Emmanuel Addeh writes on a visit he recently made to the far-flung communities along the Sagbama/Ekeremor axis of Bayelsa State, residents of which before now had never seen a road, much less cars since their existence.
It was meant to be just a visit to verify assertions that the people of Angalabiri, Ofoni, Ayamasa and Aleibiri in Ekeremor Local Government Area of Bayelsa State, would finally have their prayer to have a road pass their communities come to pass in their lifetime.
But the visit a few minutes later turned out to be a carnival of sorts as school children, youths, men and women alike, trooped out in their hundreds on sighting the Hilux vehicle the fact-finding persons had travelled in.
The much talked about construction was the Sagbama/Ekeremor/Agge Road, first listed in the budget of the old Rivers State in the Second Republic under the late Governor Melford Okilo, who was then the leader of Rivers from which Bayelsa was created over 20 years ago.
From the defunct Oil Minerals Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC), to the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), the project remained stillbirth.
Many of the old folks probably did not believe that in their generation, there would be a major road linking all the communities in their area, but there it was, right in their very eyes!
After the then leadership of Rivers State consistently failed to ensure that the project took off, it was taken over by the federal government which also did not deliver, yet the suffering of the oil-producing communities continued to worsen.
From the late Chief Diepreye Alamieyeiseigha, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, who later became Nigeria's President and later ex-Governor Timipre Sylva, getting the important road to take off remained a pipe dream.
Indeed, the people of the communities told THISDAY that before now, if they had an event in Yenagoa, capital of the state, they would first have to travel by water to Delta State, before they would be able to board a vehicle to their destinations. To them, the experience was always harrowing.
Yet those benefitting communities remain a pathetic representation of the neglect of the entire region and in particular, many oil-producing communities across the state which are not accessible, but host some of the major oil wells from which the entire Nigeria feeds.
During the visit, school children abandoned their work at that moment and came out staring at the vehicles, a sign that it was a never-experienced occurrence in that part of Nigeria. When the car engine revved, they would run away out of fright.
Laderegha Ebemene, the youth leader of Ayamasa, in an interview, said it was still like a dream to him that during his lifetime, cars would drive into the communities, noting that a journey that involved wasting several hours in the waterways can now be made within a few minutes.
"We appreciate what is happening here. Before, we would travel to Bomadi in Delta State, just to leave this area, but now we can travel by road through Ofoni to Sagbama. In the past, we needed to travel through Forcados River and that will take hours but now when you go by road it doesn't take more than 20 minutes," he said.
The same excitement was expressed by Mercy Munabo, a teacher in one of the schools in the communities. "I am very happy that a road has finally come through Ayamasa. It will help us a lot. Our experience before now was that going to Bomadi from here before getting to Yenagoa was difficult.
"If you had an appointment by 9a.m., you had to be awake by 5a.m., then wait till much later before the boat will arrive, but with this new road, you need less than 30 minutes to get to your destination and it costs less than when you pay to transport in a boat," she averred.
However, she said one major challenge with the construction of the road was the destruction done to farmlands and crops brought about by the movement of heavy equipment and the direction of much of the water to the farmlands which affected their cassava and plantains, two major crops grown in the area.
But the visit showed that the massive work going on at the about 90-kilometre road, which will end in Agge, was like the road being solely built by the Bayelsa State Government sprang from inside the waterways of Ayamasa, Ofoni and the rest of the communities located in that axis of Bayelsa West senatorial zone.
For now, the road remains a bit sandy and bumpy with rivers on both sides along the thickly sand-filled part of the road, but next month, the communities will be open up for development after the road is completed.
Chief Suru Oyarede, Spokesman of the Aleibiri Federated Communities reiterated that the road was conceptualised in 1979, but added that no administration mustered the political will to execute the project.
"Not many thought that it (the project) would ever see the light of the day. He (Governor Seriake Dickson) has wiped away our tears. He has made us feel that we are part of this country," he said.
It was learnt that the job was awarded at the cost of N30 billion to both Dantata-Sawoe and Setraco and when taken from Toru-Orua, the governor's town, in Sagbama to Ekeremor, the distance of the road covers over 90 kilometres with two major bridges to be constructed from Aleibiri to Ekeremor main town.
Two days after THISDAY's visit, the governor also went on an inspection of the road, accompanied by his deputy, Rear Admiral John Jonah, the Speaker of the Bayelsa State House of Assembly, Mr. Kombowei Benson, Chief Judge of the state, Justice Kate Abiri, Senator representing Bayelsa West Senatorial District, Foster Ogola, member representing Sagbama/Ekeremor Federal Constituency, Chief Fred Agbedi, among others.
Defying a heavy downpour, to welcome the team from the state capital, many residents again thronged the streets in elation over the project which cuts through mangrove forests, rivers, rivulets and swamps.
The day probably felt nostalgic for Dickson, who once told a story of how he was 18 before he saw a car for the first time in his community.
As he was going through the streets of the benefitting communities he must have remembered the day he rode in a canoe from Toru-Orua, his hometown, to Patani, Delta State, where he first saw a car.
Indeed, the story goes that Dickson had already finished his secondary school education at age 18, before his first contact with a vehicle of any mould. Matter of fact, it was not until 2012 that the governor's people first saw a road project in their community.
Many say, that 'ugly' experience, clearly fired him to take over what was originally a federal road with a view to bringing the world closer to the people of Sagbama and Ekeremor.
Perhaps, he knew there was no better way to attract development to the rural areas than linking all the communities. It was, therefore, not a surprise that the people of Angalabiri, Ofoni, Ayamasa and Aleibiri in Sagbama trooped out to greet their visitors.
A visibly happy governor, who was also accompanied by the former deputy governor of Sokoto State and federal minister, Alhaji Murktar Shagari and spoke mainly in Ijaw language, explained that the need to connect communities in the state to the capital, Yenagoa necessitated the vision to construct the road and the other two senatorial roads.
While assuring them of the commitment of his government to improve on their living conditions, the governor announced that the few communities around the area that are yet to be connected to the national grid will soon be hooked up.
Aside the Sagbama-Ekeremor Road, the government is also expected to complete the Yenagoa-Oporoma-Koluama Road to link the Central Senatorial District and Ogbia-Nembe-Brass Road for the East Senatorial District.
In fact, connecting the Sagbama-Ekeremor project to Agge, a riverine community near the Atlantic Ocean, it is believed, will hasten the proposed deep seaport project which is to be established in collaboration with the federal government.
According to Dickson, "This road is very beneficial not just to this local government or this senatorial district, it is very important to this state. It is important to the Ijaw nation, the Niger Delta and to Nigeria because all the communities across the other side of the River are Delta State as you all know.
"So, this road connects so many communities and peoples cutting across the local government. It is important, so I want to get it delivered as quickly as possible."
The road also has its own political side, as many politicians from that axis have failed to add value either by pressurising the authorities or soliciting funds from interventionist agencies working in the region.
A serving minister, who was also a former speaker and two-time senator, Heineken Lokpobiri, hails from the local council and is seen as Dickson's arch rival and may actually be contesting against the candidate of a man who built a road to his (Lokpobiri's) house in 2019.
To residents of the communities, the wait for the road has been long and tortuous, but again, as the saying goes, it is better late than never.