By Ebenezar Wikina
I was three years old when Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight Ogoni chiefs were killed on November 10, 1995, and my wife was born exactly twenty days after. Growing up in Rivers State in the 90s, despite how young we were, it was not hard to share in the resentment everybody around us had for the Nigerian government. I was with my Grandmother in D/Line, Port Harcourt when the news of Sani Abacha’s passing in 1998 broke followed by jubilation in every corner of the city – and almost the entire country from what I later got to know. However, that celebration was short-lived because for every new face that got into Aso Rock, the marginalization against the South-South geopolitical zone always took a new dimension, even though the region’s oil is the lifeblood of Nigeria’s economy and existence. This marginalization was also mirrored in the announcement by the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) three days ago stating that the Federal Government has approved the renaming of 15 airports across the country including the Maiduguri Airport named after Gen. Mumammadu Buhari, the Gombe Airport named after Brigadier Zakari Maimalari, the Ibadan Airport named after Samuel Ladoke Akintola, the Ebonyi Airport named after Chuba Wilberforce Okadigbo, and the Port Harcourt Airport named after Obafemi Jeremiah Awolowo. At first glance, what do you see?
The Tragedy of the Nigerian Minority
It has always been a tragedy to be part of any minority group in Nigeria; ethnic, economic, gender, or religious, to mention a few. The Nigerian State has always been what you can call a “majoracracy” and it has always found ways to trample on the rights of those who might not seem “big enough” to fight back. This is why the non-violent movement built by Ken Saro-Wiwa and other leaders of MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) took the Nigerian State by surprise. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” they must have wondered and it’s a shame that they did not stop till they murdered that good thing in cold blood.
When you look at the list of new airport names at face value you might not realize that the same Nigerian government that claims to do everything for “national integration” is perpetuating the same line of nepotism that has kept us divided since amalgamation in 1914. I hate to divide Nigeria into cardinal points, but don’t blame me, blame your government because this is what they did with this new list of airports. All airports in the North were named after people from the Northern region, airports in the West were named after people from the Western region, and the one airport renamed in the East was named after an individual from the Eastern region as well. Why was the case different in Port Harcourt? Are there no national heroes from the South-South that the airport can be named after? Are our heroes not “good enough” because we are a minority?
Having featured on several radio stations over the past couple of days discussing this issue, the only argument people have had against the questions I pose above is that the airport in Abuja is named after an Igbo man, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe; the airport in Lagos is named after a Fulani man, Murtala Muhammed, and so they think the airport in the south should be named after a Yoruba man. First, I’m glad they identify Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe as an Igbo man because it is obvious that he is not from the South-South. If the three major tribes in Nigeria want to profess “fake love” for themselves (I know it is fake because of the bigotry that characterized the 2023 elections) why not name an airport in Igboland after Obafemi Awolowo? Why involve the Southern minority in this “trilateral pseudo nationalism”? We are a minority and it is critical that we preserve our history and culture for posterity through the landmarks and monuments in our region.
Let me also give you a quick history lesson to explain why the argument above is baseless. Lagos State was the capital of Nigeria between 1914 and 1991. According to FAAN, the Lagos airport terminal opened officially on March 15, 1979. The airport had been known simply as the Lagos International Airport but it was renamed after the late Nigerian Head of State, General Murtala Muhammed, who died in 1976. When the federal capital was moved to Abuja and the Abuja airport was opened in 2002, again according to FAAN, it was named after Nigeria’s first President, who just happened to be Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe. When the Lagos airport was named after a recently deceased Head of State, there is no way they could have guessed that in two decades the capital will move to Abuja. Also, it was just a coincidence that the first President is Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, there is no one else befitting they could have named it after. Can you see now that no careful thought went into the naming process? If you insist, then we can continue the happenstance in the homeland of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, and stop using the southern minority to continue an afterthought.
Why Ken Saro-Wiwa International Airport?
Policy Shapers has clarified over and again for those who might still be blinded by emotion that this is not in any way an attempt to belittle the significance of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. How can you hate the man whose party raised the motion for Independence? In Port Harcourt, there are several monuments and landmarks named after nationalists and leaders from other regions. Our main stadium is named after General Yakubu Gowon, and we even have a major road in GRA Port Harcourt named after General Sani Abacha!! Yes! The same Abacha!
Here are the three reasons why we believe Ken Saro-Wiwa will be a good fit for the Port Harcourt International Airport:
- To the Niger Delta, Ken Saro-Wiwa signifies Selfless Hope: Many decades before the global north began to throw around the term “climate change” and “environmental conservation”, Ken mobilized Ogoniland and the peoples of the Niger Delta to speak out against the degradation of their land and livelihood – at a time where freedom of speech came at a cost, and against an oil giant so powerful no one could speak to. It is only be-fitting that his bravery be immortalised this way, and I got the chance to reflect on Ken’s bravery in my final reflection paper in 2019 as a member of Harvard University’s first-ever Public Narrative Executive Education cohort.
- The Niger Delta is in dire need of positive role models: Unlike the Western region of Nigeria, where Chief Obafemi Awolowo is from, and Northern Nigeria where many stories account for role models to whom young people can aspire, positive role models are not uplifted as much here in the Niger Delta. Years of violence have created many “models” that should not be emulated and we believe the renaming of the Port Harcourt International Airport provides an opportunity to uplift a selfless role model for posterity to learn from.
- Ken-Saro Wiwa International Airport will be a reminder: A reminder to everyone flying into the Niger Delta that more than 40 years after, the environmental degradation of Ogoniland and other oil-producing communities in the Delta has not ended. It will be a reminder to the Federal Government to fulfil its promise to clean up the Niger Delta and restore the fishing and farming livelihood of community members who have been rendered poor while Nigeria feeds fat on the profits of crude oil sales. It will be a reminder to the world and the global community that indigenous people matter.
It is important to note here that although we are suggesting Ken Saro-Wiwa, we believe in democracy. Thus if the Rivers people after due consultation feel that there is another Rivers or South-South role model (male or female) that should be immortalised through the airport and have cogent reasons as itemized above, then we will all be happy to support and queue behind this leader. Some examples include Isaac Boro, King Jaja of Opobo, Melford Okilo, and Dr Obi Wali, to mention a few.
Mr President, we are watching
At Policy Shapers we believe that this issue exposes a policy gap in our governance system. The nomenclature of landmarks and monuments across the country should not be left to the discretion of Presidents, Governors, and Local Government Chairpersons. There is a need for President Tinubu to commission the design of a national policy to guide the nomenclature of landmarks and monuments in Nigeria. This should be in line with best practices from UNESCO and the naming process should include consultation with host communities and the consideration of cultural significance.
Unlike President Buhari who kept dangling the issue of exonerating Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight Ogoni chiefs like a carrot to a donkey and never did, I want to believe that President Tinubu will indeed show that he is a President of all Nigerians and not just the “majoracracy” like his predecessors. Mr President, this is an opportunity to demonstrate that you indeed commiserate with the Southern minority and are ready to truly unite Nigeria through justice and fairness. Mr President the ball is in your court, and we are watching.
Ebenezar Wikina is the Founder of Policy Shapers, a civic startup that empowers young people with knowledge, skills, and tools to engage with public policy. Through the #ReformIELTS campaign, Policy Shapers has mobilised over 82,000 people and influenced policy changes in up to 30 universities around the world exempting Anglo-Africans from English proficiency tests when they seek study opportunities abroad. The campaign seeks to deliver up to $90 million per annum in savings for the African continent.