By Wale Adedayo
A close friend of the First Family, who is also my friend and Egbon, invited me to the final burial ceremonies of Mrs Charity Fyneface Oba in Port Harcourt and Okrika last week. My four days stay at Golden Tulip Hotel in Port Harcourt became what Egbon had earlier promised, a rejuvenating tonic for this Ijebu Ife son.
The last time I entered a Golden Tulip was as a Foreign Affairs Reporter with The Guardian newspaper in December 1995 during the last stages of the Liberia Peace Conference held in Accra, Ghana. It was an open secret at the time that slain Libyan leader, Muammar Ghaddafi, was the unseen hand behind the Accra hotel. But in terms of quality hotels in Nigeria, Protea Hotel remains my choice, and if Egbon had allowed I would have preferred to stay in one during the ceremonies.
I have never met Niger Delta hero, Henry Okah. But I remain one of his unrepentant admirers. And it was on our way to First Lady Patience Jonathan’s Okrika country home that thoughts about Okah’s idea for the Niger Delta became more forceful than what had been with me from Lagos. As we made to turn into Okrika proper, opposite the Eleme Refinery, some of us had to stay back. It was fate at work, as I wanted to get a first hand feel of life in Mama Peshe’s home town.
Poverty in this oil-producing area is comparable to what we have in the core parts of Northern Nigeria, where life expectancy and the good things of life itself are very low. A row of shops attached to barrack-like houses along the route had drinking joints as major outlets. Next to that are patent/medicine stores (Nigeria’s poor equivalent of pharmacies). Of course, ladies in skimpy dresses with many of them pretending to be young were in abundance, what did not escape my attention was the fact that the oldest trade of the human race was perhaps a major one there.
That night, I felt the roads to the place had just being ‘done’. This was confirmed the following day by a friend, who blamed Rivers State Governor Rotimi Amaechi for abandoning infrastructure development in most parts of the state, especially the Okrika area. Meanwhile, I was angry that, how can oil producing companies earning trillions of dollars leave their host communities like this? Some parts of the place were just like Maroko and Makoko of those days in Lagos. It was sickening!
The whole week of the burial ceremonies, beginning from Sunday, fishing was not allowed on the waters. All fishermen were barred as patrol gunboats took over the place as part of security measures to protect guests expected at the ceremonies. This greatly affected local businesses. A drinking joint we patronized at a roundabout close to Patience’s Okrika home did not have fresh fish to serve us. We had to make do with smoked ‘Titus’ in ‘dealing’ with the not-so-cold Guinness bottles. I preferred to drink at the local joints instead of taking the choice wines inside.
It was my thoughts about Okah that returned following my Okrika friend’s response to my outbursts. “No, my brother. The oil companies really tried. The money they have given out is enough to turn this place into Dubai.,” he said. It was at this stage I got angrier. But his explanations opened my eyes to the difference between Henry Okah and those being made billionaires today through a derailed Niger Delta Amnesty Programme, courtesy of President Goodluck Jonathan.
My friend said: “I am from here, so I know what I am talking about. You also not blame President Jonathan for given them (militants) money. The average Niger Deltan wants money – to show off, instead of development back home. Only very few of them – as represented by Okah’s and his people, who believe the community should be developed instead of personal enrichment. Funds meant for infrastructure, education, healthcare services and small-scale industries have been cornered by leaders (both young and old) long before now, and till date. You’ll be surprised that those old people you are looking at will ask that you give them money instead of doing projects here. If you want to build hospital or road, you must first settle them. If you don’t, they will not allow you to do anything. That is our people for you.”
The welcome party on Thursday night in Patience’s Okrika home was awesome. It was towards 11pm as we made to return to Port Harcourt I saw Egbon Bisi Olatilo tucked in an igbadun corner with his fine-looking Niger Delta attire and hat. He had a different version on the next day. Friday’s event was directly opposite the house in the same Okrika. But instead of road travel, we took to the expansive waters to beat the terrible traffic between Port Harcourt and Okrika as hundreds of people were bent on attending. Our mode of travel was the best after Helicopters – there six temporary helipads a stone-throw away from the jetty, where our boats landed.
The jetties in both Port Harcourt and Okrika are nothing to write home about. They are not different from everything I saw in both towns since the days of Governors Peter Odili and Diepreye Alamieseigha in Rivers and Bayelsa states. Yours truly was a regular visitor to both states, then. It is a big shame things have not improved. Looking at what Lagos State Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola has done with the jetty in Ebute, Ikorodu it is interesting to see apologies of jetties in that place. Rivers and Bayelsa state Governors should visit Fashola and learn a few things.
The boats plying the water routes are not too okay as well. By now, there should be a boat-building factory in Port Harcourt or somewhere close as the whole place is water. But kudos to the soldiers who provided security cover for us all through. Young, friendly and thoroughly professional, these are guys who should be sent to Maiduguri and Yobe. They know their onions in gun handling and security. Policemen were on ground too – both mopol and regular. But apart from traffic and crowd control, it was the soldiers and men of the Department of State Security that really did security work.
The SSS men were very visible. Whether those wearing black T-shirts, proclaiming DSS or their plain clothes counterparts with their serious looks, they were everywhere. But I would have preferred the plain-clothed ones to be ‘invisible’. They were not. However, that could be due to the plain-clothed guys being mainly persons who hardly socialize – religious guys, who hardly smoke or drink alcohol. The shayo SSS guys are very difficult to spot as they ‘blend in’.
As a rule while in OSU, one trait you MUST NEVER lose as a Pyrate was the ability to carefully observe, especially odd persons. And only very good SSS or Police SIB/FIB could escaped our observation at the time, being our best means of survival in an environment, where populations of campus fraternities were almost 10 times our own. Observation of the other side was a means to survival during security challenges. And yours truly has imbibed that till date!
Saturday’s thanksgiving event was more restricted. I understand only 400 invitation cards were printed. But the guests in that old GRA Port Harcourt hall were about 1,000 with the arrangements being far better than that of Okrika. There have been speculations about state burial for the old woman. I can confirm there was nothing like that. There is also talk about a N7 billion burial expenses. From what I saw in that place, we had a better event when OGD’s mum was buried in Omu Ijebu, Ogun State and the total money spent was nowhere near N1 billion. That one too is certainly not true.
My bill to and from the event was footed by the Egbon, who invited me. Of course, I got an Aso Ebi and IVs for the event courtesy of The First Lady, but through the same Egbon. No money attached! My elderly friend, who is a man of means paid for the expenses in Lagos and Rivers States. I saw the same thing among most of those I ran into while the ceremonies lasted.
Takes from the burial include these facts:
- There is an urgent need for a socio-cultural orientation in the Niger Delta, as the message of Henry Okah is the way to salvation for its people. Without genuine development in that area, even if Nigeria breaks up tomorrow, there’ll be no change in the Delta and its people will be at the mercy of others for all their needs – No matter the amount of money in the hands of its militants and their leaders.
- Infrastructural development is almost nil, despite all the propaganda being done. Yes, some things are being done. But compared with the funds available and what is needed along with what is on ground, it is as if NOTHING has been done thus far since 1999. Niger Delta leaders should return home and put their infrastructural house in order.
- Small/medium scale industries are urgently needed to boost employment and under-employment. It makes no sense seeing some indigenes of that place in certain situations. God will certainly be angry with their leaders.
- Healthcare services should be completely free and AVAILABLE in ALL the communities, not just Wards.