Okerete: Oyo’s forgotten goldmine
It was around 4:30 pm. We had just finished observing missed solat (prayer) after arriving Saki, Oke-Ogun’s commercial nerve centre, from Ibadan. It was a 140-kilometre journey. We had stopped over at Iseyin, the gateway to Oke-Ogun from Ibadan and Oyo, to eat a meal made from cassava flour.
Saki is a familiar terrain. Before that journey, I had been there more than 10 times, to cover events and family functions. I had heard about Okerete too but I had never set foot on the land. We did not know it was that far until we got there. Our hosts had asked if we would be visiting the border town that day or the next day. We had said we would go.
“It would be difficult for you to get cars tonight, let us try the bike,” one of them had told us. We went to the commercial motorcycle operator, a man who was roughly in his late 40s. We were shocked when he charged us N22, 000 to and fro. We had been informed that the 140-kilometre journey could be easily accessed by motorcycles because the roads were not good for cars, apart from remodelled vehicles whose absorbers had been replaced with big springs, and their tyres replaced with those originally designed for SUVs.
The beginning of a four-hour journey
We started the journey around 5:01pm. The rider took us to a shop where we bought nose covers. We had initially questioned why we needed nose covers. With just a bag on my back, we continued the journey, passing through the headquarters of Wewe local council development area. It started on a bumpy note; it was bumpier. We saw women and children on top of cars, obviously coming from where we were going. “They must have been coming since morning,” the biker told us. Bags of rice and other goods were loaded inside the cars, mostly Peugeot 505 models that had been rebuilt by Nigerian ‘mechanics’.
For close to two hours, we saw only huts inhabited by herdsmen and their family members. I was already feeling pains in my buttocks; it seemed burnt. Sometimes, we almost fell down due to the sandy terrain. I was almost blaming myself. We got to Okerete around 9 pm.
Welcome to Okerete International Border Market
Okerete, a border town in Saki West Local Government Area of Oyo State, shares boundary with Fesomu, another Yoruba community in Benin Republic. It is close to Bukuro and Kabo in Baruten Local Government Area of Kwara State. There is a river between Nigeria and Benin and immigration posts are stationed on each side.
The community is an extension of Saki, headquarters of Saki West Local Government Area, which is one of the 10 local government areas in Oke-Ogun zone of Oyo State. History has it that Okere, the traditional ruler of the town, had sent his subject to the community to form Okeretedo, which they now call Okerete.
Money-spinning commercial activities take place within the community. There are immigration, police and customs’ posts within and around the community.
We saw potential opportunities untapped. We saw graduates from the University of Ibadan (UI), Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) and other institutions hustling and making money; they didn’t appear ready to join the list of those looking for unavailable jobs.
The previous administration, we were told, made efforts to modernise the Okerete International Border Market. The road that leads to Okerete was graded but it needs grading again.
Children from Nigeria attend schools in Benin Republic. The community has a canoe to ferry the little ones to the other side. They speak French and Saki variant of the Yoruba language.
There is no power supply. No hospital. Pregnant women relocate to Benin when they approach their expected date of deliveries (EDDs). The boreholes that were sunk are no longer functioning. The community built schools through self-help but teachers don’t want to be posted to the community. So, they resort to self-help most times.
Every day, several millions of naira get exchanged for goods. The Beninese bring their goods to Okerete while the trading partners do same. Sometimes, they come with goods and use the money to buy other goods that are profitable for re-sale in Benin.
Before the border closure, a commercial motorcyclist who pleaded anonymity narrated how they transport bags of rice across the borders. “Three bags of rice are poured into another big sack, and cyclists always carry each from Okerete to Saki at N5,000 per bag. A cyclist will carry two of these bags for N10,000 per trip. But that comes at a huge cost. If discovered, your motorcycle will surely be impounded. That is the risk,” he said.
“A bag of rice goes for less than N15, 000 in neighbouring communities around Saki but above N20,000 in Ibadan and Lagos,” he said when asked about the implication of the development.
Before we got to Okerete, the border had been closed. Coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed many lives, had crept in. And the Federal Government had ordered the closure of the borders. The dwellers were already feeling the heat. Business activities had dwindled. Crossers and smugglers who used to converge there in numbers had deserted the communities. Villagers were already buying a litre exorbitantly. Many farmers, mostly Beninoise and Togolese, had gone back to their countries.
Explaining how the economic hardship and insecurity had assumed a disturbing dimension since the closure started, one of the community leaders, Alhaji Jimoh Aremu, said: “Even some of us who engage in legal trade across the border are not allowed to cross over. In fact, on the day the border closure was effected, many of our people who were coming from Kilibo, Tuyi and Afesomu in Benin Republic were just at the boundary there looking at their houses over here without being able to cross.
“Many others from neighbouring countries such as Togo and Benin Republic who had either crossed here to farm or trade were also denied access to their villages for more than one week. But the challenge was that many of our people are married to their women there and vice versa. We had to appeal to authorities to, at least, allow us to visit our families across the border since we are not carrying any banned items such as rice, oil or frozen foods,” he added.
A check on the Oyo State House of Assembly, OYHA, hansard shows the contribution of the immediate past deputy speaker, Dr.Musah Abdulwasi, who at different times, through motions, called the attention of the state and federal governments to the need for the actualisation of Okerete International Border Market.
In an interaction with Abdulwasi, he explained how the market was founded by three indigenes of the town.
He said: “The Okerete area was originally founded by early traders across the border of Saki/Benin Republic under the leadership of late Alhaji Alli Bakoja, Alhaji Sulaiman Ajibade and Alhaji Wahab Ajepe-Aiye.
“Their businesses were carried out using the road paths which they created with their business colleagues. All these were in the 80s and early 90s.
“It was during the administration of Yunus Gbadamosi as the caretaker chairman, Saki West Local Government Area (2014 to 2015), that the hardworking chairman took both the bulldozer and grader purchased for the council to the road linking Okerete and used them to open the road wider and graded it to almost half of the road before he was unceremoniously sent out of office by the administration of the late governor Abiola Ajimobi.
“That caused more hatred for Ajimobi’s government as people were not pleased that such a hardworking chairman was sacrificed.
“At present, Okerete is not less than 15,000 in population but it lacks water, light, school and the requisite market facilities which could constitute an international market being proposed. There’s need for the construction of the Saki-Okerete road as it will enhance international trading from that axis and impact positively on the country’s revenues.
“The international market will, of course, create a legitimate avenue where Nigerian traders meet with their counterparts from other nations and, of course, impact on our GDP.
“Extension of power supply to Okerete is also very important to enhance the proposed international trading.”
Akinola is publisher Oyoinsight.com
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