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Ijaw: Managing the ethnic question in Nigeria’s politics

From the Middle East to the Southern American regions of Venezuela and to the Niger Delta of Nigeria, mass deposits of oil, onshore or offshore, is the wealth that continually threatens world peace.

This has drawn historians and socio-political scientists to conclude that where there is oil, there is certain war.

It is from this premise that the story of the Ijaw people of Nigeria is not different from the rest of the regions of the world where oil and gas are found in large deposits. The land and waters upon which the people of the Niger Delta and indeed, the Ijaw reside are awash with oil, often described as liquid gold.

What constitutes the Niger Delta is several kilometres of mixture of drylands, wetlands, creeks, rivers, swamps, extensive coastline and continental shelf  crisscrossing these various landscapes in an estimated 6,000kilometres of pipelines bearing crude oil to various parts of the country.

And, a glaring price the people of this region must  pay is the over 150 gas flaring sites scattered across the Niger Delta some of them like the Utorogu gas flare site in Out-Jeremi, Delta State, dating back to 1964. This region is dominated by three major ethnic groups – the Ijaw, Urhobo and the Itsekiri, with the Ijaw being the largest.

Against this background, the Ijaw,  with sub-group as Izon,  has an estimated 15 million people (according to the 2006 population census even as other records claim their population to be over 25 million), and spread over nearly seven states in Nigeria, represents the largest group in the Delta of the Niger river.

They are indigenous mostly to the forest regions of Bayelsa, Delta, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Edo, and Ondo states. History refers to the Ijaw  as one of the earliest inhabitants in the south of Nigeria, thus it is not out of place to still find some Ijaw  engaged in fishing occupation as far west as Sierra Leone and as  far east as Gabon along the West African coastline.

Being a maritime people, many Ijaw  were employed in the merchant shipping sector in the early and mid-20th century (pre-Nigerian independence). With the discovery of oil in commercial quantity first in Oloibiri, in present-day Bayelsa State and gas exploration in the region, there has been a shift in the attention of the people to oil business since their region alone accounts for nearly 70 per cent of Nigeria’s oil deposit.

Extensive state government-sponsored overseas scholarship programmes in the 1970s and 1980s have also led to a significant presence of Ijaw professionals in Europe and North America (so-called Ijaw Diaspora).

Another contributing factor to this human capital flight is the abject poverty in their homeland of the Niger Delta resulting from decades of neglect by the Nigerian government and oil-companies in spite of continuous petroleum prospecting in this region since the 1950s.

It has become imperative to undertake this brief historical journey of the Ijaw in order to position them in the context of their position in the scheme of socio-cultural, political and economic evolution of the Nigerian nation.

The Ijaw have continued to forge a common bond among their loose clusters of villages (confederacies) so as to defend themselves against outsiders. On a local scale, their first‘enemies’ for a long time were Itsekiri in the established town of Warri.

But, as the impact of oil exploitation increased, the environmental degradation of the Ijaw communities forged a new and heightened level of this cooperation among the Ijaw.

This was further aggravated with the revenue sharing formula from oil with the Federal Government that has remained  inequitable for a long time. The resultant effect of this perceived huge imbalance, not only to the Ijaw but also  to the entire Niger Delta region  is still a  subject of debate and reconciliation.

Between 1958 when the colonial government of Britain set up the Willink Commission to seek a redress of the grievances of the Ijaw and December 1998 when the All Ijaw Youths Conference crystallised their struggle with the formation of the Ijaw Youth Movement (IYM) and the issuing of the popular Kaiama Declaration, it is obvious that the Ijaw have enjoyed the support of other ethnic groups in Nigeria whose leaders have spoken out in support of the rights of the Ijaw.

The IYM pledge “to struggle peacefully for freedom, self-determination and ecological justice,” and prepare a campaign of celebration, prayer, and direct action ‘Operation Climate Change’ since December 28, 1998 has seen this group winning  respect and support from other Nigerians who feel  that the  success of Ijaw  could also mean their own later success.

However, it would appear that the long history of contact of Ijaw  with the outside world and cordial relationship  with other groups in the Nigerian state has not impacted adequately on the leadership skills of the Ijaw in managing the ethnic question in Nigeria.

The last few months of President Goodluck Jonathan seem to have increased suspicion among Nigerians that the Ijaw  may not have put their best foot forward in their aspiration to handle political leadership of this country, when it gets to their turn to lead it.

And, this has shown in the way  their leadership has chosen their words in addressing the feelings and moods of other ethnic groups in the country, even those who have been in the vanguard of the struggle for resource control, equity in the distribution of national wealth and justice to all Nigerians.

A lack of political deft and tact in the past when it comes to choosing people to lead the Ijaw  is being exhibited at this most auspicious time in the eventful history of Nigeria. The politics of winner-takes-all, which has for several years come under strict condemnation in the country, has become the play field of the Ijaw since their son became President.

Every Ijaw speaker in the public has expressed eloquently their seeming victory presumably achieved by their singular effort and the need for them to lap every of its benefits, if it could last forever.

Suddenly, the Ijaw  have forgotten that the structure of Nigeria makes it absolutely impossible for any single ethnic group, no matter its size and resources, to win an election to the exalted office of president, for example. Each group that puts up a  candidate, willy-nilly,  requires the support and cooperation of other groups to emerge an overall winner.

* Ike-Chijioke writes from Lagos.
Similarly, the Ijaw  must be reminded that ethnic politics has never truly won any individual or group election in this country, especially at the presidential level, otherwise the  late Chief MKO Abiola would not have exhibited the overwhelming victory recorded in the annulled June 12, 1993 election  cutting across ethnic, religious and cultural boundaries and defeated  his opponent, Alhaji Bashir  Tofa, even in his home state of Kano.

In the same vein, President Olusegun Obasanjo, despite his loss in his native Ogun State in the 1999 presidential election, was able to win the presidency confirming once more that to emerge a Nigerian leader, the candidate for president must not have to be an ethnic champion.

It appears the Ijaw  are quite naïve in their perception of what it takes to be a leader in a multi-ethnic society like  Nigeria, and more so their sudden  developed superiority complex is only a reflection of their ill-preparation for such office as that of president.

For this outright display of paucity in understanding of the critical and salient indices that have continued to sustain the Nigerian nation in spite of past threats to peace and unity, the Ijaw appear not to be ready for what nature has thrust upon them.

Rather, the Ijaw seem to have concluded that winning and controlling a political office as important as that of  president  is all there is to their liberation. They need to borrow a leaf from the American president, Barack Obama, who rode on the crest of popular support as against black only support to power.

Thinking like the kind currently being exhibited by the Ijaw, that they can go it alone will only endanger our fragile democracy and further jeorpardise the chances of other ethnic minorities who are aspiring one day in the future to also see their own person get a chance to rule Nigeria.

Such leadership that the Ijaw  portend to offer Nigeria, one which is completely devoid of any roadmap to national development – no solution to the power issue, no blueprint on social welfare in the years ahead and given the growing number of unemployed Nigerians, future for the youth most of whom are restive in the Niger Delta and no plans to alter the tide of massive brain drain across the professions in Nigeria –  will only reduce our quest for national development to mere ethnic chauvinism.

The Ijaw  need to be reminded that since the close of the 20th century, there has been a paradigm shift in world politics and perception of influence across people – the new order of power control is no longer founded on who OWNS what but rather on the more enduring who KNOWS what.

A brazen display of hate politics that does not tolerate others’ view, raw display of power, intimidation, coercion, will only amount to repeating the same thing that Nigerians have fought for years past and is best consigned to our unpleasant past politics.

It is  appropriate to remind the true leadership of the  Ijaw  that its efforts henceforth should be concerned with the future of its young people who must be trained and encouraged to rise up to the challenge of a global future which have no barriers or boundaries. In fact, it is a global village that continues to shrink by the day and,  in this new arrangement, the fear and threat appeal that has been adopted by various groups due in part to the value of the resources at their backyards is nearly obliterated.

The future we must confront is a knowledge-driven future; the volume of mineral deposit several thousands of metres beneath the earth surface is not a determinant of how well this game is to be played, rather, it is the depth of knowledge that its players are exposed to, that determines how far they would go.

Chief E K Clark, who prides himself as the undisputed leader of the Ijaw,  has done more harm than good to the Ijaw. A leader should not be known more for the venom of his spleen than for the wisdom he parades. His language, often uncouth, uncivilised and vitriolic, as in his unbridled and unwarranted attacks on Adamu Ciroma, is a bad example of  how not to conduct political discussions and debates.

To be sure and over the years, Clark has become less of a political leader he claims to be. He does not show any maturity and sagacity in his drive and initiatives. He portrays the Ijaw  as a bitter and vindictive people who will rather destroy what they cannot have.

This is very incorrect as we have had such Ijaw leaders as Dr. Kimson Okoko who parade exemplary sobriety and firmness in the presentation of the Ijaw case. Abusing and denigrating people is not the modern way of winning converts.

Jonathan must be too embarrassed by the antics of Clark since providence thrust him in office as president. With no visible and official role to play as a government official, Clark has made it his duty to be information minister extraordinary through his meddlesomeness in every and all government actions and inactions.

The latest of such self imposed roles is his famous declaration that ”we will make sure Uduaghan does not return ’ in apparent reference the Appeal Court judgment in the  governorship election dispute in Delta State which nullified the 2007 election  and ordered  a repeat. Clark has not only embarrassed the president but also  the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Nigerians understand his ‘we’ to refer to himself and the Presidency.

Regardless of such misfires and there are numerous others to refer to,  Clark has shown his limited understanding of today’s  Nigeria and its political arrangements. Such indeed is the complicated dilemma of the Ijaw and something has to be done urgently else the outside world will begin to think Nigeria now has an Ijaw president instead of  the president of Nigeria being the Nigerian that he is.

This is where the world is going and that is the way we should go, as a people.

* Ike- Chijioke writes from Lagos.


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