Africa’s Garden of Eden: Rich Soil and Poor People
Rev. Jesse Jackson says that despite a reputation for being drenched in oil-based wealth, Nigeria has an unacceptably high rate of poverty.
“People starving on an island of poverty amidst an ocean of prosperity is not inevitable. It’s not natural. It’s not the will of God. It is a sin, in this Garden of Eden, for such inequality and poverty to exist alongside of such riches and oil resources.”
Jackson visited Bayelsa State to keynote the annual Isaac Boro event in the country’s oil rich but impoverished Niger Delta region, invited by His Excellency, Hon. Henry Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The theme of “Oil, Peace and Sustainability” captured the essence of Nigeria challenges in the 21st century.
He said Nigeria can do better, “Nigeria is Africa’s “Garden of Eden” with fertile soil and even richer oil beneath the soil, intelligent and industrious people, and enormous economic potential.”
Dream big, Africa
Urging Nigerians to dream big, Jackson concluded his keynote address saying, “Dream, of a ONE Nigeria…Dream, of an environment not polluted by gas flames, of oil refineries directed by and operated by Nigerians, for the Nigerian people. Dream, of the day when we can wipe out malnutrition. Dream, of the day when we have clean, affordable drinkable water for our children.
Africa makes up one eighth of the world’s population, one quarter of them are Nigerian," with a population of over 160 million. Nigeria is Africa’s second largest economy behind South Africa (which it will soon overtake), and one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
The IMF reports seven of the world’s fastest growing economies are in Africa: Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and others will lead the charge; and analysts predict that the African continent as a whole will soon surpass China’s economy.
But a World Bank report laments "poverty reduction and job creation have not kept pace with population growth.” Over 50%, or nearly 70 million, of Nigeria’s youth face unemployment.
While oil has enriched many nations, some say it has become “Nigeria’s curse.” Shell Oil and other multi-nationals continue to control Nigeria’s oil resources. Corruption and bribery stain the industry and the distribution of its billions of dollars of revenue. Oil spills, gas flaring, leaking pipes and other neglectful practices is causing severe environmental devastation.
Experts predict that huge swaths of land in the Niger Delta will be submerged due the exacerbated global warming caused by the oil barons.
The massive potholes and crevices on the Niger Delta roads leading out of Port Harcourt airport, many of which remain unpaved, symbolize the dismal infrastructure development.
Peace in the Garden of Eden
Poverty has spurred violence and extremist terrorism. A state of emergency was declared in three northern Nigerian states by President Goodluck Jonathan, and Nigeria’s military forces launched a massive assault on Boku Haram, an Islamic extremist group conducting terrorist attacks in northern Nigeria and seeking secession from the federal government.
Rev. Jackson emphasized, “The conflict in Nigeria is not so much religious, regional or tribal, but driven by greed. Too few have too much, and too many have too little.”
Jackson passionately calls for all parties to engage in negotiation, not violent confrontation; to seek peaceful, non-violent resolution, not just temporary military outcomes, to the deep seeded conflicts.
Indeed, this week President Jonathan – with whom Jackson attended church service and held a private dialogue - announced the release of numerous prisoners captured in the recent violence, including all of the women, as a “peace gesture.”
“There must be no war in the Garden….God has given Nigeria these gifts, now we must give God a gift. PEACE. But the key to peace is the presence of JUSTICE.”
“There is a new story emerging out of Africa -- a story of growth, progress, potential, and profitability,” reports Ernst & Young. "Africa, Nigeria, are too central, too critical to the global politics and economics to be ignored or dismissed," Rev Jackson emphasized.
“Nigeria won its freedom in 1960. It’s an evolving democracy, moving beyond one man rule and dictatorships. But Nigeria confronts the common dilemma: “They are free, but not equal – they have not achieved economic justice. That’s the unfinished business of Nigeria, indeed, of all of Africa.”
Governor Dickson of Bayelsa State said, "We need investment and support from the Diaspora to build up the Niger Delta. There is great opportunity for business development in our region and nation." The Governor bestows honorary Nigerian citizenship upon Rev. Jackson and gives him a Nigerian name, “Izontariowei,” meaning “Love for the Ijaw People.”
Recent Successes in Africa
The visit to Nigeria is Jackson’s latest foray into the struggles of today’s Africa.
Gambia: Last September, meeting with Gambia President Jammeh in Banjul, successfully appealing to him to indefinitely stay the planned executions of 37 death row prisoners, and freeing from prison two Gambian-US citizens.
South Africa: Receiving from the South Africa government the Companions of O.R. Tambo Award – the highest honor a non-citizen of the country can receive – for his historic role in helping to bring down apartheid.
Kenya: Attending Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta’s inauguration in April, and bringing together Kenyatta and his defeated opponent, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, urging a peaceful transition and reconciliation to avoid the violence that marred the 2007 elections.
Zimbabwe: In early May, meeting President Robert Mugabe and urging the withdrawal of economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the West.
Jackson is thus extending his resume that included previous negotiations with President Assad in Syria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Milosevic in Yugoslavia, Fidel Castro in Cuba, Charles Taylor in Liberia to win the release Americans and other global citizens held captive in those countries.
Many pundits and foreign policy “experts” have understated and underestimated Jackson’s success as a skilled negotiator and people's diplomat. Some dismiss his foreign policy acumen as “luck,” or they deride him for “meddling” in U.S. foreign policy.
Jackson no stranger to Africa
In fact, Jackson’s connections with Nigeria and African has been cemented through a six decade-long track record of direct advocacy, dating to 1971 when he visited Lagos, Nigeria for the African American Institute with Leon Sullivan). Serving as an “alternative” people’s voice, Jackson traveled to South Africa and seven frontline states, bringing him shoulder to shoulder with communities and leaders in the Congo, Angola, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Mozambique, Botswana and Zambia. When the U.S., Britain, and the Western powers buttressed the apartheid regime, Jackson stating simply, “I believe in human rights for all human beings. Human rights must be measured by one yardstick.”
As President Clinton’s Special Envoy for the Promotion of Democracy in Africa in 1997, Jackson engaged in direct peace and humanitarian missions throughout the continent. He met Mandela coming out of jail in Cape Town, and was a part of the official U.S. delegation to Mandela’s inauguration 1994, wherein Mandela singled out Jackson by name as helping to bring down apartheid.
Today that Jackson continues to leverage the bonds and trust he has forged through the decades, to marshal meetings and negotiations with today’s African presidents and leaders.
But perhaps more importantly is the recognition and respect Rev. Jackson receives from Africa's "everyday people" – waiters and waitresses, street vendors, staff at U.S. embassies, airline employees and airport security, excitedly rush him to take photos.
"Rev Jackson, thank you for all you do," is a common refrain around the world.
People know and remember him, what he has done for their people and countries, and they show their love.
Next week Rev. Jackson will return to Nigeria for a series of business meetings and session with President Jonathan, set to coincide with Democracy Day celebrations as Nigeria celebrates fifty years of independence.
As the iconic human rights advocate will say, “God is not through with me yet.” There is more work to be done.