TIME WILL COME WHEN NIGERIANS WILL FORCEFULLY DEMAND IMMEDIATE CHANGE â€“ BRIGGS
Ankkio Briggs, a prominent Niger Delta woman activist, paints a very depressing image of the area. She said that there are more poor people in the region than any part of the country. Although Briggs does not cut the image of a militant, she is passionate about the campaign for government to give Niger Delta its due attention. She believes that the salvation of Nigeria lies in the hands of the people, saying that until they rise and remove the garb of apathy they've worn for so long, Nigeria would forever remain in a state of hopelessness.
You are a frontline Niger Delta woman activist. How does that make you feel?
To me, it feels normal. What I do, for me, is normal. I can't see myself doing anything else. For me it's not in anyway extraordinary. I'm doing what I have to do. About whether I'm frontline or middle line, again for me, that's not the issue. The issue is the content of what I'm doing.
Why did you choose to become an activist?
I believe it's in my blood because I hate injustice and I find it difficult to mind my own business (as people would say), when the wrong thing is happening. But I think, very fundamentally for me, the reason is too simple. I was raised in the creeks of the Niger Delta. There is high level of lack in the area, of infrastructure, of any kind of development. I have not seen any development in any community; I have not seen it in my region. It got to a point that I know I could no longer rest unless I was doing something that will change the situation for my people. The choice, for me, as I said, was very simple.
What do you do when you are not fighting injustice?
I do buy and sell, I have a small shop.
What are the low points of activism?
The low point is that one even has to do it. The fact that the work I end up doing with my life is centred on fighting for justice. I'm demanding the right things to be done. For me, those are the low points. The fact that one seems to be heating one's head against a brick wall, the fact that we have people in place who are supposed to ordinarily deliver development, deliver justice, deliver service to our people and to the future but do nothing make me sad. The fact that we have now found ourselves in a position fighting for things other people taken for granted, has now become a career for people like me. For me, that is what the low points are.
What would you say is the most deplorable condition in your area?
It's the fact that the people who produce the wealth of this nation are poor and neglected; the fact that we are still talking about development at 50 years. We are still talking about human development, infrastructural development. We are still talking about health care, good governance; we are still fighting corruption in Nigeria. These are the things that are unacceptable to the Nigerian people. I think sometimes it becomes clear that people are agitating more because we live in a global world. In my community, if you have a generator, if you have an internet line, you will access the information highway and see what is happening in other places of the world.
Now that you mention the 50th year celebration, what should we be celebrating?
Long before now, I have become convinced that as huge as Nigeria is with the diversity of the ethnic groups that make it up and the unutilised human capital and also realising that 37 plus years after the civil war, I would say, we have not gained independence at all. Nigeria is backward. If you go to the Niger Delta, if you look at our roads, our hospitals, our universities, our markets, our banking system, electricity, the corruption that is in Nigeria, you realise what I mean. If you look at all these things, my personal opinion is that, Nigerian government or the state governments has nothing to celebrate. Nigeria is like a 50-year-old man who has all opportunities in the world yet has not been able to achieve anything but yet calls a social party, inviting all kinds of big people to celebrate. I'm ashamed that we invited heads of states of other nations for the celebration. Unfortunately, they will only see Abuja. They won't see the Niger Delta. They won't see the Benin-Ore road; they will not see the dilapidated schools and hospitals. So, I think that the Nigerian government and every person celebrating are giving a false impression to the world. I think it's a shame.
Is there no credit you give Nigeria? Isn't there anything you can see that has been achieved in the past 50 years?
I give 101 per cent credit to the people of Nigeria, the 150 million long suffering Nigerians, people who have died on the roads, died in hospitals for lack of proper medical attention, the people who have been denied rights to education. There are people who have died in the process of speaking up, people like Adaka Boro, Ken Saro-Wiwa, M.K.O. Abiola and Kudirat, his wife and Bola Ige. There are people who have made sacrifices that have not necessarily come by a rough end or murder - Marshall Harry, A. K. Dikibo. These are the people we should be celebrating. We, as Nigerians, should be celebrating ourselves; we should celebrate each other as human beings because we have had to put up with a hell of a lot. Nigeria's survival as a 50-year-old nation is a miracle that should be credited to its resilient people and not to any government. Again that is my opinion. Before we had quality education, our hospitals were working, there were teaching hospitals in different regions. Now, these things have become dilapidated or near comatose. What we had during the time of the colonial masters were good enough but instead of improving on those amenities, we now have none or things that are not working. All the ills that the Nigerian people put up with are so unnecessary. Are those the things we should be celebrating?
What do you think is the way forward for Nigeria?
The way forward is that ordinary Nigerians, you and I should insist on taking back the power that belongs to us. The people that are making these decisions for us, how many are they? Very few, Nigerians must get up and take back power. The Bible says somewhere that the people deserve the rulers they get. As long as we sit on our butts and accept what we get - the insecurity all over the place, everything, we will be damned. If the people need a change they have to get that change by themselves. They have to demand free and fair elections. For instance, these elections coming up, we must have a new voters' register, it's imperative. If we do not get a new voters' register we cannot vote because Nelson Mandela, Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson, etc are on the old list. If we do not get a new voters' register it means that people who are not Nigerians and even dead people will still vote again. If we want a way forward we must make sure that the right people are in decision making positions. If Nigerians are not ready to do that I'm afraid the change would just be a mirage, it won't come.
President Goodluck Jonathan is from Niger Delta. Has this impacted on the nation?
The thing that plagued Nigeria for years was petrol. But since President Jonathan took over we have not seen petrol queues in filling stations, whereas for years, even during Obasanjo's regime we were plagued with fuel scarcity. Today, people are saying that even though the supply of electricity is not by any means near acceptable standards, it is better than what we had to put up with before. The president has promised free and fair elections; he is not going to conduct it himself but he has given directives that INEC gets what it will use in delivering a free and fair election. On the day of his declaration he told Nigerians that he will do what they want him to do, he told Nigerians that their time has come. These are words Nigerians should hold him accountable for. If President Jonathan starts behaving like the rest of them, I will be the first to shout. But for now he is the best alternative that we have. I'm impressed with what he has done so far.
If in 2011 he wins the presidential election and along the line starts to miss it, will you criticize or challenge him?
Definitely! I think he knows he is putting himself on the firing line and the bullets will come, once he missteps, as long as people like me are concerned. The fact that he's my brother, an Ijaw man, a Niger Deltan, wouldn't change a thing. Once he starts to miss it, I will be the first to holler and other people will queue behind me. But for now I support him.
Has his presidency changed things in the Niger Delta?
Yes, it has done things in the Niger Delta even when Umar Musa Yar'Adua was president. It calmed things down. Things became heightened again because the delivery we expected from the administration of Yar'Adua did not come and it will be the same if our universities, especially the ones in Niger Delta remain the same, if our east-west road is not built, if our hospitals are not rehabilitated, if corruption is rife, if police continue to extort money and kill innocent citizens under President Jonathan's administration, then he will be criticised. It will mean that nothing has changed.
What's the difference in operations of the NDDC and the Niger Delta Ministry?
To tell you the truth, I don't see any. The Niger Delta ministry is not different from NDDC. The NDDC was set up as an intervention agency to operate in the oil-producing areas, not just Niger Delta, because you have oil in Abia, in the South-East and Ondo in South-West. Because of the way things are done in Nigeria, the NDDC has eventually been swallowed up in bureaucracy. Obasanjo held on to the money meant for NDDC for so long, Yar'Adua came in and said the money had expired. Today, we have a Niger Delta Ministry because people carried guns and demanded their rights.
Has anything come out of it? I don't think so. Where is the difference? Everything that led to our carrying guns, as a people and agitating, is still there, Nothing has changed. It still takes two, three hours for someone to be removed from a community by boat to the nearest land, which is three miles away before the person is put in a car that will take through traffic and bad roads to a hospital that they cannot afford, a hospital not well manned or equipped. This makes people to die unnecessarily. The Niger Delta ministry is some contraption that government put together to becloud the people and make them expectant, so you do nothing while waiting for something to happen. When you wait for some years and it dawns on you that nothing is happening, when the people react, it is violent because they are angry. I don't see any of these contraptions being the answer to the crisis in the Niger Delta.
What is the answer?
The answer to the Niger Delta crisis and Nigeria as a whole are things like sovereign national conference, things like resource ownership, decentralising the powers in the capital and letting the states and state governors to actually control their own resources and let the governors be accountable to the people. But right now, even though Nigeria is claiming to be a federation, Nigeria is not governed on the basis of federalism. The centre takes everything and hands out whatever pittance to the owners that produce the wealth. That way we are not making any headway. So, it's not NDDC or Niger Delta ministry that has failed, it's the Federal Government itself and the corruption at the centre, which trickles down to the states.
One would assume that there would be changes now in the lives of the people in Niger Delta, with the amnesty and rehabilitation of ex-militants. What is on ground now?
I live in the Niger Delta. I don't see any changes. I keep emphasising it so that there will be clarity, so that I'm not misunderstood. The only change in the Niger Delta is that the then President Yar'Adua asked that the people who were armed should lay down their arms, so that there would be discussions, so that there would be negotiations, so that we can move forward. Unfortunately, the only people who have played their part are the people who were armed. They came out and laid down their arms. Since then the Niger Delta have been relatively calm.
The kidnappings happening today on a daily basis are in the South-East but people still mistake it to be Niger Delta. Niger Delta is calm; it's an uneasy calm, but it's calm. People are willing to be patient. And that's why I know that President Jonathan, being where he is today, has played a major role in that because it's an understood fact that our person is there. He is a victim of what the Niger Delta people are suffering. His community is just as bad as any other community.
If anybody should know or fight against oppression and corruption and neglect of a region, or a people, it should be Jonathan. He's a stakeholder in the Niger Delta and he's a victim of the bad business of the oil companies, the corruption that has rocked our people where our resources are carted away. So, it will be a lie if we say that Jonathan, being there, does not sweeten our stomachs. There will come a time when we begin to look critically at him and see if he's going to make those changes that is expected of him. After one or two years, if he's not doing as expected, we'll begin to ask questions.
How do feel that the people you fight their cause started kidnapping in Nigeria and turned it into a lucrative business?
First of all, let's be clear on one thing, kidnapping is a crime. Having said that, the neglect of anybody's right to development, to healthcare, to education, to security, the neglect of non-delivery of those things by politicians are also criminal. The pollution of the area in which oil comes from by the oil companies and the neglect of the politicians to make sure that the oil companies do what is expected of them, all these are criminal acts. A big thief cannot call a small thief a thief and exonerate himself. About kidnapping, there are two issues: one is ideological; second is, kidnapping to make money.
Now whichever way we look at it, it's criminal, so also the issue of not giving capacity to a people to get a job, which will help them feed and care for their families. Not providing employment and education that will provide integrity and dignity to a people is also a crime. Politicians that have not delivered the dividends of democracy, opportunities for their people to develop themselves, have also committed a crime. We cannot turn away from the fact that people have become kidnappers purely to make money for the fact that they lack jobs and basic necessities to live a good life.
The government has created the atmosphere for these things to thrive. How many times do we hear that the police shot someone, one driver or the other for the sake of N50? They mount illegal road blocks and wreack havoc, yet they are let loose; nothing happens. All these are criminal acts. A government that cannot take care of its internal security is a failed government. A bus load of school children was kidnapped in broad daylight and the perpetrators were not caught. Government has to cure the root of all these for it to stop, if not it will continue.
What's your take on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?
What has spilled into the Gulf of Mexico is nothing compared to the spillage that has happened in the Niger Delta and has devastated that area since the past 52 years because oil was found in commercial quantity in that area in 1958. It shows we have incompetent people in governance who have been unable or unwilling to protect the rights of the people of the Niger Delta, which has led to total devastation of the environment and the Niger Delta creeks. It has led to poverty of a people because we can't fish, we can't farm. Fishing and farming are the only sources of local income that the communities have.
And when you devastate by bad corporate practice, by lack of responsibility the environment and the people on whose land you cart away the resources, the people that own the resources, you begin to ask yourself if there are double standards of dealing with blacks and whites. The oil companies dare not do what they are doing in the Niger Delta elsewhere in the world. We don't only suffer spillage, there is gas flaring, day and night. If you go to one of the communities and spend just a night, you will come out a changed person.
What's your final take?
I believe that if Nigeria is going to move forward, if there's going to be a change, Nigerians have to make it happen. The politicians won't do it but the people can make the politicians do it. For the Niger Delta, the people must see and smell justice if Nigeria is going to move forward. If Nigeria is going to stick together, there must be a sovereign national conference. It's important to Nigeria's future. You cannot bring different ethnic groups together and they have not sat down for once to agree on the basis for which they will co-exist and you force them to stay together.
What we are experiencing today is child's play because there will come a time and a set of people that would want that change immediately. Accountability is key; we must hold ourselves accountable for what we did. If every Nigerian decides that enough is enough and says no to policies that are anti-people, if we demand our right as a people, we would get it. If we don't, if we keep dragging our feet and be complacent, we'll go on like this.