As we approached Forcados from the Warri end of the river, the poverty, squalor and privations stared you in the face as you meandered through the swamps and oil-covered tributaries.
It was my second time on River Forcados. The first time, in the mid-1990s, I had gone to Benikrukru with officials of the Dr. Charles Akinola-run Technoserv, a development agency.
Akinola and his team, which later transformed into the Enterprise for Development Initiative (EfDI), were partnering the locals and their abandoned oil-producing communities in sundry development and empowerment projects.
Then, as we approached Forcados from the Warri end of the river, the poverty, squalor and privations stared you in the face as you meandered through the swamps and oil-covered tributaries.
Last week, nearly 25 years after my first trip, I was again on the famous river, and the story of poverty and hunger had not changed. The only new thing now is that anger and aggression have been added to the people’s lot.
So, what would I be doing on these ‘dangerous waters,’ knowing all I know about Niger Delta militancy?
Well, I had innocently gone to commiserate with a man I take the liberty of calling my friend, the countryman Governor of Bayelsa State, Hon. Henry Seriake Dickson, on the demise of his mother, Madam Goldcoast Dickson, better known as Mama Gogo.
READ ALSO: Dickson extols late mum’s virtues
It was enough trouble getting to his Toru Orua village, which until recently could only be accessed by water. But the story soon changed.
In Dickson’s part of Ijawland, when you marry a woman, you only marry the body, not the bones. What that means is that whenever a woman dies, she is taken back to her father’s compound for burial. Nobody, no matter how highly placed, gets a waiver for that culture, although some men of means in the past are known to have attempted to turn this culture on its head. But Dickson, for what he represents to the Ijaw nation, would go by what tradition says.
I was, therefore, part of the team assembled to join His Excellency on the journey to his maternal home, to inspect Mama’s final resting place.
For Dickson and his clansmen, that journey was a less than 10 minutes’ boat ride from Toru Orua, on one bank of the Forcados River, to Angiama on the other bank of the same river.
Of course, it was 10 minutes because we travelled in the twin-engine Ofurumapepe speed boat. If we were to cross it by canoe, as young Dickson and his mother used to do in those days, we would probably be talking of well over an hour of paddling against the tide of the fast-flowing river.
Both Toru Orua and Angiama communities are Ijaw, but while one is in Bayelsa State, the other is in Delta State. The people see themselves as the same family, even though the Nigerian state has forced them into two different states and, therefore, different destinies. Understandably, too, they seem
to have more in common with Bayelsa than Delta State.
That is probably why whenever a Bayelsa governor tells you he is the governor-general of the Ijaw nation, it goes beyond just sounding off.
I dare say, even though the Angiama people are in Delta, Dickson is the only governor they ever get to see, and feel. And it is to his house that they would rather take their problems for solution than an Asaba that seems so far away. Of course, the question of Abuja does not even arise.
The locals cannot understand that Dickson cannot solve any of these problems from the purse of the Bayelsa State government nor that he has to rely hugely on his own private funds.
To them, that is long story. As far as they are concerned, their son is governor. The boundaries of Delta and Bayelsa only exist on the maps at the office of the National Boundary Commission.
As a result, therefore, Dickson is the one doing the little road that leads into the community from the jetty. He is also the one to whom they have presented the drawing for the proposed community recreation centre.
It is also Dickson’s foundation that is expected to build the new hospital, and a primary school. A primary school presently exists there, but the people would rather not talk about it, and the state of neglect.
Now, if you didn’t think this was enough reason to revisit the restructuring of Nigeria that the President Muhammadu Buhari government seems mortally scared of, then this might make you do a rethink.
The only major road to the community is the one that links it to Patani. But the road is only motorable in the dry season. In fact, on this particular day, that same road, the contract for which construction the NDDC is said to have long awarded, had disappeared under the swamps – overgrown with weeds. After about 400 metres of walk, from the jetty, one of the security operatives in our entourage pointed to a bush and said: “na the road be that.” Till when we left, I kept looking for that NDDC road. It was nonexistent.
Now, this is supposed to be an oil-producing community. And somebody still wonders why the youth are permanently on a short fuse?
Meanwhile, somebody is probably in Abuja thinking 13 per cent derivation is already too much. And another person sits at the state capital and diverts even the little that comes with 13 per cent derivation.
Incidentally, on my way back to Lagos, I ran into a finance commissioner from one of the South-South states at the airport. He was heading to Abuja for the ritualistic FAAC meeting. There, the central government would give them handouts. And nobody bothers to understand the tragic state of the communities that bear this crude oil.
Delivering a lecture with the theme “Restructuring and the Search for a Productive Nigeria,” at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, Osun State, recently, the man Bayelsans love to call Ofurumapepe said the President’s position, on its own, is an actual threat to national security.
He said that the Nigerians in the vanguard of the campaign for the restructuring of the country were the patriotic ones who are motivated by a desire for the nation’s peace, prosperity and stability.
He wondered why the President would dismiss the general quest of the Nigerian citizenry to restructure the Nigerian federation, which would not withstand the test of time in its current lopsided nature.
“When everybody in this country is talking about the need to restructure this country, our President, Muhammadu Buhari, made a statement that is not only wrong, but it is also faulty that cannot stand the test of time and a threat to the continued stability and prosperity and development of our country, when he dismissed outright the notion of restructuring.
“And he didn’t stop there, he went ahead to say that those who are in support of restructuring are doing so for parochial agenda. Mr. President, you are wrong. In fact, the reverse is the case. The majority of Nigerians from the North, South, East, West and Middle Belt, who are making a case for restructuring, are indeed the patriots of Nigeria.
“We want a Nigeria that works with equal citizenship. A Nigeria for the many as well as for the few; a Nigeria that we will be proud to call home any day, that we can proudly pledge allegiance to.
“The outcome of my interaction has shown that Nigerians are in support of restructuring. I am not imposing my views. I don’t believe that the Presidential system is what Nigeria needs. The system is expensive, we can’t have a productive Nigeria with the way it is structured. The government has abandoned its core responsibilities of defence and security.
“There’s need to devolve policing powers to the people. But I’m not saying states should have police. Our system of settling disputes is faulty. Why should a land dispute in communities be dragged to the Supreme Court? I know many things about access to justice. Instead of justice getting stronger, you see babalawos getting stronger. The distortion of our federal structure has destroyed Nigeria.”
Dickson said the current arrangement, where the central government would take over all responsibilities such as the judiciary, the police and others, to the exclusion of the state, was an arrangement in need of change.
According to him, the Federal Government had not fared well even in its core responsibilities such as defence and security as shown by the killings in the land.
I can’t agree more.