1st January, 2022
By Olubunmi Okogie
The inquiry Sonny Okosun made four decades ago in his song “Papa’s Land”, remains a task. “We want to know who owns the land,” he sang. Today, we still need to ask ourselves that question: who owns the land?
It has once again come to fore in former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s riposte to Chief Edwin Clark. The latter had criticized President Obasanjo of hatred towards the people of Niger Delta. The former denied in self-defence. But if he had stopped at self-defence, it would have been sufficient. He went beyond an apologia pro vita sua to declare that the oil in the Niger Delta belongs to Nigeria. His declaration has helped to formulate a new version of Okosun’s inquiry. The question now is not just: who owns the land? It is: who owns the oil?
The owners of the land own whatever is on the land or under the land. To deprive them of that right is to be patently unjust. Only a regime of imperialist intent would do such a thing. Unfortunately, this has been the Nigerian narrative from the advent of British imperialist colonialists until the current dispensation. The British came, conquered the land around the Niger and its peoples, declared amalgamation, and handed over to a state operated on imperialist logic. That logic is that the land and the peoples belong to the state.
Military rule exacerbated this vicious logic. By the time the coup plotters of July 29, 1966 saw the prospects for oil, the struggle for which was a major factor in the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70, that class of coup plotters created their own Nigerian empire. Soldiers who ought to protect the land dispossessed rightful owners of their land. The principal target was the oil. And, to perpetuate that Nigerian empire of their making, they bequeathed before their first departure in 1979 an imperial constitution dressed in the robes of a federal constitution. That constitution, and its 1999 replica, reposed sovereignty in the state and not in the people, placed Niger-Delta oil under the control of the government at the centre by placing mineral resources on the exclusive legislative list. To ensure protection of the loot, the same constitution placed security of a land as vast and diverse as Nigeria on the exclusive legislative list.
When President Obasanjo made his recent declaration that the oil in the Niger Delta belongs to Nigeria, one cannot but recall that he, as military ruler and head of the remnant of the mutinous soldiers of July 29, 1966, presided over the final redaction of the constitution that places control of Nigeria’s oil under the control of the government at the centre—one hesitates to call it a federal government because what is obtained in this country today cannot be honestly described as federalism.
The inclusion of mineral resources on the exclusive legislative list in the 1979 and 1999 Constitutions effectively legitimizes the unjust deprivation to which the people of Nigeria have been subjected for decades. The declaration that Niger Delta oil belongs to Nigeria justifies the imperialist intent of the final redactors of the 1979 Constitution.
As we all know, the Niger Delta that produces the oil has turned out to be one of the poorest, if not the poorest region of Nigeria. Proceeds from the sale of Niger Delta oil have been used and is still being used to service the expensive but ineffective government that the twin constitutions have imposed on Nigerians. Proceeds from the sale of this same oil have been used to build bridges and highways in Lagos, and in Abuja where there are not rivers, while the Niger Delta, full of rivers and creeks has only a few bridges.
President Obasanjo’s declaration, as disturbing as it is, reminds us of an act of injustice that urgently needs to be redressed, and that is: Nigeria is not set up to benefit the regional, ethnic or religious community to which government functionaries belong; Nigeria is set up to benefit the elite from these communities. Whichever section of the elite gains access to corridors of power in Abuja or state capitals or local government areas gains access to Nigeria’s oil wealth. That is why our elections are muddy and bloody.
Contrary to President Obasanjo’s declaration, the oil in the Niger Delta does not belong to Nigeria. Neither does it belong to the state or local governments in that region. It belongs to the people of the region. Land belongs to the people, not to the government. The resources on the land, any land, not just the Niger Delta, belongs to the people and not to the government. Nigeria’s problems became greater when government decided to get into oil business. That is the major contributing factor to corruption, poverty and insecurity.
Given our historical and geographical inter-connectedness, our various ethnic communities will do business with each other with the resources we have on our land. The Niger Deltan needs onions and tomatoes to cook his Banga soup. The farmer in northern Nigeria who produces onions and tomatoes needs petroleum products to drive his tractors. Their respective needs compel them to start an economic union that must precede a political union. Unfortunately in Nigeria, we have been insisting on a political union without an economic union. So we end up making this country a land of monkey dey work baboon dey chop.
It is in our interest to form a political union where any Nigerian can settle and acquire property anywhere in Nigeria, do business and contribute to the common good. But the current imperialist constitution, predicated on President Obasanjo’s recent declaration, needs to undergo far-reaching amendments. Not to do so is to continue to provoke cries of marginalization. It is to allow the wounds of corruption, insecurity, and poverty to fester.
-His Eminence, Anthony Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie, is Archbishop Emeritus of Lagos in the Roman Catholic Church.