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How visit to Opokuma changed my perception about Niger Delta

By Uche Igwe My recent visit to the Opokuma community in Bayelsa state was quite a memorable eye-opener. It was initially for a funeral. One…

By Uche Igwe

My recent visit to the Opokuma community in Bayelsa state was quite a memorable eye-opener. It was initially for a funeral. One of our colleagues, Pereowei, lost his father, Pa Ebiowei Percy Joses, and we all had to join him in solidarity. In truth, it was a trip I would have loved to avoid if I had a choice. But Mr. Pereowei and I share a fascinating history and his community brings up mixed memories. I met him many years ago while working on a not-for-profit project with the Late Mrs. Augustina Alaere Alaibe. Aunty Alaere (as we fondly called her) is one of the most compassionate and visionary women I have ever come across. I worked with her closely and enjoyed her confidence and generosity. Looking back at the impact of the Family Reorientation Education and Empowerment(FREE), one would only imagine her kind of vision. My last visit to Opokuma was to commission a community library and self-esteem centre she built. Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka was a special guest at the event, which was widely attended. I remember joyfully accompanying Aunty back to Port Harcourt after the ceremony. We said goodbye to each other, but I did not know it was our last.

Anyway, it has been fourteen years now since we lost this indescribable Amazon. I was away in Scotland during her funeral, although I visited her husband in London before her remains were brought home for burial. Somehow, I had not visited Opokuma since then. When my friend announced the death of his father and later the funeral, I knew that I had to be there. As part of my trip, I decided to first to visit Trofani, Aunty’s community. It was my first time, so I arranged for Ebiowei Koinyan to accompany me. Ebi is from the same community and promised to guide me. He did a bit more by giving me elaborate historical insight into some of the landmark events that took place in these communities. We passed by Okordia-Zarama, Sampou junction, Kalama junction, Kaiama, Odi and Aduku before heading to Trofani.

The journey was smooth, but the state of the east-west road slowed us down. My colleague, Gideon, who drove the car, did his best to avoid the damaged parts of the road. Flooding hurt the road to the point that urgent attention is needed. Even with my driver’s excellent driving skills, the journey took us longer than necessary. It was already dark when we got to Mbiama junction. The timing of our trip and the news about disturbances in some communities in the nearby Delta state made me a bit nervous as the night drew near. However, I did not share my apprehension with Ebi or the driver, so we continued.

Interestingly, solar streetlights illuminated most communities, making our journey easier. It was very refreshing driving through Kaima and Odi, and later Opokuma. The lighting across the communities was both spectacular and distinctive. When I last visited, many of these communities were in utter darkness as they were yet to be connected to the national grid. It was quite fascinating to note the street lights were provided by the Niger Delta Development Commission(NDDC). The street lights provided sufficient illumination that bolstered our confidence as we drove around in the night. I was told that some of these street lights have been used by students to read at night. Ebi pointed us to the blue and white painting on the poles, suggesting that the solar street lighting is part of a deliberate effort by the NDDC to contribute to fighting insecurity in the region.

Our return back to Opokuma was hitch-free. We all assembled in the house of the former Managing Director of NDDC, Mr. Timi Alaibe, before proceeding to Pereowei’s house. Unsurprisingly, we were joined by the current Managing Director of NDDC, Dr Samuel Ogbuku, and his delegation. What was supposed to be a funeral vigil almost turned into a carnival as guests were entertained with all sorts of music, especially reggae. By the time the vigil ended, it was way past midnight. We drove back to Yenagoa, where we found a hotel where we spent the night. It has been more than a week since we got back from that event, yet the picture of the illuminated streets keeps flashing back in my mind. Those images permanently challenged my initial impression of the journey and helped me conquer my fears. I can speak for these communities in Bayelsa State because I was there. When I shared this experience with some friends, they confirmed that the situation is the same in other states. Providing street lighting may not be all that is needed to develop the Niger Delta; however, it is an important step in the right direction which must be applauded.

The stereotype of the Niger Delta as a region of poverty, insecurity and conflict is something many people have been made to believe over time. It will take a lot to challenge and counter it, but the situation on the ground suggests that some of these narratives are often exaggerated. Things have changed, but probably not at the pace that many people will expect when you take stock of the quantum of resources that have been extracted from the region. Yet, I will argue that Niger Delta is probably one of the safest regions in the country as of today. The NDDC has its own share of criticisms and reputational baggage, but these footprints suggest that something different is going on under the new leadership in the agency. The infrastructural gap still remains. Solar street lighting interventions are valuable; however, there are opportunities to scale up these interventions to provision mini-grids to produce the required transformative impact on the livelihoods in these communities.

Igwe is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science(LSE). He can be reached at [email protected]

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