Old Ogoja: A Province Gone Under The Bushel? BY NKRUMAH BANKONG-OBI

In Breaking News, Columnists, National News, Opinion, Politics

By CrossRiverWatch Admin

Soldier of the Federal Government on patrol in Ogoja town in 1967

Political naming ceremonies are usually happy occasions. In the days of yore when the Nigerian military hierarchy created or ‘dashed’ those who lobbied most local government areas and states, such gestures brought the beneficiaries a sense of belonging despite the gapping national (in)cohesiveness.

Nothing signposts the feeling of joy and the ecstasy of those profiting from the new order more than the commemorative anniversaries that various states and local governments drain scarce resources to mark the creation of their domains.

The excitement of decentralization is clearly an established code for those who had felt punished by the cruelty of distance, marginalised by majority tribes within the same state and even those who just craved for power hubs of their own.

Indeed, this year, the first generation of states ever created in Nigeria will be fifty. On May 6, 1967, General Yakubu Gowon, war-time Head of States, decreed the uncoupling of Nigeria from regional configuration into a twelve state structure.

Some of those who governed the country after him but from his professional constituency also delineated the country into bits and pieces until there are now thirty-six states and seven hundred and seventy-four area councils.

Before the state creation exercise which was in part based on the recommendations of the Willinks Commission of 1956, Nigeria operated a four-tier system of administration. Authority flowed hierarchically from the Centre to the Regions.

The Provinces followed in that order, with Divisions occupying the bottom rung on the political authority tree. This arrangement had all its beauty and deficiencies. That analysis has been variedly dealt with by commentators on variegated levels of discussion.

Controversies greeted the inaugural state creation exercise because of the circumstance under which it was done. Progenitors and promoters of Biafra, including discerning (?) historians say, state creation was devised to break the fragile backbone of the then Eastern Region which effectively became an idependent state in May, 1967.

The argument remains that Biafra counted on the prospects of minority areas as an inevitable part of their new Republic. But there were grumbles and rumbles. The veracity or otherwise of this assertion that state creation was meant to break Biafra may never be addressed, officially.

But it laid the foundation for the subdivision of the country, in a supposed federal structure, into politico-economic units. Again, the new order came with a mix bag of pearls and sour grapes.

Nice as the concept of bringing government nearer to the people might be, there are noticeable minuses for the system. Division of a people into units, in some places, has become something like the affliction of gangrene disease. This illness prevents the flow of blood from one part of the body to the other and as it cascades through affected parts, results in decay of the areas starved of the vital human liquid.

This is precisely the case with the defunct Ogoja Province. Since its fusion with Calabar, Ibibio, Anang and Oron to form the then South-eastern State, the force that held the people from occupying the land mass from Obudu to Abi together has completely broken into carapaces.

Ogoja is one of only two former provinces that have not transmuted to states. (Ijebu is the other one). Inwardly, Ogoja stands as the only group without an association or unifying force. This lack of a voice has robbed the area of many things.

In the 1950 and perhaps early to mid 1960s, politics in Ogoja was hyperactive as was the case elsewhere. The Ogoja Progressive Union, the first pressure group of the people had membership drawn virtually from every facet of society. Of course, OPU began its steady decline following the widely orchestrated campaigns for creation of the Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers State.

Historically, the division occasioned by political party membership affiliation nibbled on the sinews of the association and caused irreparable damage. Take for example, Chief Ignatius Iwong Morphy, the great political icon from Ogoja was a staunch pillar of the Action Group.

It is little wonder that he became the only AG member in the Eastern Nigeria House of Assembly, given the effective political machinery that he mounted, particularly in the upper-ends of the Province, until the firs coup.

South of Ogoja, Dr. Samuel Imoke stood as counterforce to Morphy. Imoke was of the National Council of Nigerian Citizens. His astuteness led to his election as the Leader of the Eastern House of Assembly. Between these great names were other names like Dr. Okoi Arikpo, Dr. Matthew Tawo Mbu, Chief Michael Ogon, among others.

Despite the agonising peaks of their political rivalries and allegiances to different groups, they maintained the peace. Their foothold was not only oiled on the abstracts of their constituencies, these dabsters also had their supporters in check.

One easy pointer to the abundant peace in the area is captured by Adewale Ademoyega, one of the Majors who premiered the coup culture in Nigeria. In his book, Why We Struck, he tells readers that if peace had not been prevalent in Ogoja and other minority areas – despite the clamour for statehood – the Central government would not have hesitated to pluck off those affiliated areas to the Igbo majority tribe.

“As a matter of fact, if the Eastern Region experienced the same type of unrest as in the West, the Balewa government would not have hesitated to use it as an excuse to take over the government of the East and install their own henchman in Enugu [and] as a follow up, excise the C-O-R State out of the region.”

Nearly all of those shiny lights from Ogoja passed on in the 20th Century, not before bequeathing to Cross River State, what has become known as the Calabar Declaration, part of which pinpoints how to share power between the components parts of the state without one group feeling cheated.

That legacy of power sharing still subsists. But certainly, the collaborations across political party lines that their political fathers and grandfathers were known for have gone with the pioneers. The new generation of political leaders are hooked on the myopic offerings of party and petty sub-ethnic loyalties.

The present crop of leaders appears to be drained of hope. They seem to have no sense of loyalty to an ancestral legacy, they are insensitive to the plight of the Province and one may say, they don’t even know the historical implications and structure of Ogoja in the overall Nigerian project.

Most of these newbreed leaders don’t even know that the bacons separating the then Northern Protectorate from the Southern Protectorate also passed through Ogoja. They have forgotten (that is, if they knew before,) that it was I.I. Morphy’s tireless efforts that led to the recognition and organisation of the Obudu Cattle Ranch now renamed Obudu Ranch Resort.

They forget that through efforts of political leaders of the time, the Highway from Calabar to Makurdi was built to link the State. How do they keep the memory of Imoke’s effort to establish and preserve the Eja Memorial Hospital in Itigidi, and it still serves the people many years after his demise.

The 21st century generation of political gladiators have not consulted any historical materials to know how much energies went into the establishment of the farm settlements in Boki, Ikom, Obubra and elsewhere. Maybe none of them has found out the brains behind the Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation, rechristened Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources and why Ogoja Province received so much attention from Enugu.

The reason, I think is simple. Ogoja leaders at that time recognised the general potential embedded in the unique geography which includes; escarpments, enclaves and jungles, grassland. Rather, the area is constantly being described in derogatory terms.

Many people who talk about the food crisis during the civil war forget that part of what hit the Biafra mainland was the capture of the Ogoja and Abakaliki by the Federal Forces. Indeed, Achike Udenwa gives impetus to this assertion in his very balanced book, The Nigeria/Biafra War…My Experience.

Udenwa, a former Captain in the Biafra Army notes that “Food producing areas of Biafra were essentially the outlaying parts, especially Abakaliki and Ogoja to the North. Yam, rice and other staples were produced in these areas…with very few exceptions, the central area to which Biafra was composed was, and is still largely deficient in the major staples.”

It is unfortunate that the 21st century Ogoja leader does not see beyond the glitters of a personal house, chubby-looking children, and self-preservation. That is why, even the structures erected on the pillars of equity have been pulled down. Small conflicts have graduated to tribal wars as there was between Boki and Ekajuk in the 1980s and presently between Nko and Obubra areas.

Among these, there are many more gun-running activities and leaders buying bullets as gifts for fellow provincial citizens to kill themselves. While these go on, the abundant swampy areas in the Northern territories of ogoja, Yala, Obudu, Obanliku, fantastic for rice cultivation are left to fallow without end.

In the Central areas of Boki, Etung, Ikom and Obubra, nobody cares whatever happened to the Cocoa farms, banana plantations and other agro produce except peasant farmers who tag along farmlands to eke a living.

Even with the new wave of agriculture catching up everyone across the country, very little is being heard from that part of the country about how these resources could be tapped to feed the people and at least their immediate neighbours.

The average Ogoja leader has become so inwardly driven to a degree that communal welfare means little. While the thirteen Local Government Areas that make up the defunct Province boast of a Federal College of Education, the people hardly can point to anything that qualifies them as Nigerians.

There is no Federal medical facility within sight in Ogoja, the Federal roads have completely failed, no university, nothing outside of two military barracks. Is this because Ogoja is deficient in terms of a voice to speak of her plight? Doubts abound. This area has in the last fifty-six years produced Ministers, legislators at the Federal level.

Ogoja has had a senate president and other key elective and appointed officers at the centre. As to why public infrastructural are totally absent in the place, we can blame on all factors except a voice to speak out.

None has bothered to give the voice box a loud throttle. That effectively leaves Ogoja and her privileged daughters and sons who are comfortable working as national collaborators without regard for their natural roots, in a lurch.

There is, in my view, just one way to go. The Ogojas must take advantage of the gospels of regional integration and find a way out of the problems bedevilling the area. Concrete steps should be taken by the local councils to, amongst themselves, work out collaborative modalities and frameworks along the lines of healthcare funding, agriculture, transportation.

This should be taken as self-help processes towards demanding for better treatment from the Federal government. There is actually no reason why local governments cannot collaborate on tax collection and sharing, small infrastructure development and joint ventures in small and medium enterprise development.

There is need for reawakening of Ogoja consciousness. Ogoja is deserving of a non-political association to drive her dreams and ambitions. The modalities for the workability are to be drawn by the people themselves. Politicians who are potential members must beforehand, should be told to practice their trade within the group with the highest amount of decency and discernment.

Professionals should be encouraged to play lead roles in driving the process of revitalising a Province that was once a focal point of Nigerian political activities. Such a group should come with a sidekick, a youth wing to take care of the leadership training needs of the younger generation.

When these steps have been taken, we would have erected a platform to ask from the centre, the things that qualify us a part of Nigeria. If such national shares were swallowed by our kith and kin, then such wolves should be made to undergo restitution until we have back the proceeds of their illegalities. Along this, a massive blueprint for compensation plan from the Nigerian government should be worked out.

Bankong-Obi, journalist and poet is reachable via banxobi@gmail.com. His book, The First Shot: Old Ogoja Province and the Untold Story of the Nigeria-Biafra War is billed for publication soon.

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