6 October 2012

Nigeria: Around Ibaji in a Speedboat


Ibaji — A Weekly Trust reporter was in Ibaji, Kogi state, recently to view the impact of the great flood which completely submerged the local government area in swift moving currents, and expelled almost all of its 270,000 inhabitants. Here, he presents a firsthand account

A two and a half hour trip from Idah by speedboat would get you to Onyedega, the headquarters of Ibaji Local Government area in Kogi State. Another two and a half hours returns you to Idah. This means the same trip made by an ordinary canoe may take the better part of ten hours, and underlines some of the numerous difficulties the people face.

The people need speedboats to quickly traverse an area where movement is largely made by water, and sometimes there are emergencies. To convey the sick by canoe can be a heart rending experience if there is a large distance to cover. Here is abundant farmland in a locality which lacks basic infrastructure. There is no federal institution in Ibaji, and the only road was constructed about four years ago. It is said that their schools are also in poor shape.

The people are hardworking and resilient, and they produce massive yams which are as big as a human being when harvested, Weekly Trust is told. Ibaji is now also referred to by some as Nigeria's 'Under water' local government. Others would call it the 'water' local government. These new names emerge from the fact that during the recent floods in the state, Ibaji was almost 100 % submerged by flood water, and its population has, to a great extent, moved out to Idah and also to neighbouring states such as Anambra and Edo. The crops have all been destroyed, a sad point for a people who are good farmers and have proven this over the years.

To get to Ibaji, you must take a boat from the beach at Idah, where there are many activities taking place right now. These include the sale of hastily uprooted yams, which farmers at Ibaji quickly harvested as soon as it was clear that their farms would be overcome by floodwaters.

Then there are those who suddenly arrive via large boats, looking weather beaten, hungry and unkempt. A woman looks as though she had been dragged out of the Niger. Her clothes and hair confirm this. But she is able to smile. The group has just been evacuated from some of the communities in Ibaji, and has made the long journey to Idah. They are happy to step on dry land and the boats are laden with properties of various sorts. There is a mattress, a live goat, a generator, including some other odds and ends.

A huge population of refugees from Ibaji have now taken up residence in Idah, and this exerts extra pressure on the Idah community as well. Soon we depart for Ibaji. If you cannot swim, have never been in a speedboat, and have to be on a river for a total of five hours, it must be the power of the story, in addition to a firm belief in the Most High, that motivates you. There could hardly be a better explanation. Very soon one of the guides points to Agenebode in Edo state which lies green and promising to our right. It is mentioned that parts of Enugu and Anambra states can be viewed further ahead. Other boats come along from the opposite direction. Some are loaded with passengers, others were sparsely populated, and the countenance of their passengers, told the story of the big flood that had recently changed the character of life in Ibaji. Then we got close to Ibaji territory proper. To our left images of the havoc brought by the flood keep on appearing. These took the form of empty villages characterized by collapsed houses, and we were shown places on the Niger which were once yam farms, but which are now under water. There are countless examples of such places along the Niger. A few persons could be seen from a distance on a little elevation. They wave as we pass. We wave back wondering what powerful impulse made them remain in this waterlogged community. The village is eerily silent but for those persons who wave. A few white birds fly about. They vanish. Then we pass Onyedega, the headquarters of Ibaji local government. We were heading to Iyano, which is some 40 minutes journey away from Onyedega, to return to the latter before sunset.

It is October 1st at Iyano, and the youth are dancing when we arrive. Young men and women dance to the music of P Square, and around the dancers is water, lots and lots of it. This is something of a miracle to see so many people dancing in a building within a vast stretch of water, which was fairly dry land not too long ago. It is as though the flood had awakened the joyful creative spirits in them and made them sing.

The main road leading into the community is now a river, and a few persons soon come along in a canoe. A woman greets us and passes. All of a sudden she returns with a smile carrying a dead goat. Another woman draws close and begins to wash in the new river. The nearby primary school is now a camp for refugees, that is people who were displaced by the flood. This is a common sight in most of the villages with a fairly large population. They have come to the camp with their chairs, mattresses, goats and foodstuff. The school looks rough and fully occupied. Outside women cook around a large fire. The music explodes and the dance goes on.

But why have the people remained despite the flood? One man comes along and explains that the area is prone to flooding, and since this is nothing new to them, the people won't leave. 'The flood water will go down and we are going nowhere,' he says with emphasis. We see a number of houses which succumbed to the flood and collapsed, and these were made of clay. The area has fertile land and produces an abundance of crops, including yams and rice each year, but all these farmlands have been lost to the great floods, we are told.

Many think there would be a food crisis in the coming months because unharvested crops have been lost, and barns were washed away along with their content. Before we leave somebody turns up with bottles of Malta Guinness for us, and this is a welcome development after the boat ride. As we row out we still hear the beat of music, as well as the sounds of clapping and dancing by the cheerful youth of Iyano. It may indeed be true when it is said that we are the happiest people on earth.

We now retraced our route to Onyedega, the headquarters of Ibaji local government. This is very nice country which can be a tourist's delight in other circumstances. Then we arrived Onyedega, and as we did at Iyano, the engine was switched off and we rowed into the community, gently hitting some trees in the process. Here the inhabitants left in the community this afternoon, are just a little smaller in number than the population we saw at Iyano.

What was once a road or path is now a river. So we rowed over the path or road, and took stock of the devastation. Houses are collapsed, while others were fully submerged in water. The effect of flood water was everywhere and in plain sight. The Area Court was surrounded by water as well as the palace of Chief Ajofe Egwemi, the Ejeh of Ibaji. But here the waters did not rise much, although they completely encircled the storey building. It was as though the waters were saluting the King.

The Council Chamber which lies within the palace grounds is also immersed in water, and there are many other structures as well, which are almost completely swallowed by water in Onyedega. Then there is the Local Government Secretariat which is encircled by water, and is practically inaccessible.

Onyedega presents an awesome, unforgettable picture of the havoc brought by flood waters on a simple farming and fishing community. When we moved close to the secretariat we came upon some men, both young and old also dancing and celebrating the October 1st holiday. They explained that they won't be overcome by grief, but chose to radiate joy, thus their celebration of the National Holiday which seems to have come at the right time.

Very soon Weekly Trust came across a man who has three houses in Onyedega. These three houses have been taken by the flood, which instantly expelled him and his family to the outside. He now lives in a Toyota Camry car with his wife of many years.

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