(Faction on the militant uprising in the Niger Delta)
By John Owubokiri
It is our last patrol for the week having put in six days of vigil, reconnaissance, engaging in manoeuvres and skirmishes with the enemy. Whose enemy really? These soldiers are dispensable pawns trussed and thrust into an alien territory by the policy makers of Nigeria to protect interests in a property appropriated legally but unjustly. They are not our enemies but victims as we are though of different circumstances. On several occasions, they have displayed camaraderie and exchanged professional courtesies; our commanders have reciprocated so that every platoon knows first to define the ‘enemy’ before engagement. This is necessary for almost without variation, we sight them first.
We have about twelve hours more to patrol the area allotted to us as our beat before we return to base, to warm food and tolerable hours of sleep. My feet, which like the rest of my body, except my head and hands, have been submerged in the alluvial foreshore, are cold. My biceps are throbbing as I have held my walking stick (gun) for upwards of three hours. My eyes, like those of the other members of the platoon, are riveted on our commander. He constantly sweeps the length of our ambush and though our heads and walking sticks blend with the colour of the alluvial paste in which we are hidden, he knows the position of everyone; he placed us there.
The time is about 10.00am but the harmattan fog is still sitting comfortably on the rippling waves of the river. Everyone of us knows that the approach of the enemy does not announce itself only in the roaring and chugging sounds of boat engines or the whirr of helicopter rotors. Any movements alien to the creek cause the crabs to approach their holes, the mudskippers to submerge their bodies in the mudflats, the weaver birds to stop their gossiping and the ripples of waves to multiply their numbers.
I am surprised by my new found knowledge of the ways of the river for it is so incisive you would naturally wonder how I came into it without formal instructions. You see, I was removed from my home and family when I was 9 years old, esconsed with an Anglican priest in far way Enugu Ezike where I concluded my preparatory education. For 13 years, I visited my hometown only once and that was few months before my graduation from the University of Ibadan. That visit devastated me and changed the course of my life. My parents had both died and of my five siblings, only one sister was left and I found to my surprise and later horror that she had given birth to three cute little boys sired by three different oil men who had all moved on.
It was a sad visit and had I been wise, instead of leaving her in wild, uncontrollable rage, perhaps, yes perhaps, I might still be in my posh office in Victoria Island dispensing sound financial advice to my firm’s wealthy clients. But that was yesterday’s existence. Four years after, I visited my hometown again. A quarter of the village had been washed off by floods. My father’s hut which was not close to the shore was not affected but that was all that was left of my family, a family that loved the moon which was the symbol of its corporate aspiration: to reach up as high as possible and remain humble, natural and cool. I was told by neighbours that my sister was thrown into the river from the platform of an oil rig but the reasons advanced by my neighbours for this act of barbarism were as many as there were tellers. Some said that the oil workers had gotten tired of her and had pleaded with her to leave.
Others said she insisted on being paid the full sum of the credit which had piled against the customers from the beginning of the month. Of all, the one which I chose, perhaps for my own psychological wellbeing as the most plausible, is the one that suggested she slipped into the sea having been thrown from the platform, aimed at a waiting life boat which had already broken away from its moorings. This method was deployed by oil workers even while I was still a toddler in the village to discard of lowly immigrants if day broke on them after a night of heavy drinking or if a ‘big man’ from headquarters landed on the helipad unexpectedly.
Whatever the reason might have been, I am now the last member of my family. The son of the chief, a liaison officer for the Oil Company, came to me then in the company of some ladies who appeared nervous and were looking in every direction but mine. He told me quietly in our lilting sing-song ljaw dialect how my little nephews had died of disease and hunger from the little one up, in that order. I was too empty to react. There were no tears, no sorrow, and no pain. Just emptiness. Two weeks after, I was clearing my desk having submitted my resignation letter. I had come to the conclusion that it was a false life.
Glamour, glitz and promotional glory when the home population was being depleted fast. Even then, I did not give room to fatalism. I went down to Port Harcourt, a city about 90 kilometers east of my community to join a group of youngsters dedicated to the protection of the environment. These chaps were so focussed on the environment that it took several months to convince them there is an admixture of issues (political, economic and legal) which combined to undermine the environment.
Three incidents broke up this group and while the smaller fragment of about five young men resorted to finding means of migrating, the rest of us came into these creeks to train and receive our peoples’ commission to protect the territorial integrity and the dignity of their lives. Fatalism? Perhaps! But we have been trained and as I am lying on this alluvial bed, waiting for the troops of Operation Restore Hope, I do not worry about life and death. I feel equal comfort from the taste of the morning dew as in the knowledge that my parents and siblings bravely endured the last minutes.
Sometime in 2004, the young director of our Green Revolution Movement announced he had received positive news from the militant activists of the Niger-Delta movement that the presidency had sent two aircraft to convey representatives of the various segments of the movement to a parley in Abuja. Names were collated and position papers were prepared. On the fateful day, however, the soldiers who came with the aircraft pushed out the ones they referred to as ‘book people,’ explaining that their orders were to bring the militants whose activities were causing international rumbles.
They told us boldly to go back to our eternal arguments in beer halls and on newspaper pages. After that incident, the feeling that the Federal and State authorities felt no respect for gentle and civilised persuasion was reinforced by the snubbing we received from both tiers of government.