Beyond The Cultists Lies The Struggle For Port-Harcourt

by Ossie Ezeaku

Port-Harcourt, the erstwhile “Garden City” of Nigeria is a city of historical complexities. It blossomed into an industrial centre under the administration of the Governor of the defunct Eastern region, the Late Dr. Michael Iheonukara Okpara.

With the aim of creating a rival Lagos of Eastern Nigeria, Okpara, envisioned and transferred the then Shell-BP Head quarters from Owerri to Port-Harcourt, built the Presidential Hotel and the Trans-Amadi industrial layout among other high profile projects. Trans-Amadi, It will be recalled remains the biggest industrial layout East of the Niger.

While the City continued its positive progression in the 60s, the aborigines, Ikwerre, a subset of the Igbo, felt dominated and sidelined by the other Igbos. The Mayoral seat of Port-Harcourt was one of their major grievances, a position occupied then by an Oguta native, Mr. Nzimiro.

It happened that when the Igbo-led Biafran secession failed, the victorious Gen. Yakubu Gowon refused to allow them, the Ikwerres, to be a part of the new Rivers state. Led by Eze Frank Ekeh and Elechi Amadi, It took them to renounce their Igbo identity to be accepted in the new state. Hence, the Ikwerre clan of the old Owerri division, left the political camp of their kinsmen to sojourn with other groups in the newly created Rivers state.

The lures of being allowed in one of the victorious states was irresistible. To the Ikwerre, It was the safest bet; a camouflage from their spited kinsmen in the East Central state. Though the Ijaw played an active role in the early part of the war before defecting to the federal side; a time the Biafran Air force was headed by one of their sons, in the person of Col. George Kurubo. But The fact that the Ikwerres had to plead to be a part of the new state, watered down their psychological ability to engage in an assertive political partnership with the new powerful Ijaw. Thus, the Ijaw, whom Yakubu Gowon handed the reins of power in Port-Harcourt in 1970, held the Ikwerre spell bound, and in the process, dictated the affairs of Port-Harcourt and the new state in general.

With ethnic renouncement firmly secured by Gen Gowon from the Ikwerres, the Houses belonging to other Igbo groups were summarily ceased. Labeled abandoned property. And that was it.

One Barrister Uche Okwukwu, an Ikwerre and Pan Igbo activist, restated that 97 percent of the ceased Igbo houses in Port-Harcourt were bequeathed to the Ijaws. An advantage that will naturally repudiate reconciliation, and which can only stir anxiety to the benefactors when the word reconciliation is mentioned.

The Ijaw having established their political presence in a city hitherto controlled by the Igbo, ruled and effected changes that were meant to whittle down the Igbo presence within and outside the city of port-Harcourt. It continued till 1996 when the political map of the state was redrawn with the creation of Bayelsa out of Rivers state, and with the Capital in the marshlands of Yenogoa.

Bayelsa state, with a population of 1.7 Million and a registered voters’ population of 500,000 in the last elections, represents the largest segment of the Ijaw population in Nigeria. Like any other group, most Ijaw welcomed the creation of the state. But a minority of their leaders have yet to come to terms with the creation of Bayelsa state which has robbed the Ijaw the control of Port-Harcourt. A state creation that has reduced the Ijaw population in the new Rivers state, and which can at best give them the Deputy gubernatorial seat in the state.

So, beyond the present cult problem lies the unspoken struggle for Port-Harcourt between the conservative Ijaw elements and the upland people. The political control of the city, like in the past 40 years has once again changed. This time not in the favor of the Ijaw, but to the group referred to linguistically by the Rivers state government as Igbo-id. (Igbo speaking). Dr. Peter Odili emerged from this group, and who is now followed by Celestine Ngozichim Omehia.

It is believed that the hawks within the Ijaw, wants nothing but an Ijaw to emerge the Governor of Rivers state. This group, led by the indefatigable Chief Edwin Kiagbodo Clark from Delta state, has been calling endlessly for a complete state of emergency. By this, they aim to dethrone Celestine Omehia, have a military man takeover in the interim, and hopefully with the Ijaw hierarchy in the army, influence the return of an Ijaw in the Brick House Port-Harcourt as Governor.

But In response to Chief Edwin Clark’s insistence on a state of emergency in Rivers State, Celestine Omehia bluntly reminded him that “Rivers state of today is only 20 percent reverine”, referring to the Ijaw. Indirectly telling Clark that his intentions are mere pipe dreams. The implication of all these, is the gradual destruction of the post civil war grouping called “Rivers people”, and the drawing of the attention of the wider Igbo in defense of the Igbo speaking group in Rivers state.

The Ikwerre seem to have realized that there fears of domination by fellow Igbos might have been baseless, as the post war creation of more states has not witnessed intra-ethnic interference in political or financial matters within Igbo states. Nigeria being an ethnic based society, the need to have an associate close home has become more pertinent than ever for the Ikwerre.

On his inception as Governor of Rivers State, one of Omehia’s first visits out side Rivers state was to Owerri, Imo state, where he met with Chief Ikedi Ohakim. At the meeting the two leaders spoke extensively on the need to revive the historical links between the two peoples. An idea that may not have gone down well with some Ijaw hawks.

While the Ijaw may claim to have a stake in Port-Harcourt and Rivers state as a whole, the challenges of a multicultural entity, are that which which calls for an umbrella socio-cultural body for the upland people in Rivers state.

A body like that of ANIOMA , formed by the Igbos of Delta state, may help the Igbos of Rivers state rise to the occasion. The disharmony in Rivers state is real. Special interest groups are digging in for a long haul. Like the city of Warri, the problem in Port Harcourt seem to be just starting. Beyond the cultists, lies the struggle for the city.

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