Comrade Alagoa Morris is Head, Environmental Right Action (ERA) Niger Delta Resource Centre and also project officer of ERA, a foremost environmental justice organization in the country. In this interview with Chiemeka Green, the very experienced human rights and environmental activist talks about the recent xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa and diplomatic solutions to avert future occurrence, reprisal attacks by citizens in Nigeria and how the federal government failed in its responsibility to protect Nigerians home and abroad. Excerpts:
Comrade Alagoa Morris
How would you describe the attacks and killings of Nigerians in South Africa?
Xenophobia is very strange when it comes to Nigeria. I have not heard it happening in Nigeria. Nigeria has never done it to any country. Yes, within us here we do have communal clashes, ethnic clashes here and there, but targeted at foreigners? I have never heard it. The one that happened was ‘Ghana Must Go’, and that was peaceful; an official pronouncement of the government about persons who maybe didn’t enter the country officially and are not economically allowed to do certain things; if you entered Nigeria officially and you have work permit and all those, no problem.
What is happening right now in South Africa is very unfortunate when we take into cognizance the fact that during the apartheid years, Nigeria’s foreign policy was always centered on Africa. Nigeria built her foreign policy around Africa, committed resources to ensure that Africans were free from minority rule. When you talk about apartheid, South Africa was the real place where the white minority ruled. And today it is very surprising that we are hearing Nigerians, even though it affects other African nationals, are being attacked. This is not even the first time; it has happened about a year or two ago and now it is repeating. It is very unfortunate, most unexpected and not brotherly at all. Whatever grievance the nationals there have against Nigerians, I think they should handle it officially. Make official complaint to the ambassador there, to the consulate and then the message will officially be transmitted to the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. But today, on emergency basis, a plane has been sent to South Africa to evacuate some of our stranded persons there; anyone that is ready to come back, and this is very unfortunate. Just like flood just happened and you begin to look for where to take off unplanned- unplanned evacuation, unplanned relocation. It’s very unfortunate and it doesn’t give us any good case.
Do you think the federal government’s response so far is adequate and how would you assess the government in terms of protecting her citizens both home and abroad?
If you look at the situation, I always say that patriotism is earned. When the Americans say “Do not think of what your country will do for you, think of what you can do for your country”, I don’t think countries like Nigeria should be repeating that quote because in America, the government cares for her citizens. It is like Hitler saying, “If you kill one of my soldiers, I will take 200 of yours”. Just recently, somebody that died during the world war, somebody that died years ago in the war front in Afghanistan or some other place, the son who was a toddler when the father died is the one that drove the plane that went and brought the body that was identified as his father’s. They brought the corpse home with American flag for burial. Will Nigeria do that type of a thing? Even in death, America values her citizens. Forget about the gun fights and the little racial something that have been happening there. Those advanced nations take their citizens very important. In Africa here, I have not seen, especially when you talk about here in Nigeria. If you want to talk about all these sometimes you may leave out what is happening in South Africa.
But no, it touches us. Some of our brothers and sisters are being maltreated there in South Africa; being killed, but that does not mean that it is well here at home. Just two days ago, we heard that the Inspector-General of Police was saying they will now send special security team to the Southwest. Is it because the Southwest state governors have now met with traditional rulers and people like the OPC former leader, Gani Adams is saying they will take action against herders? They have now seen that this people want to come up with special security so they want to go there and do one thing or the other? What about the East? What about here in the Niger Delta? Just on Sunday, people were traveling to Abuja and they were kidnapped between Lokoja and Abuja. It is not well in the country. We are talking about what is happening internally here which the president has not taken adequate steps on. Service chiefs have not been changed.
We have not seen those steps of action that we would say, yes something reasonable is happening that will give us confidence. If you talk about that, it’s a very sorry situation. But then, now it’s outside and we are still feeling for our people outside just as we feel for those that are being kidnapped daily, being killed daily either by Boko Haram or other bandits kidnapping fellow citizens. It is as bad as that. But when you talk about the one that is coming from outside, sometimes they say if two brothers are fighting, if an outsider comes to put in his hand, the two brothers that are fighting might even turn back and fight that outsider. So no matter how bad it is here, we still feel another factor is trying to undo us and so all of us are now putting our attention there.
When we talk about Nigeria, whether we are from North, South, East or West, we see ourselves as one. Even though people will say there has been no country, according to Achebe, there was a country. Those who are saying there was no country lied. They are struggling to bring the president of Nigeria. There was Nigeria and Biafra war; we are using Nigerian currency. We are identified through international passport as Nigerians. So you cannot say there has been no country. We may say yes, from the beginning the foundation of the country was not properly laid and so there were errors and this could be corrected through restructuring, referendum or any other means. But for you to say there has been no country, who are you? In this world you must belong to one country. So as far as we are concerned, for now, we are using Nigerian passport.
Before you travel out you must produce your passport otherwise they will ask whether you are a Ghanaian. So we are one people. When we see ourselves outside, we are like brothers. Like you may be from Abia, am from Bayelsa, if we meet in a place like Russia, definitely we are brothers. We are the closest in that environment. It is only when we begin to come towards home when we reach Africa and land at one airport, then it is to your tent Oh Israel. That is how it is with people from the same community too. When they meet in Yenagoa here, they are one but when they go home and the speed boat lands at the water side then you move to your compound, the other man moves to his compound.
Some Nigerians have been advocating for suspension of relations with South Africa. What are the economic implications?
It cannot just immediately go to that level. I even read that the national chairman of the APC, Adams Oshiomole and others, not only the politicians, most of the others, are saying nationalize the assets of South Africa, MTN, Shoprite and the rest of them. What is the essence of diplomacy? We have people that read International Diplomacy and Law, International Relations. Is it not time that these people should be given the job, assignment to ensure that whatever injuries have been caused, we look for a way to solve? Tell each other sorry where we ought to tell each other sorry; if there is need, compensation to address some of these issues, to assuage the injured parties and then you reach certain decisions to forestall future occurrence.
You just don’t say because something has happened like this then you cut ties. No,It doesn’t happen like that. If you take such decisions,that means you are rash. Some people used to say when you are angry, don’t take any decision at that time. The decisions you take with anger sometimes are faulty. So we should not rush it. Even though some of his ministers are making unguarded, provocative statements, I don’t think the South African president Ramaphosa, and other well-meaning South Africans are in support of what those hoodlums are doing to other nationals. I don’t think the leadership of that country fully or passively supports what is happening even though they are saying we should create jobs for our people here.
That is what one of their ministers said so that our people remain here and not travel out but what is globalization all about? Must we all remain in our country? We need to mix up. As for me, I don’t like to travel out but if you have Nigerians, other nationals who feel they want to travel for one important business or the other or if they have money and they say they want to relocate, (why not?).We have people who will nationalize. We have some persons who have been in America and some other parts of the continent. What about some of our footballers who have nationalized in other places? So if anyone has that desire, he should go and if the country permits them, okay! We should not rush it. We should take calculated steps; allow those who have knowledge, who are experts in international relations and diplomacy to handle this matter in our best interest.
In this situation where we have reprisal attacks here and there and even Nigerians in South Africa taking up arms to defend themselves, what diplomatic measures should the federal government take to address these issues?
As for our brothers and sisters in South Africa I don’t blame them because it is a natural law. Self-defense is your right. When you see that you are under threat; that your life is in great danger, if you know you can defend yourself to stay alive, you do it. That is the first law of nature- self- defense. Far away there, if they can hold themselves to prevent being killed, I support that. They should prevent anybody who wants to kill them until the law enforcement agency comes and takes them.
Then talking about what happened, the reprisal, the reactions here, it’s natural. It didn’t take days, it was spontaneous. Even in law, it is allowed when you react according to the situation. Somebody killed your brother right in front of you the law permits although we are not advising that. The law can excuse in the nature that he immediately kills another person. It’s spontaneous, it wasn’t premeditated. The law will tell you that if you ran into another building, took machete and came out to now kill, they will use a reasonable person standard to judge you. That before you ran to that house and carried that machete and came out, you should have been able to think that this thing is not good; that you should not do it. So, the action here was spontaneous and don’t forget, in most cases, some will do that with genuine intentions to destroy and make sure their reaction is felt by the other persons who are injuring our own people.
But some are just to loot. Some are there, yes, there are reacting but the event has given them opportunity to loot. So you have two, three sets of people. Even in South Africa they looted people’s shops. They are angry, our people are taking their jobs but they are looting shops of Nigerians and other nationals. Similar thing is what happened here. But then that was spontaneous and it’s not unexpected and the reaction of the government was also matured by saying no, two wrongs don’t make a right. Stop it because we are now blaming South African authorities for not reacting on time.
So if government here doesn’t react in a reasonable way, we’ll also be blamed by the world. If the authorities here don’t react to prevent that type of reprisal attack, it will also portray our government in bad light. The only thing we would say is that instead of prosecuting those people, they consider them and release them. Again, the innocent should not suffer for the crime of another. So, for the sake of innocent ones, reprisal attack is not in the best interest. Thank God we have not heard of a South African that has been killed. Again, they said most of the stores or facilities have also Nigerians working there. Thank God no life was lost. MTN, I learnt closed shops. Shoprite also closed to prevent colossal damage. The reprisal attacks where innocent persons will suffer grave bodily harm or death whether in Nigeria or outside, is not acceptable.
Bayelsans have been yearning for purposeful leadership right from inception and now the present administration is winding op. Looking at the recent PDP/ APC governorship primaries, do you think Bayelsa got it right this time?
We thank God that Dickson led government, the restoration administration is winding up at least completing its eight years, second tenure. But then, it depends on analysts to appraise the situation to see whether hopes were met (against) when he first came on board. Now we leave that for another discussion to see whether Dickson actually performed or not. For me, I think we didn’t do much, we didn’t achieve much especially in the area of environment. This morning, I was talking with a colleague of yours about the impending flood. In this year’s budget only N505million was budgeted for the Ministry of Environment. Yet the governor himself, I have heard him on TV and radio, saying some of the things some of us have been saying too, that Bayelsa State is more deltaic than Delta State and more riverine than Rivers State and that is true. It is the most deltaic; it’s a unique terrain that does not have any hill. So this very unique terrain that even the governor and other Bayelsansknow, ought to have special attention like the Scandinavia nations, Holland. The Dutch have studied that place and made it in such a way that they do not suffer from flooding.
When Alamieyeseigha first came on board, we heard of feasibility studies. They asked some of these people from Holland and other places to do feasibility studies with a view to developing the right structures so that we won’t suffer this type of annual flooding. Unfortunately, those feasibility studies did not see the light of the day. As we speak now, people are getting more apprehensive because of the predictions by NIMET of another impending flood. As Okilo did in old Rivers State, Okilo’s example is very topical of one who knew our terrain. He embarked on canalization, making traveling distance in the creeks shorter and also sand filling some communities. I give you example of Kene-ebiama Community in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area. That community when Okilo was distributing generators to communities, said ‘No Sir, sand fill our community for us’. He did not only sand fill, he sandfilled and built some block houses for the community. And during that heavy flood of 2012, that community did not submerge. It became a safe-haven for other community people to come to.
Okilo also did shore protection lines for Sagbama community and Otuokpoti. That was in the 80s. So we expect that this special terrain should have received attention as a special terrain so that when others are talking about flood coming, we ought not to bother ourselves. Because we must have taken the necessary steps and we would have been a leading state where people will come and learn how we overcame the challenges. But since Alamieyeseigha’s time till Dickson’s eight years now finishing, no administration has dealt with this flood and coastal erosion matter. Our communities are being washed away. Just this Ogbogoro here across Yenagoa, Fangbe; we also have Anibeze community. You go to Peremabiri, Kaiama is also being washed away especially the northern part. Odi, just recently, several houses were washed into the river and then the communities along the fringes of the Atlantic Ocean. From Odiama, Twon Brass, Okpoama, Shangana up to Koloama. Koloama people are crying every day. They have lost hundreds of meters to the Atlantic Ocean. Yet, this very big problem which no community can shoulder, government has turned a blind eye on.
So we are not going anywhere. Yenagoa that we thought is the capital of Bayelsa State that ought to have development, we do not have drinking water; we don’t have light. As we are discussing here now, there is no light. Last night I was not happy; my neighbor’s general was on throughout the night till day break and I was worried. So we cannot listen to the night? If something is happening in his own house nobody will hear if he is attacked that night. What about, God forbid, am attacked? My neighbor won’t hear because he is sleeping inside and the generator is on. He won’t hear anything. So we are suffering from the worst pollution occasioned by individuals putting on their generators. So we did not have these basic amenities- transport system, bad roads here and there. If Yenagoa the state capital is not enjoying the dividends of democracy as we ought to in a small state like Bayelsa, then when will we?
So the whole thing is that the incoming administration should look into these areas of developmentof human endeavor. You talk about education; you talk about human capital development not only tertiary institutions but it will have technical institutions where those who cannot read upto the BSc, Masters level,should have where they go and learn vocations. Traveling within Delta State, you know how big Delta State is, I now know why our population is small. Delta has several big communities, populated and development is still going on. I was coming from Asaba the other day with my colleague and we saw the road directly linking Asaba with OgwashiUkwu. They are still working on it trying to expand it, tractors were there working. And in Yenagoa here where are those projects where you see tractors working?
All is not lost. Governor Dickson has tried his best. We are seeing it just that we always term ourselves right from the Labour movement to be like Oliver Twist. We expect that whoever will take over from him, whether he is from PDP, APC or Labour Party, Accord Party, whichever party the electorate feels the candidate is good enough, anyone that comes victorious, we expect that that person will take us to a greater, more satisfying level.
But don’t forget, democracy does not always guarantee you the best candidate. It is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. A government of the majority does not always guarantee the best candidate because the people may decide this is the person that we need but when the person comes on board, you will see that he is not even the best. The person turns out to be what they never expected.
Again, there are some few individuals who manipulate outcome of primaries and then the electorate in the general election won’t have much to do than to choose from those that have come out of manipulations of a few persons because they did not allow internal democracy to prevail during the primaries or during the actions leading to the primaries. Few persons may manipulate the system to suit their individual interest; their sectional interest at the expense of the party or the general interest. So, when these persons who, are products of manipulations, are the only ones that come out for the general people to choose from, you don’t get the best.