In The Heart Of Warri

by Osita Okoroafor

“Dis Warri warriors too worry sef!” These expletives came from a man who stood next to me at the Uwvie Local Government Area Secretariat near Warri. I turned to him as his words hit the air with the twang of a snapped guitar string and met an empty space where he had been standing. The man had fled. Scores of motorists, pedestrians and ubiquitous commercial motorcyclists jostled with one another in their bid to escape an unseen terror. I quickly jumped into my car and the driver zoomed off after the fleeing throng. Warri town was on the run.

I guessed from the nimble footed flight of these people (despite the burgeoned waistline of many, no thanks to a daily assault with Banga and Starch) that such stampede was a regular event. However, the chaotic nature of this exodus, which was quite reminiscent of a mad dash of extras in a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster betrayed a fact: these people had no idea of whom or what or to where they fled. I was clueless too, but not so keen on investigating the source of our flight (not because of my pusillanimous nature or anything of the sort, but suffice to say that since I’m neither Christiane Amanpour nor Wolf Blitzer I kept my curiousity in check).

This is a day in a life of the inhabitants of Warri the commercial capital of Delta State. I was caught up in a stampede, which ensued at the behest of the fear factor and a human quest for survival. I discovered that our escape from Uwvie was like jumping off the pages of a Leon Uris epic novel into the dreamland of the ladybird storybooks; Warri town was serene, People went about their peaceful business. A drive past the N.N.S Umalokun Naval base on Warri-Sapele road revealed naval personnel chatting up each other quite unruffled. Were they not aware of the mayhem at Uwvie?

I have traveled to Warri on a couple of occasions and still craved the town for its slightly seedy nightlife, thus I welcomed any assignment in the oil city. My recent visit was somewhat different from my expectations and in retrospect I wished I had known the town was under siege. I would have balked at this assignment despite the ire of my boss.

I had a premonition of the danger ahead at Osubi Airstrip. A pensive crowd had gathered at the arrival terminus. They glared at our wholesome appearance as we disembarked as if they expected us to arrive in body bags. The crowd was made up of relations and friends of victims of the fighting between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri along the Escravos River in Burutu Local Government Area. The crowd was apprehensive because Shell was airlifting victims of the battle raging in the creeks and swamps to Warri.

“The warring town is up in flames again?” I mused, “What is it this time?” The Ijaw had taken up arms against the Itsekiri. The perennial rivals were at loggerheads again. Accusations of unfair delineation of local government wards in a bid to rig elections led to protests, which meant the two tribes had to resort to their normal mode of settling disputes – bloodbath. The Ijaw sacked Itsekiri villages near the Escravos River in retaliation to an earlier Itsekiri strike aimed at workers of Ijaw origin at the Chevron flow station. Flow stations belonging to Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), Chevron, Totalfina Elf had been shut. Oil installations were being stormed. I drank in the news till my belly soured. All efforts to garner more information on the cause of this recent blood fest proved abortive; my informant was busy lamenting his angst at living in a city put perpetually on red alert by irate youths.

I had business at Ogbe-Ijoh, headquarters of Warri South West Local Government. It was the citing of the local government headquarters in this sleepy village of rusted corrugated sheets that spawned series of internecine warfare between the Ijaw and Itsekiri. The headquarters was a cluster of ramshackle buildings. It was deserted and I soon found out why: I saw scores of fierce looking youth boarding boats and canoes at a nearby creek. The driver explained that the youth were being mobilized and ferried across the river to fight the Itsekiri in their villages.

The Delta State Government had reacted to the crisis in Warri by ordering a dusk to dawn curfew, but the combatants not to be outdone devised means to beat the curfew; hence battles are fought in broad daylight. The few military installations in the town are avoided like plagues, which explained the relative calm in certain parts of the town. However, the scenario is different in the creeks and swamps, the Ijaw youth take on all comers, even the military, and confiscated weapons are bandied as war trophies to swell an already impressive war arsenal.

During the stampede at Uwvie, which I earlier described, I saw a madman stretched out contentedly by the roadside, who watched unconcerned while the “sane” dashed about hysterically to escape madness. In truth there is pandemic lunacy in major Nigerian cities and towns; our major towns are denizens of poverty, malfunctioning and deficient social and basic amenities, unemployment and crime, and one need not necessarily be gifted such an insight through the ‘wise eyes’ of a street side loony. In Lagos “Area Boys” instigate stampede at will to enable them loot, rape and maim. The mad dash at Uwvie, which engulfed me on that eventful day, could have been such a ploy by criminals bent on preying on the fear of the much harassed and terrorized inhabitants of Warri.

The undisputed fact however, is that Warri is a hotbed of internecine warfare and a town under siege. It is incidentally in the economic heartbeat of the Nigerian Federation and its problems are threats to the economic jugular of the nation.

Warri is arguably fast becoming the most volatile and violence prone town in Nigeria. The inability of the Urhobo, the Ijaw and the Itsekiri to cohabit peacefully is often exacerbated by a naked aggression towards one another. The conflagration, which has ravaged this town, range over myriad (both solemn and petty) issues like citing of local government headquarters, creation of wards, disputes over ownership of markets, disagreements over voter’s registration amongst other things. Warri youths take up arms at the slightest prodding against constituted and elected authorities. The military and other security enforcement agents are engaged in running gun battles. Expatriate and local oil workers are kidnapped and are often regarded as cash cows. Hapless villagers are used as cannon fodders and are quite regretfully targets of vengeful and reprisal attacks.

One could canvass the argument that a morbid quest to create corpses is the favourite pastime in Warri, but this would not be entirely true, and to adopt such stance would be intrinsically parochial. I was appalled at the level of degradation and the poverty of the people at Ogbe-Ijoh and the squalor and dilapidation of life in the creeks and swamps assaults the imagination. It will be thus unfair to divorce the militant nature of these people from their quest to actualize denied rights accruing to them from the rape of their virginal forests; the despoiling of their environment without giving back improved health and human services, provision of basic social amenities and development in infrastructures. Little wonder then the Oil Rivers quickly colour with blood. But can such belligerence as is presently being displayed at Warri and its environs be justified even as a direct offshoot of a determination for self-actualization and survival of the peoples of the Niger Delta? The government at the center has been severely and severally indicted for the criminal neglect of a region, which provides the mainstay of our economy, and despite much talk and the creation of NDDC, little has been done to improve the lot of the peoples of the Niger Delta.

The leaders of these communities cannot be totally absolved from blame; their greed has many a time blunted the cries of agitation from the people. They have mortgaged the future of their communities for personal gains and it is trite that they are often “settled” by the oil companies to the detriment of their various communities. Unfortunately the idle and unemployed youth are willing tools of violence to actuate the selfish propaganda of these elders. It may be argued that deprivation; hunger and frustration can sour the human spirit to such acerbic points that one loses regard for another’s life. Warri and other major Nigerian cities are indices showcasing our wanton disregard for human life, and the sharp decline in the value of life has been met with an attendant upswing in cravings for material affectations to the impairment of our time-tested norms and customs. Unclaimed corpses litter our streets while the living (whose duty it is to bury the dead) ‘shop and chop’ over their harassing stench, and what more are willing to kill even for a few miserly Naira.

The tragedy of Warri and other volatile Nigerian cities does not typify the present Nigerian spirit, and the culture of violence is not interred in the average Nigerian psyche, rather they are indictments on a system and a Government that has failed the people it was meant to serve. The politics of the violence in Warri is such that both sides are wont to accuse the state government of aiding one side against the other, and laissez faire posturing by the military, ill-timed intervention and deployment of security personnel around affected areas has not helped matters either. It is factual that the military are often slapped into action by the murder of its poorly armed personnel and such ‘action’ is translated into reprisal killings and sacking of innocent villagers. Prompt response and immediate cordoning off of violence-prone areas should make redundant such military expeditions and ensure decisive action against perpetrators of violence.

The culture of violence in Warri in my estimation, has not received adequate attention from the federal and state governments and the rights and claims of the peoples of the Niger Delta must be addressed to ensure lasting peace in this restive oil city, but till then for every inhabitant and prospective visitor to Warri, please internalise this advice, it might save your life: order a pair of custom fitted winged heels and whenever the death sounds, run, your life depends on it.

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