I have just finished reading an eye-opening and extremely depressing article in National Geographic’s February 2007 issue, “Curse of the Black Gold: Hope and Betrayal in the Niger Delta.” Generally I don’t have a problem choosing some words to start with when composing a blog post, but I am actually not sure where to begin in synthesizing this tragic situation and attempting to connect the ideas of the article with my own perceptions, experiences, and feelings.
I recently visited at length with a friend whose church in Oklahoma City is working with the government of Rwanda and local universities to provide host families and support for Rwandan students studying science and engineering at local colleges. You may recall Rwanda suffered an unbelievably tragic genocide in 1994. That event was the focus of the movie “Hotel Rwanda” that told the true story of Paul Rusesabagina’s heroism amidst the nightmare of senseless killing. When I learned about the Presidential scholars program of the Rwandan government, I was struck by what foresight that program revealed about the long-term vision of Rwandan leaders and others. Economic development in a country like Rwanda and recovery from a tragedy like the ’94 genocide is certainly not something that can be “microwaved” with short-term planning. Only long-term planning and work, focusing on the goals of EDUCATING the next generation of leaders for the nation, can have a chance of bringing about an economic, political, and cultural turnaround for the nation.
I do remember in the same conversation, however, silently lamenting the fact that Rwanda does not have a lucrative national resource like oil. My thought was almost identical to the naive quotation which ends this National Geographic article:
We want oil here. It will make everything better.
It is unfortunate this formula has not proven successful for Nigeria. Since the 1950s when oil was first discovered there, the country has become a poster child for governmental corruption, ruthless military violence crushing those who oppose ruling oligarchs, environmental destruction, and an overwhelming rich/poor gap.
The situation in Nigeria sounds so hopeless, it makes me think of Haiti following the first successful African revolution against colonial rulers in the Western Hemisphere. The Haitian revolution ended in 1804, and the Haitian flag was changed to only include the colors black and red. (Black for the skin color of the victors, and red for the blood that was spilled in the victory.)
The Haitian slaves killed every white person who lived on their western half of Hispanola, and proceeded to destroy much of the the plantations, fields, and other property of the previously ruling white class. Eventually, these victorious revolutionaries and their descendants not only destroyed their means of successfully making a profitable living in their nation, they also destroyed their future economic potential. Once a lush, beautiful paradise, Haiti become a deforested eyesore and remains the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti’s history included a violent struggle of epic proportions, with a tragic legacy that continues to this very day.
Like Haiti in the early years of the “age of exploration” in the Western Hemisphere, Nigeria has been and continues to be blessed with rich natural resources. The most plentiful resource is its Bonny Light crude oil, which (according to the NG article) brought in 45 BILLION dollars in oil export revenues in 2005. Yet despite this wealth, Nigeria languishes with rampant poverty and a strengthening violent insurgency which appears bent on the same sort of angry, ill-reasoned path of destruction that the revolutionaries of Haiti pursued at the turn of the 18th century.
Before reading this article, I had never heard of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Of course I know about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, and also Steve Biko – All leaders who were killed for speaking out on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised in their respective nations. Like these other fallen leaders, Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed because of the disruptive threat he posed to the governing elites and economically powerful enemies who wanted to preserve the status quo instead of tolerate reform and change. Saro-Wiwa was executed in 1995 by the Nigerian military. According to the NG article:
Shell and Ogoniland share a tragic history. Nigeria’s first mass protest against the oil industry emerged in these tribal lands southeast of Port Harcourt. In 1990, the charismatic writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, outraged by oil spills in Ogoniland, founded the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People. The organization demanded control of the oil on Ogoni lands and an end to environmental damage. A quarter of a million Ogoni, nearly half the population, rallied in early 1993 to support the cause. Later that year, Shell, citing security concerns, halted production from its 96 wells in Ogonilandâ€”though oil from wells outside the area continued to flow in pipelines through Ogoni territory.
Alarmed by Saro-Wiwa’s popular support, Nigeria’s military government brought charges of murder against him and fellow activists. The government accused them of instigating the mob killings of four Ogoni leaders from a rival faction. At a tribunal widely regarded as a sham, and with the alleged complicity of Shell, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were found guilty and hanged in 1995. Though the world community reacted with outrage, and Saro-Wiwa’s son initiated a lawsuit against Shell for human rights abuses (which is ongoing), the situation has not improved. In fact, Isaac Osuoka told me, “things have gotten worse since Ken was murdered.”
I worry that students in school today, as well as many people formally out of school, may have a mistaken perception that the battle for civil rights and economic justice is something only in history books and not a current event. When studying the U.S. civil rights movement and remembering Dr. King, I think it is wholly appropriate for students to learn about the unfinished work of Saro-Wiwa and the plight of the Nigerian people.
A quick scan of recent articles on the Global Voices Online blog for Nigeria reveals discussions about a lot of topics (most interesting to me probably the post on the departure of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Nweala from the Nigerian government last summer) but not much on the issues raised by this NG article. Are there many Nigerian bloggers currently living in Nigeria? If so, do many or any feel secure in publicly criticizing their government or their President, as I did this past week? I am not sure. If this NG article is accurate, I doubt many people living in Nigeria today feel wholly secure about anything.
Given the preceding discussion, let us not lose sight of the following ideas:
- Students should be in school acquiring an education for much more lofty purposes than merely scoring well on a test so the district and school can look good in the local paper when the test score results are published. Students should be getting an education to do far more with their lives than earn a comfortable living. We need to encourage students to understand and embrace ideals so they will seek to make the world a better place in their lives: To work with others for positive changes in places like Nigeria.
- Whose is at fault in this situation? Certainly corrupt government officials as well as the actions of the multi-national oil companies have a lot to do with it, but there is not a single individual or group who can legitimately take all the blame for a situation that has evolved over centuries. The fact that one person is not to blame and a simple, “microwaveable” solution does not exist should not deter us from striving together to address and solve challenges like the economic, environmental, and social morass in Nigeria, however.
- The importance of citizen journalists and citizen journalism is only going to increase in the months and years ahead. We need to find more ways to empower and encourage responsible and ethical citizen journalism. Any viable solution to a challenging array of problems like those facing the Nigerian people is going to be multi-faceted, but the cause of transparency and accountability in government is sure to figure high on the list. OLPC is likely to be a huge factor in the growth of citizen journalism in the years ahead.
I count my blessings to live in a community where my level of fear for my personal safety and that of my family is extremely low. The lack of basic infrastructure and public utilities (roads, water, electricity, sanitation) in many parts of Nigeria as well as other parts of the “developing world” should be seen as a call for action on the parts of wealthier nations and people in the world. (Yes, I know the U.S. gives millions each year in foreign aid, but clearly enough is not being done by private individuals, businesses, governments and NGOs when we still have so many living in poverty.)
I do not see this as a “white man’s burden” to naively attempt to “save” the developed world from a list of maladies. I do see, however, the need for us to not assume that capitalism and the unregulated market will “blindly” create a just and humane society. Vast natural resources have not created a utopia in Nigeria. Ethical, visionary and strong governmental and non-governmental leadership, sustained investments in infrastructure, and high-quality educational preparation for citizens seem to me to the the best hope for positive long-term change in Nigeria. Violence and violent revolution is likely to continue to draw the attention of international media sources as well as drive up the price of oil, but in the long run cannot bring about the sort of peaceful, economic prosperity which the Nigerian people deserve and likely want.
My prayers are with the Nigerian people this night, who face an array of forbidding challenges that overwhelm my own limited intellect and capacity to comprehend. Faced with such obstacles, a reliance on faith (as well as accompanying hard work) seems to me to be the only viable strategy for Nigerians to embrace to avoid becoming lost in hopeless depression.
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