Changing The Face of Tompolo's 'Kingdom'

 [ Masterweb Reports ] - A visit to Okerenkoko, in Gbaramatu clan of Warri South West Local Government Area of Delta State is still dreaded by many people who are conversant with the notorious role it played in the days of militancy in the Niger Delta region. So, an inspection tour of projects executed by the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, in Okerenkoko, Kurutie and Ugborodo communities through the meandering creeks of the delta is not an assignment for the faint hearted.


Although Apostle Oluba Tikiwei, one of the leaders of Okerenkoko Federated Communities, would want visitors to feel at home in the island, the reality is that the eerie feeling that one is in a zone with serious security challenges still persists. Okerenkoko is still wrapped in an aura of fear and mystic. It is still perceived as the hotbed of militancy, three years after the Joint Military Task Force (JTF) stormed the area to dislodge the dreaded forces of Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo, the leader of the ruthless Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta [MEND]. Tikiwei and other community leaders of the town feel pained about the negative perception of Okerenkoko as a militants’ stronghold. “We are peaceful and law-abiding people like Nigerians in other parts of the country. All our people are asking for is development. We contribute enormously to the economy of Nigeria, so we expect that basic amenities like water and schools should be provided for us,” Tikiwei said. It was against this background that Chief Solomon Ogba, the representative of Delta State on the board of the NDDC, recently led a team of other officials of the interventionist agency and journalists into the belly of the tiger so to speak. For three days, high ranking officials of the commission traversed the creeks and open water-ways in Warri and Escravos, to inspect NDDC projects in some of the coastal areas of Delta State. On arrival at the Okerenkoko jetty, a group of young men waited anxiously, apparently trying to figure out if we were friends or foes. One of them had a video camera that was recording every move we made right from the landing point.


In a way, the people of Okerenkoko may be right in saying that they are being misjudged by those of us who are still petrified by the thought of dynamites going off and guns booming. When our speedboat anchored at the jetty after a bumpy ride on rough waters, we saw a people that were suspicious of visitors and cautious in dealing with them. They were, however, not hostile. That helped to shore up our confidence and wiped out the impression that the island is a “no go area.’


Ogba inspected the 1.8-kilometre shore protection project in Okerenkoko, which had reached an advanced stage. He said there was need to increase the tempo of work at the shore-lines. Thus, he directed the contractor to see him within 24 hours to straighten out some issues concerning the job. The engineer on site, Mr. James Joshua promised that the sand-filling of the shore-line would be completed in March 2013.


Perhaps, the NDDC team got a friendly treatment because of the past performances of the commission in the Gbaramatu kingdom. They may not forget in a hurry that the NDDC built and commissioned a health centre for them in 2007. Prior to that, the entire Gbaramatu kingdom had no modern health care facility.


According to the NDDC Managing Director at the time, Mr. Timi Alaibe, the Okerenkoko Cottage Hospital, which cost over N65 million, saved the people from the dangerous practice of self-medication and the hazardous boat trips to Warri whenever anyone took ill or when women were in labour. Okerenkoko and indeed the entire Gbaramatu Kingdom, is host to the Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, which has numerous flow stations at the Jones Creek.


Another reason the Ijaw people of Okerenkoko would be happy with the NDDC is that work has started on a very important road that would link the community with Omadino town, which is just about three kilometres from Warri. According to Ambassador Austin Oniyecum, one of the prominent Ijaw leaders in the area, the Omadino-Okerenkoko road will reduce the stress and cut the distance of travelling on water. “It takes over two hours to travel from Omadino to Okerenkoko now, but the road will reduce that time to only 20 minutes. That is why we consider the project as very important,” he said. However, this important road link suffered a setback when the Omadino community asked for a re-alignment of the route to make way for a new Christian university that is being planned for the community. The NDDC Delta State representative said he was not happy that the community asked for the re-alignment of the road, a decision, he said was bound to delay the project unduly.


The envisaged delay notwithstanding, Ogba assured the people of Omadino and Okerenkoko as well as other coastal communities that the NDDC would not relent in its efforts to provide development infrastructure for them. He said: “We can assure you that the NDDC is determined to make a difference in the lives of the people. We will continue to build new roads and bridges as well as complete on-going reclamation and shore protection projects.” Chief Ogba inspected other projects in Kurutie and Ugborodo communities. He expressed delight at the pace of work at the Kurutie-Gbaramatu 16-kilometre road with four bridges. He said it would link several communities in Gbaramatu kingdom.


The engineer supervising the project, Mr. Andrea Battitelli explained that the project also covers internal roads in Kurutie. He said that sharp sand for the bridges was already being dredged from salt-free water in Warri, from where it would be transported to the site. “Members of the communities are cooperating with us and this gives us confidence that we will deliver the project in 36 months,” he said.


Mr. Christian Ubene, a trader in the town, said that the road was an answer to the prayers of many communities in the area that were totally surrounded by water. “I have been doing business in this community for many years and transportation has always been a major headache," he said.


Unlike Kurutie and Okerenkoko where work was progressing appreciably, the situation at Ugborodo in Escravos was different because the contractor had since abandoned the shore protection and reclamation project. The NDDC consultant for the project, Elder G. O Mebaghanje said that the contractor had only done 10 per cent of the 2-kilometre stone boulder protection before he absconded.


Mr. Victor Omunu, one of the vocal opinion leaders in the area, decried the conduct of the contractor, whom he said collected over N1billion for the job and barely scratched the surface, lamenting that the contractor, Foby Nigeria Limited, disappointed and short-changed the people.


Omunu said that the poor performance of the contractor had rubbed off negatively on the NDDC, adding that it would take a complete turnaround to change the perception of the people about the commission. Pa Wawe Agba, an elder in the community, agreed that the credibility of the NDDC was on the line because previous promises made by the commission to the people were not fulfilled. “This is not the first time NDDC officials will visit us and make promises that the shore protection project will be done well. We want results not promises,” he said.


The NDDC board member assured the Ugborodo community, which hosts Chevron facilities in Escravos, that the commission would ensure that the shore protection work was continued and completed. “We have already determined the contract and the board is at the point of re-awarding it to a more competent contractor,” he said.


Chief Ogba also commissioned some of the detached two bedroom bungalows built by Chevron Nigeria Limited (CNL) for the Itsekiri Regional Development Committee (IRDC). His choice for the assignment was informed by the fact that NDDC was part of the committee that packaged the 100 housing units spread across 23 Itsekiri communities.


The NDDC representative said he was impressed by the standard of the houses, considering that they were cited in the rural area. “I agree that Chevron has done a lot but the people are still going to ask for more. If Chevron has built what they have in Lekki, Lagos, here in Niger Delta, I am sure the operational cost for Chevron would have been reduced. Let Chevron increase the level of funding.”


It takes a visit to coastal communities for anyone to begin to appreciate their plight. One of the youths in Ugborodo, who simply identified himself as Johnson, said that nobody would want to spend weeks in the creeks. He said that those who have the means, run away from the area to live in Warri. “Living in the

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