•‘Cross River govt made us lose everything; when will they rescue us?’

By Jacob Ajom

It has always been a thing of joy for the kids, in particular, anytime we decide to travel to the village as a family. The last time we did that was during the burial of my late father, Pa Jerome Ajom in 2015. A chartered bus took the entire family from Lagos, down to Arangha, Isobendeghe, Boki Local Government in Cross River State.

Since then, we hardly trvelled as a family as we have been making the trip in singles or in twos. The trip in 2015 was a delight. Though we were going for the burial of our father, it was fun. My daughters, Ann, Jennifer and Lynda, all choiresters, kept the bus warm, chanting renditions, especially gospel songs that could have made the top charts if waxed into LP.

Almost five years after that experience, we decided to do an encore. This time, it was my elder sister, Madam Agnes Bechena Obon’s burial. She died since February, 2020 and her burial was delayed due to the long months of coronavirus, which made movement difficult. Her burial was fixed for Octorber 3 and we decided to go home a few days ahead, as there was still so much to be done.

In Lagos, we live at Okokomaiko, in Ojo, a stone throw to Alaba International Market, where Okeyson, a popular inter-state transport operator has its branch office. They are one of the few operators that go to Ikom, the nearest township to my village. Going to them was deliberate as their drivers were conversant with the terrain and had a sound knowledge of the routes.

Saturday 26 September, the driver drove the bus down to our premises. As at 11 p.m, the bus was loaded and everything was set for the journey. Sunday, September 27th, we left my premises at 4.30 a.m in order to avoid the Lagos traffic and get home in good time. The journey began smoothly as everything worked according to plan. As at 2 pm we had gone past Enugu State, heading toward Ebonyi. The driver was consistent and gave us good musical vibes from the mp3 he installed on his dashboard.

Although Ann was present on the trip, Jennifer and Lynda were not. A tree they say, cannot make a forest. The bus was usually quiet, whenever the driver stopped his music. Ann was not motivated to sing as the circumstances were different from the 2015 trip. Apart from the fact that there was neither Jennifer nor Lynda on the trip, the death of my sister had enormous effect on us all. In Pa Jerome’s case, it was a celebration of life as we were talking about a man who was close to 100. But here was a lady that was serving so many purposes for different people to just die without warning. Agnes was sick for close to two weeks before her sudden death. It was traumatic to say the least. Nobody was in the mood to sing.

Even as quiet and sombre as the mood was, the journey was progressing. We got to Mbok Junction, facing Ikom at about 5.30 pm, with the hope of reaching home by 7, at the latest. When we got to Nkarasi 2 Junction, from where the road that leads to my village began, it was already 5.45 pm. There was hope, we could achieve our target of early arrival.

The driver was becoming uneasy, after we entered the feeder road that leads to my village. It had patches of tar here and there, showing that it had once been tarred. “How far is your village from here?” the driver asked. “Just a few kilometers away,” I assured him. His mood changed as we approached one slippery, bumpy terrain. He drove very slowly, testing the depth of each pothole as he moved. He maintained the slow pace as it became evident that he did not know much of the road.

But I was a perfect guide as I kept assuring him to ‘go on, your motor no go sink’. Then he asked again, “How many villages are we going to pass through before getting to your place?” I did not hesitate to give him the correct answer because I wanted him to brace up for the worst. “Four villages! And mine is the innermost of the villages.” He murmured, “the last village and we have not seen one yet?” I assured him we would get to the first village soon.

“The road is so bad,” he continued. I agreed with him. As we moved from one slippery turn to another, he became agitated, and swore to himself, ‘I will never try this again,”. The road was mostly covered by natural red, sticky soil with countless potholes and gullies. Only a few ‘troublesome’ hills are covered with patches of tar; and that must have been done a long time ago, as the tar has been washed away by the vagaries of the weather and time; a reality made worse by the ceaseless rains. It started to rain and a veil of darkness slowly creeping over the heavily dark and misty sky. From around us there were some hissing sounds produced by birds, crickets and other wild insects from the rain forest.

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We drove past the first small farm settlement after Nkarasi, called Nkum. Not far from Nkum we came to a sudden stop atop one of the hills. In the opposite direction, we saw a trailer loaded with timber stuck at the bottom of the hill. Where the trailer stood was the only “passable lane” as the other side which was ‘free’ was not pliable. It had a track which had been dug deep by tractors. Any driver that dared to pass there would get stuck.

Some local drivers tried and were only ‘helped’ out by some local boys for a handsome fee. Our driver looked at the road again and shook his head. “Oga, I no fit put my motor for that place,” he said. By this time, the night was fast approaching and the rain was on the increase. “I no fit carry company motor put inside that mud. What if we get stuck, how do we get out of it. And if we pass, how do I return tonight?” He kept to his word and remained firm. Indeed, our journey from Lagos terminated at that point, albeit, temporarily. “What do we do?” I asked calmly.

I studied the situation and agreed with the driver that the risk was too much.

I made up my mind to rush to the nearest settlement and get another vehicle to take us home. Luckily I saw a motorcycle. I rushed to a nearby plantation settlement where I hired another vehicle. The driver only agreed to follow me when I agreed to pay him N10,000. We got to the spot, the Lagos vehicle was still there waiting. We transferred our luggage to the new vehicle I brought and that was how we got home that night. It was a torrid experience.

That particular spot has become a death trap for many motorists. On the day we were returning, we took bikes and we still met the same scenario. Over ten trucks were waiting to have their way as another was stuck to the mud. A family of about six, spent the night there when the Sienna car they were travelling in got stuck at that place.

The Nkarasi/Iobendeghe road is about 30 kilometres long. It had been there even before Nigeria’s independence. According to my late father, Pa Jerome Ajom, the road was constructed through manual labour by the people of Isobendeghe. It is the only available road to Ikom and provides the fastest link between Boje, where Boki Local Government Headquarter is located and Ikom. In the post colonial era, when Ikom was a District headquarter under Ogoja Division, Boje had an administrator (D.O) who reported to Ikom.

The Nkarasi/Isobendeghe/Boje Road provided the link for smooth running of the area. Long before the Nigeria/Biafra civil war the road provided the gateway for both economic activities and social interaction for the Isobendeghe/Boje people with the rest of the world. Quite unfortunately, successive governments of Cross River State have ignored that road and it has gone from bad to worse. It is a nightmare to motorists, especially during the rainy season.

It has been made worse by the heavy traffic of heavy trucks that convey farm produce and in particular, timber. Right from his first year in office, the Governor of Cross River State, Professor Ben Ayade declared timber business illegal. He empowered the Forestry Commission to carry out effective monitoring of the activities of illegal timber dealers. He also set up two task forces, one on anti-deforestation and another on forestation. All these are said to still be in place yet the activities of the timber dealers have intensified.

Barrister Jacob Dakim, an Isobendeghe indigine based in Calabar said despite the heightened activities of the timber dealers, the community gets nothing, in terms of financial returns. “Before the ban on timber business, the community used to collect money from the operators before they were allowed to take their timber out. But since government have declared the business illegal, the operators have now become deadlier as they have refused to pay the communities anything. Instead, they choose to pay tips to government officials than to the community. We have lost everything,” he lamented.

He said he confronted one of the truck drivers as he was returning to Calabar, but the man dismissed him with a wave of hand. When will the government of Cross River State come to the rescue of the forgotten people of Isobendeghe, Nsadop and their belligerent neighbours, Boje, Kataba, Kanyang, Buanchor and the rest of the Boki people. Going to Isobendeghe in Boki Local Government Area of Cross River State is a journey like no other.

“Haven’t we suffered enough?” asked Barrister Dakim.

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