Oil and local prosperity: A study of ‘two kingdoms’
The King of Abonnema has just finished a magnificent building he called his palace. The king of Okpo has done the same – built a palace. But there the similarity ends. Abonnema is one of the major towns among the Kalabari Ijaw; its history is long and illustrious. It has prominent indigenes whose names are well-known to all Nigerians, Wenike Briggs, Ajumogobia, Graham-Douglas, Ferdin and Alabraba, W.W. Whyte, Mr. Justice Adolphus Karibi Whyte (SCJ), Odoliyi Lolomari (Ex-MD, NNPC), Olu Fubara, Ambassador D.D. Obunge, Admiral Bob Manuel, Chief Lulu Briggs, Dr. Dodiyi Manuel, Capt. Briggs (Ex-Minister of Transport), Capt. Ajumogobia, Chief S.K Dagogo Jack (Ex-INEC chairman), Deputy Comptroller of Customs, Bibi Akpana, Tom Fabyan (former chief executive of African Petroleum), L.M. Jacks (Permanent Secretary, Internal Affairs), Miss World (Agbani Darego); Miss Nigeria (Syster Jack), and many others.
Okpo, on the other hand, is a small village which many years ago you would have passed even before you blink once. It is part of Obuama or Harry’s town which is regarded as a small village in the pantheon of Kalabari Ijaw towns. So Okpo is a small village of a small village.
A few years ago, some oil companies did some seismic work in Okpo village. In doing so, they brought in a lot of equipment, reclaimed large tracks of land, and employed hundreds of people – thus awakening a small dot of a village into a potential metropolis. The seismic activity ended and the oil company packed up and left. Chief Diamond Bob Manuel Tobin–West saw his opportunity in this substantial real estate, substantial compensation for the seismic activities from a company with a lively corporate social responsible mentality. The people of Okpo were compensated. Instead of Chief Diamond taking his own share of the money to Port Harcourt to build a beautiful house and or a hotel, he decided to return to the spot and there restart and rebuild his community. The Chief is a man who lives by example. He is a graduate from UK and Canada: has a family well settled in these countries.
Chief Diamond built himself a palace in the old seismic site. He encouraged his people to return and follow his example. He built a complex of six houses; his brothers and sisters are in the process of completing modern structures, with roads and amenities – water, electricity, schools, etc. This year’s Christmas and New Year celebration in his palace had all trappings of modernity, complete with carols, fireworks, plenty of food and drinks. There is a clinic nearby. He has galvanised all the villages around him and a modern metropolis is taking shape in a formerly one – blink village. His neighbours in the bigger town of Obuama are beginning to recognise his worth and influence and constantly visit him to talk about the progress of Okpo and the surrounding area. Incidentally, the Deputy Governor of Rivers State, Mrs. Harry Banigo is from Obuama. So is Chief Ombo Harry, once Executive Director, Finance of NNPC. The former Chairman of PDP Rivers State, Marshall Harry, the former Deputy Speaker of Rivers State House of Assembly, another Harry and so on are from Obuama- None of the above has what the vision of Chief Diamond who hopes to build a true metropolis in this forsaken enclave.
People like Diamond are the types the oil companies and governments should seek out – people with vision – his neighbours from the bigger town of Obuama are constantly ribbing him that he is a king of five houses. He smiles and says he alone has six; by this time next year there would be over 200 with an economic infrastructure that may surpass the bigger neighbour. He plans holiday resorts, extensive fishing and agricultural projects, a resurgence of Kalabari culture and civilisation – both issues of which he is an expert.
Diamond’s father grounded his upbringing in the culture of the Ijaw Kalabari: much of that culture is in the masquerades, songs and drums played by the Sekiapu Ogbo of which Chief Diamond is the head.
The Sekiapu (dancers) are the custodians of Ijaw culture: they have their own hierarchy, monopolise the dancing and all cultural activities of Kalabari, have a legal system and the power of enforcement; they are unafraid to confront chiefs because traditionally you cannot be an Ijaw Kalabari chief without first being a member of the Sekiapu Ogbo. They beat the drums for the masquerades, for the various houses of chiefs; they perform nearly all the traditional judicial and cultural functions. No chief goes against Sekiapu because they can place a curse on your house and that household or family is as good as finished.
Every chiefly household has a peculiar song or beat which, when the drummer begins to call the names of the chief’s ancestors, that chief has to acknowledge the call and point to the direction of his homestead. Diamond was trained by his father in these drums and their meaning. It is like the Oriki of the Yoruba, or the Opi (flute) of the Igbo. As the Oriki of your family and father’s Kin etc. is being recited, a true Yoruba knows the words by heart and sings and dances to his ancestor’s praises. The same is true of the Opi flutists of the Igbo. It is impossible to understand your culture if you do not know the meanings of the songs and history of your people; if you cannot follow the flutist or the Oriki. Indeed, if you do not, the flutist or the Oriki poet has a way to tell everyone that an impostor is in their midst!! Among the Ijaw Kalabari, the drummers, on seeing that you have not acknowledged your tradition or history or culture, such as in the beat of the drum, the drummer starts abusing you that you have no ears, your ears are mere leather!! Diamond’s father was also a master craftsman of the heads of the various masquerades which belong to each house.
The central notion of this piece is to counter the view that oil itself and its exploitation destroy the people. In Okpo the king and his chiefs made money from oil, started a restructuring and rebuilding of their community with clear goals and plans.
In Akulga Local Government too, of which Abonnema is the headquarters, the various oil companies prospecting there, in response to their corporate responsibility have given millions of naira to the Amayanabo (head), a First Class chief, and other chiefs. These moneys are simply divided among some of the chiefs: It would have been good if the Council of Chiefs had savings and development accounts from money collected. There should be projects to which the money is dedicated. This was the same Council, which a few years before, contributed large sums of money for the building of boys and girls secondary schools, lobbying for a general hospital, water works, electricity and so forth.
At the moment the water works built by the Swedish company, Scanwater, have broken down, the general hospital has been closed and its buildings swallowed by elephant grass, no staff at the hospital, yet every month the chiefs dress up in the traditional regalia to grace one function or the other. The chiefs are in danger of losing all control of the youth who are now wild and prefer cultism and militancy.
The chiefs of Akukutoro should devote a little of their money to improvement of the town (the electricity bill of the whole town of Abonnema is paid by the chairman of the local government – I am not sure of the legitimacy of this action).
Matters are coming to a head now when the head of the Sekiapu has asked the king to step aside because he was accused of witchcraft. That is a serious charge among the Ijaw Kalabaris – and demands immediate steps to cleanse himself of the charge. It is unclear today who has the right or power to make such demands.
Oil money in one community is used progressively. Oil money in another community is not used progressively leading to endless disputes, intrigues and lawsuits. It is not the money from oil that is bad. It is the use to which people put that money.