The late Chief M.K.O Abiola aptly stated: “It is an extension of democracy to give the economy back to the people.”
And that is the much anticipated prospect of the East-West coastal link road promised to the Niger Delta people of Nigeria. A people whose backyard has been ravaged to embellish the patios of the rich; the mandate to the government is to deliver their economy back into their hands.
Therefore, they cry to be empowered with the basics: Infrastructure! Infrastructure! Infrastructure! With such vastly known possibilities, the East-West road is viewed as one of the bridges to attract investors to this paradise land.
The Niger Delta is one of the most culturally diverse regions in Nigeria and among the 100 beautiful sites in the world. Over 20 million Nigerians make boast of it as their home of origin and certainly, it is a place of rich cultural heritage. Spanning across Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta, Cross Rivers, Rivers, Imo, Abia, Edo and Ondo states, its inhabitants speak 250 dialects some of which are Ijaw, Urhobo, Efik, Fulfulde, Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa and Kanuri, to mention a few.
Farming and fishing are their foremost means of livelihood but, over the years the region has been known for its oil. The blessing of oil had proven to be a curse more than a resource until the restiveness in the region caused all stakeholders to understand that whoever bites the finger that feeds him would soon go hungry. However, the deplorable condition of the region could be reversed with the proposed construction of the East-West coastal road.
The 704km East-West coastal road threads through nine states of the federation that make up the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, beginning in Ibeju Lekki, Lagos and ending in Akamkpa Awi, Cross Rivers State.
The road is expected to not only bridge the gaps in distance, communication and trade, but also in culture, the way people have been used to living over the years. This is so because beyond closing distance, a road opens up a people to influence and to be influenced. The word “socio-cultural” actually means relating to or concerned with the interaction of social and cultural factors.
They are the larger scale forces within cultures and societies that affect attitudes and behaviours of individuals. One of the salient traits of man is that he creates society; he creates culture. His existence is wrapped up in it as he must interact with others for companionship; he must trade to experience variety and separate from his parents to set up his own family institution for the purpose of continuity.
By these behaviours communities have developed their own ways of doing society – of marrying and giving in marriage, of cooking up indigenous delicacies, entertainment and art. These cumulatively are called the culture and traditions of a people.
Most Niger Delta settlements exist secluded from more civilized society, as less than one percent of its settlements can truly be regarded as urban centres (according to the NDDC Niger Delta Regional Development
Master Plan). As the saying goes, “a cripple is interested in dancing but unfortunately he cannot participate”. Due to the lack of infrastructure, the Niger Delta region, to a large extent, has not been predisposed to education and development and this is made evident in their taboos, child bearing and rearing practices, family structure, attitudes, values and religious practices.
The area is known for certain harmful cultural practices that affect reproductive health and hinder equal opportunity to the sexes; the practice of female circumcision, widowhood rites, child labour and preference for the male child. Maternal mortality rate is high and the under-five mortality rate is among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. Female genital mutilation is customary among the Urhobos of Delta State, and the Ishan and Bini in EdoState; while water borne diseases, attributed to unhygienic waste disposal methods, are prevalent in the area as a result of cultural behaviours steeped in ignorance and illiteracy.
It is hoped that the region would be opened up to the influence of education and the influx of social missions by the construction of the East-West Coastal road, developing the requisite facilities needed to lead a wholesome life like adequate health care and schools. As a result of this, certain changes are set to occur: Change in value systems. Every community has its value system.
Legacies of traditions passed down from past generations: These values are upheld through folklore, proverbs, song and dance; and formal traditional institutions protect the cultural heritage of ethnic communities. Development though inevitable brings with it the threat to traditional values and institutions. Value systems like living in canoe houses practiced by the Kalabari people, deity worship by the Biseni and Osiama people, respect for animals like lizards and crocodile as brothers, early marriages and female circumcision.
History has shown that development heralds a change in the value system of communities. While some may be considered beneficial, others may be viewed as negative developments. For instance, the loss of indigenous language to civilization as the people begin to imbibe more of Western and foreign culture in a globally connected world. Some of these indigenous traditions are still observed in part due to the separation from Western influence. As the Niger Delta opens up, it must face the reality of this threat.
Acculturation: Close interactions influence behaviour. That is why companions are said to be silent influencers because the individual unconsciously assimilates the verbal and body language of his cohorts and soon, their life style. In other words, acculturation takes place.
Acculturation strongly affects the attitudes and behaviours of a people. There already are similarities in the traditional dress of the Benin people of EdoState, the Asaba people of DeltaState and the Onitsha people of AnambraState just across the Niger bridge. In addition, moving through Edo into DeltaState, language begins to slowly alter from Ishan to Igbo as is seen with the people of Agbor and Anioma in DeltaState possessing a mix of Benin and Igbo in their history. This is an offshoot of cross border relations. Same can be seen with the Igbo speaking Ikwerre people of RiversState.
In a similar vein, due to the mass movement of people across Nigeria, the Yoruba culture of aso-ebi has been adopted across the nation, and events like births, burials and betrothals are marked by same clothing material which is the feature of aso-ebi.
The East-West Coastal road is expected to reduce transit time between Lagos and Port-Harcourt from the rigorous six-hour journey to three hours.
This certainly would increase cross community interaction and stimulate acculturation. Apart from language and dress, a road paves the way for both variety and blend. A drive down the road may reveal that roasted plantain may be eaten with groundnuts in Lagos or fish in Port-Harcourt but later disclose that combining the sweet yam of Ondo with the tasty, red palm oil of Edo would make a sumptuous evening meal.
Like the countries of the Caribbean, handled properly, it could become a haven of rich cultural sites where tourism and hospitality thrive.
Intermarriage: It is general knowledge that interaction brings about admiration as an individual can only admire what he is exposed to. As communities are brought closer, through the East West road, communities along this route will become more itinerant because of trade and other social factors. Relationships are bound to become broader and interests evolve further to marriage. As already can be seen in Nigeria today, people marry across ethnic groups as they
relate across borders. Walls of tribalism grow weaker and bonds of tolerance are strengthened through this medium.
If the Niger Delta is to enjoy the fine benefits of the East West coastal road, it should look to emulate the strategy of the Asian people by preserving its core values that make it unique while
capitalizing on technology and infrastructural advancement to better
the life of its people as the leopard may not change its spots but certainly can change its lot. Like the countries of the Caribbean,
handled properly, it could become a haven of rich cultural sites where tourism and hospitality thrive.
Ms Nneka Okonkwo, a trainer/facilitator and public analyst, wrote from Lagos.