Ikoro: So close to civilisation, yet far

AT 80, it was with great expectations that Chief Edwin Attah, the Ebepriseigha of the village of Ikoro, Ovia North East Local Government Area of Edo State, received news of the approval of a health centre in the community in 2014. The project by the Edo State Oil and Gas Producing Areas Development Commission (EDSOGPADEC) was to be a watershed in the life of the locals.

Situated deep in the rainforest right on the east bank of Ovia River, Ikoro, the Ijaw community, is the picture of neglect. Accessing the village on a commercial motorcycle, the only means of transportation from Ekenwan Military Barracks, surburban Benin, could be frustrating. A journey of 15 kilometres, which ordinarily is supposed to take about 20 minutes, could last an hour. As one approaches the dusty village after neighbouring Obazuwa, the topography suddenly changes as the flat terrain paves way to a steepy hill.

Sighing, Pa Attah said the residents, with the support of the truck drivers, decided recently to grade the road and pour broken shells of palm kernels on the hill to check the menace of erosion and also prevent machines from slipping off the hill. Ordinarily, Ikoro which may just be some 30 minutes drive to Osadebe Avenue, the seat of power in Benin, is a world away.

On a recent visit to the small farming and fishing community, the youths and women luxuriated and laundered in the river, while some devotees of the local deity, Egbesu, adorned in white garments, were seen pouring libations and reciting incantations to their gods at the shrine by Ovia River.

For the sick and pregnant women, the nearest hospital at Ekenwan is more like a world away from sight, and some 30 minutes rough motorbike ride on. Denied access to healthcare, the infant and maternal mortality rate at Ikoro is no doubt, one of the highest in the state.

Against this backdrop of total neglect, the octogenarian remarked that a thousand words could not express the way he felt when the announcement of the approval of the health centre in the community hit the airwaves.

As he laid on his bed on the said night, staring at the ceiling, tears of rolled down his grizzled hair as he thought out aloud: “Here at Ikoro, people die like flies from preventable diseases because of neglect by the government. There is no hospital nearby. We don’t have a pharmacy here too. The nearest is in Benin, about 30 to 40 minutes away on okada and the road is terrible  All that will soon be history as the government has just approved the construction of a health centre here. At over four score, I can die in peace now but this is for the children.”

Determined to help the development agency, the Ebepriseigha quickly set out at dawn to mobilise the youths. The site at the outskirts of the town had to be weeded. Trees and shrubs had to be manually uprooted. A contractor came, dug trenches for the foundation and concrete.

The old man could hardly believe it when blocks were moulded and in a jiffy, workmen erected a structure up till window level right in the middle of what was once a forest. On many occasions, the grey-bearded man grinned, his eyes sparkling as he surveyed the extent of work.

He recalled: “I remembered saying to myself that Ikoro will soon join the long list of civilised communities as I surveyed the edifice one day.”

Then, slowly, Pa Attah was hit with the harsh reality of the situation. After the building reached lintel level, the contractor from Benin suddenly packed his equipment away from the site and stopped coming. Attah never paid much attention to the move as he promised to be back soon. As the days gradually turned to weeks and weeks to months and months to a year, it suddenly dawned on him that the contractor had “absconded”.

He lamented that several delegations to EDSOGPADEC and some top officials of the interventionist agency, demanding that the contractor be made to return to site, proved futile. Persistent pleadings to be given reasons for stopping work on the project hit a brick wall. The site, which has since been overgrown with weeds and giant trees, is now forlorn. It is hardly noticeable from the road.

For fiscal 2017, a total sum of N43.6 million was allocated, while N60 million was budgeted in 2018 going by figures released by the Ministry of Physical and Urban Development. Yet, there are no visible hard facts on the ground in form of completion of the building, borehole and equipment which the money was meant for.

The elder remarked that on several occasions, he had taxed the youth leaders to clear the site, only for it to be overgrown with weeds at the commencement of rains. According to the traditional ruler, his heart breaks each time he passes the abandoned structure; he can’t bear to look at it. What was supposed to bring joy to his heart is now cause for constant heartaches.

Determined not to let go, Mr. Adamson Edowei, the chairman of Ikoro Community Association (ICA), said a letter was dispatched to the Benin headquarters of EDSOGPADEC, drawing the chairman’s attention to the abandonment and pleading for funds to be released so that the contractor could return to site.

He lamented that a reply is still being awaited, over eight months after it was submitted, emphasising that it was cause for deep concern that similar projects started in other communities by the interventionist agency at about the same time as Ikoro’s and even have since been completed.

Edowei said: “Why the neglect? Is it a crime that we are Ijaw people? The government should listen to us. We are peace-loving and will appreciate if it can set machinery in motion for the speedy completion and equipping of the health centre here at Ikoro.”

He added that the unkindest cut was the closure of the only secondary school in the village, which was established during the second republic by an ex-governor, Professor Ambrose Alli of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). The school, which was founded by the government in fulfillment of one of the cardinal programmes of the party, was closed by the military junta shortly after it seized power in December 1983.

Reopened only in 2016 during the twilight of former Governor Adams Oshiomhole’s administration, the community chairman said it is the principal who, from the look of things, was grudgingly appointed by the government that is the only teacher in the school. The other teachers are usually sourced from the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), but for this season, none was deployed to the school.

The school, which was built through communal efforts, has been overgrown with weeds and the roof blow off by storm. The students presently make do with some classrooms at the primary school.

“The only alternative is for our children to trek over 10 kilometres across rugged hills to the nearest school. It is a fact that the government has not done anything for us. We are like outcasts, and practically fend for ourselves. There is no state government presence here. We have since resigned to fate. Our persistent demands have fallen on deaf ears. Presently, the community employs teachers which it pays,” Edowei said.

He, however, commended the Federal Government for efforts to provide electricity through the rural electricity programme, but quickly added that the wires hardly generate light as the village is perpetually thrown into darkness by the Benin Electricity Distribution Company (BEDC).

As a way forward, he added that the villagers contribute money to buy diesel for a generating plant, situated along what is supposed to be the only main road across the village, but is more of a footpath.

“Here at Ikoro, we provide for ourselves. Some people want to wipe us off the map, but we have since learnt to take our destiny in our hands. We are like a republic. If we wait for the government, nothing will go on here,” he said.

Speaking via phone call from his base in the United States, where he is presently on holiday, the former chairman of DESOPADEC, Mr. Vincent Uwadiae, the state lawmaker-elect for Ovia Constituency, said he was not in the best position to speak on the health centre as his tenure had expired.

At the commission’s sprawling headquarters in Benin, the chairman, Kennedy Osifo, said having just been sworn in as the boss of the interventionist agency, he was not ready to talk on the issue.

He, however, disclosed that he had taken a survey of all ongoing projects and those not completed, insisting that under his watch, there will be no abandoned projects and that was the reason for sending his staff to go round all the commission’s projects embarked on by the previous board.

He assured the residents of the community that the commission’s mission, among other concerns, is to change the lives of the people of oil and gas bearing communities.

Following an allegation of gross misconduct, the Edo State House of Assembly had on December 6, 2017, dissolved the Uwadiae-chaired board of EDSOPADEC. The new board was inaugurated by Governor Godwin Obaseki in August 2018.

In moving a motion for the dissolution, Mr. Roland Asoro (APC Orhiomwon- South) had declared: “The board members have failed in their responsibilities to the people in the oil producing communities. The board has not deemed it fit to submit the commission’s financial report to the house since they were constituted.”

Nosayaba Okunbor (APC Orhiomwon-East) supported Asoro, stating that “the board was supposed to compensate the oil producing communities, but nothing has been received since the board was constituted.”

Allaying the deep feelings of marginalisation by Ikoro and other far-flung Ijaw communities in Edo State will certainly take more than mere rhetoric. Osifo and company obviously have a Herculean task ahead.