By Mike Ebonugwo
A few years ago, Rivers State featured prominently in the news for the wrong reasons. The state which was before then famous for the peaceful disposition of its people and the beauty of its environment soon became a familiar hunting ground for undesirable elements who unleashed terror on the populace.
It all began with rival cult gangs which frequently engaged themselves in bloody supremacy battles in Port Harcourt, the state capital and other parts of the state. Several lives were lost during these cult related clashes. It was a development that seriously tasked the intelligence of the state government and security agencies as they appeared at their wits end in responding to the resulting security challenges.
Rivers State was yet to recover from the cult gangs menace when different militant groups exploded on the scene. Hiding under the guise of freedom fighters, the militants soon began to make demands bordering on compensation or reparation for the despoliation of their land through oil exploration activities.
In the event, they threatened and actually attacked oil companies operating in the state as well as individuals and groups who opposed them. It was also not long before they decided to up the ante by resorting to kidnapping oil workers and other prominent individuals in exchange for huge ransom payments.
It also emerged that it was the cult gangs that later graduated into the militant groups, believing that militancy would help shed off the cult notoriety and imbue their actions with some measure of nobility.
But their activities soon set them on a collision course with security agents as both the state and the Federal governments responded by deploying security task force teams to curtail their criminal activities. This resulted in several clashes between the militants and security agents which claimed many casualties.
While this unsavoury situation lasted, Rivers State and its people remained the biggest losers. This is because the state soon became notorious as a place where lawlessness reigned unrestrained, a place to be avoided as peace appeared to have gone on exile.
That was the prevailing situation when the present administration of the state headed by Governor Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi was sworn into office. And it was also a situation the new government was determined to stamp out as it did not hide its intention to wield the big hammer against all those who had turned the state into a perpetual war zone.
The Governor in particular was persistent in his expressed position that those who are aggrieved or have a grouse against the authorities could express same through legally approved means rather than taking the laws into their hands.
He vowed to end the reign of terror in his state, and he did through the cooperation of the Federal Government which constituted the Joint Task Force, JTF, which soon sent the various militant groups on the run. The war, however, eventually ended when the late President Umaru Yar’Adua administration successfully initially and implemented an Amnesty Programme that led to most of the militants and groups laying down their arms.
The return of peace in the state soon hastened the pace of development as engineered by the Amaechi administration. And today the people are the happy for it as they continue to sing the praises of their Governor for providing them the much desired dividends of democracy.
And indeed, the government and people of Rivers State can today afford to embark on a cultural revival and to celebrate their cultural endowments after years of being kept off the streets by booming guns.
Presently, they revisiting a cultural fiesta, Carnival Rivers or Carniriv, which came into existence about two decades ago. Rivers State has since last Saturday been a bee hive of festivities as the Governor, his wife and other prominent individuals in the state lead the people to the streets to make merry.
It began in Port Harcourt with an ECOWAS Peace Pageant contest that featured 15 countries from the West African Sub region. It was full of thrills and frills. And from every indication, tomorrow promises to be a befitting climax of the weeklong celebration.
Last year, Gov. Amaechi had taken steps to give a legal backing to Carniriv by proposing a bill to institutionalize and to have an agency to manage this annual event.
The state’s Deputy Governor, Engr Tele Ikuru, had last year while receiving the working document of the programme for the festival informed that plans were top gear to legalise the annual cultural fiesta. He said that the new law was intended to make Carniriv a permanent event. It is expected to come into effect once the Rivers State Carnival Development Agency Bill 2011 is passed by the state House of Assembly.
According to Engr Ikuru, with the law in place, the carnival is sure to reawaken “the interest of our people in their cultural heritage”.
It is an optimism shared by the consultants to this year’s event, Messagewise Limited, saying it would surpass the previous ones in terms of organization and sophistication. Its Executive Vice Chairman, Dr Henry Nzekwu, informed that borrowing from the experience of last year’s event which saw different MDAs working together for its success, the carnival this year was programmed to have different ministries, agencies, stakeholders and volunteers collaborating to ensure a world class event. He also used the opportunity to call on people of the state and its well wishers to participate fully in the event.
On his own part, the Commissioner for Culture and Tourism, Dr Nabbs Imegwu told journalists in Port Harcourt that adequate materials and resources were provided, while all necessary arrangements were made to ensure that the festival would be a memorable one that will set a bench mark for future events.