By Ojonugwa Ugboja
ABUJA (Sundiata Post) At the start of every harvest season, the River Niger overflows its banks, flooding farmlands and houses across Ibaji; a littoral local government area in Kogi state. As a result, crops are either submerged or farmers are put in a precarious situation where they have to begin premature harvest while seeking food and emergency shelters for their destitute families.
This has become an all too familiar predicament for the people. Ibaji, the southernmost part of Kogi is bordered to the east by Enugu and Anambra states, and maintains good relationship until the discovery of oil in the border areas which has given rise to controversies that have unfortunately escalated to violence in recent time – a very predictable outcome you would say. From the bank of the River Niger in a village called Odomomoh, one would only have to take a 20 minutes boat ride to arrive in Edo state, her southern neighbour where most of Ibaji crops, especially yam and rice are sold and loaded into uncountable lorries headed for Benin, Onitsha, Port Harcourt and Lagos.
For a productive local government that strategically borders as many as three states, one would wonder why there is no sign that the state government is interested in harnessing the unlimited opportunities or providing necessary support to enhance commerce.
The local government has over 60 villages and countless farm settlements, but the absence of good motorable roads has made the movement of people and farm products very hectic, and sometimes, nearly impossible, especially in the raining season. There are no electric wires poles in sight, neither are there clean water sources, or hospitals, not to mention the spectacle of dilapidated school buildings. Most of the villages are without police stations and the basic infrastructures needed for any community of people to thrive are lacking.
A household can farm as much as 4000 yams, or own as much as 10 hectares of a rice farm, but would have to sell off about 90% of those because there are no mediums of storage, and the absence of good roads make it impossible for conveying vehicles to come in or for a market to thrive. So, there is a situation where farmers in spite of abundance still live in hunger and penury after harvest.
This question of neglect has lingered for ages, and the people seem hopeless to the point where expectation has been replaced with a resignation to fate. But in spite of that, there is an admirable commitment to what they know how to do best, which includes but not limited to farming, fishing and trading. Among the most popular crops are yam, rice, cassava, corn, beans, potato and vegetables. A number of people here also raise livestock and there is a heavy fishing population along the coastal lines. Ibaji has no rivalry in Kogi when it comes to farming and fishing.
In one of the writer’s many trips to Ibaji, particularly in January, 2017, there was a palpable excitement in the air at Onyedega, the local government headquarter. On that auspicious day, the streets were filled with variety of masquerades donning beautiful costumes, dancing rhythmically to loud drums and traditional chants. Ibaji is undoubtedly a home of cultural entertainment, but this day drew a lot of onlookers – they were celebrating one of their sons being conferred with a chieftaincy.
In 2012, like in previous years, the local government suffered a flood disaster, but of a record level, displacing families who had nothing to do but to count their losses. Typically, the response from the state government was either too late or too little. The major respite for the people came through the aid offered by Civil Society Coalition for Poverty Eradication (CISCOPE), a Non-Government Organisation (NGO), with rallied support from international organisations like the EU and The International Rescue Committee from whom funding came mostly from. Mr Peter Michael Egwudah, whose investiture as a chief was taking Onyedega by storm, was the brain behind that unforgettable humanitarian gesture.
Apart from building the resilience of the affected communities to mitigate the impact of future deluge and creating awareness on issues around environmental disasters, over 16, 400 households across 60 communities in Ibaji were supported by the NGO with improved yam seeds, water pumps for dry season irrigation farming and NFI kits. In appreciation for stepping in to help while the state government have looked away, the local government traditional council headed by a famous Chief John Egwemi decided to confer a chieftaincy title on Mr Peter Egwudah to the applause of many.
‘’He is one of our illustrious sons, whose gesture we can never forget. We are conferring on him this chieftaincy, ‘Agbane of Ibaji,’ which means ‘The One Who Bear Other People’s Burden’ in order to appreciate him for coming to the aide of thousands of flood victims and also encourage others to help us in Ibaji because we have no one to run to, ’’ said Chief John Egwemi before performing the other rites of investiture on Peter Egwudah.
The above scenario depicts how the people here have to grapple with life. In spite of being one of the biggest voting populations in the state, Ibaji not only lack basic infrastructures to support both living and farming but would also have to rely most times on themselves and on goodwill like this for survival, even after major flood disasters.
‘’I thank the Royal Highness, Chief John Egwemi, Onu Ibaji, for this recognition, but I believe that this is even a clarion call for me and for the youths of Ibaji to rise up to our challenges. As the youngest among the people given this kind of recognition, I believe that it should positively resonate with the young and hardworking people of our local government to rally around one another and give their best. This recognition isn’t about me or how much one has, but about the passion to make a difference in the lives of our people,’’ said the newly crowned Chief Peter Egwudah who promises to use his new position to advance the course of Ibaji by coordinating more projects and advancing the ones he has already started like the ‘Ibaji Eka Festival’; an annual cultural festival of all villages converging in the local government capital; the first of its kind under the auspices of ‘Ibaji Resort Limited’ which he co-founded with fellow awardee, Chief Jacob Ugoya (Okanwa of Ibaji) and Inaju Inaju.
Chief Peter Egwudah believes that one of the ways forward is for the people, especially the ones with some kind of advantage to keep talking about the issues in order to attract the needed attention that would bring solutions.
‘’What we are clamouring for are infrastructural investments; in terms of roads, hospitals, schools, electricity and access to markets. We have all it takes, in terms of ability, to feed the nation, but our people have no access to fertilizers, storage facilities, or any kind of technology for modern farming. These problems have lingered for so long without any thought given to them by the state government,’’ he added while waving excitedly to a cheering crowd.
But the blame, according to him is not for the state government alone. Even the local government hasn’t fared any better with its own institutions. Most of the elected officials are usually absent from the local government offices and Peter Egwudah believes that he can begin to make a difference by educating the people about their rights and electoral responsibilities through a group he co-chairs called ‘Ibaji Unity Forum,’ a constellation of Ibaji professionals.
In his opinion, the crises between the local government and Anambra over oil discovery is needless because there is hardly ever a good end for any community where oil is discovered as they would have to grapple with challenges like spillages and other forms of pollution. If possible, Peter Egwudah would rather have an Ibaji thriving solely in agriculture than in oil.
There have also been other intra-community crises owing to land and lake disputes which have unfortunately led to loss of lives. Peter Egwudah believes that it is time for unity and for those with political positions to step in to bring an end to the crisis.
The potential and opportunities in Ibaji cannot be mistaken, not even by a first timer. In a time where there is so much glamour for agricultural development and with looming fear of global food shortage due to several environmental factors, it is a mystery that a local government from where foods go to Edo, Delta, Anambra, Rivers and Lagos states would be so neglected. The biggest irony of it all is that Kogi state does not even benefit enough from the wealth of Ibaji because the lack of good roads makes it easier for Ibaji farmers to rather transport their farm products to neighbouring states where they are even better priced.
Ibaji is a gold mine and one wonders how long it would take before such a place among many others in Nigeria can become what they are truly meant to be – a hive of maximum and quality food production.