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A GRASSROOTS REVOLUTION: THE BRASS EXAMPLE

By NBF News

The coastal community of Twon Brass is an idyllic hamlet with a historic legacy that is so profound that it should be regarded as one of the landmark locations of Nigeria's golden anniversary. Apart from the fact that it has provided the nation with some heroic icons of both the struggle for independence and the consolidation of post independence nationhood such as Ernest Ikoli and former naval officer King Alfred Diete-Spiff it has also been one of the most important host communities of Nigeria's indispensable economic bellwether the oil and gas industry.

It is probably not widely recognised outside of the community itself how important the presence of the Nigerian AGIP Terminal in that community for forty years has been to the maintenance of stability and prosperity in the Nigerian oil industry as a whole. However for many years critics and observers have held that this apparent success story has been a smokescreen for some of the worst examples of malpractices in the exercise of corporate relationships between the industry and its hosts. Visitors to the community cannot help but notice the vast difference in developmental strides between AGIP's location and the town itself. While the ancient town is threatened by coastal erosion to an improbable extent wherein nearly three metres of its shoreline is eaten away annually the AGIP location is a model of shore protection and environmental conservation.

A body of water known as the Brass Creek that empties into the Brass River has been the victim of the most devastating pollution by the effluents from the company's operations and this has had a salutary but negative effect on the fishing and other traditional activities of the community on the river. Those who know in the town have also accused the company at various times of several other violations of good corporate practice, but what has drawn our attention to that community this week is a recent explosion of communal disenchantment that has caused an upheaval of near historic proportions in the town.

Brass is in Bayelsa State and Opuoma, one of its important adjoining communities, happens to be the hometown of the incumbent Governor. In addition the State's Attorney General Hon. Anthony Ikoli (SAN) is the grandson of the historic fighter for Nigeria's independence, Ernest Ikoli who hailed from Brass, and his decision to serve the state in spite of having to suspend a prosperous and highly respected law practice in Lagos is one of the few true high points of the present state government's legacy. It is also true that in spite of what many of us regard as the abdication of responsible governmental practices in Bayelsa State today the Governor has taken the issue of insecurity and irresponsible corporate interaction between the host community and the company very seriously right from the outset of his troubled tenure. No matter what his critics (and I have no qualms about being regarded as one of them) might say he has certainly been outspoken on the issue of the need for a transformation of the processes of community leadership in Brass.

So when in recent weeks he established a committee to look into the persistent problems of the delinquent leadership of the community's affairs it was one of the few actions that he has taken that many of his detractors have found themselves forced to commend him for. Now that this committee has begun to receive petitions and reports from the community itself the revelations are mind boggling. Accusations have run rife claiming that the Brass Community has actually been run by a clique of criminals for decades and that the traditional leadership under the Amanyanabo King Alfred Diete Spiff has colluded with this clique to the detriment of the progress of the town to an inordinate extent.

This is a sad but not overly surprising finding because these allegations are neither new nor are they made without substantial evidence being offered to support them.The tragic element in this latest example of a grassroots revolt in a Niger Delta community is the fact that the assumption that a community like Brass could provide an example for the future of corporate relations in Nigeria appears to have been betrayed by its very own leadership.

The allegations of collusion in the mismanagement of compensation, and agreements between the major corporate tenant and the host community have been laid squarely at the feet of the town's traditional leaders as well as a particular individual who has been accused of having raised a local militia that was used to intimidate progressive elements in the town. It is equally notable that the responsibility for challenging this state of affairs has been credited to the new Local Government Chairman and Council in the town which is supported by the State Governor.

The main question it seems to us is whether this is simply the result of political rivalry or of a genuine expression of a reformist movement that is supported by the majority of the people in the community. So far the expressions of disenchantment seem to be both widespread and all inclusive and many key figures in the community who have themselves never been known to support other actions of the government have expressed their support for this move. As a result this revolt has served to galvanise the community towards a process of restoring corporate accountability and communal unity in the society and given hope to the hopeless.

It is a salutary example of untrammeled reformist expression emanating from the people themselves even where the issue of traditional leadership being at fault is concerned. In that light it is sad but not irrevocably hopeless that the King of the town whose reputation for good governance during his tenure as the first Military Governor of the old Rivers State was largely responsible for his elevation should be included in the allegations of mismanagement. Alfred Diete Spiff's past glories might have been tainted by the recent accusations but his failures of omission as a traditional ruler can be restored to propriety if the present house cleaning is allowed to take hold in a manner that restores the people's will.

The Twon Brass challenge is a vital historic event coming as it has in Nigeria's fiftieth year as an independent entity. Nigeria's political credibility on the global stage must be based on a foundation of true grassroots credibility. It is not merely imperative but also historic that the revolt in Brass has taken the form that it has. There is no doubt that many more details of the disenchantment that has been expressed over the last few weeks will be revealed in the media and elsewhere as the challenge that the Local Government Council has mounted grows more intense.

If this indeed does have the support of the Governor and others who appear to have grown tired of the so-called 'tyranny of a few privileged individuals' in Twon Brass the consequence might be a wider and more inclusive revolt of the small communities that have been the backbone of Nigeria's economy for the last five decades but which have also borne the burden of irresponsible governance over these years. If this is indeed the outcome Nigeria will once more learn important lessons from a town that has taught it a lot in the past without having anything substantial to show for its role in the nation's history. This is a grassroots revolt that must be watched and eventually guided to a successful conclusion.