A mess in the South

  • 14/01/1996

THE Nigerian government's going ahead with the prosecution (read persecution) of 19 more of Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa's comrades has kept the world's focus sharply glued to the African nightmare. Everything has failed in dissuading the tyrannic regime of General Sani Abacha from mowing down the environmental rights of the indigenous communities. Nelson Mandela pleaded with the Northern governments to push through an oil sanction. But the major powers simply refused to oblige; the stakes were too high. The US blankly refused. John Major kept his anger restricted to persuading the oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell (which has been widely held responsible for the killing of Ken and his eight comrades) to withdraw its Nigerian operations. But Shell has decided to go right ahead with its gas project there.

Editorials and commentaries from the world over showed a moral dilemma: nobody knew what was the best possible course of action. The international environmental pressure groups exposed themselves in launching a campaign against Shell but refraining from castigating their own governments for not having acted in time.

But the largest dilemma that has surfaced is in the South. Just as the Northern governments remained distanced from Nigerian developments while Ken and his men were undergoing a farcical trial, we too had remained mute. Why?

At least one editorial in a Western newspaper has said that Africa needs to look after itself and the West should look before it leaps into another African imbroglio. There is a ring of truth in this. And that probably explains why we remained mute spectators - the dirty track record of our own governments in natural resource management and ensuring the rights of the indigenous people.

We cannot forget that today globalisation is the key word. And that is frighteningly true about opinion making. Our governments cannot now ignore the global power of opinion making: they have themselves sometimes benefitted through that in the numerous global conventions on environment, where they had involved international opinion in pushing through their own agenda, even forcing certain issues open in the face of Northern resistance.

It is this we have to contend with now. Already, world opinion has been turning on the issue of governance. The message from the editorial mentioned above is that Southern governments must clean their own acts first before pleading for international opinion to help restore human and environmental rights within their own countries.

It is a tricky situation: if global opinion deprioritises Nigeria and Ken is hanged, we lambast it. But if Amnesty charges us with violations in Kashmir, we call it intervention. Sooner or later, therefore, there will come a time when the West we are looking up to for toppling our bad regimes, will catch us by the collar and tell us to democratise our set ups, to ensure good governance. Let us not look far. In the wake of Ken's hanging, that is what the CHOGM told Nigeria: we give you two years to come back to democratic institutions.

The other point is that while Southern nations are seen to bow down to Western opinion, they are unwilling to listen to their own people. Clearly, it has to do with powers... the West, which once manipulated decisionmaking with aid, is today using its powers over the globalisation of trade to do this.

Take Brazil: the Yanomami and other tribals are fighting their last ditch battle for retaining their reservations. Neighbouring Venezuela is seeing what has been called the Third Gold Rush in the Guiana mountains which reportedly has US $90 billion worth of gold. Who do we blame? It is one thing to say that international mining interests are lobbying for open access to the resources of the indigenous communities. But the fact remains that it is the Brazilian and Venezuelan governments who are actively pushing through the changes to make these possible, pawning away the sovereign rights of their indigenous communities.

And why blame multinationals alone? There is no dearth of instances of our own governments refusing to heed the voices of our people. The Indian bureaucracy is constantly pushing the line of keeping the people out of forests. This has caused untold miseries to millions, ruining livelihoods and making self-sustaining communities into economic burdens. The demand for people's rights to their resources is reaching the skies. It is more than clear that this can be done only by accepting the core principle of people-based resources management. But our government is not listening. Just as Abacha did not listen in Nigeria.

And in that sense, seen from a philosophical point of view, Nigeria is an extreme manifestation - but also the logical extension - of how far a Southern regime can go to deny the rights of a minority community. A Ken, thus, is possible anywhere in the South. It is infinitely better if our decisionmakers started listening to the people in etching out methods of democratic governance today, than be forced tomorrow by the West to do so.

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