Sunday, September 23, 2007

Again, The National Question

by Obi Nwakanma

LOOKING at the list of directors and managers of the Nigerian national oil interests, just recently published following the so-called restructuring and redeployments taking place in that sector, one senses the deep meaning of the absence of the Igbo and much of the groups of the old Eastern Nigeria in Nigeria’s formal sector. It is not accidental, we have always said. There are usually symbolic gestures at representing a handful of individuals from the Southern minority ethnic groups, but such symbolic presences do not obscure the fact, that to all intents and purposes, Nigeria’s most strategic national industry is now absolutely under the control of the North.

Individuals who basically, primarily identify as Northerners, now man all the strategic positions in the industry. Now, let me step back a bit, and say, I am personally not distressed by this development, in so far as those individuals manning these sensitive positions earned their places by merit, and are competent managers, and are psychologically and intellectually equipped to play in the very complex and intriguing field of the international oil business and its politics.

Every individual, in other words, deserves his place earned through hard work, dedication, and honesty. I am happy that we have now basically abandoned the debilitating aspects of the quota system, by the look of the profiles of individuals in at least the oil industry, and increasingly in the federal government.

The quota programme no longer holds. That is a fine development. But there is only one troubling aspect of that development: it is that we have not established the grounds to offer a level playing arena for those Nigerians who feel qualified and who may wish to compete for these positions. No vacancies are published; no interviews conducted; no guarantees provided that those who often see themselves as coming now from the wrong side of town can have equal access to the opportunities of the work place and the opportunities of their rights as Nigerians.

This inability makes for some other considerations: it asks us to question the composition of the board of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and the various sub-corps that make up its vast chain and networks.

Are we to suppose that there are no competent Igbo, Efik, Ibibio, Ogoni, Ijaw, and so on, who may have applied for jobs in the oil industry, and who may have been qualified and deserving of the positions in this industry? So why is the character of the Nigerian National Oil management today unipolar? Let me establish the implications: Although we very often consider oil as a national resource, that question of to whom it really belongs has not been fully settled. There are those who know and who insist that the last civil war was fought over oil.

The upshot is what is now very clear: that the laws that
appropriated those oil fields in 1968, and legally placed it in the hands of the federal government, gave its eternal control to those whoever will control the central government. By various means, the north of Nigeria has placed itself in that position.

The alliance that prosecuted the civil war have had their various turns, and the effect is the devastation of the entire Niger delta, consisting of what was formerly known as the old Eastern and Midwestern region, and the stupendous enrichment of people, mostly from the old Northern and Western region, and a handful of their subaltern allies among the minorities.

The environmental catastrophe that faces the oil producing areas and the increasing poverty of their immediate neighbourhood has instigated the current rebellion in the Niger delta, which is spreading rapidly into a state of lawlessness, as militias, private armies, and mercenary soldiers mutate. I do not think that Nigerians completely comprehend the scenario: although these events are currently taking place, and seem at this moment isolated to the Niger delta, the situation may inexorably spread into an urban warfare, a Somalia like situation, in which once-stable societies implode, and ethnic and sectarian militias, run by war lords, map out territories, and isolate a meaningless government at the center to which none pays allegiance because of its loss of both legitimacy and the capacity to effect national oversight.

That is the emerging scenario which Nigeria’s national security analysts do not seem willing to put in the mix. It would not be impossible for instance, for some one to take over say Surulere, Lagos or Bompai, in Kano or the Fegge area of Onitsha, and establish territorial rights, establish their own laws, collect protection tax, and pay off privateers. This would indeed be, the real meaning of privatization: the privatization of war and of government.

Its stimulant would be, principally the breakdown of families and communities as a result of poverty, displacements, and increasing alienation. It would be stoked by the sense of injustice that comes with a people who feel isolated by the policies of state, and by the lack of opportunities as a result of their presumed location within the meaning of the nation.

At the moment this scenario seems far off: but any close observer of trends within the nation; anybody who has taken note of the pattern of the crime index, and the evolution of values that have shaped the current generation, will notice a fundamental lack of emotion that connects the new Nigerian with the idea of Nigeria. Indeed, from my private studies, while we in the media still put microphones in the mouths of “eminent Nigerians” and “elders,” this young men and women do not care a whit what these guys say, what they represent, or what they care about.

For instance, while a man say like Edwin Clark may go about claiming to be “Ijaw leader” or the plutocrats at Ohaneze ndi Igbo claim to be speaking for “Ndigbo,” the truth is that vast segments of these communities – the younger folk especially - do not feel themselves represented, nor do they care for these individuals; and do not see them as role models; do not respect their views or positions; do not view them as their leaders; they care for only one thing: the opportunity to belong to something that guarantees them livelihood and security, and a different kind of identity.

Many have given up on Nigeria and live here merely as aliens. An Igbo or Efik or Igbira young man or woman who feels segregated and discriminated against, will seek the community of the segregated and discriminated, and establish a common cause and a common front. It would be a matter of time, but they would ultimately challenge their situation.

We are seeing the first signs of that challenge in the rupture of the Niger delta. It is borne primarily from a sense of injustice. But in the appointments that Mr. Yar’Adua has made and approved, reflecting potentially his sense of history as a Northerner, and a potential sense of northern entitlement, he has proved insensitive to the very intricate balances in the federation.

Indeed, the injustice in the structure of the federation, in which Kano State alone receives nearly as much money in federal grants than the entire South-East of Nigeria, is one of those factors that may instigate the incipient rebellion.

The problem is quite stark: the Igbo currently feel isolated, insulted, humiliated, and denied just opportunities as free citizens of Nigeria. At every front: with the use of official population policies, the selection processes, the use of federal control of the national purse string; the use of the force of the state police; the Igbo feel an increasing sense of siege and absence: they are certainly not alone in these feelings: most Nigerians feel that the current state of Nigeria is an impediment to their hopes of a decent life. We should either break it up or make it work. This advice is free.

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