In 1979 the late Sonny Okosun released “Papa’s Land,” perhaps his most popular song. Its unforgettable refrain is the simple question, “Who owns Papa’s land?” Okosun was a self-vaunted “freedom fighter” then and decades away from succumbing to tawdry and opportunistic Pentecostalism as his career waned with the formal end of apartheid.
“We want to know/We want to know ... /Who owns Papa’s Land,” he and his chorus sang. The land he meant was Africa, hence the lyrics that follow: “Africa is my father’s land/Yes, Africa is my Papa’s land/Will you let my people go?/We want to rule from Cape to Cairo ... /Will you free my people’s hands?/We want to rule our papa’s land.” In those days Nigeria had just enough self-respect and an idea of its place in the global scheme of things to consider itself a frontline state in solidarity with Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. So, how might those stirring sentiments and questions apply to the Nigeria of today? How might we individually answer the poser, “Who owns Nigeria?” Can any of us truly say without pause or reservations, that Nigeria is my Papa’s land?
The subject of our filial bond to the stretch of land around the River Niger area measuring 923,768 square kilometres, lying 10 degrees north and 8 degrees east of the equator, has more recently become of keener interest to me. For, flowing from our understanding of this relation is the sense of duty and ethical responsibility that would define the extents and limits of our citizenship. As we lurch from disgrace to catastrophe and back to disgrace, mocking our pretence at nationhood and civic existence, this unanswered question thwarts every plan and effort. And it dogs us even now, poised as we are to commence yet another round of self-deception misnamed election. A parade of Mutual Greed Associations vying for the high seats of governance holds rallies all over the country. At these rallies, politicians without a polity or politics adorn themselves in the same hyena clothing — some sort of aso ebi — to emphasise the shocking lack of essential differences between them on the core questions that would determine the mode of our existence as a nation: What is Nigeria? The land of a free and self-governing people or a colonial bequest that must reconstitute itself in order to be truly free? Who drew up and ratified the articles of association, and in whom is the sovereign power of the nation vested — in the constituting ethno-national units or in their delegated agent now turned a colossus called the federal government? How can Nigeria regain some dignity and honour for its citizens and rejoin the rest of the world? How can a people who had no hand in the constitution and governance of their country be made to display a heart-felt patriotism and sense of national duty? Any wonder that a former military governor and chairman of a vital organ of state, the ports authority, also a chieftain of the ruling party, convicted of embezzling billions from the treasury marks his release from prison with a carnival procession from Kirikiri to the cathedral?
What is the point about filial loyalty to nation? it might be asked. Well, for Nigeria, let us take a community, a self-governing one. Call it Umuofia. And let us say that it delegates its governance to the Umuofia Progressive Union. Umuofia’s treasury has only two sources: direct levies (taxes) on all adults and fees for the right to trade in its famous market which, far and wide, is the biggest and most profitable. Consequently, Umuofia is not only able to maintain and improve the market, but also its roads, water-wells, schools and only hospital. Now let us suppose that Umuofia decides to rehabilitate and upgrade the hospital as well as build a town hall, and for these purposes imposes a levy to supplement the community income. But that in the middle of these projects, the president of UPU embezzles half of the communal funds, for which reason he is banished to Mbanta, a neighbouring town. On his return from punitive exile, can you picture him at the head of a carnival procession that ends at the village square where the half-finished town hall stands in mournful abandonment, next to the hospital where Umuofians now go to die following the shortage of drugs and equipment caused by his thievery?
No, you can’t, but this is the parable of Nigeria. Because it was first constituted as colonial real estate, which was handed over to caretakers who could best ensure that the new order did not radically subvert the old, we remain in spirit and deed alienated from "our “nation.” Yet it could have been otherwise, if only we had taken full possession and proceeded to remodel and rebuild, rather than merely sweep the floor and paint the walls before settling in like tenants. As a result, we could not then nor now answer that Nigeria is our “papa’s land.” Obafemi Awolowo made this ugly truth clear enough in his famous dictum about Nigeria being a mere geographical expression, adding for good measure that he thought of himself first as Ijebu and Yoruba. Nor was that astute student of power, Ahmadu Bello, to be outdone: Nigeria was the mistake of 1914 perpetrated by Lord Lugard.
So why do we insist on the pretence of nationhood and refuse to correct this mistake? The answer, in the final analysis, is what Isaac Boro saw six years after independence and a few months before the civil war: the booty of oil being “pumped from the veins” of the Niger Delta to feed the arteries of the new “nation.” And so the prompt but unofficial designation of the Niger Delta as no-man’s land through a plethora of laws and instruments to invalidate the extant fiscal policy defined by derivation, the swifter to ensure expropriation and domination. It is a cruel irony: the same colonial strategy of voiding Africa of people and history through phoney treaties and dubious arguments had now been adopted by the new leaders! Call the post-colonial version the Asiodu doctrine, as espoused in Philip Asiodu’s lecture, “The Impact of Petroleum on the Nigerian Economy.” “Given ... the small size and populations of the oil producing areas,” he says, “it is not cynical to observe that even if the resentments of oil producing states continue they cannot threaten the stability of the country nor affect its continued economic development.”
But if you agree that the Niger Delta question is the National Question in microcosm, then you can see why the battle for political office, especially at the centre, is perennially a do-or-die affair; why bombs and bloodbaths have become inseparable from campaign rallies. To the “warring” politicians, these battles are fought in a foreign territory. Nigeria-Niger Delta (no difference, as the warfare is over petro-dollars) is a treasure island, or rather, delta, where they go bounty-hunting armed to the teeth and devoid of conscience like pirates. They carry their loot home to the papa’s land of their hometowns and villages where they are lauded with chieftaincy titles. As we get ready for another empty ritual of democracy without democrats, perhaps our best hope is that whoever emerges from this battle would undergo a Damascus/Abuja-Road conversion to democracy and civic responsibility and that we might begin at last the task of nation-building.
Ifowodo teaches poetry and literature at Texas State University in the United States.