Gelegele: Ancient Benin port lost to history
By Ozolua Uhakheme
Pa Wilson Kororo is frail and weak. He is one of the few remaining elders in Gelegele. He could not hide his joy on sighting the reporter who was surrounded by some youths. Like the blind man in the Holy Bible begging Jesus Christ to regain his sight, he said to the reporter: "My pikin, add my matter for your report. I am dying gradually from the pollution in this village. And it is everywhere. See, the roof of my small house is rusted and it is falling off because of gas flaring and other toxic gases in the air. Tell our government make them hear." Pa Kororo’s case is only the tip of ice berg in the degradation plaguing the residents of Gelegele.
Like every other oil community in the Niger Delta, Gelegele, a small riverside village that lies at the bank of the Edo axis of River Niger, is a graphic contrast to its economic and historical significance. Despite hosting the oil flow station of Dubri Oil Company since 1979, social economic activities in Gelegele are seemingly non-existent. Accessing the community that is mainly populated by the Ijaw by road is one adventure not many will want to undertake. But for kidnappers, the Ekehuan-Gelegele axis is an escape route to Delta and Bayelsa states through the sea. Little wonder the Edo State government deployed an anti-crime mobile police squad, Thunderstorm, along the route to checkmate the kidnappers’ atrocities.
During the rainy season, many travellers to Gelegele either end their journey at Ughoton Village, where an oil well is located, or trek the remaining distance. Vehicles only bring people from Benin to Ekehuan, a journey of about 27 kilometres and thereafter motorcycles ferry people for the next 18 kilometers. Sometimes, one can stay at the Ekehuan junction for hours, waiting for a motorcycle going to Gelegele. And it costs as much as N600 per trip, depending on the weather and time. Yet, thousands of barrels of crude oil are ferried from Gelegele to Chevron in Escravos, Delta State, for refinement abroad.
The village is situated near a large expanse of tropical rain forest with a network of rivers, creeks, streams, canals and springs linking up to the River Niger which flows into the high seas. Pockets of jetties and shrines being patronised by the people keep the area alive. Expectedly, low level fishing and trading in condensate (mistaken by the local people as diesel) go on in the area and serve as the major sources of revenue for the people. The easier link to communities like Ekehuan in Edo State, Escravos in Delta State and other adjoining villages is through the waterway because the only road to the place is under construction and work has since stopped.
Apart from the Police and Customs’ posts that are not functioning, the community is literarily another Siberia, with no government presence - not even for revenue collection. The day-to-day affair of the community is run by an executive of the village union as well as the youth wing. Health and education facilities are jointly provided by the community and the local government. At the only primary school in the village, Osa Primary School, the village and council provided two teachers each. But the story is different at the health post, where Mrs. Priscilla Nonekhuone is the only staff serving as health officer, attendant, gardener, security and cleaner.
Since resuming office in November 2007, she has been alone at the health post that has two beds and a table containing few drugs. According to her, the gardner and cleaners were withdrawn by the council chairman when he visited the community sometime ago.
"The chairman came here and asked the unskilled workers to step aside for a while and that they would be called back later. This was after he took an inventory of skilled and unskilled workers. I was the only skilled worker around. Later, we heard that they were asked to step down till further notice.
"Since then they have not been called back."
She disclosed that the health post gets water from the river except when the generator attached to the borehole is on, that water from the tap can be fetched.
"There was a time the community wrote a letter to the council calling for the reinstatement of the people they told to step down but there was no answer. Each time we hold our meetings at Okada I always talk about the health workers in my department and that I am alone. It was as a result of my pressure on them that they sent one health worker, a woman to this post. They sent her last week and she has come twice. Sometime last week she was here. Two days ago, she came back to tell me that she is going on leave and that when she comes back she will resume formally.
Nobody is guarding the post, it is God that guards the place," she said.
The community PRO, Mr. Monday Donyegha and vice chairman of youth wing, Mr. Fineboy Oferejo, who conducted this reporter round the village were also full of lamentations about the neglect of the village.
"There is nothing to show that Gelegele is an oil producing community. And unfortunately, our governor has not found it necessary to visit us. After all, this is the only oil producing community in the state. Gas flaring has killed many of our old men and women and the air is constantly hot. Our roofing sheets have become rusty because of the pollution in the air. And if more wells are opened at the flow station, the noise will drown everybody in the village.
Farming or fishing has become impossible as the environment is all polluted too," Donyegha said in an angry tone.
In between the thatched mud houses in the village are standing pipes without water while the NNDC built single-shop market is but a shanty, which the villagers describe as inadequate. Another project that is on-going is the new secondary school located on the outskirt of the village on the way to Ughoton. Though completed, it is yet to be equipped with chairs, tables and other facilities.
But beyond the conventional school, the villagers are yearning for the take-off of the skill acquisition centre being built by the NDDC. Unfortunately, the project, according to the community spokesperson, seems to have been abandoned. Since its foundation stone was laid last year, nothing has been done to the project and the place has been overgrown by weeds. "We need the training at the centre because some of us can read and write, and can add little trade to it in order to earn a living,"
Unfortunately, a lot of activities that are very vital to the history of the ancient Benin kingdom are linked to Gelegele. It is in history that the slave trade and trade in cocoa, cowries and other precious items with the Germans, Portuguese and later Britons were all done through this port as the major seaport in the region. Today, the famous Gelegele seaport has been reduced to a mere waterside where only fishing by the local people takes place. Also, the Portuguese and British government used the Gelegele sea port extensively for more than half a century before the 1897 infamous British punitive expedition. In an open letter to former President Olusegun Obasanjo in March 2005, the Benin Youth Congress lamented that the ancient Gelegele sea port is neither a seaport in practical term nor a cultural monument as it is in the case of advanced democracies. The congress noted that the Federal Government since 1960 has done little or nothing about the dredging of the port for ships to berth and for associated services. It therefore observed that the sustained patience and of the Binis have been taken for granted for so long or how ‘else do we explain the little or no concern of the Federal Government even in a democracy to this all important project?" The port, it added, when attended to would boost the employment opportunities for the youths as well as enhance the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS) which is a major policy–thrust of the administration.
"We do hereby state unequivocally that the call for government intervention towards the dredging of Gelegele sea port is a cardinal struggle, which cannot be negotiated in our resolve to pursue the struggles or concerns of the Benin nation. Towards this end, the Congress shall not hesitate to employ any reasonable action to drive home our cry for the dredging of the historic Gelegele sea Port. All energies and ideas at the disposal of the Congress members at home and abroad shall be resolutely mobilised for the realisation of this set goal. Interestingly, Gelegele is famous in many regards to students of history and those who want to know more about the black race. Gelegele is, no doubt, one of the ancient seaports which existed even before the coming of the colonial masters and far before the birth of Nigeria as a country. Apart from the British expedition in Benin, it is one of the seaports through which the colonial masters on exploration and partition of Africa had access to the ancient Benin Kingdom. However, there is an uneasy calm at Gelegele over the right to the land.
On September 3 and October 21, the group led by Pastor Festus Osa Egharevba Izeomo made presentations to the Oba of Benin at the palace seeking a lasting end to the assaults and abuses on the Binis. Izeomo said the group’s visit is necessitated by the communal crises that have persisted between the Binis and other ethnic stocks in Benin kingdom, especially the Ijaws, which has left a sour taste in the mouth.
"That Gelegele is a Benin community is a long settled issue. There are established, verifiable administrative inquiries by the then Midwest state government and judgments from the High Court up to the Supreme Court in Lagos giving authority and power to the Binis over the land occupied by our forebears for centuries," he added.
He observed that the Ijaws who settled and are dotted along river banks in Benin Kingdom in spite of openness and acceptance of Benin, have become a thorn in the flesh of Binis constituting themselves as malfeasance, aggressors, instigators and violators of civilised norms. He alleged that the Ijaws have severally attacked, invaded and occupied Benin villages without provocation and retaliation for too long. He recalled that the house being erected by the Okao, Chief Joseph I. Iyonmahan in 1985 was allegedly destroyed adding that the newly installed Odionwere, Mr. Amos Enaigbe was also severely beaten when he attempted to build the Ogue-Edion in Gelegele.