Tuesday, December 9, 2014 10:00 am
The unification of Boki Local Government of Cross River State, despite the linguistic an cultural diversity, is threatened by the absence of a bridge to connect the council’s communities to the headquarters
It was definitely a dream reunion. After an absence spanning over 13 years since the last visit, it was a homecoming in the physical form, even though I have visited that part of home, on many occasions perched on a mental time machine. Though firmly carved on my mind, the things that made many parts of Boki LGA thick were fast fading from my memory because of a lack of regular physical contact. Check out the Agba Hills, the Boje Hills, the Drill Ranch at Buanchor, the Bawup River, the age-old colourful new yam festival, masquerade dancers and of course Nigeria’s only surviving virgin forest [home of the Okwangwo Division] managed by the Nigerian Conservative Foundation and the World Wide Fund. Having lived in other cities in Nigeria for such a long time, the sight of wild animals in their natural habitats, the quiet flow of rivers and streams that abound in Boki and the many scenic views, grottos and caves were backsliding into the reserved part of my memory.
So, last month through the grace of a vacation, a homecoming was arranged. Boje, the headquarters of Boki Local Government Area, was the chosen destination. From there, my private entourage was billed to proceed to Katabang and Buanchor communities in eastern Boki to see all the wild creatures in their ‘home’. From Ikom LGA, a major socio-political and economic hub in Central Cross River, Mrs. Felicia Bankong-Obi, my elder brother’s spouse who is extremely familiar with the terrain, volunteered to lead the way. I was itching to get away from the glitterati of the city. I wanted to see the mangrove forest, the shrubs, the baobab trees, the foliage tress, the vast vegetation land mass and of course the many colourations of the sounds of undomesticated animals. For a time, I truly wanted to be, not close to nature, but in nature.
At Nkarasi, a suburb of Ikom, our leader asked that we disembark from the taxi we boarded. The journey took another form. Out the vehicle, we stepped onto motorcycles or okada as they are called in the area. A few kilometres into the journey, it began to dawn on me that not all homecomings are coated in smooth passages. For example, while the eye fed fat on the greenery and the occasional wild beasts and chirping birds that have not been frightened by the activities of poachers, timber men and other agents of ‘development’, the about 20 kilometres to Iso Beneghe felt like another journey of the maaji.
At some point we had to disembark while the rider slipped his way to a safer ground where the journey resumed again. Sometimes we had to walk through streams and at other times, we paid a fee to village youths who took advantage of fallen construction machines in their area to make brisk cash. All these were possible courtesy of the absence of a good road. The patch of coal tarred road from Nkarasi actually pretends to run to Iso Beneghe. But, very large portions of the road are without asphalt. In some portions where coal tar was available, that has given way to gullies, gutters and potholes that task the expertise of the best okada operators to great limits. Despite this drudgery, the reward of what laid ahead kept the spirit alive and burning. Meandering through Abuja Farm, Onitsha Farm, we arrived at Iso Beneghe, where a bit of civilisation resurfaces with beautiful houses and political party posters leading the pack. Even from the outskirts of Abuja Farm, the beginning of the farming settlements in the area, the smell of fermented or drying cocoa rules the atmosphere. This is commonplace up to the point where the journey paused.
From Iso Beneghe to Okundi Junction, the road for once gives a traveller a temporary reprieve. The motorcycle riders of course relish this intervention. But their excitement as well of that of the traveller is short-lived as the road soon fizzles out, leaving them at the expense of the muddy parches and treacherous gutters. We came through this experience with vigourous determination.
It is at the bank of the River Bawup [in some places it is called Nwup] that one understands how much problems still bedevil the 23-year-old LGA. If anyone in the team had hydrophobia, our journey could probably have ended at the bank of this river. But then, we trudged on on a wooden makeshift canoe – one of the two watercraft said to have been procured by Abubakar Ewah, the current chairman of the council, to ferry people across. The so-called canoe had no safety element – no safety jacket, no engines. It moves, all thanks to the manipulation of Ebi Egwu who can perhaps be described as the ‘connector’ between the other parts of Boki and their headquarters. Some council staff told this reporter that even the chairman gets to his office only by rowing on this canoe like all other people.
Egwu volunteered that he encounters challenges sometimes while ferrying people across Bawup. He said his water machine has on occasions lost balance and capsized. Recently, he said, “My colleague had an accident. His [boat] capsized and we had to swim to rescue people. Although no life was lost, many properties were lost.” He called on the government to build the bridge and save the people the hazards they encounter on a daily basis.
The less than 500 metres bridge over River Bawup has kept the over 300,000 Boki people separated from their council headquarters. “The contract for this bridge was awarded some years ago but the contractor left after government reneged on the contractual agreement. We have suffered for a long time in this place. You need to be here when we have a programme at the council headquarters,” one civil servant who rowed across with this reporter said. Another indigene of the area laid the blame firmly on the elites in the area. “There are so many big men in our area. It is a shame that they collect monies for the construction of this road but they never do anything. They are just interested in building beautiful houses for themselves and their families. It is a shame,” he spat.
A grassroots politician who travelled on the same canoe with us to keep an appointment with the council chairman told this magazine that the situation of the local government headquarters in Boje has not yielded the envisaged developmental objectives envisaged by those that canvassed for its creation. “Boje is the centre of the LGA, they thought that if the headquarters was put there, it could connect other areas as well as allow development trickle down to other confederating communities. But the reality has been far from the concept. Look at even an ordinary bridge has not been build; the road from eastern Boki is not passable. That means when people from that part – Beebo, Aboh, Bakum, Bumaji, Kayang etc – who want to come to Boje, go through three LGAs – Obanliku, Obudu, Bekwarra, Ogoja – before they get here. Yet when they arrive Ekpugrinya junction or Nkarasi junction, they have to travel through bad roads to arrive the council headquarters and then risk their lives and property over Nwup before they get here. So, where is the development and where else in Nigeria do you have this kind of situation?” he wondered.
By noon when we berthed at the council chambers, the party was completely exhausted from the stress of the travel and the drudgery along the road.
We spared some time to look at the mountains, the villages around, the governor’s lodge build on a hill and of course a short visit to St. Ben’s Primary School just opposite the chairman’s dwellings. By dusk, we set about on a return journey because we needed to continue the following day to another part of town. Although we couldn’t make it to the drill ranch and other choice locations, I was happy that I shared in the suffering my people go through and then have the chance to talk about it. I felt terrible that the high court project mooted in Boje could not be completed, and the divisional police headquarters was relocated to ameliorate the suffering of the people who had to travel long distances to the place
On our way back, we solved our biggest problem first – we crossed the river and got to the banks safely. We were lucky some motorcyclists as well as vehicles brought by produce buyers were still available. We flagged down someone who agreed to take us to Okundi, one of the biggest towns in Boki. We had a smoother ride because the road on that side, though narrow and windy is much more motorable than the Nkarai-Iso Beneghe axis. In any case, it is longer in distance but we were supine in terms of choices now. As we made our way back to our base in Ikom, the thought of what River Bawup does to people at the peak of the rainy season frightened me to no end. I may continue to shudder until a bridge goes over that river which someone said is a distant tributary of the great Cross River.