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Journey to Otuoke

By Ochereome Nnanna

EXACTLY four years ago, I wrote a travelogue with the title: “Journey to Katsina”. I was in the state that was billed to produce the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria after the 2007 presidential election.

The presidential candidate of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Alhaji Umaru Yar’ Adua, and his counterpart of the All Nigerian Peoples Party, ANPP, General Muhammadu Buhari, both of whom were the front runners in the contest, hailed from the state. I was privileged to tour Katsina extensively over a period of two weeks.

This year, I decided to travel to Otuoke, a small creek hamlet in the Ogbia Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. The trip started on Thursday, April 14 when I landed at the Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa in Rivers State aboard a very punctual Nigerian Eagle plane. Chukwunwaja, an Ikwerre titled chief, decided to forgo a meeting to  take me to Yenagoa in his Toyota Avalon.

I booked into Hoil Suites, Yenagoa. I later found out that this hotel belonged to controversial Senator Heineken Lokpobiri, the man who was accused by a youth corps member of hiding INEC voting materials in his house. Funny enough, it was under the roof of his hotel that I did a follow-up story on the ballot-snatching incident before proceeding to Otuoke the following day.

Vanguard’s Correspondent in Bayelsa State , Sam Oyadongha, is from the state. He has everything worth knowing about the state on the palm of his Ijaw hands. It was through Sam that I am able to enjoy the best in Ijaw cuisine whenever I am in Yenagoa. And so, I was in excellent hands as we took off to Otuoke, a 15-minute distance from Yenagoa in his conky-wonky Mercedes 190. The car takes a couple of eternities and some real hard fiddling with the ignition key to grunt to life, but once it gets going, it goes like the breeze. I nicknamed it “Zion Train”, which Sam, from the way he smiled, did not mind. Sam has a brand new Kia Rio which he gave his wife. Usually, it is the wife that gets the old car when the husband acquires a new one.

Sam promised me that the Otuoke I visited over three years ago when the father of the then Vice President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan died had given way to a new suburban settlement. I remember my first trip to Otuoke, a town of about 5,000 people. It was then a roadside hamlet with a single major road running through it past the Kolo Creek Bridge then under construction by the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). The only facility of note then was a hotel owned by Dame Patience Jonathan. Obviously, she did not build the hotel for profit or else she would have built it in Yenagoa just like others.

Today, Otuoke has changed dramatically. The road through the town has been widened and drained on both sides by a gutter. Women sweep it everyday to keep the town clean. The road is flanked with solar-powered street lamps. The President’s green-and-white duplex bombed by the militants at the height of the Niger Delta crisis has not been repaired. I was told the President wants to keep it as a memoriam of sorts. Instead, a modest two-storey building is being built for the presidential family beside the bombed-out one. The President and his family stay at the hotel when home.

As if to confirm this, an armoured tank was stationed there, with fierce-looking soldiers on guard. A Skill Acquisition Centre is nearing completion in the town. With the proposed federal university to be sited there, Otuoke is receiving the attention of property developers from all parts of the country who are buying up the lands around the town.
The Ogbia area is said to have the largest portion of solid ground in a state that is chiefly grounded by swamps, creeks and water. In addition, there is a mini “Eagle Square” built by Governor Timipre Sylva and named after Mrs Jonathan.

Sam and I decided to go on a quest to find out what the President’s middle name: “Ebele” meant. We walked into the native quarters off the road where we saw an ancient storey building owned, quite obviously, by a rich local in times past. Beside the house we saw one young man named Prosper who referred us to his youngish mother, Noyem Tina.

She too did not know. She referred us to an elderly man who was cooking his lunch on a stove. His name was Pa Egum Eguma.

He disclosed that though their compound was different from that of the Jonathan family they all belonged to the Ikati Family of Otuoke. He said he did not go to school and did not know how old he was but was “already cutting palm nuts” before Jonathan was born.

That would put him at about 70. He confessed he did not know the meaning of Ebele. He opined that it could have been a name brought from Igbo, Isoko, Urhobo or “wherever”. Before we left, Madam Tina announced to us that she had plenty of land for sale in case we were interested. When I asked her how much she sold a plot, she told me to see her brother as ladies were not allowed to go into that!

Pa Eguma referred us to yet another elderly member of the family, one Chief Saturday Ibuku, who worked on the opposite bank of the Kolo Creek Bridge . Prosper took us to the man who happened to be his grandfather. Chief Ibuku, who was obviously a Christian preacher, greeted us with a couple of quotations from the Bible.

When we posed the question to him about the meaning of Ebele, he ducked his head into the crook of his arm as if warding off a blow. He remained like that for about a minute. When he broke the surface, he told us that Ebele meant “he who comes from a house where great things happen”. On my earlier visit to Otuoke, I had been told that Ebele meant “fire”.

In effect, Sam and I failed in our quest. What was more, Sam, an “Ijaw to the core”, did not understand a word when these Ogbians conversed. Another Ijaw colleague, Hector Igbikiowubor, had accused Ogbia people saying: “They are not real Ijaws”, though he could not say what they were!

I have a prediction. Before long, Otuoke will become a major satellite town to Yenagoa, going by the rate of property development by land speculators there.


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