Onne Port Under Threat

Onne Port Under Threat

Tuesday, December 2, 2014 12:10 pm

Okafor Ofiebor/Port Harcourt

A protest over patronage by Okrika youth ushers in a threat to block cargo ships anchoring at Onne Port

The usual peaceful business atmosphere at the Federal Ocean Terminal, FOT, Onne Port, in the early hours of Monday, 17 November was jolted when scores of Okrika youths barricaded the entrance and exit of the Oil and Gas Free Zone, Onne, a suburb of Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State. Tying red bands on their heads and beating war drums, they made bonfire in what they termed as a peaceful protest against the management of FOT for its alleged consistent refusal to patronise them in the area of employment, contract award and other empowerment.

The protesters barred workers and those doing business in the Port access to their businesses. The protest caused a pile of vehicular traffic as motorists who could not access the road to the Federal Lighter Terminal, FLT, and FOT had to make a quick U-turn.

Onne Port is on Onne soil in Eleme Local Government area of the state but in the cause of expansion, the port has extended its business activities to parts of Ogu-Bolo Okrika and Eleme local government areas. Understandably, the ethnic nationalities of the areas are agitating for social responsibilities from the companies operating in the Oil and Gas Free Zone Authority and the management of the port.

•Onne Port

•Onne Port

The protesting youths caused pandemonium at the FOT, Onne as youths from Okrika said to be loyal to ex-militant leader, Ateke Tom, blocked the multi-billion dollar terminal that also hoststhe Oil and Gas Free Zone.

Onne youths were said to have challenged the audacity of Okrika youth to stage a protest on their land asking for patronage. There was a free for all.

Soldiers later dislodged the youths said to be protesting over marginalisation, lack of patronage and employment by the companies operating at the FOT.

An eyewitness said there were sounds of gunshots around the gate of the terminal as well as bonfire made by the youths, who were dancing and chanting war songs.

“Workers who prepared to resume work this morning were denied access to the FOT but they have no right to protest on Onne-Eleme soil. They said they want recognition by the management of FOT; what kind of recognition? Is it because they have people in power who protect them and they have arms which we don’t have?” she asked.

A member of the state House of Assembly representing Eleme constituency, Mr. Josiah Olu, condemned the action by the Okrika youth, even as he expressed surprise that security operatives deployed in the area could not stop the protesters from locking up the port.

An eyewitness lamented that morning to a Port Harcourt-based radio: “Okrika-Ogu people since last year sacked Ekporo, which is on Eleme land, and occupied the place. They have also taken over part of Alesa-Eleme because they have people in power and we don’t have. They should leave the Onne soil and the companies.”

A combined team of policemen and soldiers dislodged the protesters at about noon before the situation was brought under control. The area has been secured by soldiers.

•Free for all between Eleme and Okrika youths during Okrika youths protest at Federal Ocean Terminal Gate

•Free for all between Eleme and Okrika youths during Okrika youths protest at Federal Ocean Terminal Gate

Ateke Tom, who was alleged to have fuelled the protest, has however denied it. “I am not aware of the protest. But if they are protesting legitimately for their rights, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Does it mean that any time protests are carried out in Okrika, I am aware and I sponsored it? It is a mere allegation,” he said.

Okrika is the traditional home of Mrs. Patience Jonathan, the wife of President Jonathan, while Senator Thompson Sekibo, the chairman, Senate committee on Defence, who is gunning for third tenure in the Senate, is from Ogu and represents Rivers East senatorial district.

In the heat of the crisis, the senator, too, denied involvement.

Last year there was a communal clash between Ogu and Ekporo that led to the sacking of Ekporo and the killing of Mr. Nelson Igbuji, the councillor representing Ekporo Ward 5 in Eleme Local Government Area.

Prince Awalanta Ejire, the caretaker chairman of Eleme Local Government, expressed sadness over what he called unnecessary aggression and violent protest by youths from Okrika Local Government asking for concession in patronages by the Onne Oil and Gas free Zone Authority. He told journalists in Port Harcourt that four people were killed and six people were lying critically ill in a private hospital in Eleme due to gunshot injuries they sustained during the protest.

Ejire said that Okrika youths travelling from their local government to stage a protest in front of a company situated on Eleme land claiming part ownership is provocative to the Eleme people who are the host community. He expressed sadness over the recurring protests by Okrika youths claiming ownership of the Onne sea port and compelling the company concede all manner of patronage to them: “I will say that coming all the way from Okrika to do a protest in Eleme Local Government is unacceptable. I think it is too aggressive and we condemn it in its entirety.”

Claiming that over six people were lying critically ill in the hospital over wounds from gunshots, he said four others had been reportedly missing. “We are yet to find those four. The casualties are high already. We are looking at 10 right now.”

Ejire lamented that the consistent violent protests on Onne land pointed to the fact that some persons were pushing them but the council was yet to know who they were. He said that despite the provocation on Onne people, they remained calm even when the tried to defend their territory.

Ahmad Muhammad, the Police Public Relations Officer for the Rivers Command, confirmed there was a protest by some youth that blocked the entrance to the Onne sea port. He said the youths may have the right to peaceful protest but they do not have right to hamper the movement of others who do not have any business with their protest.

The police said they had to use all persuasive means available to disperse them from blocking other people from doing business in the area.

A detachment of soldiers took over the protection of the area after the protest.

The fallout from the protest is now reverberating across the state and tension is high. Youths under the Wakrike Youths Coalition, an umbrella body of Okrika youths, have alleged that Eleme youths attacked Okrika youths during the Monday protest, leaving some people injured. Their spokesman, Tamauno Tonye Ajubo, denied any aggression against Eleme people. He said that they only went to the Zone gate on a peaceful protest because they had signed an undertaking that the protest would be devoid of violence but they were violently attacked by Eleme youths with all manner of weapons, like stones and cutlasses.

The argument of Okrika youths was that due to the expansion of the Oil and Gas Free Zone by the management, Okrika land had been affected and that the people of Okrika should be co-beneficiaries of the companies’ social responsibility to host communities,.

The President of Ijaw Youths Council, IYC, Udens Eradiri, warned that the Oil and Gas Free Zone Authority and many other companies in the Niger Delta create problems for ethnic nationalities where they operate.

He warned that henceforth, vessels navigating through the Okrika and Ijaw territory would be compelled to stop and negotiate with those communities, the plans they have as their social responsibility.

The implication of such threat to the country’s maritime, oil and gas business in Nigeria, which the Free Zone is designed to promote, can better imagined.

Hamza Gumi, a deputy comptroller of customs and the 23rd Controller of Customs, Area Two, Onne Command, had told this magazine two months ago that, between January and July 2014, the Customs raked in a total sum of N49.722 billion from Onne alone. He said the projection was that, with a good business climate – and with importers and exporters adhering to the laid down rules and regulations – the revenue would increase.

There is now an uneasy calm in the area, with the Eleme and Okrika people talking tough.

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