My dear independent country is fifty. In its golden jubilee, this is the time to clink glasses and wear smiles for the photograph. I expected a large carnival with sequined kaftans and vivid display of our cultural heritage. I needed to be overfed with stories of green technology, flawless power supply, countless modular refineries, rapid industrialization and so on. In a reverse mood, we the masses sit down with livid faces wondering what has befallen us.
Referring to Nigeria as a giant, fatherland, heart of Africa and other rebranding sobriquets usually offends my sensibilities. How could one desecrate doting fatherhood by calling Nigeria a fatherland? A nation that cannot feed itself, educate its people, give appropriate healthcare and employment for its people. The huge size of the map, lush green vegetation of the savannah, dark oil in the creeks, mineral deposits and superlative human resource has not taken us to great heights. Nigeria still swaddles among sulking nations and the world in amazement is giving up on us. They are edging us into the backseat of global opinions.
Sincerely, one expects stunted growth in a child when its guardians are pathological thieves. They in turn pilfered her enormous wealth and left the kid weeping in shock. My leaders celebrate fifty years of guardianship of the child that had been wilfully or forcefully hijacked by them. The current guardians after years of corrupt and inept rule still shout hurray in disarray. They offend God by offering sacrilegious prayers in thanksgiving services. We sit still waiting eternally for justice to be served in ice cubes.
When the guardians of our commonwealth called me to serve, I was left with no choice to answer in loud affirmative. I had to follow my rehearsed lifetime plot which made National Youth Service Corps an inevitable exercise. I always jumped the one-year compulsory National Youth Service in my calculations. While in the University, I wanted a leap from the convocation halls to the corporate boardroom. So much of excitement ran my spines forgetting the endless queues of labour market waiting outside. I had misjudged my expectations that I had to serve the crawling toddler. After serving my country for one year, what is my reward? Where does the staircase of life lead me? I want blue collar jobs with a blooming career but does the society have it in stock?
The list finally appeared on the University Senate notice board and I was bundled into the slippery creeks of Niger Delta. My friends were flung into distant places. They are scattered like rice seeds over a farmland. We left our ethnic axis in wild adventure. Bayelsa, the small state sitting on a mass of wealth was my destination. I was told tales of how every backyard owned an oil well. Out of their generosity, I might be a beneficiary of one.
I lived in Idimu, a suburb in Lagos. Few meters behind my house was huge pipeline half buried in the muddy soil. My jobless peers looked at this pipeline in fury with a wild wish to scoop its content. The quick fortune promised cheap money especially when the national supply of refined crude oil was epileptic. This anger intensifies when long curvy queues filled our filling stations. On my way to oil rich region, I wanted to dismiss the doubt that we ever explored oil out of our land.
I left Lagos in a Toyota bus. We raced southwards towards the Niger Delta. The thick vegetation adorning the highway attested to the vast treasures of my nation. This was the massive greenland put to waste as the oil flowed from the soil. I remembered pictures of groundnut pyramids, cocoa farmlands and oil palm forests during the early independence days. My fathers in their bent backs cohesively dug into the farmland believing the wealth of a nation lies in their dripping sweat. Cocoa House , an amazing skyscraper in Ibadan City centre never seizes to amaze me. That an aggregate of cocoa revenue built such an imposing edifice! What now went wrong?
I believe we got tired of the cocoa, groundnut, palm oil and rubber that oiled our independence engines. We continually dug restlessly to ground until we discovered dirty oil. We threw agriculture sprouting from our rich soils into irrelevance with the sudden boom of oil wealth. I suspect there seems to be anger in the algae as they wilted into the ground centuries ago. They rained vitriol on the inhabitants of the land and future generations who profiteered from their end product ;crude oil. If not, why will oil a global commodity generate massive revenue for its producing countries but still lives its people in misery. Niger Delta was the quiet region in the past exploring its aquatic splendour as its livelihood. It now carries a tag of militancy and kidnapping justifying the curse of the algae.
I sat beside the driver who smelt of cheap local gin. He drove well despite his disgusting belch. He avoided multiple potholes along the Benin-Ore road. As we moved, the paved road became muddy pit. The vehicles began to move slowly. I saw sweat on the desperate faces of traffic jam sellers. They sprint in uneven paces. They make quick sales running against an accelerating vehicle. Their tenacity which humbles me is the exact example of the Nigerian spirit.
I got to Bayelsa almost at dusk .I felt weary with my buttocks filled with sores. I was dropped at Bulama park. I expected everyone to carry a basket of wealth with golden pieces on their neck. I longed to see skyscrapers, paved roads, beaming streetlights and a festive atmosphere like those in the capital city. None existed. All I beheld were jagged structures and tired faces that bore angry spirit.
I quickly took a bus to the National Youth Service orientation camp. It was not a long distance but the muddy roads and potholes made driving difficult. I held my in shame with the anger becoming infectious. I watched the wasted farmlands with withering vegetation. Acrid smells pervaded the atmosphere as oil spilled across the farmlands. I pitied faces that huddled around with empty baskets and blunt farming tools. Though they were speechless with bowed heads, the crude venom in the hearts had no bound.
It was difficult seeing youths among them. Where are the young men brimming with energy? The accursed liquid had thrown them into the creeks. They held long swords with serrated edges ready to cut national cake jaggedly. No one could dare their guts. How come a young people of blessed intellect run clueless in the creeks justifying again the curse of the algae?
I was posted to Abazu community in Bayelsa for the final round of national service. I was to work with the Community works department. I took another jalopy facing the marshes of the coastline. I was battle ready to meet the sons of the soil. I wanted to mix with them properly understanding their language and perceptions of the Nigerian leadership. I had deep interest to understand the cravings of their hearts especially the daring youths. I needed to understand the intensity of poverty or desperation that pushes the human mind beyond moral limits. The stakes of life that sticks one’s living to the guns and chain of bullets. The type of hunger that veils a face and makes kidnapping fellow humans the way of survival.
On my way, I saw scores of oil derricks mounted with engineers drilling oil. Youths with burnt faces crowded the area speaking in hushed tones. I suspected their bulky garb had firearms hid under. They were the local security groups protecting the white engineers against assault of the militants and kidnappers. Brothers at war defending their spaces of survival as they were bound by a common curse. What a life!
I got to Abazu at eight pm. As I walked down, I saw old women mending torn nets. I wondered what they patched together. The rivers already filled with stench and dark greasy lump on its surface sniffed life out all living creatures. The canoes anchored to the shores had gathered dust. I wished I could go to the creeks where the militants held sway. I dare not! Though they surrendered lots of arms to the government for an amnesty programme, those were bits in their well stocked arsenal. As I walked by asking for directions, beautiful girls with babies straddled at their backs gave me a look of delight.
I arrived at the community secretariat on a cool evening. I was given a room to stay before the community leader arrived from Abuja, the capital city. He left his community in indigence to beg for his share of oil wealth. Though I arrived unannounced, everyone adored my presence asking me about my background, parents and schools I attended. Young children chuckled in the background wishing they were me. I was enjoying the hospitality contrary to tales of hostility by my mother.
I was enjoying the chirping of the birds when I heard roaring fire distant from the village. It was a raging fire hung in the air inching to reach the sky. No one seems bothered as it lit up the eroded path in an absent moonlight. A young maiden and her brother brought food. I dismissed an immediate devilish imagination of seeing a heap of bullets in the bowls.
“What is that fire over there” I asked her pointing at the window.
“Gas, they are throwing it away for oil”
Gas flaring I now know. Another mine of wealth is being blown away augmenting the illumination of the stars. The clean cousin of oil is given up in the sky to harvest the dirty liquid sent beyond borders. The first day had brought scores of lessons and I imagined what the memories of months will bring. I reclined to my bed to read Psalm 23.
I was gathering my thoughts about the sight and sounds of the day. Sleep quickly took grip of me until I heard noise in the community. The whole place was in panic. I gazed outside. I saw people running helter skelter carrying cans, kegs, bowls and every available container. I was perplexed wondering what the pandemonium about. A young boy in his early teens rushed inside.
“ Oga you get kegs, bowls or plastic” he burst in with a heaving sound
“What for” I asked in brazen confidence.
“Pet..petrol in the bush, the pipeline don burst” he said with much impatience.
Ignoring my consent, he quickly packed by buckets I brought from the NYSC camp. In fast pace, I saw him disappear in the backyard. The whole neighbourhood was quiet. I wanted someone to explain to me. I walked out of the room into the main yard. I saw an old man rest on a chair fast asleep. Young children laid by his side also fast asleep. Oh my God! Where has the village gone?
On my way back into the room, I saw a rickety van carrying petrol kegs. A pipeline had gone burst in the bush and the whole village was combed of its containers. The water bottles, storage tanks, sewage buckets were taken to be filled with petrol. The mad rush was certainly rewarding as they gradually arrived with filled kegs. Gradually, women started returning with heavy cans balanced on their heads. They came with muddy petrol with the dirt quickly settling at the bottom.
‘Oga youth corper, that’s how we make it here o, Joma go soon bring your own buckets of petrol”
“The dirti go settle and we go sell to the boys tomorrow” a fat woman said
“Yes madam” I answered in a low voice
I sat on the bed thinking of how to expend this illicit money snatched at the jaws of death. I was thinking until sleep crawled into my body.
A sudden noise made me suddenly awake again. I gazed outside and I could still see the booming sound of the gas flaring. Towards my left I saw another raging fire in the outskirts.
“Oh my God” I exclaimed.
I kept hearing loud screams from women and young children. Different names were mentioned with wailing I could not decipher. I stood helpless looking at tens of women crying profusely. I was unable to console no one. I rushed to meet the old man sleeping trying to wake him up. He tapped him but he seemed to have taken the easy path to join his ancestors. The fire was intensifying in my sight. Few men with slight burns were running back into the village. They kept calling names that never returned.
“Was I the source of bad luck, on my first night “I screamed within me.
I kept holding myself with the wailing of mothers flogging my heart. The fathers stood around poles with bent heads in deep groans. We waited for the fire servicemen who never arrived. The fire extinguished itself after hours of haphazard burning. Three elders and I walked along the pathway to the fire incident. We kept seeing mangled bodies burnt into a mould by the wayside. The gory sights ran tears into my eyes. As we skimmed the area, I kept looking for Joma.
We burst in uncontrollable cry when we got to the scene of the damaged pipeline. The charred bodies were caked into a black rubble fitting to the blade of shovels. I knelt on the ground crying in cruel disbelief.
“ Joma?” I shouted bitterly. The bright energetic boy who hustled to give me a bite became cremated into a pit. Few weeks later still in shudder shock in a mourning community, I began to write for him.
The algae spews it curse in the soil
It wilts the stems and dries the roots
Leaves fly out of shoot into the wind
The sweat of toil drips in vain
The tools go blunt and the bowels go hungry
The spite diffuse into the rivers stills its flow
Dark nauseating slime spreads on the surface
Fishes floats lifeless overfed with blight
The sweat of labour drips in vain
The nets take a break and the bowels left hungry
Poverty paradox in midst of plenty
Squalid squatter on his soil
Tearful tenant in his tent
Gazing the oil fields in hunger
Raw rage seize his heart
With crude anger beyond moral limits
He punctures the metallic tube scooping its contents
The algae disgorges its curse igniting a spark
Roaring fire roast his body into ashes
He hits the gates of hell in haste