By Josef Omorotionmwan
IN his first post coronation speech, the Benin Monarch, Omo n’Oba n’Edo, Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II, Oba of Benin, spoke glowingly on the urgent imperative of reawakening the Gelegele Seaport. We must hasten to say that any meaningful discussion of Gelegele cannot be divorced from the adjacent Ughoton village and its Beach as both settlements are mutually inclusive.
In this analysis, Ughoton and Gelegele will be used interchangeably without any fear of contradiction. Both villages in Ovia North East Local Government Area of Edo State are situated on the left flank of the Ovia River as it begins to break up and gradually empties itself into the Benin River.
The clarion call from the Benin Monarch is a direct invitation to reawaken our sense of Benin history dating back to 400 years before the British invasion of 1897 when it was obliterated.
The development of the Gelegele port is not just about opening up the Gelegele and Ughoton areas; but it is more about spreading commerce and industry to the entire State, the country and the world at large. Before we know it, ship-building and maintenance as well as stevedoring activities, which promise thousands of jobs for our teaming youth population, will spring up everywhere. The tourism potentials here are enormous, plus the limitless opportunities for developing our inland waterways.
We are today being invited to reinvent an idea that had in the past successfully placed the Edo nation well ahead of all others in the commerce of the entire West Africa sub-region.
This is a foreshadowing of the early potentials of Ughoton but 120 years ago, tragedy struck! There came the Benin-British War when the seaport and Benin City itself were completely destroyed. The port was abandoned in its wreck and total ruins; and Benin became a land-locked Kingdom – a Kingdom without an access to the sea.
At the Battle of Ugbine on the Ughoton-Benin Route, the then Head of the British Administration, Acting Consul-General James Phillip, and his lieutenants were murdered. That was the beginning of the end.
Incidentally, some of these things are not time-barred. In all conscience, the British authorities must be prepared to pay war reparations for the wanton destructions they inflicted on the Benin Kingdom. This will be a subject for another day.
The new call for the actualisation of the much-touted Export Processing Zone for the Gelegele Seaport is a renewal of the call for Benin Kingdom to return to its glorious past. Ughoton has been the commercial nerve centre where the extensive interactions between Benin and the outside world took place. Portuguese ships sailed from Lisbon to Ughoton where they traded and interacted with Benin. Other ships came from France, Holland, Britain and Spain. There was free trade and competition among the European countries.
From the onset of the commercial activities, the European traders – particularly the Portuguese – anchored their ships at Ughoton and went to the hinterland in Benin City where they rented houses from the natives for their residence and warehouses for their wares; and where they kept the goods they purchased which they later transferred to Ughoton by locally hired porters for onward transportation to their home countries.
In later years, the Dutch established its supremacy by capturing Elmina Castle in Ghana and ousting the Portuguese. The Dutch made Elmina Castle the Headquarters of their West African trade, establishing a strong link with Ughoton, where they later stayed for almost a century, revolving staff of the Dutch West Indian Company between Elmina and Ughoton.
The history of the early Benin civilization will be incomplete without mention of the fact that the Dutch built the first storey building at Ughoton in 1718 – almost two centuries before the famous “Egedege n’ Okaro” of the Chief Iyamu Osawe fame in the present Erie Street, Benin City, in 1906.
The Ughoton house was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Benin Kingdom. For the building, the Dutch drew extensively on the expertise of the Igun blacksmiths and the carpenters (Owina) of Benin City; while the wood for the doors, windows and the floor for the upper storey were provided by the Owinas from the timbers of the Ughoton forest. Nails of different sizes and shapes were provided by the blacksmiths.
At that time, import trade between the European traders and the Edos revolved around iron rods, dane guns, gun powder, which came from the Dutch; while coral beads, red flannel, silk, velveteen, mirror, matches, cutlasses, knives, spirits and other miscellaneous items were brought by other nationals.
On the Export side – commodities that the Europeans bought from Edos – were ivory, clothes (dyed and undyed), red wood, gum Arabic, spices; and other miscellaneous items as well as female slaves. It is instructive that from the beginning, Edos abhorred the idea of selling male slaves to other lands.
We have gone at this great length to show the significance of Ughoton as the commercial hub of Nigeria back to some six centuries ago. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be… This is perhaps the breakthrough in job and wealth creation as well as the industrial and commercial revolutions that we have been waiting for!
This time around, Governor Godwin Obaseki means business. Once he caught the vision, he ran away with it. He hit the ground running and immediately awarded the project to China Harbour Engineering Company Limited – a no-nonsense Company that has been in operation since 1994; with no single report of project abandonment. The Company has over 90 branches; and it is currently operating in over 100 countries across the globe, including Nigeria where it is handling the Calabar and Warri Ports; and the Lekki Deep Seaport. On the Gelegele Seaport, the Company is working around the clock.
The return to Gelegele is reminiscent of the time-honoured Benin aphorism, “Ugbo n’erha omwan ka gbe, ei bun omwan ughanmwan” – farming on a secondary vegetation facilitates cultivation.
Victor Hugo (1802-1885) is relevant here. Nothing beats on idea whose time has come. The Gelegele Seaport is that idea!