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Confronting the curse of an oil city

…on behalf of His Majesty, the King of England, the area presently known as Port Harcourt was acquired by the colonial authorities. This deed is registered as 16/211/7 (old series), Calabar, former kept at the lands registry, Lagos, later lands registry, Enugu but now in the lands registry, Port Harcourt.

“The Okrika Ijaw towns and villages affected by this deed are namely, Biekiri, Abokirir, Belemaka, Akainkoroma, Azuabie, Abuloma, Toinpirima (present right wing of Marine base, Okrika Waterfront and Cemetery Waterfront), Fiyenemika, Iyoyo Ama (present Rex Lawson Waterfront and Egbema Waterfront) Atubokiki, Igbisikalama Ama  (present Baptist waterfront, Enugu Waterfront, Tourist beach and Ibadan Waterfront), Idango Ama (present left wing of Marine base, Koko polo sharing boundary with Amadi-ama), Fimie, Amiejobodiema, Gbelabo Ama, (present Elechi beach, Abonnema Wharf and Njemanze), Okuru town, Amadi town, Amango Ama (present NPA wharf, Witt and bush waterfront and Bundu waterfront) Okujagu, Kuroseidiema Ama (present Bille waterfront, Bonny Waterfront, Nembe Waterfront and Abuja Estate Waterfront) Eresofiari, Misiba, Duointa and Banisuka, (a total of 53% of Port Harcourt).

“On the other hand, the Ikwerre communities affected by the deed are Diobu, Omoeme, Omoamasi, Omobiakani and Oginiba”.

They also claim that efforts by the Ikwerre to deny them their part ownership of the city through court suits have repeatedly failed. The Rivers State Government waves off such claims as spurious.

According to it, without going into the merits and demerits of any ethnic ancestral claim to Port Harcourt, it is on record that the land on which old Port Harcourt was built was ceded to the Crown, had become Crown Land and therefore exclusive government property.

Anybody who has any structure on the land without lawful government certification is an illegal squatter. What the state government offered to pay was technically not compensation but simply a commercial bonus to encourage the squatters to go and live a normal human life among normal human beings.

Wikina adds: “In other words, the colonial masters had acquired and paid for the entire area known as Port Harcourt so Port Harcourt is now a

Crown Land . It does not belong to any of the communities who are now laying claim. That is why I said that the claim over ownership of Port Harcourt is not an issue”.

The Okrika leaders have wondered aloud why their people in these places they claim as their ancestral abodes are being targeted for removal and dislocation in a style reminiscent of “ethnic cleansing”. They reason it is in line with the “hidden agenda” of denying them their traditional claim to Port Harcourt .

However, they have not clearly illustrated the method by which they were “displaced” after the 1913 cession of their land to the Crown when the Ikwerre/Diobu have not been similarly affected. Instead, they are asking for justice; to be kept in the land they claim to be their own just as their counterparts and fellow owners of the city, the Ikwerre/Diobu. Says Sekibo: “We suggest to the governor that he should in conjunction with the leadership of the various communities and the chiefs of Wakirike, redesign and restructure the various waterfront communities with minimal disruption of lives, dislocation of people and demolition of properties”.

It is pertinent to point out that the inhuman setting described at the top of this story does not obtain Ikwerre/Diobu areas, which over the decades have fitted snugly into Port Harcourt metropolitan setting.

Ada-George blamed

Ikwerre, government and independent commentators, however, debunk any traditional or ancestral Okrika claim to the waterfronts of Port Harcourt. A retired Nigerian soldier, who was part of the federal forces that invaded Port Harcourt in 1967 at the expense of Biafra during the civil war, said the areas that now harbour waterfront settlements were swamps.

Borokiri, he said, was a narrow peninsula of raised land which ended at the Comprehensive High School. All land which stretch more than one kilometre all around were reclaimed from the swamps mainly by the Chief Melford Okilo regime between 1979 and 1983.

Wikina explains further: “Port Harcourt Garden City as a concept, according to a traditional ruler here acquired its name because the city was patterned like a garden.

In the old Port Harcourt township, the streets, where you have Aggrey Road, Victoria, Niger, Bende, Bonny and Creek Road  all run parallel, straight line, then you have adjoining streets criss-crossing this parallel streets, where you have Degema, Ilorin etc. So when you are there, it is as if you are walking in a garden where you have ridges and you know ridges are in rows and that is how the name came about.

As for the waterfronts, one of the earliest waterfronts was Bundu Waterfront and it was a place inhabited by night soil men. At that time there was no water system toilets in the city so the bucket system was the vogue. When they were done, they simply emptied the waste in the water behind the waterfront and Bundu is just behind the Port Harcourt Prison.

The night soil men used to leave there and go to work at night and after dumping the human waste in the water behind them they simply walk to their houses in the waterfront”.

When asked if the Okrika claim to the ownership of the Port Harcourt waterfront settlement had valid historical basis, Professor David-West was point-blank with his retort: “No. no, no.

It takes us to the argument of who owns Port Harcourt . This has been a permanent and ongoing controversy since I was a youth. There have been tons of court cases over whether the city belongs to the Ikwerre or Okrika. There are court judgements that show that Port Harcourt , if anything, belongs to the Diobu/Ikwerre axis.

However, I have reasons to believe that some of these judgements gave the Okrika some rights and even at that I am sure the court decision was aiming to make both sides happy. But claiming the waterfronts as some people’s ancestral home is another thing. Nobody can claim the waterfronts as their ancestral home.

Those places were trading depots. When we were children these were the places we went to take boat rides home to our towns in the riverine areas.

“ Port Harcourt was founded in 1913 and named after Sir Harcourt, a British administrator of this area. The same happened in Lagos . Many parts of Lagos Island and Victoria Island were reclaimed from the sea and some people came later to try to claim ownership.

Port Harcourt was the first city in Nigeria that was built from the drawing board. From day one, Port Harcourt was an omnibus city, with Igbos, Yorubas, Hausas, Okrika, Kalabari, Efik and even foreigners fully represented and living here as “Pitakwa people”, and the main street language here was Pidgin English. Waterfront is not a home.

It is a transport depot, a garage. Those claiming ancestral home just went and built houses there”.

Tracing what he described Okrika forcible acquisition of the water
fronts only a couple of decades ago when their son, Chief Rufus Ada-George reigned as a governor, David-West narrated further:

“I don’t support any Okrika claim to the waterfronts. Let them bring documented evidence to that effect. I know that there have been court cases on the whole Port Harcourt itself.

That you have Okrika waterfront does not mean it belongs to Okrika, any more than Nembe Waterside belongs to Nembe people. These are commercial zones. Port Harcourt by law does not belong to any one people. The Okrika claim started with Governor Rufus Ada-George.

That was when they started balkanising Port Harcourt and Okrika people felt free to build and colonise areas near the water. That was when Amadi-Ama, “Ama-this, Ama-that” sprang up all over Port Harcourt. He sowed the seed of ethnic discord by allowing this to happen. If you go to Borokiri, you will see a lot of “Ama” and “Polo” (Okrika word for compound).

There are no “Amas” but only one “Ama” – Port Harcourt . When Ada-George became the governor of Rivers State , in order to extend the tentacles of Okrika people he allowed his people to embark on indiscriminate colonisation and naming of sand filled areas and Ikwerre people protested.

And they had a right to protest because you were now creating “amas” on lands to which Ikwerres had full valid claim and of which nobody can deny them. Ikwerre people have original ancestral right to certain parts of Port Harcourt .

So when the Okrika started their expansion of “amas” it excited Ikwerre nationalism. Nobody will like hostile people around him. That Ikwerre sensitivity I support it even though I am not Ikwerre. I am Kalabari and riverine. How can you circle Port Harcourt with Okrika “Amas”? Of course, no Ikwerre man will take it. You cannot because you are the governor, make water to flow uphill or order the sun to rise west and set in the east”.

The immovable versus the unstoppable

By most accounts, the waterfronts cannot stand the test of modern development. Right now, the Amaechi government is said to have made up its mind never to extend any government amenities to any waterfront marked for demolition (like Bundu) but which due to legal action, has to wait.

Going into and out of this waterfront is already a nightmare by day time, let alone at night. The waterfronts may eventually have to go. But a way has to be found to reach some kind of compromise with all the interested stake claimants. The Okrika people, for instance, have made up their mind not to move out.

There is a case in court preventing government from going ahead, and whenever the court is in session, Okrika people turn out in their hundreds.

The government has also made up its mind that all land belonging to government as per the 1913 and other legal authorities that government has power to assert, especially the waterfronts that pose security threat to all, move be brought down. It is a test of will between the immovable and the unstoppable.

It is the extension of the tussle between the Okrika and Ikwerre which, in 1992, led to the murder of Dr Obi Wali, a prominent Ikwerre leader, which brought a great ethnic tension to Port Harcourt and Rivers State as a whole. It ignites the political tug-of-war between the “riverine” and “upland” peoples of the state and often degenerates to a broader test of will between the Ijaw and other non-Ijaw stakeholders in Port Harcourt .

Professor David-West feels that the Amaechi government should have
engaged all parties involved in dialogue, educating them about the benefits of its intentions.

There are those who also think that at this tensile juncture when the federal government has successfully packaged an amnesty deal that brought the Niger Delta armed struggle to a peaceful end, the Rivers State Government should have tarried awhile since there are still too many firearms in the wrong hands.

It requires the proverbial Wisdom of Solomon for the problem to be resolves in a way that satisfies the interests of all reasonable interested parties. But the single-mindedness that is obvious on both the government and Okrika sides does not give much room for cheer. The last may not have been heard of this issue.


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