing in the wrong way and he is doing that to appease a section of the Niger Delta. Look at the members of the committee.
They now nominated Ledum among themselves to chair the committee. Like I said before, he loves to compromise and he feels comfortable in this zone of conformity of concession. And look at the man heading the Niger Delta Ministry for example. He cannot perform. He is too old for that. He is somebody they can arm twist.
So, I do not see any destination. Where we are heading to as far as the Electoral Reform or the Niger Delta Ministry are concerned? What is the place of the minorities, that is the question? Even in the so called Niger Delta, there are minorities and minorities and minorities and what the big minorities who are actually majorities in Niger Delta are doing to check the rulers at the centre is not what they are doing.
This will lead us to nowhere. You do not solve a problem with a problem. The problem is a very contradictory thing. But Nigeria, as I told you, a country where contradictions are ever present. The more you try to understand Nigeria, the lesser you seem to understand that Nigeria is a failed state. Here in Nigeria , particularly the Niger Delta, we have what we call instability of instability.
But do you foresee doom forÂ the Nation if before the next general elections things are not corrected as regards the electoral system?
My poetic instinct tells me that there may not be 2011 elections. We should prepare for the unexpected.
What is the unexpected?
The unexpected is the unexpected. That is all I want to tell you. Just prepare for the unexpected. I will say more than that. I am preparing for the unexpected so you just prepare for the unexpected. A word is enough for the wise.
There are campaigns for the second tenure of President Yarâ€™Adua. Looking at his performance so far, do you think that the President deserves a second tenure?
If he is doing that, it means he is not preparing for the unexpected. My poetic writing and critical hunch tell me 2011 may not be a reality. God will dispose in 2011. That is all I can say. What progress have you made as a nation?
A country that does not give respect to education. Without education, there is no country. Militancy is the only trade that excels now.
There is crisis in the educational sector but nobody cares. The two senior citizens of this nation, who are university graduates for the first time that Nigeria ever had it, they never cared. You are subjecting university dons or lecturers to the regime of penury.
Let me just say this, the Nigerian academics, my colleagues, their courage is only just courageous powerlessness. Nothing works in the educational sector anymore. There was this publication, the best universities in the world.
UNIBEN which was the first placed Nigerian university scored above six thousand, followed by Ife , seven thousand plus. When I was finishing my university career, who wanted to be Minister? Nobody gave athought to that.
I came into academics because of what I saw. But now in the Niger Delta, nobody wants to go to school. The Igbos do not want to go to school anymore. We are thinking of business, money, money, money.
Nobody cares anymore and you think we are making progress? Without education, a nation perishes. And they are trying to turn this generation into a sterile world and may we not be the product of a sterile generation. There is no progress as it were. Forty nine years of independence what have we achieved. I just came back from the US.
Most of the products they have there come from Asia, Indonesia. What do we send abroad, just oil? We are not thinking because our leaders are bad and also the followers are bad. I have talked to you now, giving example from my experience.
I am not an ethnic war lord. I am an ethnic peace maker. But naturally, I came from somewhere. Itsekiri gave me birth. Now, given an example, we are used to be known as a tribe that goes to school. How many Itsekiris go to school today?
How many Igbos go to school today? We are in a sorry state, my dear. I see no progress. I am not a prophet of doom. But what I am saying is a reality. From what is happening in Nigeria today, I regret being intelligent.
I have the courage to say my mind but my courage is powerless courage. The Soyinkas have spoken and spoken but no progress, and there will never be until the followers insist that the right leaders must come.
Not primordial interest. Leaders can come from any part of the country but they must be leaders who can lead us properly.
From what you said earlier, you talk as if it is only the Ijaw that are in possession of arms in the region? But we are aware that they also surrendered the arms. Do you not think that they also have the same problem with the Ijaw?
Thank you very much for this question. Yes, Itsekiris have arms but the arms were for defensive purposes.
To defend themselves against rapists, those who want to establish kingdoms in Itsekiri lands. Lands that we won by court judgments, lands that have always belonged to Itsekiris historically. Now, somebody woke up,Â because of the power of militancy he wants to take over.
I said before that there will be no peace unless there is justice and fair play. The Federal Government and the state government did not care: because minorities are involved, let them die.
All they care is the oil, not the people. If the federal and state governments fail to protect their citizens, you think the Itsekiris will fold their arms to be wiped out. No. We are not aggressors. We have never taken part in any war of aggression but we must defend ourselves and we will continue to defend ourselves, even with stones.
So the arms they surrendered were all for defensive purposes and the Federal Government knows because they have intelligence officers. Name one Itsekiri kidnapper, name one Itsekiri war general or field Marshal who was given a plane to Abuja.
The Federal Government forced the Itsekiris to acquire arms to protect their territories. We do not kidnap. So the Federal Government must do its duty to let the rapists who are still occupying Itsekiri territories to leave.
Who are the rapists?
You know the rapists of Itsekiri land. You know the arsonists, the looters. You know the murderers of Itsekiri children. Everybody knows them and it is unfortunate that we do not have a government that protects its people.
Their only interest is the oil. And let me tell you as an Itsekiri man, I know who created the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Let me not say too much.
But MEND was created by the Ijaw militants
I know who created MEND, just take it like that. What you donâ€™t say is more important than what you say. So, I will leave it at that.
Are you saying that the Itsekiris created MEND?
Leave it like that. Itâ€™s a big power broker. I know who created MEND because I am involved. I do not carry guns but what the Federal Government is telling me now is that I should retire and be a gun runner.
Some Niger Delta leaders are calling for the removal of the Joint Task Force (JTF) in the region. Do you think it is the right time for JTF to go since the militants have laid down their arms?
To say that is like saying that policemen should be withdrawn from the various cities and villages. Do we not still have armed robbers all over the place?
Anybody whose mind is sane will not suggest the removal of JTF because you are going to create more chaos. The JTF is a necessary evil in that region. JTF must not quit. It is in the interest of the region and the country as a whole.
And if you believe that the boys have surrendered all their arms, then you can believe anything as a journalist. First of all, I told you that the amnesty has failed. New waves will come. The old waves will be washed away.
Are you saying that even the Itsekiris did not submit all their arms?
I have not said that. Itsekiris never vandalized pipes. They have never been aggressive. They have only defended themselves and if there is any aggression against our people, we will use sticks to defend ourselves.
Majority of these militant leaders are freedom fighters, due to the federal government neglect of their communities. Are you saying they do not have the right to fight for their rights?
They did not start that way.
They started by way of protesting the relocation of a local government council. And when the government did not do anything about it, they said yes, we have power here. If the government had done what they should do, they would have checked their excesses immediately. It all started through a protest against the Itsekiris. That is the reality.
The war started with the burning of Itsekiri villages, and that was when they started acquiring arms, then the bunkerers. That was what happened. The Itsekiris, we may be small but we still have brains and in fact patience is one of our greatest weapons.