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From the Bucket Men To Twon- Brass (3) By Patrick Naagbanton

January 24, 2014

“Manager, joke apart, tell your oga (referring to manager’s boss) that we need to do our street party too”, he said, “I am the chief security officer of this Nembe Waterside. I was here when you gave five thousand naira to a slave, that cultist and korofo for that matter. Is it because I didn’t show any magical pen? For peace to reign give me our five thousand naira”.

“Manager, joke apart, tell your oga (referring to manager’s boss) that we need to do our street party too”, he said, “I am the chief security officer of this Nembe Waterside. I was here when you gave five thousand naira to a slave, that cultist and korofo for that matter. Is it because I didn’t show any magical pen? For peace to reign give me our five thousand naira”.

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I walked closer to him, looked at his eyes raptly and said, “Na waah for you oooooo. Are you not part of the strike chief arrangement? I was here when you were virtually kneeling down, shouting “Strike Chief” I said sarcastically, while flashing my eyes like his. 

“Me? Not me. You didn’t see well. You have problems with your eyes. Who are you sef. Do you know me?” He barked like a hurt dog, pointing his fingers angrily in my direction.  

“Yes, I know you too well. We used to be friends and I also know the guy you were calling strike chief too”, I said it, while smiling. In the Icelanders world, a “Strike Chief” coordinates attacks and counter-attacks on rival cult groups. His violent mood changed into a friendly and peaceful one. I walked out of the boat to his side and shook his hands like a fellow gangster leader. And drew his hands to my side and went to a corner there to discuss briefly. I mentioned the name of the Krikakiri man and said that he is a member of the Icelander and is on the run from his community because of youth crisis. As a writer for a publication of the Washington, US- based Jamestown Foundation, then, writing under the pen name, Bestman Wellington, I had met and interviewed him around late two thousand and seven in his community.  Few months later, when I was hired as a researcher for the Geneva, Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey, working towards producing their “Occasional Paper” on the deltaic armed groups and arms, I met him again. Then, I told the man that he hails from Nembe group in Bayelsa State. I mentioned the name of his village. I said I first saw him at “Colombia” in the Port Harcourt town area around early nineteen ninety-four. 

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I was staying at an apartment on Victoria Street, south of Port Harcourt city, and few meters to “Colombia”. What was later renamed “Colombia” was first called “No.1 Field” located opposite No. 21 Bende Street where garri and other foodstuffs were sold. “Colombia” was a collection of market stands. Very early in the morning and evenings, when the market had not started or closed, drug peddlers, petty drug users and other criminals, including prostitutes (Colombians) used the place. They took over the small market and converted it into Colombia and edged the market users away. Colombia was a major hub of drug consumption and peddling and crime. I was not a Colombian, but an observer. The Port Harcourt’s Colombia took its name from Colombia, the country in the South American continent infamous for illicit drug trade and organized crimes. Around the Colombian axis, were Romeo (located at No. 19 and 20 Victoria Street), a disreputable massive brothel and lots of liquor joints here and there. Part of the Romeo night club buildings (No. 20 Victoria Street) has been turned into apartment for tenants, while parts (No.19 Victoria Street) are still occupied by sex workers. Children and youngsters who grew up around the Colombian environs and other ghettoes in the township were affected by the life there. 

The Rivers State Government recently destroyed Columbia and constructed a fine football pitch. Instead of taking to drugs and crimes it’s better to be a footballer, the government must have reasoned. Some of those who turned out to be leaders of cult and militia bands in subsequent years had their claws nurtured in Colombia. I told him that he is of the Greenlander cult. He was shocked, though he argued that Greenlander is not a cult, but a liberation movement. I told him about myself. We are almost of the same age. He was one of those who had misguided childhood and took to violent crime and hard drug abuse and ended up that way. The manager later raised two thousand naira (less than eleven dollars) for him. I am sure he would expend that on hard drugs and alcohol at the port in few minutes, neither he nor the Icelander strike chief was not organizing any street party.
At around five twenty p.m., the boat was almost grounded, the tide was ebbing quickly. I heard the sound of a bell which rang like an old school bell; it was an indication that the boat was gradually moving away from the harbour. We were heading slowly towards south-west when one speed boat with one person – the driver (a marine police officer) asked us to slow down. The manager knew him. He handed over two thousand naira (about thirteen dollars) to him. Each large boat leaving or anchoring at the harbour pays that bribe to the marine police. As the marine police left, another speed boat came with ten empty plastic drums, each ten liter. The driver, a middle aged man in mufti handed over the drums to manager, to give them to two military officers at a military house boat in Bille along the creek route. We left and from the boat I took some photographs of the harbour. I also viewed the entire scene using my German-made “NV-1250 BR Outdoor Nevica Binocular”. The harbour and its adjourning water is a very dirty environment. Faeces (human excrement), empty plastic bags and bottles, sack bags, pieces of wood, rusty broken pieces of zinc, jerry cans, diesel, fuel and cans littered every where. As we moved, some leaves along the water channel clout our engine propellers and halted our movement. The crew had to stop the engine and remove them before we moved again. 

We approached the Abonnema wharf area on the south-west; I saw some short mangrove trees along the creek edge, its roots clouted with plastic bags and other wastes. We had sailed passed the area when I left my place on the second floor to the boat’s corridor. I went to observe swamps of mangrove trees, nypa fruticans, generally called “nipa palm”, the dancing sea birds and water flow. I was lonely on the small table beside a long passage outside the sitting room, which led to other parts of the boat. A young man walked up to me and said he wanted to talk to me about something. I was curious and had to listen to him. Sadness and anger was written all over his face. His voice was low-slung like that of a sad person. I offered him a space to seat on the wooden table. He asked me whether I saw him on the first floor as I entered the boat; playing with a “beautiful, fair girl” (these are the words he used). I affirmed that I saw them. He said that one of those Icelanders boys’ who entered the boat earlier snatched his girlfriend. And that the girl came to stay with him until the boat departed and bid him farewell. 

After listening to him, I said that the boy didn’t snatch your girl friend. I told him that I saw when she spoke Kalabari, though she is not of the Kalabari group, but can speak the language. He accepted my account, but was surprised how I knew what happened. I told him how the two of them (the Icelander boy and his girlfriend) later left the boat and sat on a batch of woods dumped on the harbour verge, discussing. He said while the boat was leaving his girlfriend waved at him and he refused to acknowledge her farewell bids.

He said he had known the girl for about eight months and that they met at a funeral at Twon Brass (the girl hailed from one of the Nembe towns) and they became friends. He said that he had called the girl’s elder sister and her phone was switched off. He said, “That is intimidation. I will belong very soon and we shall see (meaning that he would join one of the street cult groups soon)”. I advised him to take it easy and that I saw when the girl finished discussing with one of the Icelanders boys’ and was calling him to come, but he refused. He shouldn’t just accuse the girl of abandoning him and going after a cult boy. “The girl might be innocent of your allegations”, I told him. And that he shouldn’t join any cult group, but be committed to his grocery business. He was a bit relieved after our discussion, but he was still agonizing over his love (girlfriend). He later left me and entered the second floor apartment to sleep. I was awake throughout the night to take notes, observe places and things around. 

I got a call from him on first January, two thousand and fourteen wishing me God’s blessing and favour in the New Year. He later informed me that he was the happiest person on earth now and that the year would be good for him. He said the girl was with him in Twon Brass as he was calling me and that they have reconciled. I advised him to be committed to his business, be careful and handle things maturely so that he doesn’t hurt himself if things turn against his expectations. The man who hailed from one of the Igbo states in South Eastern part of Nigeria, told me he was thirty-two years old (though he looked older) and the girlfriend was twenty-four years old when I inquired.

“Abonema Wharf” is in the Port Harcourt area. There were a lot of vessels anchored there and behind were tank farms. Behind the wharf used to be an overcrowded, bristling neighborhood with massive shanty houses built of wood, zinc and some blocks. On twenty-seven July, two thousand and thirteen, the Rivers State Government destroyed the area which housed hundreds of the urban poor. Behind the wharf too, is Shell’s Kidney Island, one of Shell’s transport platforms. Abonema Wharf like the Nembe/Bony/Bille Terminal is ghetto for petty drug cartels and crimes. We sailed southwards, passing by the jetty of the moribund Ibeto Cement.

Our boat moved gradually. After the Ibeto jetty, on both sides of the creek, the mangrove vegetation looked healthy. I saw four cormorants, the dark-coloured aquatic birds, beating their beautiful long feathers against the water waves, leaping into the water and emerging with small fishes in their mouths. I also heard other sea birds on the nearby mangrove trees singing. The songs of the river birds were loud because the creek was calm. I liked the birds and their songs.

As we moved towards Isaka, the Okrika settlement in the Port Harcourt area, the creek became windy, waves roared angrily. The boat’s bell rang again, signifying that the driver want to increase its speed against the fuming waves. Any person traveling on the boat should be used to the sound of the bell. It is used to indicate take off, anchoring, decreasing or increasing speed. About six -fifteen p.m., we were still in the Isaka area, there were no houses along the creek route, rather what I saw were mangrove swamps and some  patches of nipa palm growing in mangrove swamps. Around the area we saw a triple junction (a centre where river water from three routes meets). On the far right were two abandoned vessels- some parts submerged. It looked like illegal oil bunkering vessels. At the junction, a speed boat carrying a middle aged woman, a fish seller overtook us; the boat driver was not talking, rather motioning with his fingers with some of our boat crew members. Our driver understood him, sounded his bell and slowed down. He dropped off the woman on our boat. The woman had arrived at the Nembe waterside terminal and was told that we had left.

In spite of the fact that the speed boat was smaller, it flew on the water like an arrow, caused serious ripples which tossed our bigger boat and caused some discomfort. Further ahead on the Isaka River, was a non- functional facility belonging to Shell. Tom Ateke’s Icelander sometimes called the Niger Delta Vigilante Services (NDVS) used to have one of its camps there. From there, it trained combatants and deployed them to carry out deadly attacks. In early June, two thousand and nine, the Henry Okah’s faction of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) launched its insurrectionary campaign code-named “Hurricane Piper Alpha”. Ateke’s group, which was then loyal to Okah’s MEND then, obeyed the “order”. The Shell’s facility along the waterways was a victim. It was destroyed. Four days after the attack, the late Nigerian President Yar Adua declared its pardon (amnesty) to the warring armed groups and their commanders. Tom Ateke and others accepted Yar Adua’s offer.

I moved to the control room where the driver sat. We discussed about the creek route and the security challenges. After that I used a wooden ladder to climb to the boat rooftop. There were five young men – four had pulled off their shirts and were smoking Indian hemp frantically. The fifth person was not smoking; he faced the eastward, chanting his Muslim prayers. I couldn’t withstand the choking effects of the swarm of Indian hemp smoke. I left there. They smoked throughout the night and coughing offensively. Some of them were crew members, others were passengers. It was twenty- five minutes before seven p.m. and we were traveling southward. There were also facilities belonging to the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC), the Italian oil and gas corporation along the course.

Nightfall in the creek seemed more severe than on land. Darkness and a mangrove swamp formed a black barrier on our path. I found it difficult to see through, but the boat driver, did not have that difficulty. His eyes were as sharp as that of an owl. He switched off the light which brightened the way for security reason. From his room, he rolled the engine wheel energetically and passed through the creeks. We passed through the route that leads to old Bakana on the right. Around seven p.m., we entered the New Calabar River, where the waves rolled like frightened snakes. This River was a major route for the obnoxious slave trade and other subsequent “legitimate” trades between the Kalabari people and others and their European counterparts in the late nineteenth century.

Along the new Calabar River were some communities of the Kalabari Kingdom of the Ijaw ethnic group. Elem Kalabari as they were also called, like other kingdoms and nationalities of the delta has different migration stories. Some historians linked the origin of the Kalabari people to the Efik people of the Calabar basin in present-day Cross River State in the South-South region. Others argue that they migrated to their present home in the Eastern Delta from the Ijaw main land of the central delta (in present-day Bayelsa State). Both accounts seemed to be dominant accounts. Excavations carried out in Ke, the old Kalabari settlement in the seventies suggested that they existed there about A.D 900.

We were sailing steadily when from the right side of the river, torchlight flashed through the darkness, followed by wild chorus barks, “Stop, Stop, Stop”, within few seconds, a speed boat appeared. I thought they were sea-pirates. They were six soldiers in uniform. They interrupted our boat movement, two of them held one of the edges of our boat. “If you don’t stop that nonsense we will deal with you. Bring our money” one of the soldiers shouted, pointing his fingers at the manager who had emerged from his room, and was on the boat corridor with me. 

“I am sorry Sirs, we didn’t see you”, he said while extending his right hand to give the raging soldiers two clean naira notes (One thousand naira each) to one of the soldiers. The money was as neat as one that was just coming out of a minting machine. After collecting the money they disappeared into one of the tiny creeks along the route.

“Manager, what is the money for?” I asked him.

“My brother, all the money we make we give them. It is the navy, army or police. Some days from Nembe waterside in Port Harcourt to Twon Brass we spend over forty thousand naira (about two hundred and sixty dollars) as bribes”. He lamented.

To be continued.

Naagbanton lives in Port Harcourt, Rivers State capital.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SaharaReporters ​

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