POPE PEN’S LETTERS AND THE INCONVENIENCE OF TRUTH: AN OMNIBUS REVIEW OF NENGI JOSEF OWEI-ILAGHA’S ‘EPISTLES TO THE PRESIDENT’ AND ‘SERMONS FROM THE OXBOW LAKE’ – By Bernard Otonye Stephen

Nengi Josef Owei-Ilagha

NENGI JOSEF Owei-Ilagha a.k.a. Pope Pen is a well-known journalist, poet and public intellectual who has attracted both friendly and adversarial readership to his writings in print and electronic formats. Those who have read his works, especially the prose narratives, know that there is no subject matter he is shy to take on.

He has written critically and passionately about public and private issues, from time-honoured cultural practices of his native land of Nembe through the setbacks he has endured plying his pen-trade to the gaps in government pronouncements and practices. And, he has kept faith with his calling, churning out essays in such frequency that many have wondered what kicks this writer in the stomach.

Every writer is unique, and Nengi is unique in his own way. In the two collections of essays under review, as we pore over the pages, we cannot but be amazed by, first, his fertile imagination and second, his audacious interrogation of power. Generally, writers are aware of the perils of speaking the inconvenient truth to power. Books have been bought up from bookstands or gathered and burnt to keep them out of the reach of the reading public.

In some cases, writers have been put out of circulation behind bars or compelled to live in exile. In many ways, writing is a tough call, yet the author of these books has continued to brave the consequences in order to express his righteous indignation and to educate the public. The question is should writers, the so-called gadflies, not let sleeping dogs lie in peace? Well, for the good of society, Nengi’s Epistles To The President and Sermons From The Oxbow Lake suggest otherwise.

First, let us consider a thing or two about the idea of power which, in general terms, the two collections interrogate. In the discourse of power, while the tendency is to point out the shortcomings of leaders, it is instructive to note that the ultimate benefit of dissecting the fault lines of power is what society gains. In this regard, these essays offer important insights into productive governance.

Let’s begin by examining the kernel of the essays in Sermons From The Oxbow Lake because they are the most recent offering from this writer. As mentioned, the narratives interrogate power and the complex ramifications thereof. Going by the prefatory essay, namely, “For a Start,” the concerns addressed by Nengi coincide with the eight-year tenure of the Governor Henry Seriake Dickson’s restoration administration of Bayelsa State. Although the writer dissects the exercise of power by that government, the discourse of power reveals much more when we move from the specific to the general.

Like the proverbial swing door, power moves from one individual to another so that what one does in office might well be a copy from the past or a model for the future. Thus considered, the highs and lows of a government usually serve as points of reference, hence the necessity to capture such moments for posterity. This is why the collection is critical, against the backdrop of his stated purpose of writing: “to chip in a constructive word of advice about what it means to lay claim to true governance.”

As with most objective assessments, Nengi does not see only doom and gloom in the subject of his discourse. In the timeline of the narratives, while the early essays reflect the writer’s dissatisfaction with aspects of the administration, the later pieces manifest a change in focus in highlighting the achievements of Governor Dickson. Beginning with the latter, we have fine examples in essays like “Dickson and the Art of Delivery” which applauds the governor’s efforts at introducing a culture of transparency in the civil service, especially in the arrest and prosecution of “accounts staff at the state treasury for fraud” (p.86).

“Our New Look Creek Haven” which—in part—dwells on the state-of-art new Government House building; and “First Landing on Our Runway” with its focus on the Bayelsa Airport, a project Nengi assures the erstwhile Governor “is one major milestone of your government that no one can deny” (126). In his style of presentation, even in his most acerbic criticism, words of commendation creep in at the corners. So, it is not unusual to witness our author pat the individual he criticizes on the back for a good deed as he does in many of the essays in the collection.

Now, let us turn to the shortcomings in governance Nengi interrogates. Of the gamut of issues raised in the book, two stand out by my assessment. These are the constitutional question of the status of Bayelsa as an eight-local government state as well as the problem of abandoned projects and poor maintenance culture. The hallmark of a good writer is the ability to draw attention to the good and bad in society, and this is precisely what the author has done. On the question of Bayelsa’s local government dilemma, Nengi wonders why government officials of the state have not prioritize the matter. Witness his argument:

“One of the grouses I hold against every member of the House of Representatives [recall that Governor Dickson used to be a federal law maker] and every Senator who has emerged from Bayelsa in the last thirteen years is their long-standing oversight on this matter. I would have expected that, by now, Bayelsa should have had two more local government areas to complete ten in order to fulfil the stipulations of our Constitution.” (p.23)

The other grouse our author has concerns the twin problems of abandoned projects exemplified by the yet-to-be-completed Tower Hotels & International Conference Centre as well as Glory Drive and, of course, the non-maintenance of the fifty-four feeder roads in Yenagoa metropolis constructed by the Sylva government. To Nengi, such discontinuities did not speak well of a government hinged on the catch-phrase of restoration.

In Epistles To The President, majority of the essays focus on the task of leadership thrust upon the shoulders of former President Goodluck Jonathan. Generally, the letters to the President are advisory in tone and content. The aim, we can tell, is to encourage the first minority man to become Nigeria’s President to succeed and leave behind a solid legacy. Therefore, the central idea which runs through the essays is the huge expectations of the people of the Niger Delta in particular and Nigerians in general regarding the Jonathan presidency.

And so, in essay after essay, the writer calls on the President to be firm in addressing the myriad problems bedevilling the country. The problems which come up for discussion include: religious fanaticism, political thuggery, the impact of crude-oil exploration and the attendant environmental impact in the Niger Delta, corruption in government interventionist agencies like the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, the re-engineering of the federal government amnesty programme for ex-agitators to achieve better results, the issue of fuel subsidy, and the debates on same-sex marriages.

In fact, it is fair to say that Nengi’s humour and intellectual depth are on full display in some of the essays which deal with the above subject-matters. To cite an example, here is the writer’s plea: “Do not look at faces, Your Excellency. Do something drastic about the NDDC. History will speak of you if you stand on the side of the people and go ahead to do that which ought to be done. Sanitize the NDDC. You know how dirty that stable is. Do not tarry. Clean up the Commission and let it be worthy of its assignment. Let it make a difference in the very best sense of the expression.”

Well, his successor President Buhari seems to have picked up the gauntlet. Let me quickly add too that the essay “When Adam Weds Adam” is worth reading over and again, especially by those who have turned their backs on the norm of heterosexual desire.

We started this review by stressing that there is a thin line that separates the specific and the general. It is in this regard that we have looked at the essays in the collection as having implications beyond the Restoration administration. The same is true of President Jonathan’s government. Governance is a continuum. The gaps observed in one administration should be bridged by another. This is the significance of these essays.

Besides, the book also offers interesting narratives on the lives and times of people like Kay Williamson, “the first white citizen of Bayelsa who took up residence in Kaiama” and Bayelsa-born first generation Nigerian poet, Gabriel Okara, respectively. There are fascinating nuggets which add to our knowledge of the duo of blessed memory.

Beyond that, the historicity of the essays is not lost on the reader. Nengi’s acute sense of record keeping in highlighting the dates of events as well as key players provides a treasure trove for those interested in the general history of Bayelsa and Nigeria. These books would be important additions to the shelves of institutional, public and private libraries.

Bernard Otonye Stephen, is with the Department of English & Literary Studies, Niger Delta University, Wilberforce Island, Amasoma, Bayelsa State.

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