“Even the one guarding oil facilities force us to pay them money. Even JTF (Joint Task Force, the military task force operating in the delta region) force us to pay them. I am not even worried about the amount, even if they ask us to pay more we will and let them guard us against sea-pirates. We are just paying money for nothing. There was a time sea-pirates attacked us and we went to military people to report to them. They said we should go to police. The reason why we travel in the night is that we pay lesser amount of money, but is risky travelling in the night”, an enraged manager said further.
We were heading southwest still on the New Calabar River, some twenty five minutes before eight p.m., I heard a loud bang like that of a firework blast. I moved to the manager who was in his room, watching a comical Nigerian movie called, “Happy Christmas”
“What is the problem?” I asked.
“Don’t worry, the engine propeller cut off. It won’t affect anything. They will fix it” he responded.
The bell rang again and the boat stopped while the crew members were installing a new propeller. As the manager promised, it didn’t take up to three minutes before a new one was fixed and our journey began. We got to a military house boat in the Bille community to hand over all the ten drums to the military men there.
As we left the military point, I turned to the manager again and asked him what the drums were for. He laughed mischievously and said, “Oga sir, leave me alone oooo. You know what is happening than I know. Let’s talk about other things”, he laughed. I cracked some jokes with him, hoping to get more details about the drums, but he refused to say anything about it. Bille is one of the Kalabari communities, located in the Degema LGA. In early nineteen ninety- two, the Kalabari – Nembe war broke out again. The hostilities continued until two years after. The battle was over the ownership of the oil and gas rich area where Soku gas plant and other oil wells are located. Bille creek was a major battle field. On Thursday, third February, nineteen ninety-four at the Bille creek which is popularly called “Kilometer 90”, Ebigberi Trust, twenty years old then, who had just completed his secondary school, was travelling from Port Harcourt to his Twon- Brass town when attackers struck. He narrated to me in detail how around ten a.m. (in the morning) under the severe harmattan cold then, the incident took place. As they were approaching the Bille creek, seven young men alleged to be Kalabari fighters, dressed in military uniforms, heavily armed with guns opened fire on their speed boat. They were twenty-five persons in the commercial speed boat travelling to Twon-Brass and other Nembe communities along the creeks. There was also another commercial speed boat with same number of passengers, travelling with them. The attackers were in two boats as they saw them coming, used ropes and barricaded the creek route. The other boat travelling with them sped off. Ebigberi Trust and others couldn’t escape like the other boat, they were attacked. Fourteen persons including a police escort and a Nembe chief were killed. Trust was amongst the eleven who survived the gun attack. Trust is still alive and now a sailor, still sailing in the rough creeks and high seas of the delta. Fighters from the Nembe kingdom were also patrolling the creeks and attacking suspected Kalabari natives. Some calm had returned after the boat incident and others, but armed fighters on both sides were not disarmed. They still have the guns. The route is notorious for sea piracy and illegal oil activities by state and non -state agents.
The boat driver was such a great man who knew his job. He sailed west-north, north-west and arrived south-west around ten twenty-five p.m. He didn’t miss the route. He wasn’t using a Compass or a Global Positioning Systems (GPS) or other navigational equipment. We were at Oluasiri to drop off passengers with their loads of crates of beer (Star and Heineken). At Oluasiri, a party was going on. Some young men and girls were by the beach side twisting their waists and bodies seriously to the tune of the erotic songs of Nigeria’s rich musician, J.M. Martins. Two loud speakers playing the music were placed by the beach. The chorus was loud. “Baby make you give me your fine love eh/fine love eh/your sweetie sweetie love eh/Baby make you give me your fine fine love eh/your sweetie sweetie love eh”. Such songs in time of crisis can be a big relief.
The Oluasiri people are Nembe people and the community is in one of the oil rich disputed areas. The Kalabari and the Abua people (both Ijaw kingdoms) in Rivers State are saying that they own the area (Oluasiri) and that the Oluasiri people are settlers on their land. The Oluasiri and other Nembe people of Bayelsa State are countering that. Blood has been spilt over this, and now rages the bitter legal battles and media war by Rivers and Bayelsa States over ownership of the oil and gas rich area. As a travel writer, it is not my responsibility to go into the issues of who owns the disputed area, but to merely highlight the prevailing issues in the zones I travel through. But I hope the government would resolve the issue justly and peacefully soon. Poor locals from both sides are the victims of this pointless oil war.
We got to a fishing camp around the Brass River called, “Sansan Village”, to drop off a female passenger, and her two kids and some bags of rice and garri. At the Sansan fish village, instead of having a concrete or iron jetty, planks of wood were used as a platform (jetty) which one climbs into the impoverished fishing village. The wood was old and falling apart. Sand flies, the black tiny, blood-sucking and virus-causing insects swarmed our boat. I was bitten seriously. I ran back to my apartment for safety. At boat room, I saw a fat rat chasing another small one along a wooden pillar by my seat. I chased them away and sat down. We didn’t spend up to six minutes there we sailed out. We diverted through another snake- like creek and entered the Krikakiri area in the Kula community in the Akuku Toru LGA, another Kalabari community in Rivers State. The “Strike Chief” we encountered at the Port Harcourt’s port hails from here. Kula is rich in oil and gas too. The community had witnessed killings related to chieftaincy tussle, violent struggles to benefit from royalties given by Shell and others, and youth leadership crisis. At Krikakiri, our bell rang again, our boat slowed down; the manager came out of his room and handed over two thousand naira notes to some soldiers who were guarding an oil facility there.
Around twelve-thirty a.m., we were at Kampala, a fishing settlement named after the capital of Uganda in East Africa. We were not dropping any passengers. We wanted to pick up a small rectangular empty metal container with us to Twon -Brass.
One of their boats, carrying plenty of wood from the area to Port Harcourt had run into a stubborn storm and the boat sank two days before. After dropping us at Twon Brass, the boat crew members would go to where the boat sank along Nembe creek, dive into the water and use a long rope to tie the floating metal container, just to indicate that a boat had sunk there. Some crew members had taken the empty metal container from Kampala, and had tied it to the tail of our moving boat. We had travelled for about four minutes with the container when waving water from our boat filled it and it cut off and sank. Two crew members pulled off their shirts and dived into the tidal belly of the water, searching for the container. They saw it, but it was filled with water and sinking deeper. They were helpless, returned to the boat sad and feeling dejected. This delayed our movement a bit.
We moved deeper into the Nembe area. The Nembe kingdom of the Ijaw or Ijo nationality has two LGAs( Nembe and Brass ) in Bayelsa State of the central Niger Delta with booming towns which some of the natives called them ‘ kingdoms’ for some reasons. Around two a.m. (in the morning), I lifted up my eyes to the skies and saw stars over us, which seemed countless and moving closer to us. The morning breeze was chilling and refreshing. We passed Sunnykiri, another busy fishing settlement located on the edge of the windy creek. By three- thirty a.m. we were in the Nembe creek located in the Nembe LGA, a crew member was moving from one chamber of the boat to another, collecting fares and charges on loads. I paid him One thousand five hundred naira (about nine dollars) as my fare.
Nembe is the home of Ebiegberi Joe Alagoa, the humble and brilliant Professor Emeritus of history I respect a lot. Alagoa explores the rich oral histories and legends of his people through his historiographical expertise, reconstructs it, and presents it in a very simple and clear manner. In one of his books, The Small Brave City-State (1964), in pages 91 and 92, he wrote, “The early Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch trade in slaves had carried on through the ports of New Calabar and Bonny. It shifted to Nembe Brass Town when the British preventive activities became effective at these ports ….. In the 1880s, after the arrival of Sir George Tubman Goldie’s National African Company (which became the Royal Niger Company, Chartered and Limited, in 1886), the company established supercargoes and the Nembe traders became allies against the common rival, and Liverpool merchants with stations on the Brass River agitated in the British press and parliament against the increasingly intolerable monopoly maintained by the Niger Company at Akassa over all the markets in the interior” .In early two thousand and beyond, Alagoa and I served on the advisory board of the California, US – based National Radio project (NRP).
Nembe is also the home of Emmanuel Gladstone Olawale Rotimi (1938-2000), widely called, “Ola Rotimi”, the famous playwright, theatre director and teacher. Rotimi was the author of the renowned play; The Gods Are not to blame (1968). He was born of a Yoruba father, Samuel Gladstone Enitan Rotimi and his mother, Dorcas Oruene was from the Nembe main town of Ogbolomabiri. The Nembe kingdom has an age-long matrilineal (inheritance along mother’s line) society, a child or children acquired in any relationship (either marriage or otherwise) even if they bear the man’s name belong to the woman and her family. The system is no more. On Saturday, twenty-eight December, two thousand and thirteen, Edmund M. Daukoru, ex -Petroleum Minister to President Olusegun Obasanjo government, now Amanyanabo(king) of Nembe Kingdom (Mingi Xii) proclaimed it abolished. The system was established before 1800 AD. In nineteen seventy-seven, Akassa Youmi, his famous historical play was published. The play is about the Nembe-British War commonly called “the Akassa War”. The war over control of trade route between Nembe chiefs and its people (Ola Rotimi’s people) and British commercial interest, many Nembe people were killed, while Britain lost over hundred people, some were buried in Twon-Brass. Youmi in the Nembe dialect means, the war. Ola Rotimi in his Akassa Youmi presents an aspect of the tragedy in a dramatic form.
We spent about four hours dropping off several passengers and their luggage at the various Nembe communities and fishing camps. Around ten minutes after seven a.m., we sailed into Twon- Brass through the Brass River. The river, that sometimes of the day could be mad and its forceful waves block humans traveling in boats on its table, was calm. Before we anchored at Twon -Brass, I viewed Twon -Kubu burial ground from my binoculars on my left. Twon- Kubu is in Twon -Brass, headquarters of Brass L.G.A. There(Twon-Kabu) persons accused of being witches, lunatics or those who died the wrong way like plane crash and others are buried in this area. Twon-Kubu is on the verge of the town. There were spots of tall forest trees around the area
Twon- Kubu is different from Ada-Ama cemetery located near Old Bank Road in the heart of Twon- Brass town. At Ada-Ama “good people” are buried with fanfare.” “Who are the bad people and who are the good people?” I inquired myself. I also saw Imbikiri, was a European settlement where palm kernels were sold. Imbi means palm karnel, whileKiri means settlement, area or ground A resident of Twon Brass once cracked a joke with me that if one does not see fish to buy in Imbikiri, one cannot get fish anywhere in the world. Imbikiri is a settlement predominantly occupied by local and migrant fishermen and women and fish traders from other parts of Nigeria. The camp is crucial to the local economy of the people. The Nembe people consider it a serious taboo to kill or eat shark, the weird predatory fish. The fisher folks complained of the problems they have on daily basis when they catch shark and attempt to smuggle it into the town. The people also forbid killing or eating of python, the huge snake found in their mass in the Brass River. Twon -Brass, the old town of the Nembe people, from pre-colonial to present-day has witnessed one form of violent raid or another. At the river, I saw three long vessels as long as our wood boat, racing through in different directions. It looked like vessels with illicit crude oil.
When I got to Twon- Brass, I had wanted to sail out again. Not on the huge wooden boat, but in a speedboat to the Akassa area at the mouth of the turbulent Atlantic Ocean. I was advised against travelling there at the time, because of the dangerous activities of sea robbers and illegal crude oil cartels and dealers. I spent the night (Saturday) at the Samfagha Hotels near the Agip Gate. The hotel was clean and a bit spacious. I paid three thousand naira (about eighteen dollars) for the night. There was uninterrupted power supply from the nearby Agip gas turbine. The entire community also benefit from the power too. If such hotel were to be in Port Harcourt or elsewhere the room rate would have been higher. Opposite the hotel was a massive hotel with half-naked sex workers from all over the country and even some African countries like Cameroon , Cotonou and others who had come to stay there to do their trade.
Twon- Brass is the native home of Ernest Sissei- Ikoli (1893-1960), one of the fathers of modern journalism and nationalism. Mokwugo Okoye (1926-1998), the foremost pro-independence activist, philosopher and writer, praised Ikoli and others in page 72 of his book, Storms on the Niger. The book was first published by the Eastern Nigeria Printing Corporation in Enugu in nineteen sixty-four. Okoye described Ernest Sissei -Ikoli of The Daily Times, Thomas Horatio Jackson of The Lagos Weekly Record, W. Couldson Labour of The Dawn and Herbert Macaulay of The Lagos Daily Newspapers as “…real masters of their craft and ornaments to the Nigerian intelligence. With their colleagues they brought news of the outside world to the rising middle class and focused attention on more glaring problems of national development.” During the trip, I met Twon- Brass chiefs who disparaged the great Ikoli as a failure who never did anything for his Nembe or Ijaw people. I tried to defend Ikoli, but one of them was angry with me for doing that. Society has slipped into absurdity where success and achievements are measured on the basis of fraudulent money and wealth one parades. Ikoli remains largely unsung. Some years ago, the Rivers State Council of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) erected a monument of Ikoli, holding a pen in front of its secretariat. The NUJ’s secretariat which is located along Moscow Road in the heart of Port Harcourt city is now in ruins and Ikoli’s monument is falling apart as well.
Alfred Papapreye Diete-Spiff, the former military administrator of old Rivers State is said to be a Nembe man with some roots in Twon- Brass. Diete-Spiff is the Amayanabo(king) of Brass, a sub-kingdom within the Brass LGA. Like other sub-kingdoms within the Brass LGA -Okpoama, Odioma and Akassa, they have their Amayanabos(kings) too. Twon- Brass is also the home of Clifford T.I. Ordu – Cameroon, the eminent Professor of soil microbiology, born on third July, nineteen thirty-seven and died on twenty-five October, two thousand and thirteen which is a great loss to the world scientist’ community.
Charles Alfred, a young, bright scholar of peace, war and the conflict economies, was born Twon-Brass some thirty-nine years ago. He is a lecturer of the Political Science Department at the Federal University, Wukari, Taraba State located in North-Eastern part of Nigeria. The University where Charles teaches is located in the Wukari LGA (Jukunland) where T.Y. Danjuma, the ex-military general and billionaire oil tycoon comes from. The university is one of the new nine universities established by the Goodluck Ebele Jonathan government. Charles is the author of the book, A Comprehensive History of Twon-Brass, Vol 1, 2 and 3
Twon-Brass is a lovely town. But damaging environmental activities of the oil companies and others in the Brass River and its environs has aggravated the rising surge level which threatens to swallow the beautiful Ijaw town by the sea. I bade goodbye to Twon- Brass around seven a.m. on Sunday, twenty-nine December, two thousand and thirteen. Not with the huge local ferry boat again, but with the small “flying” boat (speed boat). My journey from Twon -Brass was just three and half hours.
I decided to travel with the poor locals- traders, fishermen and women, and with those who don’t have the money to pay for the speed boat to tell their stories. In the early sixties, travelling through the creeks from the Port Harcourt harbour to Twon- Brass in the large dug-out canoes would take three days. The boats were pulled manually (with paddles). The breakthrough in science and technology saw to better marine engines and equipment that reduced the stress of a longer journey. The various creeks used to be small, but successive governments in then Port Harcourt (then seat of power of the old Rivers State) had dredged the creeks to make them more accessible; for travels especially.
Twon -Brass! I shall come to you again, not on the snail- pace moving wooden boat, but on the flying boat (speed boat) to attend Professor Ordu-Cameroon’s funeral coming up sometime in March, this year.
Naagbanton lives in Port Harcourt, Rivers State capital