By Anote Ajeluorou
The popular saying, ‘Injustice to one is injustice to all’ came to the fore last week in Ibadan when literary enthusiasts gathered at the leafy, scenic Poetry Garden at Preboye’s World, adjacent University of Ibadan, Ibadan in a roundtable to discuss a slim collection of poems
Isaac Caution Preboye is a historian and a renowned businessman in Ibadan. But he recently turned his attention to poetry and the result is a slim volume he just published titled, The Green Mangrooves. It is a volume that looks back with nostalgia at the lost lush greenery of the mangrove of Nigeria’s Niger Delta. In poem after poem, Preboye in simple and sometimes prosaic lines sings of a lost paradise due to the activities of oil companies prospecting for crude oil, Nigeria’s love-hate, all important economic resource.
Having grown up in one of the remotest villages in the region long before oil became an item, Preboye witnessed and tasted the pure haven that was once his home place, but which has now become sheer hell on earth. Already in his 70s, Preboye lamented that he could not relocate back to his village in retirement much as he would have loved to. Reason: life in his once peace, lushly green and fertile village no longer supports meaningful human life!
Those left in his village (and such other villages scattered across the area called Niger Delta) have been reduced to mere human dregs by the polluted environment that is daily decimating lives in installment. It is for this once rich, life-supporting land of his birth that Preboye has written The Green Mangrooves as a way of drawing attention to the all familiar tragedy of Nigeria’s oil wealth.
But Preboye has made the familiar starkly illuminating in all its hideousness and in his own special poetic idiom. Reading it in itself is a journey to the region where the reader sees, smells, tastes and partakes in the agony Preboye feels of a ruined environment feeding fat the greed of others other than the owners of the land.
What made the small gathering moderated by notable performer, Anthony Ebika, all the more special wasn’t just the palm, coconut and mango trees that screened Poetry Garden from the sun, but the participatory manner of the event. Those present took turns to read pieces from the book and then discuss the book afterwards. Indeed, each reader (both none Niger Deltans alike) seemingly personalised the poems they read, seeing in them aspects of the problems Preboye has illuminated for the wider public to appreciate.
AUTHOR and businessman, Folu Oyeleye, was first to voice his frustration with the Nigeria system and its elite operators that have worked in concert to impoverish the majority of the people. He said Nigeria’s problem could be situated within the ambit of a class struggle, with those at the helm of affairs sharply opposed to making life livable for the masses. While holding that Preboye had a right to insist that the Niger Delta environment is much degraded and its citizens subjected to willful poverty, Oyeleye said the same was true for all other Nigerian regions with the ordinary folks and offered that suffering and poverty was widespread and universal in Nigeria.
He admitted that while there was serious environmental problem in the Niger Delta, but blamed it on bad administrations that started from the aberration that was military rule, which has continued till the new democratic dispensation. “If we have good governance,” he stressed, “nobody will talk about injustice anywhere in Nigeria. There’s marginalization everywhere but it’s more prevalent in the Niger Delta. We should fight for human rights not regional rights. Let’s fight for good governance.”
Oyeleye read the poem, ‘Where were you, Ilu?’
A former editor of Nigerian Tribune, Alhaji Muda Ganiyu, traced the longstanding environmental degradation in the Niger Delta to activities of the oil companies that lacked serious government regulatory framework to call them to order and be accountable to the communities where they operate. He narrated how he and some of his colleagues were flown to places where Shell BP operated while he was editor. He recalled how much Shell frowned at the report they wrote about that trip, as it tended to paint the dire environmental situation in the region.
Ganiyu further stated that until Nigerian people held their leaders at all levels accountable, very little would be achieved. He urged Nigerians to insist on good governance so as to right the injustices that seem prevalent in the country. He read the piece, ‘Oh Gbaramatu’.
Actor, TV producer and activist, Felix Omuni, who is from a non-oil producing part of the Niger Delta, praised Preboye for his foresight in penning down the poems to celebrate the past beauty of a rich landscape that has been ruined with disastrous consequences for the poor inhabitants of the region.
As part of his activism, Omuni narrated how he also visited parts of Ogoni land shortly before rights activist and writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was murdered by the Gen. Sanni Abacha’s regime. He stated that what he saw made him cry for the innocent victims of the exploration greed for oil. He charged that the book be made available to every literate Nigerian, especially to those who are not from the oil-bearing region so they could see the harm of what keeps them going is causing their fellows down the south.
He read ‘They never cared about us’.
Wife of one of the executed Gideon Okar coupists, Mrs. Vivian Empere, now a schoolteacher in Ibadan, put the argument in perspective when she gave vivid description of how life is lived in some of the oil-bearing communities. Water, she said, was such a scarce commodity that the people have to paddle their canoes at the crack of dawn far out before they could fetch clean water to drink. Once it’s daybreak, the water would have been so disturbed it couldn’t be fetched for drinking or any other meaningful household chores.
Empere stated that her husband died fighting for the good of the people of the Niger Delta and all such minorities, whose rights were being trampled upon in the behemoth called Nigeria.
Others who read from The Green Mangrooves were Ayotunde Opakunbi, who read ‘Hope’; Funso Omotoso read ‘What are you thinking?’, Mercy Anthony read ‘My Mother’ and ‘Izon’ after she sang in French. The moderator, Ebika then performed the title poem, ‘The Green Mangrooves’, with the accompaniment of Izon folk song that the audience responded to.
The poet, Preboye, said The Green Mangrooves derived from his previous historical work, The Core Delta and his attempt to compress that work in a poetic form for accessibility. Preboye said he was at pains at what needs to be done since those saddled with the management of the country have failed to care for the people in the region that produce what sustains their ostentatious lifestyles. A revolution, he argued, may just be the only weapon left for the people to redeem themselves from the horrors of official neglect.
He voiced his anger and frustration at the absence of any ideological plank to whatever struggle that may be going on in the oil-producing region, saying even the name ‘Niger Delta’ is amorphous, an anomaly as it does not accurately describe the people!
Preboye queried government’s Amnesty Programme, and argued that if Amnesty was designed to settle the ‘bad boys’ from fomenting trouble, what happens to the ‘good boys’, who have good education but can’t find jobs to do? “We’re condemned to death in our own land,” he stressed. “If they had a choice, they (government and oil companies) would have sent the Niger Delta people to the Sahara desert!
“When the oil dries up, who clears the mess? That’s the point. Oil companies and government officials will all be gone when the oil dries up. Who do you hold for the mess? If the Delta dies, the whole of Nigeria dies as well. If you don’t want this, then save the Niger Delta. Like Chairman Mao’s, I hope the book will be a handbook for over 100 million Nigerian people. I can go on talking about the Niger Delta because of the pain in my heart. If we have good leaders, we won’t have the problems we’re having today!”
Earlier, Association of Nigerian Authors, (ANA) Oyo State chapter chairman, Mr. Akin Bello, spoke about the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing, and said such efforts could be “an ambassador for us in the future to makes us to see the thinking of the time”.