The Sun Literary Review caught up with Daniel Markson, the Bayelsa State Commissioner for Information and Orientation, after the burial of Pa Gabriel Okara in his hometown, Bumoundi, on his thoughts on the late iconic writer, how the vacuum created by his demise would be filled in the state, as well as the government’s focus on creativity and education as the new oil in Bayelsa. Markson hinted that the state government had already embarked on producing “intellectual militants” to change the disturbing narrative.
Gabriel Okara has just been buried in Bumoundi. Orations have hailed his contributions to humanity. Personally, what impact did he have on you as a scribbler, and, by extension, the people of Bayelsa? What informed the state burial given to him?
Pa Gabriel Okara may mean several things to different people, but, for us, in Bayelsa State, he represented the finest of a statesman, a role model, one who really epitomised the ideal of the Ijaw man. For us, as Bayelsans, we are very proud to have someone like him blaze the trail, not just for us, but for the entire world as it were. You can tell from the turnout of people from across the world. It is interesting to know that, through a man’s writings, he is able to attract the world to his doorstep. That’s how powerful writing can be. For those of us who are younger people, especially those of us who have taken to this profession, there is so much it gives and pride.
His trajectory is similar to mine in a way, because he was one-time commissioner for information in old Rivers State. Before that, he was also in broadcasting. He was a writer of very renowned repute. In a way, too, my trajectory is almost similar, drawing a lot of inspiration from Gabriel Okara. But, personally, let me tell you what is most attractive about him: that man can live life so simply, yet command global attention; that a man can be apolitical, yet command the rest of everyone, including the politicians; that a man can be as modest and approachable and simple, yet can be so exalted, even in death. That, for me, is a very deep moral lesson.
There are many things we spend so much time pursuing; if only we can take a look at the simplicity of the life of Pa Gabriel Okara, life would be a lot easier. Little wonder, he lived longer than most people: 100 years plus. He offers us a whole of hope, particularly to the youths of Niger Delta.
On the state burial given to him, though not a politician, he took the name of Bayelsa across the globe. There is no amount of money you spend on public relations that can give you that kind of global acclaim. For Bayelsa, we owe him, because he has done the finest job to project Bayelsa, our people, our culture. You, for instance, coming, from Lagos, to Bumoundi, with the famous River Nun in front of you, it is quite compelling. A man is a product of his environment. For me, Gabriel Okara really projected his environment through his works. So you can say, confidently, he was a man at home with his culture and a man at home with his people. He was never shy of projecting his culture and environment. You would never imagine that that kind of literary man came from Bumoundi. It is humbling. You don’t have to live in Buckingham Palace for you to write poems that Gabriel Okara wrote or get exalted as he was exalted.
So Bayelsa State Government left nothing to chance to ensure that we gave him the befitting burial he deserved. For us, he was an icon, a statesman. He would continue to be a role model. That’s why you heard His Excellency, Governor Seriake Dickson, donating a princely sum of 25 million naira towards his Foundation. I believe, also, that it is a clear testimony that Bayelsa State will want to imortalise his name forever, because we need to keep telling the story of Pa Gabriel Okara and what he means as proud people, not just Bayelsa State, but for the Ijaw nation.
Through Okara’s fidelity to his culture, he was able to get to the zenith of life achievement. We have witnessed the display of exotic culture since arrival in Bayela State: traditional dancers, singers, creative writers and rich arts. Do you see prospect in turning the abundant arts and culture in Bayelsa State to another money making oil?
I have always believed, and it is my conviction, that society develops largely as a result of human resources, not natural resources. Look at Gabriel Okara –one single human being – he was able to draw the attention of the globe to Bayelsa, to even his remote hometown, Bumoundi. That’s the power of ideas. Ideas rule the world. What this is telling us, like our government has done in the last seven and half years, is calling the attention of our people to begin to diversify and move our attention from oil to other alternative sources of revenue; and our biggest investment as government, till date, is our investment in education.
What we believe strongly is that, from what has happened, and from the day we have celebrated his burial, particularly, with the young people, who turned out for that event, we hope, very strongly, that we impressed in their minds that you can be all you want to be and make lots of friends in your world if you invest in your creative abilities; if you can look inwards and see the huge deposits, because oil dwells inside of us. If you look inwards, we have rich oil of creativity flowing within us that we can export to the world, that will give us more petrodollars that the one on the ground that has caused so much chaos and brought so much misery to our people –many lives have been lost, and, up till now, we are still losing many lives in the creeks as a result of oil deposit, which, ordinarily, should have been a blessing; but, it is now turning to a curse.
Maybe, what God is telling us through the death of Pa Gabriel Okara is, “Look, we are investing in the wrong thing!” Bayelsa State Government, knowing who the governor is, has done pretty well in redirecting the mind of our people to say, “Let’s invest in the most important thing: our human resources.” Our biggest achievement, till date, as I said, is education. Our governor is fond of quoting: “There is no greater investment than education.” What we have done is to go to the creeks, the same creek that Gabriel Okara came from, because that is where you find pure gold in the human mind; and we have invested massively in education.
Today, in Bayelsa, we have 15 model schools. Before this government came, there was no model boarding school, and each of these boarding school has not less than a 1,000 students, and they are all on government scholarship. We have invested 80 billion naira in education since our government came into existence. What is interesting is that, over the last seven and half years, we have seen some of these students evolve. That’s our greatest weapon to fight poverty, underdevelopment and all the ills we find in our society today.
The oil in the ground has given us militants who are way beyond our control, and has become a threat to the society, because we are building a new set of militants –intellectual militants –and they are giants that are coming up. I was saying in my remark elsewhere that, very soon, Bayelsa would not be exporting crude oil; we would be exporting talents in form of intellectual giants, as our experience has shown in the last seven and half years. A number of these scholars we have spent so much money on are making us proud across the globe.
People are now thinking that Bayelsans are specially wired as academic geniuses. Someone alluded to that during one of the programmes on Friday at the Gabriel Okara Cultural Centre that, maybe, it was in the fish that we ate. But, frankly, it is in the investment in the life of the human being that really counts, and we realised earlier on that, if we had to change the narrative, we had to make that very painful decision to invest the kind of money we invested in education.
Today, you find a number of our scholars who are working in NASA, Google, Apple, in all the blue chip multinational companies across the world. And these are our products –products of this system that we nurtured. It gives hope that it is a new Bayelsa that is emerging. The new Bayelsa is our focus right now, because that is what will give us a hope and a future in the next, say, 15 years. So, drawing from the life of late Pa Gabriel Okara, we believe strongly that we can use him as a perfect example of the possibilities in these young people that, in whatever they do with their lives, whether it is in writing, arts or in the sciences, there are endless possibilities and opportunities awaiting them in the world.
I do know that the world may talk about segregation over your colour, race or ethnicity, but the world cannot segregate your brain. That’s what we want to emphasise on. Once you find a brilliant scholar anywhere; once you find a creative genius, like Gabriel Okara anywhere, they break barriers, and it goes all over the world, and is celebrated. That’s what we want to do, to the extent that we want to celebrate the best of our brains all over the world. That’s what India is doing in the world of IT.