Agitation for justice and humane ways of dealing with inhabitants of old-rich Niger Delta is not new. In fact, such agitations date back to the period of oil palm boom in the region, just when the British colonisers were finding a foothold in the region. The seed of injustice has a long history in the region, which steadily grew during the oil palm boom and transited to crude oil exploitation. Interestingly, the locals have bravely confronted the injustices that have been their lot over the years.
Formerly called Warri Province at the time, the enclave now known as Delta State has been at the heart of agitations against foreign exploitative forces. Although, peace-loving people, they can always rise up to the occasion when their patience and endurance is tasked beyond limit as the actions of the white colonisers showed.
This is the thrust of Peter E. Omoko’s new play, Majestic Revolt (Malthouse Press Ltd, Lagos; 2018). The British, led by Major Walker and his two assistants, Lambert and De La Mothe, had taken effective control of the province. But typical of the European colonisers and drunk with their newly acquired territory, they introduce a ‘head tax’ and are intent on forcing the locals to pay it at all cost because it’s the king of England’s law.
The locals are incensed. How could a foreigner come to their land and impose a ‘head tax’ on them? Of course, Omoko raises all the usual arguments about the foolishness of allowing the foreigner a foothold on the African soil in the first place. But the European had a head-start to every resistance the African might have put up against his invasion of their land: he came with guns! He needed not engage the locals in close combat. From a distance he dispensed death with a boom.
Nevertheless, the locals led by Oshue, an Urhobo chief of some majestic aura, and other leaders from the other tribes that make up the province – Isoko, Ijaw, Itsekiri, Ndokwa – will not be cowed easily by the white man’s might. As always, the revolt that sometimes turn bloody, has saboteurs from among the people, men who scheme and collaborate with the foreigner for personal advantages to subvert the collective will of the people. Omudje is one such man who consorts with the man; he has been promised some largesse and would deliver leaders of the people into the hands of the white man for persecution. Omudje’s betrayal is not an isolated case; there is Chief Dore Numa, who had earlier betrayed his fellow Itsekiri merchant chief, Nana Olomu.
From Omudje’s betrayal of the people’s collective struggle to overturn a foreigner’s relentless encroachment and dispossession of their land and manhood to the white man’s determination to vanquish the locals and humiliate them with his obnoxious ‘head tax,’ Omoko’s presents a stark portrait of a people pitted against a formidable force. Clearly, this is a historical play that puts in bold relief the age-old struggle of the people of the Niger Delta to enjoy their God-given natural resources.
Al the end, Oshue, the leaders of the revolt is imprisoned in the white man’s jail. But far from being broken, their ordeal only serves to embolden the locals to press on with their agitation for the overthrow of obnoxious laws and rules that are against natural justice. Omoko’s play foreshadows the struggle of the people of the Niger Delta. It situates in historical perspective their current struggle for equitable distribution of oil resources in their land, which yet again, outsiders have since hijacked and for which they are denied its fruits.
Omoko pushes the argument that the collective will of the people is itself enough might to overthrow any yoke of bondage. Although historical in intent, it has lessons for today’s Nigeria, which appears hijacked by a few at the expense of the majority. How much of its might is the majority harnessing to overthrow the few who have enslaved them? This is the echoing question that Nigerians must ask themselves as 2019 approaches: will the majority of Nigerians continue to reel under the yoke of politicians so obsessed with their personal ambition and comfort as against using state power for the collective good?
* Omoko’s Majestic Revolt is in the race for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2018.