24 June 2012

Nigeria: The Cross River of Life


To the Cross River State communities, the Cross River represents what the River Nile is to the people of Egypt , writes JUDE OKWE in Calabar

The Cross River, which takes its source from the Republic of Cameroon and covers an area of 39,000 square kilometres, is one of the largest and longest rivers in the country. Incidentally, Cross River State derives its name from this river. This river which has the largest drainage basin in the state accounts for over half of the state's total river flow. Because of its vast dimension, it is fed by other rivers and streams all of which at the peak of rainfall increase the volume of water in the river.

Cross River is crossed by four bridges: Ikom, Itigidi, Itu and Adiabo in Odukpani Local Government Area. The river narrows at some point and expands in others but its four nautical miles width ensures that a modern bridge could span easily even as the length of the river flows through tropical rainforest where there are many communities.

There are 18 local government areas in Cross River State. Out of this number, the river flows through 13 in the Central and Southern Senatorial Districts. They include: Etung, Ikom, Obubra, Yakurr, Abi, Biase, Akamkpa, Odukpani, Calabar Municipality, Calabar South, Akpabuyo and Bakassi. It has a confluence at Ikom with the Afi River.

The river's sandbanks, reed swamps and water lily lagoons are breeding grounds for numerous birds and aquatic animals. The birds loom and sing to build up a detailed picture of bountiful nature and its generosity to man. The picturesque scenery of the banks of this river as it courses through the landscape provides a tourist site that is good for sun bathing and relaxation generally.

Before the advent of western civilisation, this river was the only means of transportation. Traders from Ogoja and its environs transported their goods including slaves through Afi River to Cross River en route Calabar. The goods were conveyed in hand dug canoes. Natives of the aforementioned local government areas used the same means of transportation for their goods too. Till date, communities on the bank of this river where there is no bridge still use canoes or speed boats to transport goods and people across.

This river, no doubt, is the source of livelihood for those on its bank as they depend on it for fishing, transportation, irrigation farming during the dry season and logging of wood from the mangrove forest. The communities this river runs through have become so used to it that without it they cannot survive. Thus, just as the saying goes, no Nile no Egypt, so it is in Cross River State with Cross River. This river is the livewire of the coastal economy of the state.

From Etung to the Atlantic Ocean where the river empties into, it is common to see heaps of sand on the banks packed by the natives for sale to property developers. Every day, trucks nose their way to the river banks to tip sharp sand. Those who pack this sand are making a fortune from it. Mr. Osim Erim of Okuni community in Ikom said over the years, they who are into the business have been making money from it.

"My brother, you see, without this river life would have been difficult for some of us. We come here every day to pack sand from the river so that it gets dried before selling. We sell one tipper load for N20, 000. Some of us bring our wives and children to help in excavating sand from the river. Through this, we've been able to build our houses and send our children to school. There is no way this sand would finish because every raining season, as we pack, so the water brings fresh sand," he said.

Mr. James Ovat of Appiapum Community in Obubra, Ndodeye Mbang of Ekori, Yakurr and Etim Asuquo of Bay Side, Calabar South echoed the views of Erim when they said the river is their employer as they earn a living by packing sand to the shore. But the price of sand per tipper in the two senatorial districts varies based on the factor of urban development. More people are building in Calabar, the state capital than in other places.

In Calabar, Abomeghe in Abi and Ekori in Yakurr, water transportation is still the order of the day. In these places like in others, canoes and speed boats are used to ferry passengers and goods across. In Calabar, speed boats convey passengers to Oron in Akwa Ibom State and Creek Town in Odukpani Local Government Area. It's a common sight seeing mechanically propelled boats gliding along the river at the Marina beach in Calabar.

The distance by water from Calabar to Oron is shorter than that by road. Before now, there was a ferry owned by the Inland Waterways that was the cheapest means of transportation to Oron. The Nigerian factor which is unfavourable to maintenance culture ensured that all the ferries on the fleet are now grounded. Today, speed boats owned by private transporters are making brisk business at the Marina. And passengers are always available to and from Oron.

Irrigation activities go on at the banks of this river during the dry season. Communities on these banks take to the cultivation of vegetable, maize, melon and more during this season. They water the crops from this river. This explains why in places like Ikom, Obubra, Etung and Abi, maize, vegetables like pumpkin and spinach are cultivated all year round. Those who can afford, use machines to channel water to their crops.

This river has made its beneficiaries take to fishing as occupation. Thus, natives of such communities (both males and females) are experts in fishing. They fish everyday for sale to hoteliers, restaurant operators and private individuals. Fishermen use canoes along the banks of the river for fishing. There is no fishing trawler in use here. Those who go fishing are great swimmers too. They can easily dive into the river to haul their catch into the canoe if too heavy.

Fishing is the predominant occupation of the people of Bakassi. They sail into the Atlantic Ocean to fish. They have no other source of income outside this river. Early in the morning, market women and men into this line of business leave Calabar for Bakassi for fish, periwinkle, crayfish and more. Fishes in Bakassi are bigger than those from other places for obvious reasons.

The mangrove vegetation on the banks of the river is also a source of income. In Calabar especially, the natives use canoes and speed boats to fetch fire wood for cooking or support for decking of storey buildings. At the Marina Beach in Calabar, those into this business cross to the other side of the river to fetch wood.

This has attendant consequences on the environment as it facilitates deforestation.

This river has its merits and de-merits. At the peak of the rainy season, it overflows its banks causing destruction to houses and farms. At Okuni on Ikom-Calabar highway, water from the river covesr the entire road to obstruct traffic for days. When this happens owing to the proximity of the river to the road, vehicles from both sides stop with passengers disembarking to board canoes across to continue the journey. This is one period of job for Okuni boys.

There are also religious activities around this river. Some indigenous Christian churches perform their rituals here. Ditto the traditional African religion faithful, who visit this river to perform sacrifices to the water gods. On the bank, eggs, feathers, food could be seen after the sacrifice had been made.

Over the yearsW, the Cross River has brought tears to many families as canoes and speed boats capsize easily killing passengers on board. No year passes without accidents taking place along Calabar-Oron and Calabar-Creek Town routes. This may not be unconnected with the overloading of the boat, engine developing fault mid-stream or the boat hitting obstruction underneath. Some operators do not bother to provide their passengers with life jacket which can keep them afloat for some hours in the event of an accident.

In Calabar, Akpabuyo and Bakassi, this river aids and abets smuggling and all activities bordering on economic sabotage. Nigerian goods are easily smuggled to Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea from these places. The smugglers also use these routes to bring in arms and ammunitions. Illegal oil bunkering thrives on this river too. Just last month, following intelligence reports, Governor Liyel Imoke led a combined team of security operatives to raid Esuk Mba in Akpabuyo and Ikang in Bakassi where illegal refineries, bunkering and illegal petrol depots had mushroomed.

The smuggling on this river is done in active connivance with the police and other security agents. At the Inland Waterways in Calabar, boats heading for Equatorial Guinea are loaded to the brim with made-in-Nigeria goods in the full glare of police and Customs Service officers. Foreign contraband goods also come in through these routes. There is a high level of corruption at all the entry and exit points.

In the Imoke-led raid, over 300 giant size drums used for smuggling of fuel, 104 trucks for loading of fuel were impounded. Barges used in bringing in fuel were riddled with bullets making them to sink.

The barges were loading petroleum products from Rivers State and would discharge the contents in the above mentioned locations where trucks waited. Since the invasion of these locations, sea piracy has reduced drastically in the state. Dealers in petroleum products now go the NNPC and other tank farms in Calabar for their purchase.

The Cross River that comes from the Republic of Cameroon and boosted in volume by Nigerian rivers, streams and rivulets is one natural resource that has since creation made those on its banks to engage in one form of economic activity or the other. Without it, life would probably have been difficult for them and the state government. Through this river, the Calabar Export Free Zone and the Tinapa Business and Leisure Resort are supplied their needs.

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