Changing of the guards
IT is difficult to get a flight to Abuja. All flights were full. Shortage of fuel. The lobby at the Transcorp Hilton and other Hotels in Abuja is jam-packed with women and men, hungry men inter mingling with tall, lean, mean, short, fat, other men cross country. Clusters – discussing one subject – the change over – who wanted what, for what.
It reminded me of 1999 when President Obasanjo set up committees-Danjuma-chaired; 15 committees. We produced 15 volumes of policy papers. No one read any of them. In Abuja there we had to deal with the struggle for hotel rooms, with the debts of the campaign. The payment of hotel bills is always a thorny problem at change over times. As in 1999, so was last week, many Senators and assembly men could not pay their bills and were being turned out; the new arrivals – too eager to take up their rooms. Bullet proof cars, soldiers, police, jammed the front of the hotel, there was no movement. The old Governors and Ministers with their security and patrol cars parked outside and the young victors of APC were ordering the bullet proof cars of the outgoing government to move on. A pharaoh who knew not Joseph was in town. Mountains of curriculum vitae were flying all over town; they stood in clusters, both the outgoing senators and members of the House of Representatives and the new senators and members; each group with long swords ready to divide the national cake or die trying to do so. The outgoing were in a rush to sign new contracts, aiming at early approvals and even earlier mobilization payments.
The Ijaws were conspicuous in their absence – none of the gold studs and hats which they cockily used to wear. Among the Arewa Group, I saw the same people as I saw in 1999 – Ahmed Joda, etc Audu Ogbeh, all the new APC Governors. The old PDP Governors were still in Governors’ lodges in Abuja and in State Houses. OBJ, Kalu, and many old soldiers of the 1983 regime were all there. Abuja airport was filthier now than ever. The Minister of Aviation was probably too busy trying to see what Stella Oduah had left in Aviation.
The Hotels were full of food coming from everywhere to the newly arrived victors of Abuja. I saw old French men, Belgians, Germans, etc who were here in 1976, Many claimed their friends were now in power. I met a former MD of CFAO, and another of SCOA, etc with old photos of themselves and their then chairmen who were now at the cusp of power. There was a general atmosphere of freedom; less fear in Abuja than before; more relaxed but not less expectations.
I went to Delta and Bayelsa to see friends who had burials. I drove from Warri to Ughelli, to Patani and then to Odi, and on to Tufani where we crossed the river to the other side in a small boat to Ewera to the burial site of Mama Porbeni who died, aged 102. We had been friends with the Porbenis (for over 50 years), who were well established in Port Harcourt and Warri. The burial ceremony was at a school compound – outside canopy. Low fanfare, super low profile but solemn and befitting the memory of the lady we came to bury. I saw no dignitaries, no Governors, or even other Ministers. It was totally unlike old NNPC shows where oil companies competed to outdo themselves. No Shell, Gulf, Chevron, Agip, Total, etc unlike burials or occasions previously when the oil companies would have paved the roads, provided boats, buses, helicopters, private planes, etc. There was no fuss, no pomp. Just a nice village ceremony for a family that have done especially well. Food was carried from the waterside to the school – no local helpers either. It was a very satisfying outing, no MOPOL, or security, no floggings, no gaping on lookers marveling at the gait of the rich and powerful.
The other burial was also nearby and for an old grand man, aged 101, with 17 children – 14 from one mother, several grand and great grandchildren. Also, as in old times, the ceremony was at the school playground, simple canopy-square but very noisy because the bands were each determined to burst our ear drums! Plenty of food again, low outing, not ostentatious. Another burial involving another Minister equally low profiled was further down the river. It was as if the message has gone round – Mr. Buhari does not like ostentatious display of wealth; or simple common sense may have dictated the tone since all Ministers and political office holders would seem so stand accused until proven innocent. Why draw unnecessary attention to yourself? It may be they decided on low profile in sympathy with the loss of office of their Brother President Jonathan. But whatever the reason, it was good news, a blast of fresh air. By 5:30 p.m. the parties were over – everyone went home, no sirens, and no accidents.
As we were in the canoe crossing from Tufani to Eweri, on the River Nunn, we saw 10 barges, laden with oil on its way to the Atlantic; the barges were pulled by powerful boats, the crew was Indian. Half way to Ewere, there was a Chinese dredger, dredging the river so that boats and barges could pass safely on the river. The dredging was privately contracted, no name in the boats or dredgers. On inquiry we were told by the locals that the operation we saw was constant, day and night, barges going up and down the river driven by Indians carrying cargoes of crude oil.
From Warri-Ughelli-Patani-Odi-Tufani-Ewere-lsoko was about two hours drive, which was like we stepped back in history to the 1950s. Along the Delta Rivers, we saw many small canoes which women and single fishermen would use to go out fishing or visiting relatives in other fishing villages. When I was young, many children from surrounding villages came to school in Abonnema in similar small canoes. This was repeated in Joinkrama, Tombia, Bakana, Buguma, etc. As we drove towards Ewere, we could see that the rivers were in danger of being swallowed up by the swamps and vegetation on their banks in as much the same way as the hardly used roads, which NDDC, the state Governments or oil companies had built. The roads were losing the battle of existence to the thick vegetation of plants, trees, elephant grasses on either side of the road, growing into the roads and reducing their width. The tires of our cars crushed plants lying on the tarmac; the sides of our cars were slapped by strong leafy vegetation – wild growing trees on either side, determined, as it were, to regain what was lost to the narrow tarmac dividing them. We saw very few people, fewer markets, a place of utter desolation, general and evidently desperate poverty: there was nothing to do since NDDC built the roads. Yet on the rivers, there was the inevitable and unavoidable oil sheen on them, the smell of crude oil all around and the relentless flaring of gas.
• Ambassador (Dr.) Cole (OFR) is a Consultant to The Guardian Editorial Board.