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Ijaws New Leader Speaks: Violence Is Part of Every Struggle

Interview with President by Sam Onwuemeodo, Vanguard Daily, 16 September 2000

Port-Harcourt—Dr. Kimse Okoko was on Saturday September 9, 2000 elected the President of the Ijaw National Congress, INC, in Yenagoa, Bayelsa. He is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science, University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State. His name has been a consistent one in the Ijaw struggle. Hence, his emergence as the new president of the INC was not astonishing to men and women of goodwill who have been following events in the Niger-Delta and within the Ijaw nation, particularly. Dr Okoko is an ardent believer in slaying the prophets of Baal, and that informed why, members of the Ijaw Youths Council, IYC, were solidly behind him until he emerged triumphant.

In this interview, Dr Okoko spoke on his background, and how he hopes to lead the Ijaw nation. He did not spare his predecessor, Chief Fumudoh, describing him as a trader and businessman who could not offer the expected leadership to the Ijaw people, but was only keen in maximising profits associated with trading and business. Let Dr Okoko speak for himself:

You have been consistently associated with the Ijaw struggle. Even at that, most people do not know much about you. Such people would like to know your background?

I am an Ijaw man. I have been in this struggle for a very long time. And after my primary education in the village, and my secondary education in a Grammar school, I went to London to read Medical Micro-Biology. I completed it and went back to Canada to read Political Science and finished in 1978. And since then I have been teaching. I first of all taught in the university of Lagos. I had the appointment letter of the University of Ibadan, but I didn't take up the appointment. I came back to University of Port Harcourt in 1986. I was the Commissioner of Land and Housing for three years in the old Rivers State. I have done consultancy for Shell, UNDP, Chevron and so on.

Sir, you didn't say anything about your family?

Yes, I have a wife and three children - two boys and a girl. The girl has graduated as a Lawyer. The boy has graduated as a petroleum engineer, but he is now doing Masters in Petroleum Engineering in Canada. The last one is finishing his Economic - degree this year. so, I have only three children anywhere in the world.

When actually did you join the Ijaw struggle?

I joined the struggle in the early 60s before I went to London. Since then, I have been in the struggle, up till today. I am very familiar with the fundamentals of the struggle all along.

What must have informed your interest to struggle for your people?

Generally, it is because of the utter neglect of our people over the years and the oppressive nature of that neglect. The successive governments in this country had decided to neglect our people. Nobody is ready to do anything. They keep on saying that the place is difficult to develop, even after the discovery of crude oil. And despite the enormous wealth we contribute to the country, that basic mentality is still there, that, it is a difficult terrain, it is difficult to develop. But for goodness sake, they have got billions of dollars from the Niger-Delta. If part of the money had been put back to the Niger Delta, the Niger Delta would have been like Abuja. So, it is the question of utter neglect and treating us as if we are second-class citizens in this country, and certain insensitivities of successive governments to the plight of those who produce the wealth of this country. There is a common saying that, he who pays the piper dictates the tone. But in this country the reverse is the case. The piper is the one dictating the tone.

Even as a lecturer you were deeply involved in the Ijaw struggle. How were you reconciling your teaching job, and your struggle to liberate your people?

The life of an academic is that of objectivity and truth. And they all call for involvement in the struggle for justice, and fair-play, especially if you are in the school of social sciences where your sufficient knowledge about the workings of the political system, about the condition of people all over the world, and what injustice has done to some people, and you see such situation among your people, you must be definitely pulled towards that direction. And this for some of us who feel that suppression is wrong, oppression is wrong, exploitation is wrong and injustice is wrong and should be questioned. But in Nigeria, you don't question injustice and that actually pulls to the Ijaw struggle.

When did you actually start nursing the ambition to be INC president?

In fact, I had never nursed the ambition to become the INC president. That of 1994 was again because of my dissatisfaction with the previous INC government because they were basically traders and they had lost focus of the fundamentals of the struggle. That was why I opposed them, and in opposing them, I didn't want to be there. This time, I never sought for it. It was people who came and met me, pleading with me to go for the INC presidency. Frankly, I never nursed the ambition to be INC president. But that does not mean that I am not capable of leading the INC, but I never nursed the idea. That is the absolute truth.

In fairness to Chief Fumudoh, how would you assess his leadership of the congress?

Well, Chief Fumudoh, to the extent that together with the IYC, they were able to propagate the INC to the extent that it became a household name, even though in terms of mobilization, the rural areas were still un-mobilised. They made people to know what INC is. To that extent, Yes. But in terms of the intellectual rigors to move the INC forward, it was a failure. They hadn't the capacity. That is quite frank. They didn't have the intellectual capability to move the congress forward. Basically, he was a trader and a businessman and was interested in trading with the INC. That is the absolute truth.

There was the contention that both your predecessor, Chief Fumudoh and Governor Diepreye Alamieyesiegha were against your candidature?

Yes, I can say for sure that Chief Fumudoh was against my candidature. And he said I would be the INC president over his dead body. That was really the statement he had made to several people. I considered that as an unfortunate statement. But now that it has happened, I don't know how he would reconcile his statement with what has happened now. That is for him to sought out. But for Alamieyeseghe, he had never been opposed to my candidature. He didn't at all.

The feeling was that the IYC members supported you during the election because of your militant approach to the Ijaw struggle. React?

I don't think, IYC, as an organised body supported me. But members of that organisation gave me their support. they massively supported me. There is no question about that. But not because of militancy alone. They have seen over the years my consistency and uncompromising stand for the fundamental interest of the Ijaw nation. They have seen my determination to be firm. They saw in me a person that can not compromise, and can not be corrupted. These are the qualities they had seen in me, and of course, that I belong to the left of the political spectrum, which portrays me as a radical. These were some of the reasons for the massive support.

Now that you have been elected as the INC president, what will be the way forward for the Ijaw nation?

The hopes are very high, and expectations. It is a big challenge to me, to be able to keep up the hopes of the Ijaw nation. But I have always believed that to succeed as a leader, you need the support of the rank and file. And to get the support of the rank and file, you should be able to explain to the rank and file what the struggle entails, and the fundamental interest that governs the struggle. And to be able to explain to them, and mobilise them. This is one of the failures of the previous INC leadership. They were not able to mobilise the rural population because they were entirely doing an urban thing. They gave the INC, urban-base phenomenon. So, we want to ab-initio, mobilise the rural population to understand the course, and support it. When once they support the struggle, then, you are, perhaps, fifty- per cent done. And then you begin to initiate the policies you have prepared when participating in the electoral process - your mission, your vision, you begin to implement them. These are the things I want to do. We want resource control. It is not negotiable. We want to control our resources, within the federal system. We want to bring true federalism to the Nigerian political system. That, also, is not negotiable.

Fortunately there are other progressive forces in this country, that have seen the need for the restructuring of the country based on true federalism. And we are saying that we want to achieve that through the instrumentality of the sovereign national conference based on all the ethnic nationalities in this country, and unequal representation basis. If we restructure the country, where we now attain true federalism where the component units own and control their resources, that is fine. Federalism simply means that the component units own and control their resources. We also want to stop the high interest environmental degradation, and we also want to stop the continuous marginalisation and exploitation of our people. We want to stop the scattering of our people in various parts of the country and thereby making them ineffective. These are fundamental interests of the Ijaw nation. Fortunately, there are also shared vision, and that will make it easy for the leaders to achieve it.

What will be your approach towards achieving all these for the Ijaw nation, dialogue or otherwise?

The approach must be seen in the contest of the struggle. When you are struggling you apply various approaches: dialogue, diplomacy, constitutional means and sometimes, extra constitutional means, to the extent that you might want to adopt non-violent resistance. And of course, in a struggle violence is not ruled out if the situation demands it. Every struggle has different stages, and the approach you adopt at every stage depends on the conditions on the ground. You can not say, ab initio, this is the method to adopt until you are confronted with the situation.

So, dialogue, yes, diplomacy, yes. And violence is part of every struggle, and you don't rule it out totally. If we are pressed to the wall, we have no other place to go, and in that situation, we have to defend ourselves, because we want to survive as a people.

When the issue of youths restiveness is the Niger-Delta is mentioned, the Ijaw youths always come to mind. How are you going to handle the issue of restiveness among the Ijaw youths?

You can not talk about youths restiveness, without first of all talking about what led to it. When you understand why, you begin to find the solution that is appropriate. The youths are restive because we have been neglected. We have been left behind. We have been robbed and dropped. We have been totally exploited. And the youths from where the wealth is got from are left dry. They are desperate, and the restiveness is the outcome of the desperation. So, if you want to stop them from becoming restive, you must take up policies that must reduce the level of desperation. Taking the guns to silence them is not the issue if you are not tackling the root cause of the desperation.

One of the accusations against Chief Fumudoh was that, his was always romancing with the government. How are you going to relate with the Federal Government?

So long as I do not compromise myself with the government, there will be no problem. He was romancing with the government because he was trading. He was a businessman, looking for contracts. He wanted oil blocks and he got them. He got oil blocks, although it was cancelled later on. So, when you compromise yourself so much you can no longer focus on the fundamental interest of the Ijaw people. I do not intend to personally aggrandise myself. If I am looking for anything it is going to be for the Ijaw people. I can take care of my family. But that is not the issue. The issue is that we have been so brutalised and dehumanised in this country despite what we have. So long as I do not fall a prey to this wicked manipulation, and temptation to become rich, I have no fear that I will keep my head above board. I will not compromise our corporate interest, no matter the temptation.

How are you going to pursue the issues of resource control and self-determination, which have remained the hallmark of the Ijaw struggle?

Fortunately some of the bigger ethnic groups are now seeing the wisdom in our demands. They are sharing the view that the country should be restructured along true federalism. So, we will join forces with all the progressive forces in this country to push the issues forward to the point they would become realities. And that is the most peaceful way of resolving the problem of this country, let us restructure this country so that we can now operate federalism. Before this, the West and the Southeast were not calling for restructuring, but now they are making the call. Even some Northern elements are now ready. It is more achievable now. I don't think it can be achieved through the review of the constitution. It must be true a sovereign national conference that will bring all Nigerian nationalities together.

I am sure it will not lead to the breaking up of the country, that is the fear of some people. We don't want it to degenerate to that level. We want a Nigeria that is indivisible and strong, but it can not be indivisible and strong as long as we have this kind of oppressive and inequitable system of government. We are running basically a unitary system of government. Instability will continue without the restructuring of this country, ab-initio.

The Federal Government recently released the 13% derivation fund to states. How do you see that action?

We are not even interested in the 13 percent derivation fund. We want to control our resources. And even when the constitution says a minimum of 13 percent, it could have been 80 to 90 percent, but the powers that be said no, it must be 13 per cent which is the minimum.

In 1960 and 1963 constitution, there was 50 percent derivation because the major ethnic groups were in control of their resources. Now that oil is produced in the minority areas they now said, 13 percent derivation. So, I am not interested in the 13%, we want to control our resources, and pay the appropriate taxes to the centre. That is the issue.

What is your reaction to the threat by the Federal Government to deploy soldiers to the Niger-Delta to put a stop to rampant cases of pipeline vandalisation?

That approach is fire brigade type. It won't solve the problem. It is a sad development. It shows that the government does not understand the complexity of what it is doing if it had understood it, they won't come up with that approach, because it is not going to solve the problem. The Jesse people, how many thousands of lives did they lose. But there have been other Jesses. What the government should do is to sit down and find out why people are still Jesse-ing after loosing hundreds of thousands of lives. They want to use the apparatus of the state to silence desperation. But you can not silence desperation. I wish them luck. They have the police at every inch of the pipelines, yet the problem is still there.

Sir, in the Niger-Delta, there are other bodies like the Union of Niger-Delta, UND, also talking about resource control and self-determination. How are you going to relate with them?

I will work with them so far we have a common goal. And that will make the struggle tick and easy. It could have been difficult if we are having discordant tones. But it is a good thing that we are saying the same thing. There will be no difficulty working with them.

Bad blood had been injected into the INC, following attempts to remove Chief Fumudoh by force. How are you going to ensure that the congress is united again?

I can assure you that the INC will be very strong, Chief Fumudoh and the likes were very few. They can not constitute a problem to us. We will reach out to everybody, to make the INC strong. We will also be net working with other bodies to achieve our goals.

When do you hope to visit President Obasanjo?

(Laughs). I don't know.

Has he congratulated you?

I have not had any congratulation from him. Neither do I expect any. He is the president of the country, and I don't think, he will step so low to congratulate the president of the INC.

In fairness to President Obasanjo, has he been nice to the Ijaw people?

Absolutely, no.

What is your position on the Kiama declaration?

On it I stand. I strongly believe in the Kaiama declaration and I will live by it and struggle for its realisation. It is the pivot on which the struggle revolves. It is my creed.

What effort will you make to ensure that the Ijaws live in peace with their neighbours?

The Ijaws have always lived in peace with their neighbours. You have to know why we have the communal clashes we have these days. It is only when you understand why that you will begin to see the reason and the nature of the clashes. Some of the communal clashes involving the Ijaws is because of the oil wealth. Oil companies are part of the problem because of their manipulative tendencies. At times the oil companies pay money to the wrong people just to create confusion. So if there is general improvement on the condition of living among the Ijaw people, the rate of communal clashes will be reduced. That is why it is necessary for us to control our resources, so that we can manage some of these problems the way we want. There have been clashes because we have no say in the management of our resources. We are being manipulated, and in the course of that we see ourselves on each other's throat. The situation was not like this before. There is a reason for these clashes.

Up till now, the Federal Government has not shown any interest in rebuilding Odi. How are you going to approach the issue?

We will keep reminding them of their responsibilities, to rebuild Odi. We will think about other policy initiatives designed to achieve our objectives of rebuilding Odi.

What are the other demands of the Ijaw apart from the issues of resources control and self -determination?

For this kind of damage and neglect they should have paid us for reparation. But we just want to control our resources, knowing the kind of system we have. They know they have wronged us. They know they have robbed us. Under a just system, they should have put back what they took away. But we want to move forward by controlling our resources. One day the oil will go. So, what will Nigeria tell us? And what do we tell our children? It is unfair.