A Vanguard Interview
The plan to demolish water-fronts in Port Harcourt is not new. It first gained currency under the tenure of deposed governor Celestine Omehia. The government gave security reasons as one of the major factors behind the plan. The issue seemingly overheated the state. While this was on, the Supreme Court sacked the government and installed Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi as governor.
One of the first steps he took when he came on board was to suspend the planned demolition, an action that was greeted with wild jubilation in all the water fronts in the state capital. Two years down the line the government is back with the threat to demolish the waterfronts otherwise referred to as slum settlements in the state capital. Security and the need to develop the area in tune with contemporary habitation standards have been thrown up as some of the driving forces behind the proposed action.
However, the Okrika Ijaw that claim ownership of most of these water fronts remains suspicious of government’s motives. In this interview with Jimitota Onoyume of Sweet Crude, Chief James Tari Sekibo, a second republic Senator and Chairman, Okrika Divisional Council of Chiefs and Wakirikebese Council of Chiefs, an umbrella body of all Okrika people, he speaks extensively on the position of the Okrika people.
Occasionally during the interview he reads from what he claims are historical documents to support the position of his people.
What is your stake in the proposed demolition of water fronts in Port Harcourt?
It is fairly a long story. Our stake started before 1913 when an agreement was signed with owners of areas that the colonial government wanted to acquire. This whole thing started with the discovery of coal in Enugu. And they wanted an outlet to export the coal from the country to overseas. They decided to establish a port and railway terminals. So the colonial masters came and spotted the present Port Harcourt municipality as the most suitable site for the said port to be established. And slightly up a little to be railway terminals, to start from Enugu down to Port Harcourt. So by 1913 an agreement was signed between the Okrika and the Ikwerre people.
Ikwerre this time refers only to the Diobu, Ikwerre, Orogbum, Orogbale, Oroije now called ogbunabali area. Compensation was paid to the communities. Precisely on 18 May 1913, that was when the agreement was signed by the deed between the Okrika people.
On 18 May, 1913 by deed between the chiefs and head men of Okrika Ijaw and Diobu communities for and on behalf of themselves and their people on the one hand and Sir Alexander George Boyle, the Deputy Governor of the colony and protectorate of Southern Nigeria for and on behalf of his majesty, the King of England, the area presently known as Port Harcourt was acquired by the colonial authorities. This deed is registered as 16/211/7 (old series), Calabar, former kept at the lands registry, Lagos, later lands registry, Enugu but now in the lands registry, Port Harcourt.
The Okrika Ijaw towns and villages affected by this deed are namely, Biekiri, Abokirir, Belemaka, Akainkoroma, Azuabie, Abuloma, Toinpirima (present right wing of Marine base, Okrika water fronts and cementry waterfronts), Fiyenemika, Iyoyo Ama (present Rex Lawson waterfronts and Egbema waterfront) Atubokiki, Igbisikalama Ama (present Baptist waterfront, Enugu waterfront, Tourist beach and Ibadan waterfront), Idango Ama (present left wing of Marine base, Koko polo sharing boundary with Amadi ama), Fimie, Amiejobodiema, Gbelabo Ama, (present Elechi beach, Abonnema wharf and Njemanze), Okuru town, Amadi town, Amango Ama (present NPA wharf, Witt and bush waterfront and Bundu waterfront) Okujagu, Kuroseidiema Ama (present Bille waterfront, Bonny water front, Nembe waterfront and Abuja estate waterfront) Eresofiari, Misiba, Duointa and Banisuka.
On the other hand, the Ikwerre communities affected by the deed are Diobu, Omoeme, Omoamasi, Omobiakani and Oginiba
Thereafter, the Ikwerres sought to set aside the deed of 1913 by filling a suit against the Attorney General. That suit was dismissed. Dissatisfied with the judgment of the lower court, the Ikwerres filed an appeal to the West Africa court of Appeal. On 9th June, 1952 the West Africa Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal. This case is reported as Chief Joseph Wobo and nine others vs. the attorney general in 14 WACA 132
Again, Diobu dissatisfied with the judgment of West Africa court of Appeal, the Ikwerres appealed to the judicial committee of the Privy County in England. The appeal number is Privy Council Appeal NO. 18 of 1953. The Privy Council on the 30th day of October, 1956 dismissed the appeal.
In all the judgments the sanctity of the 1913 agreement was repeatedly affirmed and confirmed. However, on the 2nd of May, 1928 a supplemental agreement to the 1913 principal Port Harcourt agreement was signed between the Diobu Ikwerre, (specifically Abali and Ogbum Diobu) and the then Deputy Governor of the colony and protectorate of Southern Nigeria, as contained in the written instrument number A 17 vol 1 of 2nd May, 1928 which varied the terms of the 1913 principal agreement from sale to payment of annual rent of five hundred pounds in perpetuity.
The Okrika Ijaw people who gave 53% of the Port Harcourt land in the 1913 agreement felt cheated. When they got to know about the variation as contained in the 1928 agreement and went to seek redress in court in suit no PHC/45m/76. The court ruled that since at least one other party to that agreement has been benefited by a revision of compensation payable, the plaintiffs ought in equity to be treated in the same manner. Accordingly, the Okrika Ijaw and the Okrika Ijaw Port Harcourt aborigines were paid arrears of N105,000 at the annual rate of N1,500 from 1913.
For the avoidance of doubt, certain sections and interest groups in Rivers state have still repeatedly denied the historical dual ownership of Port Harcourt.
It must be noted that the Ikwerres that took part in the alienation of Port Harcourt with their Okrika counterparts still posses, control and alienate their lands that were the subject of the deed. They have continuously done so without any challenge from government even though their forebears had alienated their land on 18th May 1913.
For the immediate development of Port Harcourt, some of the area occupied by the Okrika Ijaw people in their various villages were required. This led to the inhabitants being displaced without any concrete attempts at a resettlement programme for the displaced inhabitants.
Origin of waterfront communities:
The Okrika Ijaw inhabitants, otherwise called the Port Harcourt aborigines of the various villages affected by the deed of 18 May, 1913 were not effectively resettled. The Okrika Ijaw inhabitants of these villages were predominantly seafarers and depend on the seas, rivers and creeks for their livelihood.
With dogged determination to confront and overcome their state of homelessness by sheer industry, dedication and hard work, these displaced Okrika Ijaw inhabitants began to reclaim the various waterfronts adjacent to their original villages by cutting Chikoko mud from the mangrove swamps and depositing same on the adjacent waterfronts to drive back the water and create new land to build new homes. This is the genesis of the Okrika Ijaw waterfront communities
Naturally the original names of the villages of these early Okrika Ijaw inhabitants as contained in the 1913 Port Harcourt agreement became the names of these new adjacent waterfronts settlements, for example Okrika waterfront is Toinpirima. Various non indigenes found it more convenient to call these waterfronts by the names of towns to which people depart or streets next to these waterfronts, such as Bonny waterside, Bille waterside, Nembe waterside etc etc., instead of the original name like Toinpirima.
Between 1913 and the present day, successive generations of Wakirike people have lived in these waterfront communities, investing time, labour capital and billions of naira to develop properties therein. These properties have passed from generation to generation.
In these waterfront communities there are organized structures and leaderships, for example, there are Ama Chairmen, Polo Chairmen, Chiefs, community development committees, youth bodies, women bodies etc.
I want to make it clear that Okrika people are not against development in Port Harcourt in particular and Rivers state in general. We are in total support of providing modern facilities and amenities for the citizenry. We are opposed to any large scale , social , economic and habitation dislocation of our people and communities by way of demolition of the waterfront communities in the name of development or urban renewal without any alternative fore their relocation.
We suggested to the governor that he should in conjunction with the leadership of the various communities and the Chiefs of Wakirike, redesign and restructure the various waterfronts communities with minimal disruption of lives, dislocation of people and demolition of properties.
The issue of resettling the displaced Okrika Ijaw Port Harcourt aborigines since 1913 must be addressed by sand filling the various mangrove swamps in and around Port Harcourt develop same and relocate the inhabitants of these waterfronts communities to these developed sand filled lands.
Retain and recognize the original names of the various Okrika Ijaw towns and villages as contained in the Port Harcourt agreement of 18 May, 1913, just like the Ikwerre towns involved in the said agreement. What is good for the goose is also good for the gander
We want to see the plan. This is because there are already structures that were demolished by this government like the University of Port Harcourt Teaching hospital, (UPTH) in town which was a former General Hospital, where as a young doctor I did my housemanship, and they promised to build a befitting high rise hospital with partnership with a Canadian firm, nothing there yet. The Cultural centre was demolished too and it is lying fallow. With all these we want to be sure of government good intentions. We don’t want homelessness to be created for us.