The Problem With Sylva

In spite of desperate attempts to mop up copies in the market as fast as possible, Epistle To Maduabebe is the book in the news. In this sixth chapter, Nengi Josef Ilagha, militant poet, journalist and broadcaster, gives an account of a rare encounter with mindless authority, and comes to grips with what may well be the problem at the heart of the Bayelsa State Government under Chief Timipre Sylva-Sam.

Narrated from a first-hand viewpoint to former Minister for Petroleum, Dr Edmund Maduabebe Daukoru, whose tenure as paramount ruler of Nembe has come under justifiable threat, this chapter offers an exceptional insight into the mind of government in one of the oil-rich states of Nigeria’s beleaguered Niger Delta. 

The Problem With Sylva 

A bad habit never goes away by itself.

It is always an undo-it-yourself project. 

– Abigail Van Buren 

MAY I BRING to your notice that your nephew, our governor, hosted me to a private chat on the evening of Monday May 4, 2009, in his exquisite official residence inside Creek Haven. It was the second time he was meeting face to face with this particular executive in charge of the print arm of the state media, our first meeting being on January 1, 2009. Earlier in the day, the governor had sent his elder brother, Mister Johnbull Anagha, to fish me out from the oxbow lake. As may be expected, management and staff of the state newspaper corporation were excited that the governor had deigned to invite their General Manager, after all, and I could not help but share their optimism that something good was coming, at long last, to those who wait.

After three hours of waiting to see him, the governor finally emerged from his bedroom, and I was happy to behold my gangling friend from long ago. I was in an expectant mood alright, but I couldn’t miss the curious mixture of spite, indifference and anger on his face when he walked into the waiting room where visitors other than my humble self were seated. He avoided me completely. I mean, he shook hands all around the room, and pretended that I didn’t exist. I wondered if Johnbull had made a mistake, inviting me here.

But it soon became clear that the governor wanted to get rid of me quickly and ease his mind as best he could. So he called for me to enter a sacred chamber where I sat with him and Johnbull around a table, all three of us forming a tense triangle. A bottle of red wine and three glasses were brought in on a tray, and the governor made a gesture for me to join him as he poured out the wine and gulped quick draughts of it. It was clear to me that he didn’t really mean to offer me a sip, and I did well to control my thirst.

It didn’t take long for him to come out in the open. He was cross with the last epistle I had directed at his Commissioner for Finance, who happens to be his junior namesake. The governor accused me pointedly of lampooning him in an underhand way, and did his best to make me feel bad. On my part, I did my utmost to make him understand that I had no business being his enemy. I let him know that I was in the bad books of his predecessor who had taken the position that I did not follow him to the Presidency because I cared more for the political fortunes of a man who, in times past, qualified to be called my best friend.

Governor Timipre Sylva was so impatient with me that he didn’t quite know when he came close to emptying the bottle of wine. In the end, after a great deal of self control, he put his cards on the table. He told me bluntly how much he loved his uncle, namely you. He said I was making a public caricature out of a man whom he had come to consider as his mentor in all things. But how could I let him know that I was merely responding to political developments in Nembe Kingdom in my rightful capacity as a blue-blooded prince from the Amain-Kien-Alagoa-Koki group of war-canoe houses?

How could I let Sylva know that, in matters of kingship at Okpoama, his birth place, I had never ventured so far but that I remain a principal stakeholder in the way and manner the Mingi stool is taken? How do I let him understand that it is my duty to question what credentials the incumbent parades, and what agenda he brings to the ancient office? As far as the governor was concerned, however, I should have kept silent like every other Nembe man, even in the face of tyranny, simply because his uncle was the tyrant in question.

I still beg to disagree.

We live in a democratic world. Sylva himself came into office through an electoral process that boasts of being democratic, even as I write this, in spite of all its hiccups. Like every self-respecting son of the Kingdom, I was overjoyed to witness the day my fellow Nembe man was sworn-in to be at the helm of affairs in Bayelsa. The noble antecedents of Alfred Diete-Spiff and Melford Obiene Okilo in the old Rivers State, to say nothing of Walter Aye Feghabo in Ebonyi and Delta States, were abiding reminders that any governor of Nembe stock would live up to his billing and present nothing short of a sterling performance in office, especially given the very virgin opportunities at the disposal of the young state.

Alas, Sylva’s government cultivated a ready habit of attracting unnecessary opprobrium in the mind of the average critic on Bayelsa affairs. This is what injures my pride as a Nembe man. I will not stand back and watch my fellow fisherman muddy the waters for his peers, and it remains immaterial whether or not that fisherman is my best friend. On the contrary, the least I can do is to prod my friend to see reason from a viewpoint wider than his lenses may allow. To cut a long story short, I left the governor that night with a limp in my right leg, taking with me a few critical remarks he allowed to sink into my consciousness.

In the first place, he let me know that I may be good at expressing myself but that he was better, and that he was merely constrained by his exalted office from giving a blow by blow reply to the points I had raised in my epistles so far. What purpose would that serve, he wondered. Why should he bandy words with me in public? He was governor of a key oil-producing state in Africa’s most populous nation, and I was a mere journalist who was yet to win any worldwide attention with my headlines, so whose reputation would be at stake? I couldn’t be more scandalized at the drift of his thinking.

Yet he went on to emphasize that he had some very private scoops on me that would cause an audience to shiver if he were to make them public. I couldn’t help but wonder what could be more private and explicit than my revolutionary theory that Adam’s semen is what Jesus Christ actually meant by the “water of life,” because every one of us gains life through the injection of that drop of water into the ovaries of Eve? Is it possible, therefore, that the Son of God left mankind with a veiled command to drink of this selfsame water of life in the face of the most daring diseases that have faced humanity since creation, especially HIV-AIDS?

Is life sustainable upon the face of the earth beyond the present span, if Adam and Eve were to summon the courage to partake of the seeds of Pentecost? What could be the deepest significance of The Last Supper? What did Jesus really mean by offering bread and wine, representing flesh and blood, and calling upon mankind to remember him by taking both in? Did God mean this secret to remain hidden until the Messiah himself returned to interprete the significance of the temple veil that was torn in two at his death upon the cross, and to give the last revelation as an indisputable indicator that the final solution to the menace of the world’s most enigmatic and worrisome diseases reside with the emissary of the Creator? It is written, isn’t it, that Jehovah will never share his glory with anyone?

How provocative can a governor get? How blind can a friend be who cannot read between the lines offered by a drop of Pentecost upon the same spot in the instep of Adonai where a six-inch nail was driven in by vicious Roman soldiers? How much more intimate can a friend be who reveals of himself so openly to his best friend first, that the larger world may behold and see that Jesus Christ has come after all, like a tell-tale thief in the night? Why is it that Judas Iscariot, in spite of the many inches he had gained on his height on account of his dangling suicide on the branch of a fig tree, why is it that this fellow has not changed? How many more pieces of silver does Sylva require to betray his Master with a fresh kiss? 

But Chief Timipre Marlin Sylva-Sam was not done yet. Anagha was still hard of hearing. He looked at me pointedly over the rims of his glasses and referred me to the National Geographic Channel on the satellite clouds of space. He takes great delight, he said, in watching the lifestyle of lower animals. According to him, of all creatures great and small, he remains fascinated by the habits of the serpent. And so saying, Sylva sat forward on his chair, hung his right hand in the air, straightened all five fingers into a focused bunch, and waved them in my face the way a cobra would sway its head before lunging forward for the killing strike. He remains taken by the hunting tactics of the vilest of creatures, that creepy thing flicking a double tongue, about which the Son of Man himself expressly demonstrated that every discerning piece of Adam should bring underfoot.

In short, that night, Sylva claimed his place as the best student understudying Maduabebe. Our governor revealed that he takes his lessons from the primordial reptile, and does not feel the faintest squirm of conscience about his tutelage, about his serpentine apprenticeship, does not feel obliged to apologize to God who created him with limbs solid enough to stand upright. And that gives me good cause to recall the story making the rounds in beer parlours and bus stop stands and salons and the market place that the governor and his acolytes have since fortified their hold on power by a demonic submission to what is known in Nembe as Adagba Kumu, literally meaning “the python talisman,” with the full endorsement of Maduabebe. It is a story worth investigating.

Frankly, I could have opened up to him at that point and told him a few more home truths. I was in a good frame of mind to tell him that a government without hecklers is a failed government. Allow me to be your official heckler, your excellency. I couldn’t help but notice that everyone around you believes that you are always right in every decision you take. Allow me, sir, to disagree. I do accept that you are intelligent, well-traveled, phonetically correct and blessed with a nice boyish smile. But governance is not all about pretty smiles and trips abroad and linguistic competence.  Governance is about sitting your butt upon the gubernatorial seat, so to speak, and conducting the affairs of state with a fatherly frown behind which lies great goodwill and generosity of heart for one and all. Governance is not about duplicity. Governance is not about flicking a forked, double tongue at yahoo dot com…

But it was getting late, well past midnight, and I needed to work on the next epistle so I saved my words forthwith. Even so, it remains a great pity that, even as His Excellency gathers his followers, day after day, to conduct Christian worship sessions in the deep hold of Creek Haven, his soul remains obliging to none other than Seiton. It is a pity that, even as his lips call upon the name of God in the hallowed chambers of the King of Glory Chapel, his heart bows in reverence to the so-called gods of the earth, sliding about in the undergrowth of life, without limb, without conscience.

I rest my case in the fervent belief that Jehovah will not be mocked. In the fullness of time, God will show Himself strong on behalf of the chosen parcel of land. That time may well have come. Judgment Day may well have arrived our doorsteps. The time for reckoning may well be here and now. I have a sneaky feeling that Jesus Christ has jolly well caught the world napping.

It is possible, your majesty, that after this painstaking account of my last but one encounter with Governor Sylva, you may be expecting another bout of questions. I shall not disappoint you. But let me give you a short respite. Let me entertain you with a rhymeless limerick that has found its way to this page, held stiffly between God’s sacred thumb and forefinger. It posits as follows:


THE LAST thief of silences has come

Like a poem standing on one leg

At the critical passage into Okigbo’s labyrinth

Looking left, looking right & looking left again

Before trotting up to the last full-stop. 

How do you like that? Let us hurry on down to the last full stop. By and by, the metaphor of the serpent can never be more befitting than for a man who goes by the name of Maduabebe. It bears repeating that, by their nature, serpents have double tongues, forked at an open crossroad that leads into the crypt of duplicity. By their fruits, we shall know them. By their names, we shall know them. By their greed, we shall know them.

            The fruit of your labour, your majesty, is greed. You sow greed on a wild farm. You reap greed on a large scale. You sell greed at a high price. That is what you do. You are greedy to a fault. Like the royal python and his bad habits, you have a tendency to seize all and squat upon your loot so that no cat in the neighbourhood would dare you.

            Well, well, well.

Cat-eye Christ has come to shine a new torch into your soul.            Jesus Christ has come to crush the knuckle-head of greed underfoot. The long sword has come to cut off all double tongues, and build a single narrow path that leads to righteousness and therefore to truth. How righteous are you? How pious can you get on Sundays? How much truth do you hold in your wicked heart? Please answer the following XII questions more truthfully than you attempted to do the last time. 

I.          Why did Methuselah live up to 969 years upon the face of the earth, literally one generation short of ten centuries, while the rest of us living in modern times are grateful if we make the better half of one century?

II.        When do you hope to clear the forest around the cemetery in Nembe, cultivate fresh grass and erect tombstones to commemorate the noble efforts of Pikiri Pussy and other Edenites who died in the aftermath of the Nembe-British War of 1895, even if as a counterpoint to the White Man’s Graveyard at Twon-Brass? 

III.       When do you expect to begin the construction of the first skyscraper in your domain, such as you have been privileged to climb abroad over the years? 

IV.       What is your plan to ban the construction of toilets at the waterfront in all fishing ports, villages and towns in Nembe Kingdom, and to replace them with a sophisticated conduit sewage system such as obtains overseas? 

V.        Has it ever crossed your mind to build a Mingi Estate of low cost houses in Nembe, and give them out to citizens of the small brave city-state, while undertaking to reconstruct and refurbish all damaged buildings in the chosen kingdom? 

VI.       What exactly did you say to a certain piece of Eve called Inifielate Laderi, a new female songbird of Eden stock? Did you or did you not importune her with an inappropriate demand for sex, in spite of her being a friend to the queens, as a precondition for extending a helping cheque, if not some hot cash, towards the formal launch of her first two musical albums? 

VII.     What plans do you have to build a standard shopping mall in Nembe in order to boost commercial activity amongst our people? 

VIII.    When will the first footbridge be constructed on Nembe soil, to say nothing of the first dual carriage-way? 

IX.       What do you make of the reporter’s mockery in the recent report on CNN, featuring Chief Timipre Sylva-Sam speaking of breakfast with the governor and the Star of David? 

X.        In your opinion, why was it necessary for the Bayelsa State government to host President Umar Musa Yar’Adua for 48 hours on a fabulous budget of N456 million? How much of the money was returned to the coffers of the state when the visit was cancelled? 

XI.       What is your take on George Fente’s overnight conversion from Sylva’s former Political Adviser to construction engineer and prospective proprietor of a private radio station in Glory Land? Could he be following in the questionable footsteps of Dr Azibapu Eruani, Commissioner for Health? 

XII.     How did Chief Asara A. Asara, Information Commissioner, develop Parkinson’s Syndrome, and why did he deserve eight million naira to enable him proceed to India for treatment when he has been sitting on funds for the state newspaper corporation since he came into office? Is it true that the said Asara Asara cannot be removed from office for as long as Sylva remains governor of Bayelsa State?

Posted By “Tari Howells”