By  Patrick Dele Cole
THE King of Abonnema has just finished a magnificent building he called his palace. The king of Okpo has done same – built a palace. But there the similarity ends. Abonnema is one of the major towns among the Kalabari Ijaws; its history is long and illustrious. It has prominent indigenes whose names are common to all Nigerians, Wenike Briggs, Ajumogobia, Graham-Douglas, Ferdinand Alabraba, W.W. Whyte, Mr. Justice Adolphus Karibi Whyte (SCJ), Odoliyi Lolomari (ex M.D., NNPC), Olu Fubara, Ambassador D.D. Obunge, Admiral Bob Manuel, Chief Lulu Briggs, Dr. Dodiyi Manuel, Capt. Briggs (ex-Minister of Transport), Capt. Ajumogobia, Chief S.K Dagogo Jack (ex-INEC Chairman), Deputy Comptroller of Customs, Bibi Akpana, Tom Fabyan (former M.D. African Petroleum), L.M. Jacks (Permanent Secretary, Internal Affairs), Miss World (Agbani Darego); Miss Nigeria (Syster Jack), etc.

Bottled water samples stand on a table as Nigerian tribal king Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi speaks during an interview in central London on November 21, 2016. Britain’s High Court will on November 22, begin to hear arguments on whether the English Courts can hear two legal claims on behalf of over 40,000 Nigerians against Royal Dutch Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC), in relation to environmental damage caused to two separate communities in the Niger Delta. / AFP PHOTO

Okpo, on the other hand, is a small village which many years ago you would have passed even before you blink once. It is part of Obuama or Harry’s town which is regarded as a small village in the pantheon of Kalabari Ijaw towns. So Okpo is a small village.  A few years ago, some oil companies did some seismic work in Okpo village. In doing so they brought in a lot of equipment, reclaimed large tracks of land, and employed hundreds of people – thus awakening a small dot of a village into a potential metropolis. The seismic activity ended and the oil company packed up and left. Chief Diamond Bob Manuel Tobin-West saw his opportunity in this substantial real estate, substantial compensation for the seismic activities from a company with a lively corporate social responsible mentality. The people of Okpo were compensated. Instead of Chief Diamond taking his own share of the money to Port Harcourt to build a beautiful house and or a hotel, he decided to return to the blink spot and there rebuilt his community. The chief is a man who lives by example. He is a graduate from UK and Canada: has a family well settled in these countries.

Chief Diamond built himself a palace in the old seismic site. He encouraged his people to return and follow his example. He built a complex of six houses; his brothers and sisters are in the process of completing modern structures, with roads and amenities – water, electricity, schools, etc. Last Christmas and New Year celebrations in his palace had all modern amenities, complete with carols, fireworks, plenty of food and drinks. There is a clinic nearby, he has galvanised all the villages around him and a modern metropolis is taking shape in a formerly one – blink village. His neighbours in the bigger town of Obuama are beginning to recognise his worth and influence and constantly visit him to talk about the progress of Okpo and the surrounding area. Incidentally, the Deputy Governor of Rivers State, Mrs. Harry Banigo is from Obuama, so is Chief Ombo Harry, once Executive Director Finance, of NNPC. The former Chairman of PDP Rivers State, Marshall Harry, the former Deputy Speaker of Rivers State House of Assembly, another Harry and so on are from Obuama. None of the above have the vision of Chief Diamond who hopes to build a true metropolis in this forsaken enclave.

People like Diamond are the types the oil companies and governments should seek out – people with vision – his neighbours from the bigger town of Obuama are constantly ribbing him that he is a king of five houses. He smiles and says he alone has six; by this time next year there would be over 200 with an economic infrastructure that may surpass the bigger neighbour. He plans holiday resorts, extensive fishing and agricultural projects, a resurgence of Kalabari culture and civilisation – both issues of which he is an expert. Diamond’s father grounded his upbringing in the culture of the Ijaw Kalabari: much of that culture is in the masquerades, songs and drums played by the Sekiapu Ogbo of which Chief Diamond is the head.

The Sekiapu (dancers) are the custodians of Ijaw culture: they have their own hierarchy, monopolise the dancing and all cultural activities of Kalabari, have a legal system and the power of enforcement; they are unafraid to confront chiefs because traditionally you cannot be an Ijaw Kalabari chief without first being a member of the Sekiapu Ogbo. They beat the drums for the masquerades, for the various houses of chiefs; they perform nearly all the traditional judicial and cultural functions. No chief goes against Sekiapu because they can place a curse on your house, and that house or family is as good as finished.

Every chiefly household has a peculiar song or beat which, when the drummer begins to call the names of the chief’s ancestors, that chief has to acknowledge the call and point to the direction of his homestead. Diamond was trained by his father in these drums and their meaning. It is like the Oriki of the Yoruba, or the Opi (flute) of the Ibo. As the Oriki of your family and father’s kin etc. is being recited, a true Yoruba knows the words by heart and sings and dances to his ancestor’s praises. The same is true of the Opi flutists of the Ibo. It is impossible to understand your culture if you do not know the meanings of the songs and history of your people; if you cannot follow the flutist or the Oriki. Indeed, if you do not, the flutist or the Oriki poet has a way to tell everyone that an imposter is in their midst!! Among the Kalabari, the drummers, on seeing that you have not acknowledged your tradition or history or culture, such as in the beat of the drum, the drummer begins to abuse, drumming that you have no ears; your ears are mere leather!! Diamond’s father was also a master craftsman of the heads of the various masquerades which belong to each house.

For you to become a chief in Kalabari land you have to be chosen by your people. At the ceremony of installation they ask the prospective chief, who would have demonstrated his wealth – by fitting out war canoes with warriors, the canoes have to be rigged with canon guns; he must also fit out a fanciful regatta, which is followed by a large crowd with songs, dancers and guns. The prospective chief must have a house, and if he is married, must have a house for each of his wives. At the installation he is asked whether he has been to prison (you cannot be a chief if you were an ex-convict or if he was a witch or wizard). The new chief denies belonging to any cult of witches or wizards.

He is then presented with a cannon ball and a food plate or damsel. If, the prospective chief is further asked, when the war drums hit out, and you are making love to your wife or eating, what would be your response? The correct answer is that you would seize the cannon ball; abandon food and wife in favour of the safety of your people: you would immediately prepare and go to war. The central notion of this piece is to counter the view that oil itself and its exploitation destroy the people. In Okpo the King and his Chiefs made money from oil, started a restructuring and rebuilding of their community with clear goals and plans.

In Akulga Local Government too, of which Abonnema is the headquarters, the various oil companies have given millions of naira to the Amayanabo (Head) a first class chief, and other chiefs. These monies are simply divided among some of the chiefs: while actively trying to prevent other chiefs from enjoying this munificence. Oil money in one community is used progressively, not so in another, leading to endless disputes, intrigues and law suits. Money from oil is not bad; it is the use to which people put it.


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