If indeed travel takes your mind for a ride, what happened to me over the weekend in Sapele was indeed an eye-opener. The family of my friends the Efetevbias and the bride they intended were to exchange matrimonial vows on that weekend in Sapele and I was invited. Unlike our presido, I wasn’t going to fake an ear illness or fear of militants not to go to the Delta homefront. The family involved is a special one, with friends who long ceased to be friends but are now my brothers and sisters and part of an indirect extended family. But that apart, I wanted to visit a part of the Niger Delta seething with resentment over underdevelopment and consistent marginalization, and see things first hand, especially with the new bluster and muscle from the Niger Delta Avengers which seemed to have effectively put the fright on our beloved President. Recently the President was scheduled to visit Ogoni land for the purpose of implementing the UNEP Report and the commissioning of the first stages of the cleanup of a despoiled land.
But at the last minute, he opted out because of the so-called security reports which advised him against the trip to Ogoniland. According to the said reports, militants had threatened Mr. President’s life, and therefore he took the very ‘wise’ decision not to attend the ground breaking ceremony. A lot of us were surprised: one, this is a President who is commander-in-chief of our troops on air, land and sea and a former soldier at that. If Mr. President is afraid to move around even with the fire-power and men at his disposal, then lesser armed mortals like me who have only a pen and computer as weapons as our last line of defence are in hot soup. Two, I remember the sort of opprobrium which Nigerians poured on Mr. Buhari’s predecessor Goodluck Jonathan who did not deign visit Chibok just after over 200 school girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram. I remember as well then there were threats to Mr. Jonathan’s life if he visited Borno. I do not regret advising Mr. Jonathan not to go visit Borno then because I verily believed that the gravity of threat to the life of Mr. Buhari’s predecessor then was more tangible than that to Mr. Buhari’s especially judging from their temperaments and antecedents. The lesson here is that a president of a country wouldn’t be cancelling scheduled visits to any section of Nigeria if the right and proper thing can be done.
Therefore, I set off. The plan was to go there with Mrs. Etemiku but on second thought, I decided it wouldn’t be wise. I am unlike Chief Obasanjo who is said to have married a petite Stella Obasanjo so that he could easily pick her up and scram if there was trouble ahead. Mrs. Etemiku is nearly my size and if indeed the avengers were coming for us, picking up my inamorata and running away would be a huge challenge. Clad in my traditional costume and okpo to match, I arrived at the station to Sapele to find out that not only had the drivers jacked up the fare by 100%, we also had to be squeezed like sardine: in a vehicle for four, we ended up on the journey with seven: four at the back seat, and me in front with the other passenger struggling for space in the front seat with the driver. I cannot say I blame the driver: if people with public funds are not stealing the monies, I am certain that there would be a cheap and comfortable metro system akin to the ones in Europe plying the Benin Sapele road today. Relevant institutions set up to work for the development of the Niger Delta must consider this. Daily, we are subjected to these inhuman treatments which erode whatever worth and dignity we possess as Nigerians.
As we drove along, the chap in front with me already had cramps. But luck was on our side: the journey to Sapele from Benin is not more than 30minutes, and so instead of settling down to enjoy the scenic beauty of our landscape or take time to catch a quick nap, we shifted and adjusted without let. While doing so, one curious thing caught my attention at Oghara. As you drive by, you begin to see that a large chunk of land which had been cordoned off by the Nigeria Navy is already being cleared, and for whatever purpose, may not be too hard to ascertain. I know about the tensions brewing between Oghara people and the Nigerian Navy over that mighty piece of land. Indigenes complain that the Nigerian Navy illegally occupies a land which supports them economically. And when I visited that piece of land sometime this year, I found out that as a matter of fact, that there is an ecosystem which supports thousands of palm trees, kola nut trees, and water bodies which are home to wildlife that would immediately go into extinction if the Nigerian Navy goes ahead with their plan to annex that land. What therefore comes up from this little story is that the Nigerian state frequently and deliberately confronts the people of the Niger Delta at several levels in addition to the despoliation of an already traumatized land and people.
None of the Sapelites whom I had several conversations with will agree that there is any meaningful development in this ancient town. I thought there was actually. To the ordinary eye, the big banks dotting the main town, the cool boutiques along the driveways would give the impression that there is some move from what I know of Sapele in the 90s. But I was told that these were refurbished building only enjoying a veneer of paint. I began to find out that indeed this is a neglected town, and the indexes of poverty and underdevelopment converge in Sapele: at the venues of the wedding ceremony, there was a big pool of water, which I was told is a monument of the 2012 flood which sacked Niger, Kogi and Delta. Those who came spraying money or who drove their princely cars into the venue of the reception became easy prey for scavengers and the thousands who showed up seeking a morsel or two to fill their empty stomachs. I did not encounter the Avengers, even though I hoped to be able to meet and have a discussion with them.