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Ikot Abasi Town

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Cotonial relics of Government Station at Egwanga - the old government dispensary, European Hospital and WAFF barracks siteCotonial relics of Government Station at Egwanga - the old government dispensary, European Hospital and WAFF barracks siteThe Ibibio in Opobo Division
resent the name Opobo when applied to them and prefer to be called Ibekwe (Jones, 1956, : 35)

 

Known successively as Opobo, Egwanga and Ibekwe, Ikot Abasi town encompasses both modern amenities and historical relics of various nature and age. Egwanga (from the Opobo term egwenge, referring to over there) was established at the very beginning of the century as an administrative and commercial centre and divisional headquarters in the Niger Coast Protectorate. It was built up in the contemporary colonial tradition of segregation from the nearby native settlements, with which it has now merged. The Opobo Consulate building was transferred in 1903 from Norah Beach, below Opobo Town, to a commanding rise over the river at Ikot Iwuo, the ancient burial grounds of Ikot Abasi village.1 Like many other imported prefabricated structures of its period, it housed offices and stores (downstairs) and the residential quarters (on the top floor).2 The row of brick buildings along the Consulate Beach and Esuk Atai creek: the DO'S house and District Office, the government treasury, magistrate court and the model (for its time) post and telegraph office, the Judge's and Doctor's stilted bungalows, as well as the old barracks, prisons and hospital dispensary along Government Field, have outlived the wooden houses, from where British law and order were forced on the Ikot Abasi people as Opobo3 became a colonial outpost and administrative district headquarters.

 

Egwanga House (Source: NAI)Egwanga House (Source: NAI)The European Reservation included the dozen or so commercial establishments (factories) with their warehouses, offices and workshops, and their agents' residential quarters, built on reclaimed swampland behind the trading beach. The beach served as a produce depot, from which company lighters evacuated palm produce to the sea-going ships, moored midstream in the river. The beaches were named after trading hulks (Dayspring, Whydah), pioneer trading agents (Fenton's, Hooper's, Lyndhurst's, etc.), or the trading firms that used them (Gaizer Yard, Mclver, Newberries), etc. Names changed with the change of factory ownership, but the memories were retained in the collective recollection of the local people, like the one of the mystified Enwang the owner of the Opobo Store (Farmhouse), who lived near the waterside and was visited by Mammy Wata, the mythological mermaid-wife. He was reputed to be able to spend days in the water; and his big house, ufok Enwang, was a magnetic attraction for children of the surrounding settlements.4

 

Independence Park with the Women's War obelisk (1988)Independence Park with the Women's War obelisk (1988)Ruins overgrown with grass, ruins, cracked walls, and rusty, bullet-perforated roof pan are the remnants after the heavy 1968 war bombardment, of the once beautiful Dayspring House (Miller Brothers site), and the famous BOPOL (the UAC bulk oil plant), which collected, processed, stored and piped palm oil directly into the tanker-vessels. One of the few survivors is the dilapidated GBO storey building, a magnificent sample of the colonial architecture of 1920s, from which the Chief agent, Mr. A. C. Butler, supervised all the company's trading stations along the Imo River and as far as Aba, Umuahia, Enugu and Onitsha.

 

On 31st May, 1943 two Opobo merchants retired, each with nearly 30 years experience in Opobo trade - Mr. Bleasby of UAC and Mr. Butler of GBO, who both knew the heyday of palm oil ruffians (James, 1943).

 

The European trading agents were a powerful force on the river and influenced government actions through their Agents' Association representatives on successive advisory committees and boards and through other formal and informal channels, locally and abroad.5 In Egwanga the agents imposed various development (beach) levies and subsidised the township development. When in 1918-1920 the payments stopped in protest to the temporary removal of the Opobo European Hospital, the matter was taken to the Governor-General (Minutes, 1906-1929; Swanston, 1920).

 

The modem Ikot Abasi Local Government SecretariatThe modem Ikot Abasi Local Government SecretariatBy 1910 Egwanga - Opobo boasted of two hospitals (European and Native - the only one outside Calabar), from where the government doctor also visited Aba, Ikot Ekpene and Eketstations, until they got their own medical facilities. There were also two well-maintained cemeteries and two mosques - one for the West Africans at Mensah Town, and the other for the Yoruba and Hausa soldiers, near the Barracks. A Recreational ground and golf field, maintained by prisoners, and a small Botanical Garden provided recreational facilities, although each trading establishment had its own, as well. On weekends, the Eoropeans took the breeze at the river bar in their company launches. The Recreational Park, now named Independence Park, after the Nigerian Independence of 1960, accommodates the public reading room built in 1945, and the obelisk of the victims of the Women's War of 1929. 33 known names of Opobo, Anaang, Andoni, Ogoni and Bonny women, killed in 1929, are inscribed on it. An expressive sculpture commemorating the women's heroism, stands on the Government Field between the new Community Hall and the Government Secretariat. A plaque on the Consulate Beach marks the spot where women were shot in 1929. At the crossroad, by the park gate, the pretty Independence monuments has replaced the colonial traffic control stand.

 

Ikot Abasi Community Hall; a sculpture commemorating the Women's War against colonialism stands in Government Field in the foreground (right)Ikot Abasi Community Hall; a sculpture commemorating the Women's War against colonialism stands in Government Field in the foreground (right)Markets developed on the trade beaches - Hooper's, Newberries and Lyndhurst, which by 1912 were supplied withpublic pier latrines, dustbins and refuseincinerators. Boats, loaded with goods landed constantly there and brisk trade in manilla was carried out on the beachesfrom morning till dusk, the manilla and currency dealers making a good profit well into the 1950s.

 

Small village children gathered along the river bank to watch the unloading of the big ships anchored at the Dayspring, whence their seniors carried huge bales of stock-fish, tin fish, biscuits, tea and other imported delicacies to the company's store, hoping to be allowed to pick up the spillage from the damaged containers. The grown-ups enjoyed other benefits

-well paid employment at the port, in road-building projects or at private building sites; the customary re-distribution of wealth by local contractors and traders within their extended family and village community; and the attractive company of beautiful and sophisticated Opobo women, set up in Mensah Town. On weekends, when the men returned home with presents, the nting, oyo, samba and other popular dances entertained the youth till late Saturday night.

 

Tilley lampMensah Town, named after its first settler, J. T. Mensah, a company shopkeeper from the Gold Coast, housed the non-native West Africans - Accrap (Accra) coopers and carpenters, the Liberian Kru boys, Sierra Leonean clerks and shopkeepers, and numerous craftsmen and traders. It bustled with life and, at night, numerous Tilley lamps brightened the place.

 

There were the Abiriba tailors' street, the shoemakers' street, the Coast smiths' establishments, Fanti mammy bread makers, who sold bread to the European residences, Opobo Town women and middlemen, Yoruba and Hausa traders, snuff sellers and elephant hunters. Small retail shops and kiosks dominated the trade.6 Here, the fashion trends of Opobo were set up and new habits - like tea drinking, cigarette smoking, tobacco snuffing, bread making and eating, and playing church music, were formed.

 

The morning market started at the Branga (Brangaville) settlement site nearby, and grew into the main town market-place. The area was developed in 1909

and its approach was supplied with a solid bridge over the swamp. The large iron span over the creek at Messrs German Gaizer's factory came to be known as the German Bridge.

 

Along the main town roads, opened between 1905 and 1910, sprung up large, solidly built church and mission houses with imported carved altars and furnishings, modern storey residences of West African entrepreneurs7, two mercantile houses8 and several debt-collection bureaux. Big company shops and Lebanese retail outlets sold every imaginable modern facility: box irons, kettles, hand sewing machines, metal pots, spoons and plates, paraffin lamps, cement, iron beds, gramophones and wall clocks. The Cold Store, a UAC outfit. sold imported ice blocks and meat near the first native court in the area - the famous KwaCourt.

 

The First Gramophone at Ete

 

The village people, working in the township, brought back lucrative gifts and goods - shoes, clothes, clocks, etc. The first His Master's Voice gramophone, with a curious handle for winding, brought people crowding on the veranda and windows of the house 'to see the people singing'. Seeing only the wooden box, from which emanated a beautiful female singing voice, an old woman lamented: God will punish those people, who cutthis woman into pieces and put her into this box to sing!

 

(Chief U. Allia. 1996)

GramophoneGramophone

 

 

Local middlemen retailed popular goods, singlets, thread, clothing, soap, gin, tobacco and snuff in the hinterland markets while the distribution in town was helped by the trading mammies and African workers' wives. The resident Europeans formed the opinion that trade was in the African blood, since almost everyone traded in one way or another (Udoessien, 1987). Western-style cement houses with zinc-pan roofs, just as the topee hat, umbrella and bicycle, became a status symbol for the local Ibibio elite.

 

In Ikot Abasi township today stands a unique site - Sir Udo Udoma's residence, christened Mfut Itiat Enin, where this prominent son of the original Ikot Abasi village has retired to write his major books: The Story of the Ibibio Union and African Constitutional Development.

 

Sir Udo Udoma's compound, Mfut Itiat Enin, with his private chapelSir Udo Udoma's compound, Mfut Itiat Enin, with his private chapelThe West African settlers established the first Christian churches and schools in the local settlement, known as Ibekwe (Ibekwe Ntan Aran Akama Obio Offiong). Sierra Leoneans and Opobo traders at Branga village built the first Niger Delta Pastorate (Anglican) chapel there in 1902, which was pulled down and relocated at another parcel of land given by Ikot Abasi village as a result of a land law-suit between the Opobo Town settlers and their Ibibio landlords. A prefabricated iron building, the foundation of which was laid in 1910 by District Commissioner A. W. Biddell and Rev. J. A. Pratt of Opobo Town, was put up on Reservation land, supported by a school and a beautiful prefabricated mission house. After 1936, it was replaced with the existing sombre block building.9

 

The present day Methodist Cathedral at Ibekwe, designed by the Reverend Father-architect Jas A. Sollitt is an off-shoot of the Primitive Methodist Church established in 1915 by Pa Mensah himself, on land given by Chief Akpan Udo Ekpo of Ikot Abasi village. The early church in Ibekwe, called Ebenezer, as it was regarded as a holy refuge from the persecution by the protagonists of traditionalism, became a centre of enlightenment in the area and spread education and Christianity in the neighbouring villages - Ete, Ikot Akan, Ikot Akpaden, Ikot Ebio and the Eastern Obolo and Kono (Ogoni) settlements (Udoma, 1992). The Alamanda notebooks and books, sold at the house bookshop, were a prized possession among the school children.

 

Anglican Church and schoolAnglican Church and schoolThe Anglican Mission primary school and the three Methodist schools: the Egwanga School headed by Mr. H. B. Sambo from Brass; the Ebenezer School, renamed Methodist Central School (now Primary School No. 1), Ibekwe, under the Efik headmasters, W. A. Young and E. E. Ekpenyong; and the Ete Mission School, headed by Mr. Solanke, a Yoruba, were well run and competed with each other for government grant-in-aid. They catered for the Ibibio, Obolo (Andoni) and Ogoni children in the area, outside the government school of 1905, which served Opobo Town alone. Dr. Udo Udoma's Secondary Comercial School was established in 1956 and was the only secular school in Ikot Abasi to supplement the efforts of the Catholic Regina Coeli College at Essene."10

 

The Apostolic Mission, which had a large following, had to contend with the native shrine across the road and the big snakes and crocodiles worshipped there, which ocasionally came out to block the passage of the worshippers in the late afternoon. After the leasing its main waterside site to Maclver

& Co., the shrine of the chief water-deity, Ntita,was relocated at the Ikot Abasi village square and its priest actively ensured strict compliance with the traditional restrictions on fishing and noise-making after dark. The Salvation Army Church at Egwanga had a very popular band and a lot of local support in the1930s. It was one of a dozen or so African Churches in the district, among which the Christ Army Church was most infamous for its prophet movement and shaker (spiritualist) practices which caused disturbances in Ogoni and Andoniland."11

 

Both the European and West African settlements were gradually depopulated as the educated elite left town after the closure of the port to ocean-going vessels in the late 1940s and the subsequent movement of the trading establishments, for economic and political reasons, to Port Harcourt. The devastation was completed during the Nigerian Civil War, when, in early

1968, Ikot Abasi was subjected to heavy and prolonged bombardment from across the river, and both the trading beaches and town buildings were turned into shelling targets, while schools and churches were converted into soldiers' camps.

 

New development came into the area in 1970s, when the Ikot Abasi indigenes in government service pressed for more amenities. Two fishery projects were sited at Ikot Abasi and were, for a time, local economic attractions: the NFAAD fish-seed multiplication project and the NAFPP cold storage facility at Uta Ewa. The women's co-operative of the near-by fishing village now operates a fish-smoking kiln and a fish-marketing boat scheme at the picturesque port. Nearby are the old Government Brick Field site, the land rent for which sparked off another law-suit between the Opobo and the Ibibio people, and the Opobo office of the Ibibio Trading Corporation, which, in early 1930s, organised direct export of Ibibio palm produce to overseas, by-passing the big European companies and attracting government's suspicion.

 

Further down the creek, the ALSCON feeder-road and land reclamation project for the siting of a new ultra-modern harbour have redrawn the physical map of the riverbanks. The Aluminium Smelter plant site on Ikpetim/Ikot Essien/Ikot Obio Okpa land, its two townships, and the FERROSTAAL staff camp, complete with modern shopping, recreational, health and educational facilities, have contributed to the visible growth of the Ikot Abasi township. An industrial estate and two new housing estate projects make the much coveted in 1979 Shagari low-cost housing structures near ALSCON look drab and old-fashioned. The gas-supply pipeline crossing the river and countryside to the plant site, is, like the harbour construction work, an illustrated lesson in modern technology, which the young generation is eager to master.

 

ALSCON has come to fulfil the lost hopes aroused by the ailing Opobo Boatyards, which were established early in the century as a ship's slip and repair workshop, expanded in 1950 by the Federal Government into the Nigerian premier boatyard (to compensate for the loss of trade at the closure of the port), and joined in 1960 with the ENDC-established Boatyard to provide a high standard of marine craft construction services.12 Its large grounds and open waterfront, inherited from several trading companies and including the old prefabricated Maclver building, several water slips and a successive variety of boat-build ing facilities arouse tourist and professional interest.

 

With new industrial plants opening up around the new aluminium project, like Selcon Alu Co.  - an aluminium roofing sheet plant, and the Pentacle Nig. Ltd - a purified vegetable oil factory, the first of its kind in Akwa Ibom State, Ikot Abasi, old and new, reaches up to a future of new economic prosperity.

 

Notes

 

1 The Ikot Abasi people refused to accept payment for the land which they, according to custom, could not sell: and retained the right to own and harvest the palm trees there. Respecting their wishes, in the land lease agreement, the government accepted the return obligation to develop the area by way of trade, enlightenment and education (Udoma, 1987, 256-7).

 

2 Prefabricated houses were sent by the British colonial office in the 1890's as a complete set of knocked-down parts, plus two bricklayers, two joiners, one plasterer and three coffins, to take care of the high European mortality rate on the coast. The houses were built on iron columns,

12 or 14 ft high, the framework made of single iron, the roofs of corrugated iron, the walls and bulkheads of red or peach pine. (Consul Hewett Memo, May 9, 1884, PRO, FO 2/98). Bricks for the foundation, drainage and outbuildings came as ship ballast until the Government Brick Field at Uta Ewa was opened. Early Township development is discussed in Urbanisation of Ikot Abasi.

 

3 The name Opobo was transferred to Egwanga. along with the Consulate and trading establishments, on the insistence of the European and Opobo traders. Later, the Ibibio State Union tried unsuccessfully to get it changed (Inspection Books, Egwanga, 13/2/1907; Udoma 1987, 257).

 

4 S. M. Bleasby, locally called Enwang, was a retired Dayspring House agent, who established on his own. He was killed in a devastating air raid in 1968, which also destroyed his company building (Udoessien, 1987; Etukaffia, 1/4/96; E. J. Udoh, 6/5/96).

 

5 By1885 Opobo was already the most important export trade centre in the Oil Rivers and the trading companies were able to mobilise the powerful Liverpool and Glasgow Chambers of Commerce, the British Parliament and the international press, when the need arose, as in King Jaja's case (Jaja, 1991).

 

6 Personal recollections by Sir Udo Udoma, Obong and Mrs. O. D. Etukaffia, Prof. E. J. Udoh, Dr. A. U. Ekpo and others helped to reconstruct the picture of local life in Ikot Abasi in the 1940's and 1950's.

 

7 By 1920 there was only one principal road within the township - from Government Beach to Whydah waterside (Ann. Rep. 1920). The Sierra Leonean Head of Treasury, I. B. Johnson, who also dealt in unwanted British currency notes, and the Maclver book-keeper, Mr. Macaulay of the Gold Coast, built storey houses near the present roundabout.

 

8 The BBWA - the Bank of the Shippers - and the Anglo-African Bank - the Bank of the Merchants -amalgamated in 1912. The BBWA site along Market Road now accommodates the Ikot Abasi branch of the First Bank of Nigeria. Pic.

 

9 A history of the Anglican Church by В. M. J. Epelle and E. M. Nzekwe, 1983 (m.ss.); also E. A. Jaja, 1977:65.

 

10 Dr. Udoma's school was used as an army base by the Nigerian soldiers during the Nigerian Civil War. It reopened, temporarily, in May 1968 at Ikot Abia (Udoma, 6/5/96).

 

11 Annual Reports, Opobo Division, Brooks, 1917 and Cheesman. By 1975 there were 11 churches in Ikot Abasi Township alone.

 

12 In the 1950's large canoes on the coast, costing '20, generally, were made with modern machinery at me Opobo boatyards (A. Riggs, 1959). The Opobo Boatyards Ltd. which could, with its 300 workers, build, repair and maintain river and coastal crafts in early 1970's, was barely kept alive through the efforts of its manager. U. N. Ibanga and a skeletal staff of 20, who made local furniture and woodwork until 1990, when it was finally privatised.

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Category: Ikot Abasi

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