A Reply to Cyril Gwam's Attack on Obaro Ikime

By Peter Ekeh
State University of New York at Buffalo

   A Reply to Gwam's Attack on Ikime
   Date: Sun, 4 Jul 1999 23:03:19 +0200
   From: "Orevaoghene Charles Obaro" <impexma@online.no>
   To:  <Undisclosed.Recipients@online.no>
-----Original Message-----
From: Peter P. Ekeh <ppekeh@acsu.buffalo.edu>
To: Peter Ekeh <ppekeh@acsu.buffalo.edu>
Date: 4. juli 1999 23:04
Subject: IN DEFENSE OF THE DELTA AND ITS ETHNIC POLITICS: A Reply to Gwam's Attack on Ikime

A few days ago, I read a two-part article by Cyril Gwam titled "Obaro Ikime's Ethnic Politics." Its original source is the naijanews, which is a famous cyberspace venue for discussing Nigerian public affairs for those resident in Europe and North America who have access to the new magical technology of instant communications. It is an angry commentary. Ikime's image comes from it very badly bruised. I did wonder what could have animated a rather gentle person like Cyril Gwam to be so contemptuous of a man I know quite well to be an honorable person. I suppose I should declare at the outset that Obaro Ikime is my friend. He and I joined in fighting for several causes in our besieged Delta -- not the Delta State, the original Delta that existed before Ibrahim Babagida captured power. Our friendship has never prevented us from disagreeing with each other's position from time to time. I was also a teacher at the University of Ibadan in the seventies and eighties when Ikime was a dominant figure in the Department of History and the Faculty of Arts at Ibadan. Even his worst enemies at Ibadan will wonder how Ikime could have been foisted with a caricature of a narrow-minded "ethnic" man that Cyril Gwam constructed for his much-mocked "learned professor."

There are two aspects of Gwam's presentation that are troubling. Both have consequences for the credibility of his article. First, Cyril Gwam did not tell us his own stakes in this issue. Ikime began his attack on President Obasanjo's nomination of Mr. Chris Agbobu as the cabinet man from Delta State by declaring that he was writing on behalf of the real Delta. It is that distinction between the Delta State and the real Delta that Cyril Gwam challenges. It is entirely legitimate for him to question Ikime's reasoning for rejecting the Presidential nomination from Delta State. But in contesting Ikime's distinction, Gwam poses as a neutral moral philosopher, as if he were writing from the Vatican on the mundane frailties of mere and flawed mortals like Obaro Ikime who have no right to be called professors. Even the title of his article says it all: "Obaro Ikime's Ethnic Politics." So if Ikime is practicing odious ethnic politics, what politics is Cyril Gwam engaged in? The contrast I see from Gwam's article is of a man whose Olympian moral values bestride narrow-minded ethnicity versus the undeserved professor who is unable to rise above ethnic callings.

To sustain that image Cyril Gwam must persuade us that he is not motivated by the same desire as Obaro Ikime. The remarkable thing about Gwam's adventure into the realpolitik of the Delta is that he is fighting for his people with the same fearlessness as Obaro Ikime is well known for in his many battles for public causes. Obviously, Cyril Gwam knows very little of the man he attacks. But I would venture to say that Gwam is like Ikime in many ways. I will leave that aside for now. Gwam is upset as much by Ikime's references to Asaba as to his rejection of Mr. Agbobu's nomination. Now, Cyril Gwam is a hardcore and dedicated Asaba man. I assume that he has fought valiant battles and causes for his beloved Asaba. That is great and it is fully Nigerian. That is ethnic politics. But then is it fair to mock Ikime as an ethnic "learned professor" while Cyril Gwam plies the same trade?

Cyril Gwam is a dedicated Nigerian. He writes tirelessly on Nigerian problems. In doing so, he may approach, in some distant date, Obaro Ikime's services for Nigeria. But the point is this: Ikime's love for the real Delta is reconcilable with his many national pursuits, just as Cyril Gwam's services for his native Asaba do not preclude him from being a Nigerian patriot

The second problematic aspect of Gwam's article poses deep-seated methodological problems. There is a troubling admixture of important political issues and a banal display of ad hominems in Cyril Gwam's essay. In his anger against Obaro Ikime, he constructed a badly disfigured effigy of the "learned professor." Each time he screams "learned professor" at this helpless dummy, he cheers his own efforts. Each time he hurls an ad hominem at this "learned professor's" effigy, he claims victory on the weighty issues he raises in his paper. I suggest that it is best to separate the issues from the ad hominems. I can assure Cyril Gwam that Obaro Ikime is capable of brushing off gratuitous personal insults. But he is good at discussions of public issues. Let us therefore separate the two spheres of Gwam's analysis, the weighty political issues of the Delta State from the irritating personal invectives that are intended to hurt Ikime.


There are three issues that are buried inside Cyril Gwam's angry essay. First, was the siting of the Delta State capital at Asaba, Gwam's hometown, justified? By what criteria did military dictator Ibrahim Babagida pick Asaba to be the capital of Delta State? Second, is the controversy of Delta State's capital a matter of the past or is it still relevant in present-day affairs of the State? Third, is it fair to link up Mr. Chris Agbobu's ministerial services to the distinction between the real Delta and what many in the "real Delta" portray as Babagida's political concoction of Delta State? These are vital issues that are worthy of analysis. They are significant for the welfare of the "real" Delta and of the Delta State and their political representation at the Federal center. Let us look at each of these problems separately.

Asaba as Capital of Delta State

Ikime faults Ibrahim Babagida's military regime for picking Asaba, at the far northern corner of the new state, as the capital of Delta State. He says Babagida did so "for reasons which we know." Gwam dismisses this claim as the symptom of the "learned professor's" malicious distortion of history. He says that Asaba deserves to be the state's capital because it "had always enjoyed a pride of place in the political, economic, religious and social development of Nigeria . . . as far back as 1884, the British Treaty of Friendship and Peace was signed with Asaba kings and queens," a tradition of colonial eminence that continued to the history of the Royal Niger Company!

Does Cyril Gwam seriously believe that Ibrahim Babagida picked Asaba as a state capital after a review of colonial history? Gwam went back to the creation of the Midwest Region in 1963 to boost his case for Asaba as the capital of Delta State. But in doing so he turns the history of the Midwest on its head. He says, "When Chief Dennis Osadebay [an "Anioma," that is Western Igbo] became the first Premier of Midwest Region, following the victory of the NCNC in the February 1964 election, Chief Mariere (Urhobo) was made the first governor and Benin City became the first capital. Why? In order to reflect the ethnic composition of the region at the time. So what is happening today is not novel."

Let me not argue the facts of these cases with our author. But I should point out to him that Osadebay, Mariere, and Benin City were all picked and assigned their roles in protracted negotiations long before the 1964 election. The most significant names that are missing from Gwam's list are Oba Akenzua II and Festus Okotie-Eboh. All Midwestners knew that the Oba deserved to be Governor. But he gave up this attractive office during the negotiations because he was lobbying for Benin City as the capital of the new Region. By the way, Benin City was capital before the 1964 election. Okotie-Eboh is significant because he negotiated a special status for the Itsekiri in the new Region

It is precisely the absence of negotiations that makes the situation of present-day Delta State so ugly and so maddening. Midwestners and Bendelites were used to negotiating and bargaining. No one ethnic group was ever allowed to dominate the scene. Contrary to Gwam's assertion that the "Midwest Region operated on a tripod" of Anioma [a notion that did not exist then], Edo, and Urhobo, every ethnic group counted. That was the meaning of ethnic politics in the Midwest. It was invented in the Midwest. The art of bargaining and negotiating among ethnic groups for power was absent from the Yoruba-dominated Western Region, the Igbo-dominated Eastern Region, and the Fulani-dominated Northern Region. Midwestners introduced the art of ethnic bargaining. That is our heritage. Now the legacy of military rule threatens it. Deltans are being told that Asaba people need not give up anything because the State capital was given to them by a military dictator who did it as a favor for his wife. More and more, political pronouncements from the far northernmost portion of Delta State remind one of political practices in our region before 1963. Indeed, Gwam's defence of military action in locating the capital at Asaba without consultation is inimical to the political heritage that we all cherish in our Midwest. Is it too much to ask that all such political decisions and positions should be bargained for? That is the Midwest way. That is the Bendel way. Can it not be the Delta State way?

It is the issue of Asaba as the capital of Delta State that is compelling the divisions in the state. I must confess, myself, that I was surprised at the baldness of the distinction that Ikime drew between the real western Niger Delta and the rest of the State. I could not imagine anyone talking of the Delta ten years ago without including Ukwuani which Ikime omitted from "hardcore Delta." But the State capital controversy is hardening positions in the state. It is a problem that can only be ignored at the peril of the state's political welfare.

Is the Issue of the State Capital Dead?

In recent months another "learned professor" from the southern portion of the Delta State expressed the view that for as long as the state capital remains at Asaba, it would be unfair to have the Governor from the same area. Itse Sagay was attacked with the same vehemence as Gwam has employed in going after Obaro Ikime, although with far less personal insults. There is a serious suggestion in Ikime's and Sagay's statements that this view is widely shared in the southern regions of the Delta State. In his plea with President Obasanjo, Ikime made it clear that "Locating the headquarters at Asaba is as unacceptable as locating it in Patani or Forcados" which are in the other southern extreme in the geography of the State. This makes Cyril Gwam's question pungent. He asks, "Is [Ikime] calling for all the state capitals in Nigeria that are not centrally located to be relocated to central points . . . ?" Obviously, Gwam asked the question in jest in order to make a fool of Obaro Ikime, because he thinks it is a silly idea. As far he is concerned, the matter of the capital of Delta State is water under the Onitsha-Asaba bridge. But it is an important question that he has raised and we should not hurry away from it.

The constitutional answer to Gwam's question is that the matter should be left up to each state. Hopefully, as before 1966, each state will have its own Constitution. If in the negotiations that are part of a constitutional convention, a state wishes to relocate its capital, it should have the freedom to do so. I am sure that there are Deltans who would prefer such central and mid-point places as Ubiaroko or Abraka for a state capital. On the other hand, Asaba may be able to persuade the rest of the Delta State that it should continue to be the state's capital. Then it will be accepted. But to leave this matter to military fiat is to sow the seeds of discord because it would have been handled in a way that is incompatible with our Midwest style of politics.

State's Ministerial Portfolio and Representation of the State

If he were not so angry, Cyril Gwam could easily have asked Ikime whether a Federal Minister from the real Delta would adequately represent the interests of northern fragments of the state. Obviously, the disquiet about the issue of the capital in the rest of the state is being driven by the new energy of "Anioma," a term that was coined less than twenty years ago to group together all fragments of western Igbo for the sake of gaining a new state. There are deep suspicions that "Anioma" nationalism is pushing Western Igbos more to the east and away from the political style of Midwestern give-and-take. For as long as mistrust exists between the nationalism of "Anioma" and the rest of the State, there will be these complaints. But we all must start a conversation. We all will have to live together. We must begin to understand ourselves and one another's fears. It is probably as much in the interest of Western Igbo to learn to behave politically as Deltans, and not as majority ethnic groups that do not like negotiating for sharing power, as it is in the interest of those who now call themselves real Deltans to learn to live with their northern neighbors. It is not really as difficult for both sides as it may appear. Large segments of Western Igbo ("Anioma") are used to the give-and-take that is the Midwestern way of politics. We can all live together.

Even if there was perfect harmony in the state, it is completely in order to complain about a President's nomination. Cyril Gwam's acceptance of the Vice-President's view that no one has the right to question the President's nomination is close to his endorsement of Babagida's choice of Asaba for a state capital. One is tempted to ask Gwam whether he is always in favor of governmental fiats. The rest of the Delta has a right to ask President Obasanjo what is left for them after the Cabinet position and a key position of Presidential adviser on petroleum matters have been allocated to Chris Agbobu and Philip Asiodu from the northern portion of Delta State. That is a legitimate question. If the disadvantage were reversed, that is, if the only federal positions for Delta State were allocated to the real Delta, Cyril Gwam would most likely complain. And he might have a point. Can't Cyril Gwam allow others to do politically what he would allow for himself?


Some weeks ago, Dr. G. Darah complained in the Lagos Guardian (May 31) about the appointments of Rilwam Lukman and Mr. J. E. Gaius Obaseki's to key positions in the petroleum industry. His point was that those from the "real and original Delta" were ignored in these appointments. A few weeks later, one Mr. Lamido Sanusi wrote a rejoinder rebuking Darah. What I found troubling in reading Mr. Sanusi's well-reasoned article was his tone of reference to the Delta areas. There was considerable condescension.

I felt uncomfortable reading Sanusi's piece because there was a subtle belittling of the crisis in the Niger Delta. Reading Cyril Gwam gives me a worse feeling about our prospects in the Niger Delta. Let me rush to say that Mr. Sanusi was polite in addressing Dr. Darah, although he was rather condescending. Cyril Gwam was not only rude to in his references to Obaro Ikime; he shows little knowledge of the Delta. He could not even identify James Otobo as an Isoko man. What is far more troubling is his style of ex cathedra pronouncements about the causes of the crisis in the Delta. "No wonder Warri is burning because of people like him [Ikime]," he so easily invoked. This gentleman is writing as if he were from Katsina or some distant place - far away from Warri.

The problem is general and it is growing. The Federal Government has developed a specialized attitude about the Niger Delta. Our circumstances remind me of the way natives were treated in colonial times. Natives are those from whose territory you harvest precious raw material. They should be treated kindly, gently, so they do not blow up. But you cannot give them the position of responsibility. You see, natives cannot handle responsibility. Somebody will have to handle it for them. Oh, they will fight themselves - so get someone else to work on their behalf. They are not mature enough to write their own history, to analyze their own politics. One probably can absorb such hidden insults from Lamido Sanusi -- if he were to utter them. But it is a little much for a person of Ikime's services to the country to be so roundly abused from within his own State for no reason other than he questioned a Ministerial appointment and the location of the State capital.

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