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The Niger Delta And The Rest Of Us

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Pond-of-LeechesTHE close affinity between literature and society is manifest in the writer’s convergence of ideas that bother on the socio-political and historical realities of the people to whom the work of art is addressed. Consequently, as a member of the society, the writer draws his experiences from the society and conveys same in an exhilarating medium – literature. In the last three decades, one of the greatest sources of literary materials for contemporary African literature is the Niger Delta conflict of oil exploration and exploitation. It has engaged writers and critics alike and it may probably have overtaken the output of Apartheid literature in South Africa. It constitutes the poetic fulcrum of Tanure Ojaide, Nnnimo Bassey, Hope Eghagha, Ibawari Ikiriko, G’Ebinyo Ogbowei, Ebi Yeibo, Ogaga Ifowodo, to mention a few. Ojaide’s The Activist, and Kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow are but a few prose works that have identified with the plight of the oppressed peoples of the Niger Delta. No less a genre is dramatic literature. Ahmed Yerima’s Hard Ground, Eni Jologho Umuko’s Scent of Crude Oil, Ben Binebai’s Drums of the Delta and others represent the body of dramatic voices that have exposed the outlandish criminality of the Nigerian state in dispossessing the people of the Niger Delta of their rights in laying claim to their God-given crude oil wealth.

Since the discovery of crude oil in the Niger Delta in 1956, the people of the region have had cause to feel cheated in the way and manner the country’s economic and political indices are structured – owing to the fact that before this time other regions of the country have sustained themselves through Agriculture. The north was noted for its groundnut pyramids and skin and hides; the west for cocoa while the east was noted for its palm oil and other allied products. Hence there was positive competition for development in the entire country. Nobody was cheated. However, when crude oil was discovered in the Niger Delta, a minority section of the country, the entire regions came together, abandoned their former sources of income and abrogated the crude oil wealth of the people of the Niger Delta to themselves.

Unlike the groundnuts, skin and hides, cocoa and palm oil which were regional resources, the crude oil wealth of the minority peoples of the Niger Delta became a national source of income to the entire country. Any claim of the people to their God-given wealth was visited with collective hostility and direct confrontation in the form of military aggression. It is this outright dispossession of the peoples’ wealth by the Nigerian state and the insensitivity of the Nigerian politicians that constitutes the thematic preoccupation of Stephen Kekeghe’s debut play, Pond of Leeches (Kraft Books Limited, Ibadan; 2015).

The play which is set in Okugbe community unfolds the evils of oil politics and the insensitivity of the Nigerian political elite who perpetuate themselves in power by betraying the hapless masses. From the beginning of the play, the entire Okugbe community is at war with Egbo quarters – a quarter whose oil wealth sustains the economy of the community. This stems from the revolutionary stance of Ovwata, one of the patriots of Egbo quarters. The people of Egbo Quarters from whose backyard the oil wealth on which the Okugbe community thrive live in abject poverty – their graduate youths roam the streets in search for jobs in restaurants and petty shops while the oil companies in their land engage the services of foreign expatriates and less qualified personnel from other quarters of Okugbe Community that contribute little or nothing to the national coffers. The peoples’ farmlands and waterways on the other hand, are despoiled by the activities of the oil companies in the area. Ovwata, a revolutionary patriot opposes the oppressors so that justice may be realised at the end. Ovwata reprimands:

OVWATA: (Spits.) Tufie! That is the voice of the coward! I can’t fear death
when young and old die of contaminated water, hunger and diseases, arising from the activities of the oil rogues. The farmlands are made less and less arable. The air, the water are polluted. The hospitals are epileptic. Why must I fear death?…

In contrast with the people’s plight, the Chairman and his cronies from other quarters of the community live in opulence, big “mansion, well furnished with golden statues”. They are selfish and irresponsible to the predicaments of the people. In the play, the Chairman as well as those who benefit from his rapacious greed sees those from the oil rich Egbo quarters who try to oppose them as enemy. To them, the people must be pauperised in order for them to see revolution as a luxury. Anyone who tries to rise above this subjugative benchmark is dealt with piecemeal. Killing and maiming is used as a tool to keep the people in eternal domination. The Chairman proudly boasts:

CHAIRMAN: As a killer… Sorry, as a leader you must be ready to silence any of
your subjects who proves insubordinate to your governing mechanism. They have no right to correct you. They just have to bear with you. That is leadership. The subjects must forever be subordinates! Whether your leadership is good or bad is never their concern. There are arms everywhere… kill, learn to silence your enemies.

However, Ovwata proves to be a hard nut for the Chairman and his cronies to crack. Though betrayed by his brother, Oteri, leading to the annihilation of his entire family by the Chairman’s marauding soldiers, Ovwata remains undistracted in the struggle to free his people of Egbo Quarters from the shackles of oppression. In the play, Kekeghe uses Okugbe Community to typify Nigeria while Egbo Quarters represents the Niger Delta region whose oil wealth sustains the country’s economy. To the playwright, the Nigeria nation is a conglomerate of selfish and wicked hegemonic groups and individuals who are only interested in what they can collect from the system even if it means the death of everybody. The minority peoples of the Niger Delta are only useful in this union as far as the crude oil in their backyard continues to flow. This is eloquently portrayed in the play:

FIRST ELDER: The-killer-killer-to-save-the-oil!
SECOND ELDER: The-product-shall-live-the-people-shall-die!
THIRD ELDER: The-king-of-the-concubines!
CHAIRMAN: (Visibly angry.) Enough! I’m not in any such mood for eulogies!
(ELDERS turn frozen in murmurs of disbelief.)
FIRST EDER: Our leader, no matter the hotness of the sun the labourers still have
their backs, bent, breaking with the hoes… let us know the burden of thought that runs through the bowel of our leader.
CHAIRMAN: Another destruction on the crude pipeline, five of my guards went
with it.
FIRST ELDER: Hmmmm! May their souls rest in peace…
CHAIRMAN: So you don’t know where it hurts me most… It is not the death of
the guards but the destruction caused to the pipeline and the loss of fortune… Ah! So much money has gone down the drain.

This passage expresses the frozen hypocrisy in the Nigerian state where the only thing that matters to the leaders is the oil wealth of the minority people of the Niger Delta. The entire laws of the country are geared towards nationalizing the peoples’ God-given wealth that could have changed their lots and the entire country. It is logical here to suggest that the three elders, FIRST, SECOND and THIRD represent the three majority ethnic group in the country: Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. They are always united in dispossessing the minority of the means of their livelihood. In this play, Kekeghe, bearing a visible anger, not only universalizes the problems of the minority peoples of the Niger Delta but engages the multifaceted ills in the Nigerian socio-political landscape. He thus uses the Chairman’s guards (The Nigerian Military) who instead of protecting the people of Egbo Quarters (Niger Delta), maim and kill them with the excuse of protecting oil facilities to call on the oppressed peoples of the world, especially the people of the Niger Delta to confront their enemy headlong in order to achieve freedom.

He draws poignantly from his Urhobo rich oral resources to foreground the peoples’ vision of self-actualization. At the time when the struggle appears to lose gas, the people’s spirit is further propelled by Ivwri (The Urhobo god of war) who blanketed the oil wells, thereby making the Chairman and the Elders of the other quarters to break them free from the Okugbe community. This is the area where the meaning of the play’s “Okugbe Community” becomes apt. Okugbe in the Urhobo language means unity or togetherness. However, the Okugbe in the play (as in the case of the Nigerian state) is a pretentious one – an Okugbe where the major ethnic groups only prey on the minor ones. Hence, at the point when the oil that sustains the Okugbe community was no more, the Egbo Quarters became useless to the mother community. This is a futurist prying into what might befall the people of the Niger Delta should the oil run dry. Here, the playwright, like the prophets of the Old Testament, must warn his people against this impending doom. What comes of the Niger Delta people in the Nigerian project should the crude oil resources of the region dries up? Will they be asked to leave as the people of Egbo in the play are made to do? What then will be the fate of the people whose lands and waterways have already been destroyed by the activities of the oil companies? Herein lays the play’s thematics. To the playwright therefore, unless something is done, and done quickly, the future of the people of the Niger Delta is uncertain and hopeless.

Stephen Kekeghe has thus in his debut play, Pond of Leeches shows maturity in his handling of theatrical nuances. The play is well laced with such dramatic tropes as music, costume, and spectacle. His use of music makes the play’s action to be immediate and running. Kekeghe has also demonstrated his rootedness in the Marxist ideological mooring that birthed the works of the second generation Nigerian writers such as Niyi Osundare, Kole Omotoso, Femi Osofisan, Tanure Ojaide, and others. With creative talents like Stephen Kekeghe in the literary scene, there is hope in the dramatic genre in Africa.

* Peter E. Omoko teaches English in the Department of English, Delta State College of Physical Education, Mosogar, Delta State


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