Mission to Dame Patience’s Okrika Town
By Niyi Egbe
I had hunches that one story wouldn’t adequately narrate the sights of Port Harcourt, describe its residents and afford a commentary of its politics. Luckily, yet another trip unveiled much more reasons to do yet another story on the land of the Ikweres. Thankfully, amidst the demands of my schedules, a botched environmental sanitation exercise offered a welcome opportunity to further comb the city - more importantly, the suburbs.
Two destinations were high on the mind. First, Okrika, the hometown of our President’s Dame – our all too familiar First Lady, Dr Mrs Patience Jonathan. Then, Eleme, site of the famed Eleme Petro Chemical Plant. The trip was more compelling especially upon learning that both towns are geographically close.
I was ardent at seeing Okrika the town that has been well advertised by our First Lady, Madam Dame Patience Jonathan. No doubt, the town folks of madam first lady should be a humble lot. Much as cross-cultural marriages are beneficial - at least for the biological gain in heterosis. A town that released a precious daughter to a man whom the oracle must have revealed as been so poor and was shoeless at cradle deserves commendation. They were noble in placing a premium on substance rather than the frivolities. They took a gamble and gave Patience to Goodluck. Imagine what fate has bequeathed them, when Patience and Goodluck make part of a cauldron, the unimaginable happens, one of them making it to the Nigerian seat of power at Aso Rock.
As for Eleme, the attraction was the petrol chemical plant. As far as I can adequately recall, Eleme has been prominent in the vocabulary of the Nigerian oil industry. The reason is obvious. The oil industry is the jugular of the Nigerian economy and the plant has been there, ever spitting out thick smoke unto a seemingly unperturbed environ, playing its role in stirring the wheel of economy - offering sustained respite to a needy nation. Yes, the plant and the nearby refinery have been there for us, meeting the socio- economic need of the nation state, saints and thieving sinners.
I was smart enough to have departed from my lodge at Woji Layout in the wee hours. There is an on-going well-thought expansion of Woji road that evidently would better the lot of the Woji community. Over time, I had had bitter encounters with traffic jams on this road that has two bridges over murky and well polluted creeks. One of the bridges links Woji with Slaughter abattoir, Trans – Amadi Layout, the city centre with well laid out, ornamented and modernised expressways like the Old Aba Road, Stadium Road, Elekaya etc.
To have matters worse, on Woji Road, RCC, the construction company doesn’t seem bordered about the inconvenience on the road. I kept pondering over their snail-speed approach to the business. I had always had businesses around that road. My chauffeur contrasted the speed of the construction firm with Julius Berger whom he disclosed handled lots of projects in Akwa Ibom at their well-known professionalism and relative speed. When I wondered why I hadn’t sighted Julius Berger in Port Harcourt, he told a tale of the dread of construction workers operating in Rivers. Julius Berger workers became easy targets of kidnappers. Consequently, the construction giant had to determine its operation in the state. I couldn’t verify his claim, but I suspected that he may have been telling the truth. Armed security personnel are virtually ubiquitous in the city especially around construction workers and the premises of oil firms and oil installations.
Most of the expressways within Port Harcourt quite attest to the benevolent efforts of Governor Rotimi Amaechi at restoring the glory of the city. To my chagrin though, traffic jams on these roads are hellish experiences. You get the impression that governance has gone to sleep despite the acclaimed fear of the Traffic Management Authority of Rivers State (TIMARIV). Lawlessness appears a norm in Port Harcourt. It appears that traffic rules are read upside down in this city as adherence to basic traffic rules is poor. A seminal senior citizen of the state prepared my mind. He forewarned that I wouldn’t see any traffic lights functioning in the entire city. Odd enough, I found him right! Everyone seems to be lord on the roads. Amazingly, the worst offenders of these basic rules are law enforcement agents! In their customary overzealousness, at the happenstance of traffic logjams, you see them drive contrary to traffic, sacrificing loyalty to the state in order to please their pay masters. Here is the same state where it is known that Governor Amaechi who prides himself a citizen of Diobu (a ghetto similar to the Lagos AJ city), drives himself around – obeying traffic rules! Fashola wouldn’t take such anomie. In his Lagos, fearing Lagos Traffic Management Authority men is wisdom.
I have become uncomfortable about the rashness and harshness to be found on the streets of Port Harcourt. Everyone maintains his or her turf. Intrusions and deviant behaviours receive instant tongue-lashing or outright abuse. It may have its gains in that it keeps everyone in check and sane. However, a little milk of softness and politeness would have been expected in a city that appears close to God - considering the number of churches in its nooks and crannies.
I also attempted understanding the feeling of the man on the street about Governor Rotimi Amaechi and the fortunes of his newfound love- the All Progressives Congress. My take is that the people are much divided. Much as the people appreciate the governor for his transformative efforts, there is much sympathy for President Goodluck Jonathan, the first Nigerian President out of the Niger Delta. No doubt, voting would be steeply divided between the two mega parties. My prediction is that the odds would favour the Peoples Democratic Party, more for ethno-religious sentiments than reason.
I set for Eleme and Okrika from Woji through the Old Refinery road at Apajo. Happily but for one thoroughly dilapidated portion of that road, most of the trunk b road was okay. This road links a broader expressway that took us to destination Okrika. We drove for about thirty minutes without hitches before eventually detouring leftwards towards Okrika. It was a relief that this road leading to the economic jugulars of the nation was largely okay.
I was taken aback on realising that the nation’s premier petroleum refinery is sited at Okrika. I imagined that proximity to Port Harcourt has had most people deem Port Harcourt as the site of the refinery. The premises of the refinery were relatively kempt. Expectedly, needed security was provided at the entry point by the Nigeria Police. At the background, there were two well-worn chambers towering above other structures. A look at the state of the miserable looking nooses of the chambers adequately relayed the often told tales of the sorry state of our refineries. The chambers also spoke volumes of our legendary inability sustain infrastructural facilities and institutions. Simple maintenance and expansion for the future would have saved the nation billions that are frittered away through importation of fuel.
Also at the background, were several holding tanks. Of course every available cranny around the refinery accommodates 30 tonne trailers; these are the machines of burden that ferry refined petroleum to hinterlands. Further into the town, there was evidence of industrial dredging pumping out white sand – presumably destined for construction sites in Port Harcourt and the suburb.
All over Okrika, there is heavy security presence. Soldiers mount blockades to keep traffic under watch. The justification in their presence is easily understood. Besides protecting the nation’s huge investment in Okrika, this is home of Dame Patience Jonathan. Members of her immediate family would be ready targets of the famed kidnappers - the shameful malaise of our nation, largely domiciled in the South – south and South – East.
I risked sighting the home of Dame Patience. It took another ten-minute’s drive from the refinery across winding roads, road blocks by prying soldiers. We came across an idyllic green coloured cathedral after which an indigene proudly led us to a Palm adorned street where we had a good view of Dame Patience’s dark brown four floored complex. I was attempting further enquiries, hardly noticing a curious indigene that was becoming uncomfortable and wanted to decipher our mission. The chauffeur saved the day. In response to his latent aggression, he gave an impression that we were merely seeking direction but had been helped out. At that we stole out of the town.
As we made our way out, I couldn’t help but feel for the little town that has had its challenges with poverty and neglect. For a town that has been taking the toll of industrialisation, one would have expected some reprieve – good roads, well -built homes, high quality livelihood evident in the citizenry. These were visibly missing. They must be proud of their daughter’s achievement, announcing their existence through fate that gave the Niger Delta a chance. Even if a soothsayer had predicted and reassured as our Lord did to disciples “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom - Luke 12:32 KJV”, they probably in the light of their circumstances may not have believed. However, as Dame would have it, “There is God oh”. An Okrika Dame has achieved Aso Rock, a feat that not many female Professors of Queens English in the Ivy leagues would attain. Despite the sacrifice of this little town, die-hard Nigerian critics are harassing the daylight out of their daughter. They deem her lousy and incapable of speaking good English. Reminds me of the time of yore when a frustrated Sir Shina Peters whose music many of them loved, fired back a salvo at his critics: “Grammar no be my language”!
No doubt, the ordinarily quiet Okrika town set amidst transitory forests of mangroves and Elias guinnesis dotted rain forests has lost it innocence. The town is raped by smokes belched from the refinery plant and noisy intrusion of its ambience by industrial plants and vehicular movement. This painfully is a price that the community and others in similar throes have to pay to satisfy the quest for the black gold. Yet Nigerian critics would not allow an Okrika Dame rest! They forget that had Okrika had its dues for its sacrifice –providing the fuel that run auto engines, oil ships navigating our water ways and planes gliding our air, keeping domestic and industrial machinery running - their daughter Dame may have been too high priced for any Nigerian man to conquer. Can you beat it - even when their daughter is overtaken by emotions over the Chibok girls adoption saga amongst others, they keep sharaaing even such over the social media.
I had course to discuss with a young man who proudly identified himself as an indigene of the town. I told him about my earlier ignorance about the location of the refinery in Okrika. He expressed frustration at that noting that I was not alone. He lamented that oil business had robbed them of their socio-economic well-being. He also explained that despite the pollution and intrusion, they hardly have deserved recognition. In his view, such frustrations account in part for the emergence of Niger Delta warlords, one of them an indigene of Okrika called Ateke Tom. He disclosed that Ateke is revered in the town at least for helping in the struggle to win for his people, their dues.
After about an hour of having my feel of Okrika, I left that memorable town to nearby Eleme Petrochemical Plant. For a relieve, this was a better laid out. The plant also looked more modern and the plant running. Naturally, it kept spilling the effluence unto the ever receptive atmosphere. The circumstances of Eleme were no better than that of Okrika. There is hardly anything obvious that would represent the gain of the community for housing the mega – plant. It’s the same tell-tale of decayed infrastructural facilities unplanned housing layouts.
As I headed for the airport, I kept pondering the huge sacrifices that both Okrika and Eleme have been making for the nation. There was no manifest difference between the communities and other Nigerian towns and hamlets. It was evident to me that the rumpus over resource control would dog the nation for God knows how long!
My trip to and fro the refinery and petrol chemical plant would have spanned four hours. Aboard a late evening flight back to Lagos, I took my customarily look out of the windows to catch a view of Port Harcourt and the wonders of creation and the artistry of the creator. On the trip from Lagos, I had had wonderful views of the dragging of the Tiger by the tail, contending with the ocean for some space in its exclusive preserve, so we must have the Eko Atlantic City. From Lagos and beyond, there were beautiful lagoons, rivers, tributaries, deltas and estuaries sandwiched amidst rainforests and mangroves. Nearer Port Harcourt, one couldn’t miss the impressive expansive Oil Palm plantation which I am told is Rison Palm and the beautiful layout of the greater Port Harcourt.
As we jetted out of Port Harcourt, I picked up a conversation with a lady reading a Christian novel. We discussed, deeply impressed about the artistry in God, manifested in the myriad cloud forms. Between us was another lady who spoke in American accent. The been-to cautioned us against drawing her unto any religious conversation. As far as she was concerned, God does not exist. I had great pity for the lady who appeared worn, being in her twilight. The plane kept jerking as it glided through the growingly tempestuous clouds. I also pondered over the minuteness of man relative to the unfolding expanse of creation and couldn’t but have pity for the Americanah. I saw the truism in the Psalmist’s submission: “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God”. Ps 14:1KJV
Note please: This write up is a sequel to an earlier visit to the Garden City: http://www.nigeriavillagesquare.com/articles/garden-city-mission-and-national-politics.html