In this Investigative Report, Arinze Chijioke travels to Rivers State to study the neglect of Oyigbo community, a border town between Abia State and Rivers State. What he uncovers is a story of a community in double jeopardy – allegedly discriminated against within its local government area; and within the state as well.
The October 2020 invasion of Oyigbo, a community in Oyigbo Local Government in Rivers State by the Nigerian military in search of residents suspected to be members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), alleged to have killed military and police officers and taken away their weapons in the guise of #EndSARS protest is perhaps the most prominent story ever told of the community.
A Premium Times Investigation at the time, found that the military indiscriminately shot at defenceless and innocent people, leaving many dead, in what ranks among the cruelest use of excessive force against unarmed civilians in the country’s history as the paper puts it. Till date, three years after, one of the lanes along the express in Oyigbo is still blocked and manned by the army.
Residents of the predominantly Igbo-speaking community think that it was an attack that expresses hate. Former governor, Nyesom Wike, was accused of ordering the killing, an allegation he has consistently denied.
But away from that heart-wrenching story of gross violation of human rights is the untold story of neglect and calculated efforts by “indigenes” to thwart efforts geared towards the development of some areas in Oyigbo, a community rich in deposits of crude oil and natural gas and located at the boundary between Rivers and Abia states.
Oyibgo has the north end and the west end, divided by the expressway leading to Port Harcourt, the Rivers State Capital. While the North end is like a ‘no-man’s’ land, albeit predominated by the Igbos, commonly referred to as settlers, the West end is a mixture of indigenes and settlers.
Travelling to Port Harcourt is less than a 15 minutes’ drive from Oyigbo, a beehive of activities, which contribute a significant quota to the revenue that accrues to the state and the federation. It is a notable hub for farming, trade, crafts making and fishing.
On the North end are oil wells and flow stations, some of which used to be operated by Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) – but are now jointly operated by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and Heirs Holdings.
From the entrance of the road to the end, there are different kinds of businesses on both sides, from foodstuffs sellers to dealers in all kinds of beverages, hotels and filling stations whose owners had moved, giving its proximity to Port Harcourt and the prospects it held.
The bad road and demands for marching ground fee
Sadly, the road leading to the flow station, popularly known as Location Road, has been in a state of disrepair for several years now. But even before it was finally sold, Shell and other companies operating in the area had always offered to fix the road.
“Whenever workers in the company come for inspection of the facility or visit, they experience the bad state of the road too.
“And that is why they have often offered to fix it,” said Daniel John, a resident of Oyigbo.
However, findings show that the indigenes, colluding with community leaders would always frustrate the move and ask the companies to pay them what is referred to as marching ground fee. Multiple sources confirmed that this has been the trend for several years now and that is why the road has remained in a bad shape.
“They always claim that they know what the people want and as soon as they get the money, they go into the state capital, where most of them have houses and other property and invest, leaving the road in complete disrepair,” different sources said.
They however think that the local government authority can cause a change, if it wants to develop the area because they always send officers who come to collect taxes, from tenement rates, operational permits for business owners, land rates to other fees.
“We never defaulted in payment whenever they come because we hope that the payments made will be used to develop the area. Sadly, that never happens,” John said.
Apart from the Location Road, which is the most popular on the north end, giving that it leads to a flow station other internal roads said to have been constructed over 20 years ago during the administration of Peter Odili have gone bad.
The location road is a gateway to many areas, including the popular oil Mill where different people across Rivers, Abia and Imo States come to transact their businesses in Port Harcourt, Etche and other communities.
While the Express – beginning from the Imo River to Eleme Junction – was being worked upon years ago, sources say that the Location Road became the major route through which commuters, including all kinds of heavy-duty trucks travelled to Port Harcourt. Even government vehicles were plying it.
After it was fixed, the road was abandoned and it has remained in a deplorable condition for over seven years. Findings show that many companies operating in the area have since left as a result. Some of them include Indorama, with some of those who used to work for these companies now without jobs.
Gabriel James, who is part of those who collect revenue and permits along the road and claims to be a security officer in the area, said that they always pay to the local government.
“I have worked for both the state and local government for over 10 years and the road issue remains a major problem affecting this area.
“But I am hopeful that the road will be fixed,” he said.
A former vice chairman of Oyigbo Local Government Area, Innocent Ajaelu, was once quoted as saying that it is worrying that despite their contribution to the economic growth of the state, they are being neglected.
Businesses feeling the pinch
Whenever it rains, the Location Load becomes impassable. Business hardly open because the entire road is flooded.
Formally, when it was a bit motorable, Fidelis Moses who owns a provision store along the road – like other business owners – was making enough sales, customers were always trooping in and out of his shop. Now, he says all that has changed because of the bad road.
“People hardly pass through it again, they seek alternative routes.
“Many of my customers have had to relocate into town and that continues to affect my income and the economy of the area,” he said.
He added that the stones that make the road manageable were poured by Shell when it wanted to work on the road. But when the people asked for ‘marching ground fee,’ it was abandoned.
“No car owner wants to come in and get stuck, they would rather get into town. Workers have relocated close to their works places because they often go to work late,” he said.
Francisca Donatus sells all kinds of plastic materials along the road. She says drivers now charge higher to bring back her goods from the supplier. Sometimes, she says they do not accept to come in.
“Formerly, they charged N10,000 to come, now they charge N15,000. And that adds to the cost of products, making it difficult for residents to buy. And majority of those who patronise me and those living within.”
On security, sources said that they have had to form outfits that will protect them because the police are not reliable during emergencies. Even when they do, it’s belated, partly because of the bad road. Regularly, they pay the outfits.
The community secondary school Umundinor located at the north end of Oyigbo is also In a state of disrepair with broken windows and ceilings. Whenever it rains and students are in their classes, they get beaten.
Sources also spoke about the fact that there has been no form of water supply from the government. The only time that happened was years ago when Shell was providing water for residents. Now, households are having to dig boreholes themselves or find means of accessing water supply.
Increased cost of transport
At the entrance to the location road in Oyigbo, Motorcyclists are lined up and waiting for residents who have closed from work or those who have come to transact businesses. They are currently the predominant means through which people get to their destinations.
But they are also finding it difficult because they stagger all through their journey with passengers. Some of those who spoke to Ikengaonline said that they regularly fix their motorcycles after plying the road.
“My tyres have punctured on several occasions, it gets worse whenever it rains and the entire road is flooded because there are no drainages,” said a motorcyclist, Ifeanyi Nnamdi.
He said that the situation has increased the cost of transport. According to him, distances that used to be covered with N100 now cost between N250 and N300. When it rains, the cost doubles. Those who cannot afford it trek long distances.
“We really need help with fixing of the road because it is seriously affecting everyone, residents are having to pay higher for transport and it is not easy plying the road,“ he said.
Households pay light bill after buying transformer
Oyigbo hosts the Afam Power Station, which powers the entire State. Yet, some parts of the local government cannot boast of constant power supply, apart from those living within Afam town which houses the power plant and other nearby locations.
Sometime in 2017, the transformer serving households on the north end blew up after several repairs and they were without light for over four years. Within this period, they wrote to government officials and the local government several times to make request but got no response.
In 2021, households living within Ejerenwa, one of the streets in the area and Trinity contributed over N8million and bought a transformer. Other locations followed suit and that has been the culture ever since.
“We contributed N200,000 each and called officers of the Port Harcourt Electricity Distribution PLC, (PHEDC) who connected us back. We also bought poles and wires for connection,” said John.
He however regretted that users have been paying light bill ever since the transformer was mounted to the Port Harcourt Electricity Distribution PLC, (PHEDC) who feel it has become their property.
Some sources who spoke to Ikengaonline alleged that there are new transformers at the headquarters of the PHEDC, some of which were donated by house of assembly members to be mounted in communities.
“Even companies donate transformers as part of their contribution for community growth, but the chiefs – who are believed to know their subjects – keep them and only give to those who are connected, or those who have people who can speak for them. They would not spend any money.”
Although they have had their own share of challenges, findings show that the government is usually quick to respond to demands at the west end of Oyigbo, especially as some government’s establishments such as the cassava processing plant and the local government headquarters are located in the area.
For instance, since 2020 indigenous youths have held several protests in demand for improved power situation. They had repeatedly shut down the transmission station in protest over epileptic and insufficient power supply or disconnection by the PHEDC due to alleged non-payment of bills.
During one of such protests which lasted for over a week, youths barricaded the PHEDC office, with a coffin and drums, disrupting activities and pressing home their demands for improved power supply. They later relocated their office.
In another protest, youths under the aegis of Oyingbo Local Government People’s Assembly threatened to stop the takeover of the Afam 966 Mega Watts capacity power plant by Transcorp PLC till their 2017 agreement with the Federal Ministry of Power was implemented.
The Federal Government had signed the Share Sale and Purchase Agreements for the Privatisation of Afam Power Plc and Afam 3 Fast Power Limited with Transcorp PLC.
During the protest, chairman of the group Ejike Dike was quoted as saying that while they were not against Transcorp buying Afam Power Station, what they cannot tolerate is the government taking them for granted.
Dike claimed that there was an agreement to construct the Oyibo/Afam road, among other promises. Samuel Duke, a resident of Oyigbo said that the protests have yielded results as the Oyigbo/Afam road has since been completed, with street lights.
“There has been improvement generally in power supply as we now have up to 10 hours of power daily, however our roads in the North remain in bad shape, we do not have anyone to speak for us and we cannot even protest because nobody will listen even when we do, so, we are just helping ourselves,” Duke said.
Oyigbo, perfect location for waste disposal
Until 2021, the Rivers State Government’s Department of Environment was dumping all kinds of waste collected from the greater Port Harcourt area and its environs at a site located at Oyigbo, along the Port Harcourt-Aba Expressway and right next to people’s homes and businesses.
It began under the administration of the former governor, Rotimi Amaechi, in 2011, when a large expanse of land was fenced under the guise that it will be used as a waste ‘Recycling Facility.’
“We thought that the plan was to have recycling equipment that will be used for waste sorting, processing, and onward forwarding for recycling,” said Benjamin Peter, a resident of the area.
Sadly, as days and months passed, the site transformed into a waste dumping area, with its name now known as the ‘Rivers State Government Department of Environment Semi-Sanitary Landfill, Oyigbo, Rivers State.’ There was no form of environmental impact assessment done.
Some residents were forced to flee their homes, while those who could not afford to relocate, stayed back and continued to suffer in silence with no one to speak for them. Some of those who own houses abandoned the buildings.
Peter said that people with respiratory tract issues such as pneumonia and asthma could not withstand the odour and that malaria and cough were also common among residents at the time.
Findings show that the government only stopped throwing waste in the area after police quarters was constructed in the area and occupants started complaining about the odour emanating from the site.
Mr. Felix, another resident, said that while the dumping has stopped, they now battle with water overflowing whenever it rains. He said that the perception at the time was that the siting of the waste dump in Oyigbo was a deliberate attempt to punish the people because there were a lot of uninhabited areas in the state where waste could be dumped.”
The community known as Oyigbo
Multiple sources told our Reporter that the Rivers State Government at least unofficially does not consider Oyigbo an integral part of the state. They are more or less perceived as settlers hence successive governments, both at the state and local government level, have refused to pay attention to the area. Even the original name of the community, Obigbo, literally means Igbo Settlement.
Victor Joseph, a resident corroborated the story of discriminatory development against the people of Oyigbo.
According to him, Oyigbo, especially the area that is predominated by non-indigenes/settlers, lacks basic infrastructure like street lights, boreholes; the only government owned school in the community is in a state of disrepair and needs attention.
He said, “that because of how bad the roads are, particularly the Location Road, there is hardly security response at times of emergency. There are no banks, no eatery. The one that was established here relocated because of the bad road and infrastructure decay.”
He noted that although the west end of Oyigbo is better off, especially giving that it has some good road network, a hospital, street light, it is still nothing compared to the likes of Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni and Bonny where roads are in very good conditions, and there are other infrastructure such as constant power and water supply.
“There are enough schools in these locations, which make learning a lot easier for children. Ikwerre LGA used to be behind but it is also catching up, he said.
He explained that Obio-Akpor for instance, is a local government area in the metropolis of Port Harcourt and one of the major centres of economic activities in Nigeria and the Niger Delta. It has industries and companies like Pabod Breweries, Coca-Cola Company, Indomie Company and Port Harcourt Electricity Distribution PLC, among other companies.
“Oyigbo has what it takes to become like Obio-Akpor. It held that promise. But all of that is not happening, the companies that ones operated here have relocated because of poor infrastructure and the local government authority which is closer to the people, decided to focus development on the area leading to the headquarters,“ he said.
“Maybe, it would have been abandoned too. There is just a total systemic abandonment of Oyigbo Local Government.”
But John has lived in Oyigbo where he owns a house for over 23 years. He loves the serenity of the community. But he regrets that the prospects of a mega city which it held, especially the north end, might not be achieved, except the government steps in.
“They cannot say that Oyigbo is not politically relevant in the state because we have the numbers and politicians would always come during campaigns and make promises,” John said.
When contacted for comments on the allegations of neglect and what exactly the state government is doing to develop the area, commissioner for information in Rivers State, Warisenibo Johnson said that he was not aware of the situation.
He however noted that the current administration of Siminalayi Fubara is committed to the development of every part of the state, including Oyigbo, provided that the finance is available.
“We are barely five months in office and so, we will need time to work. I am sure that by this time next year, situations would have been different.”
Editor’s note: Names of sources for this story have been changed for their security.
This Report is part of activities by the Ikenga Media & Cultural Awareness Initiative (IMCAI) under the Collaborative Media Engagement for Development Inclusivity and Accountability Project, a multi-level intervention for media independence and government accountability, managed by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) and supported by MacArthur Foundation.