By Osa Amadi, Arts Editor
During the state burial given to Gabriel Okara recently in Yenagoa, Bayelsa, the Honorable Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Daniel Iworiso-Markson, granted an interview to Vanguard. He spoke on the great honour the life of the late poet bequeathed to Bayelsa State, the country and the world:
On how he sees Gabriel Okara and why he was given state burial
Gbaingbain Gabriel Okara means several things to so many people. To us in Bayelsa State, he represents the finest of a statesman, a role model, one who really optimizes the ideal of the Ijaw man. For us too as Bayelsans, we are very proud to have someone like him blaze the trail, not just for us, but for the whole world as it were.
You can tell from the turnout of people from across the world, the United States and all over. And it’s interesting to know that a man through his writing was able to attract people from all over the world to his doorstep. That’s how powerful writing can be. And for those of us who are younger, especially those who have taken to this profession, it gives so much hope and pride.
I see his trajectory as similar to mine in a way. He was one-time commissioner for information in the old Rivers State. Before that, he was in broadcasting, a playwright; very renowned and of repute. I draw a lot of inspiration from Gabriel Okara. But let me tell you what I think is most attractive about him: That a man could live life so simple and yet command global attention; that a man could be apolitical and yet command the respect of everyone, including the politicians; that a man could be modest and approachable, and simple and yet could be so exalted even in death. That, for me, is a very deep moral lesson. There are a lot of things we invest so much time and energy pursing. If only we can take a look at the life and the simplicity of Pa Gabriel Okara, life will be a lot easier. Little wonder he lived longer: over 100 years. And it gives us a lot of hope, particularly for the youths of Niger-Delta.
And you asked why the government gave him a state burial. Why not? Even though he is not a politician, he took the name of Bayelsa across the globe. There is no amount of money you spend on Public Relations that can give you that kind of global publicity. As Bayelsans, we owe him a lot because he has done the finest job of promoting his hometown: The famous River Nun. Gabriel Okara truly projected his environment through his works. You can say very confidently that he is a man who was at home with his culture, with his people, and with his environment. He never shied away from projecting his culture and where he comes from and the people he represented.
You’ve been to Bumoundi, his home town. You will never believe that that kind of literary mind could have come from that place. It’s humbling. You don’t have to live in a palace to write the kinds of poems Gabriel wrote and to be so exalted as he was. So Bayelsa State Government left nothing to chance to ensure that we give him the kind of burial he truly deserves. For us, he is an icon and a statesman. He will continue to remain our role model.
His Excellency (Governor Seriake Dickson) has donated the sum of N25 million toward Okara’s foundation, and I believe very strongly that it is also a clear testimony that the government of Baylsea would want to immortalise his name forever because we need to keep telling the story of Gabriel Okara; of what he means to us, not just to the people of Bayelsa, but to the Ijaw nation as a whole.
Prospects for arts and culture replacing oil in Bayelsa economy
I have always believed that society develops more as a result of its human resources, not natural resources. Look at Gabriel Okara; one single human being with the gift of creative writing, he was able to draw the attention of the world to Bayelsa, to his remote village, Bumoundi. That’s the power of ideas. As they say, ideas rule the world. So what this is telling us, like our government has done in the last seven and half years, has been to call the attention of our people to begin to diversify and move away from oil to alternate sources of revenue, and our biggest investment as a government is in education. From what has happened and the way we celebrated his burial with the young people, particularly students who turned out in that event, we hope very strongly that we have impressed in their minds that you can be what you want to be and make a whole lot of difference in your world if you invest in your creative abilities.
If we can look inwards, we will see huge deposits of oil inside us. Inside, we have rich oil of creativity flowing in us which we can export to the world; that can give us more petro-dollars than the one in the ground which has brought so much chaos and misery to our people. Many lives have been lost and till now, we are still losing lives in the creeks as a result of oil deposits which ordinarily should have been a blessing, but has turned into a curse. Maybe what God is telling us through the death of Gabriel Okara is: ‘look we are investing in the wrong thing.’
The governor has done pretty well in redirecting the mind of our people to say: ‘let’s invest in the most important thing: our human resources.’ And our biggest achievement till date is our investments in the human mind. The governor is fond of quoting this: ‘There’s no greater investment than investment in human capital’ and what we have done is to go to the basics, to the young people, and children from the creeks; the same creek from where Okara came, because that is where you’ll find pure gold in the human mind and we’ve invested massively in education.
Today in Bayelsa, we have about 15 model boarding schools. Before this government came, there was no model boarding school, and each of these boarding schools have nothing less than 1,000 students and they are all on government scholarship and we’ve invested N80 billion since our government came into existence. Over the last seven and half years, we have seen each of these students evolve. That is our greatest weapon in fighting poverty and under-development and all the ills we have.
Building of intellectual militants
I was saying earlier that the oil in the ground has given us militants that are threats to the society and beyond our control, but we are building a new set of militants: Intellectual Militants, and they are giants that are coming up. I was also saying sometime in my remark elsewhere that very soon, Bayelsa will not be exporting crude oil; we will be exporting talents in form of intellectual giants from the experience we’ve had in the last seven and half years. Many of these scholars we’ve spent so much money on are making us proud all across the globe. People now think that Bayelsans are academic geniuses. Someone said it may be the fish we eat. But frankly speaking, it is the investment in the human capital that really counts, and we realised earlier on that if we have to change the narrative, we have to make that painful decision to invest the kind of money that we invested in education. And today, you find a number of our scholars who are working in NASA, Google, Apple and in all the blue-chip multinational companies across the world. And these are our products, products from this system that we nurtured, and it gives us hope that a new Bayelsa is emerging, and that is the new Bayelsa that is our focus right now, because that is the new Bayelsa that will give us a future in the next 10, 15 years.
Drawing from the wonderful life of Gabriel Okara, we believe very strongly that we can use him as a perfect example of the possibilities that these young people, whatever they do with their lives, whether it’s in writing or science, that there are endless opportunities and possibilities awaiting them in the world.
The world may talk about segregation, whether in colour or ethnicity, but the world can never segregate your brain. Once you find a brilliant scholar anywhere, or a creative genius like Gabriel Okara anywhere, they break barriers, and it goes all over the world and it’s celebrated. That is where we want to be to the extent that we want to export the best of our brains to the world, just like what India is doing in the world of IT, just like what the Philippines are doing with nurses. Bayelsa wants to be known, not just as oil exporter but as exporter of creative minds, brilliant minds and geniuses to the world.
Governor Dickson in the last seven and half years has turned the tides as it were, through investing in education. Funny enough, education isn’t a quick fix. A government that is looking for popularity will not invest in education because the result takes time to come. It’s just like what Awololwo did in the west. I’m a product of Awolowo’s free education, and look at me today. Without free education from the Western Region where I grew up, I won’t be where I’m today. So, in 10, 15, 20 years from now, the story will be told about Governor Dickson and his investment in education and the world will be celebrating us because of these young children. Like the Ijaw national academy, we have over 1,500 of them. These are children that came from the fishing ports; children you never imagined could leave the fishing ports where there’s no hope, where their parents don’t even have the needs. These children don’t have any link to Governor Dickson.
They are not his siblings. They are children from very remote, poor rural areas brought to an environment and exposed to the best of education. And some of them moved from here straight to the US. These are children who have never travelled out of the country and before you knew it, they were back. A number of them came back with first class degrees. Over 80 per cent of them came back with first class degrees, and interestingly, they didn’t come back to Bayelsa looking for jobs; a number of them already got jobs before they left the US; that is what education can do and so we believe very strongly that the government after us will invest and expand on this legacy so that the investment in this sector would turn around the fortunes of Bayelsa. We are glad, even as we are winding up, that one of the things that would stand us out as a government is that we did all our best to ensure that our children are taken out of poverty and given the most important thing: education. I believe education will liberate them and give them power to become what they are going to be in the future, just like Gabriel Okara did in his lifetime.