So much furore has attended the naming of Professor Gambari as chairman-designate of the steering committee of the Nigeria Delta Summit. Indeed the former External Affairs Minister and one time Ambassador/Premananet Representative to the United Nations would never have known that there was so much animus, antipathy and antagonism towards him from certain parts of the country, if he had not accepted to do the job offered him by President Umaru Musa Yar'adua.
Let's consider some prominent voices that have risen against Gambari's choice and why.
Professor Kimse Okoko, President Ijaw National Congress said Gambari was not acceptable because he had shown clear signs of bias against the region. "We will prefer a neutral person of international repute to chair the summit. We do not believe Prof Gambari is well kitted for the job".
Prominent Isoko leader, Chief James Otobor: "It is politically silly and belittling of the leader of the Niger Delta to say that Ibrahim Gambari should preside over the proposed summit which in the first instance is unnecessary, irrelevant and uncalled for."
What of irrepressible social activist and virologist, Professor Tamunoemi David-West who incidentally was Gambari's cabinet mate in the Buhari regime from early 1984 to August 1985, "It's an insult for him to talk on Nigeria Delta issue...He was with me in the Buhari/Idiagbon government so I knew him very well. He is no doubt a qualified academic but the least qualified to be at the Niger Delta Summit, to chair or coordinate it. He is my personal friend and he knows, but the issue we have at hand is bigger than Gambari."
John Iyene Owubokiri, Cordinator Niger Delta Initiative for Non-Violent change: "The people of the Niger Delta have no confidence that Ibrahim Gambari, a beneficiary of the oppressive abitraryness of the majority tribes over the peoples of the Niger Delta can successfully moderate a summit to the satisfaction of principal stakeholders in the region."
Prof Benedict Ijomah: "Prof Gambari is an illiterate on matters concerning the Niger Delta. He is not schooled in the fauna and flora of the Nigeria Delta ecology, it is not something he understands so he cannot chair a meeting on the region."
Daily Sun columnist, Okey Ndibe, describes Gambari's choice as "cynical", adding about the diplomat: "Whatever his gifts, he is a democratably poor choice to lead any summit on the Nigeria Delta. His apologia for the Sani Abacha regime after the dictator hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni activists ought to disqualify him."
True, many of Gambari's antagonist have hinged their resentment on the fact that as Permanent Representative to the UN when Saro-Wiwa and others were hanged in 1995, he described the dead as "common criminals", justifying their execution. By this, they submit that Ibrahim Gambari is a Niger Delta hater and military apologist. That conclusion is debatable, but it may be an argument for another day.
The thruist of this piece is the dimension added to the controversy last weekend by notable Niger Delta activist, Comrade Joseph Evah. When I read his interview published by SATURDAY SUN, I had a good laugh. Yoruba people say nagative things often comes with some form of hilarity, and this is what I found in Evah's words as follows. "Jonathan (Vice President) cannot be talking of Gambari who insulted Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ledum Mitee as common criminals. For such a man to chair the committee is absurd. I thank God that all Niger Delta leaders have told him they don't want any summit and they don't want Gambari. If they hold the summit in places like Port Harcourt or any other Niger Delta state, and Gambari enters the hall as chairman, some of us will slap his face regardless of the presence of soldiers. Gambari cannot hold a summit in that name of the Niger Delta. Even if I have the opportunity of meeting Gambari, I will slap his face."
Are you letting out a guffaw? Yes, isn't this side (unidentifiable word), despite the very serious nature of the issue at hand? Evah almost broke my rib as I read the interview. Imagine (unidentifiable word) Evah, with his muscular Niger Delta arms giving an aging Prof Gambari a slap? The man will not only see stars, he will see an immeasurable company of angels. And all that at the venue of the summit that will attract international attention. What poor publicity for Nigeria and the Arewa people whose son have been so assaulted in the process of a national assignment, how will they feel? Won't we have another immediate strife on our hands?
Now, this question, is Prof Gambari qualified to chair the steering summit of the committee? Eminently so. The political scientist has made name as an academic, administrator, diplomat and peacemaker. But must he chair the summit in view od tje dust that has been raised since his nomination by the federal government? The answer is no. It is not do or die. The Yoruba have a saying, "You are not welcome in a town and you raise a song, who will chorus it for you?
If Niger Deltans, old and young say they do not want Gambari chairman of the committee, is it by force that he must still preside?
The decent and honourable thing was for the man to have declined serving immediately he saw the frenzy and hullabaloo generated by his nomination.
Another lesson that we should learn from this development is the veracity of the saying, "Old men have long shadows". About 13 years ago, Gambari felt he was doing his representative as Permanent Representative to the UN when he defended the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and others by the Abacha regime, now the chicken has come home to roost.
Must he call Ogoni leaders "common criminals" as he is quoted to have said? "When you are sent on a slave errand, do it as a freeborn" is another Yoruba saying.
Gambari enslaved himself to please his paymasters. Now, 13 years after, the shackles are still tied around his neck, threatening to asphyxiate him. What an eternal lesson for fawning bootlicking grovellers to learn. Old sins indeed have long shadows.
We have heard of slaps that hit the national limelight in the country. In the second republic, one governor of the South-South a dirty but resounding slap, and the much younger deputy rolled his sleeves, folded his trousers and proceeded to give his boss such good biding that it took security detail of the governor to separate the combates.
We saw same in both the last Senate and House of Representatives, leading to the suspension of belligerent lawmakers. If Prof Gambari eventually chairs the Niger Delta Summit against good advise, and Comrade Evah carries out his threat, it will indeed be a slap that will ricochet not only nationally but internationally.
Note: This article was first published on July 12, 2008 in the Saturday SUN Newspaper