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The Decline of Ikot Abasi Township, 1950-1990

Author: smith on 20-09-2013, 20:00, views: 2 879

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Pentacle Nigeria Limited, the only purified vegetable oil plant in the State. Source: Obong 0. D. EtukafiaPentacle Nigeria Limited, the only purified vegetable oil plant in the State. Source: Obong 0. D. Etukafia[quote]A further jolt to Ikot Abasi Township occurred about January 1953, when the greater part of the installations of UAC, the dominant firm, were devastated in a single rainstorm, which also caused great destruction throughout the Division. The ruin was not salvaged and the company dwindled on, till it folded up in the early 1960's (Udoessien, 1987: 9). As UAC did the major business at Ikot Abasi, employed many workers and had links with other companies, its collapse was a major calamity to the Township (ibid.).

 

The serious decline of Ikot Abasi continued through the 1950's and early 1960's, fuelled by various factors. These included the appalling state of the roads leading to the town, particularly the Ikot Abasi-Aba road, which was often closed to lorries at the Ikot Abasi end during the rainy season, due to muddiness; the easy adulteration of produce at Aba, which played a big part in diverting trade from its normal economic channels to Aba, and thence to Port Harcourt; and the lack of development of inland waterways leading to Ikot Abasi -all of which served to reduce Ikot Abasi's share in the produce trade almost to extinction by 1955 (Resident, 1955).

 

Other factors were the adverse rivalry with Port Harcourt and the political machinations of the ruling NCNC party. Massive development of port facilities at Port Harcourt contrasted markedly with the neglect of Ikot Abasi. Neither the continued entreaties by the public and the Ibibio State Union, nor the representations of the District Officer for Opobo Division, I. C. Jackson, in 1955 and the intervention of the Resident for Calabar Province could force the government to dredge or re-open the port, the silting process of which, it was noticed, was being reversed and there was as much water on the bar as previously

(Jackson, 1955). Jackson's plea, true in 1955, when it was made, as it is in 1996, saw the resuscitation of Ikot Abasi Township as a joint venture between Government, private companies and non-governmental organisations, and deserves notice:

 

If the port is to be re-opened, a multiplicity of agencies are concerned:
 

Nigerian Ports Authority: Surveys, charts, buoying, etc., snagging of waterways
Federal Government: Establishment of Customs Post
Marketing Board: Adjustment of prices at Opobo
Commercial Firms: Prospects of using the port
Development Corporation: Building of the boats to bring produce to the port
Regional Government: Land, liaison, political questions

(Jackson, 1955)[/quote]

 

None of Jackson's proposals actualised, excepting boat building at the port. And though a Boatyard Industry was established at Ikot Abasi in the 1950's and flourished somewhat during the decade and early 1960's, it could not arrest the imminent decline of the town.

 

Prospects of the presence of petroleum at Ikot Akata in the Division, raised when the first oil well in Nigeria was encountered there in 1953 through Shell BP's explorations, were also dashed, eventually (Shell-BP, 1959: 75).

 

What with the mounting economic woes, the late 1940's and early 1950's witnessed also, increasing tension and rancour between the native and non-native foreigners - the Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Ijo, Opobo, Obolo, Gold Coast, Cameroon and other people, organised in over thirty ethnic or town unions - and the all embracing Egwanga Township Community League, on one hand, and the Township's administration, viz.: the Ibibio Native Authority (up to April 1954) and the Ibibio Rural District Council (thereafter), on the other hand. Two crucial issues dominated the situation.

 

The first was the agitation by the Ibibio Native Authority, the Ikpa Ibekwe clan and the Ibibio State Union for a change of the name Opobo in reference to the Township and the Division to Ibekwe, as truly expressing the locale of the Township (Ibok et al, 1947; Udoma et al, 1948; Ukpe, 1955).This agitation was opposed, however, by the Opobo Town Council of Chiefs and the British colonial officials on the ground that the name Opobo had acquired the sanctity and authority of fifty years and above and was too firmly established to be changed (Mayne, 1947; Pepple, 1949). In the end, the change occurred in early 1954, when a majority of the members of the new County Council, into which Opobo Division was constituted under the newly introduced local government system, adopted the name Ibekwe County. On September 29, 1954, these members adopted a motion, formally endorsing the new name. But the colonial rulers and the post Independence Nigerian governments stuck to the old name, Opobo Division (Akilu, 1970: 31-33) until the local government reforms of 1977, when, following the transfer of Opobo Town and Western Obolo to Rivers State, Opobo Township was renamed Ikot Abasi and made the headquarters of the new Ikot Abasi Local Government Area.

 

The second issue concerned the Township's status and lack of amenities, which the stranger elements blamed on their lack of effective voice in the Township's administration. Over the years, Ikot Abasi population had grown predominantly foreign: of the assessed tax population of 1635 in 1954/1955 (out of a total population of about 5,106 by the 1953 census), 625 were Igbo, 585 were Ibibio, 275 were Opobo and 150 were other minor tribes. The strangers in the Township contributed over a quarter of the revenue of the Ibibio Native Authority and the succeeding Ibibio District Council, through payment of tax and rates. And they leased much of the Township's Ibekwe-owned land - thus securing a strong economic position (Schofield, 1948). Not surprisingly a colonial officer about this time described Ikot Abasi as a largely stranger town (Overton, 1955).

Following the administrative reforms of the 1930's, the townsmen/strangers were represented by several members in the Ibibio Native Authority and the Ikpa Ibekwe Native Court respectively. Under the 1954 County System, the townsmen had one representative on the Ibekwe County Council, which was in charge of roads, and five representatives (out of 42 members) in the crucial Ibibio Rural District Council, which controlled everything else in the administration of the town. Both councils met at the old Native Authority Hall at Ikot Akan, nine miles from the Township. Besides, the Township also formed part of the area of the Ikpa Ibekwe Local Council which stretched for six miles along the main Aba road. On this Council, the townsmen, elected freely from three wards, had a majority of 27 to 16 over the rural area. The Local Council, however, was politically insignificant, compared, particularly, with the Rural District Council (Goodhead, 1954; Overton, 1955).

The townsmen petitioned government in March 1948, deploring their payment of tax without the Ibibio Native Authority ploughing it back to provide amenities like potable water supply, good roads, bridges, or a new layout for the township. They also requested that the township's administration should be placed under a Local Authority Office with the District Officer at the head, to whom they would be responsible in all matters local or otherwise (President, 1948). Although government felt that the Township was too small to run itself, the townsmen renewed their petition in August 1954, under the umbrella of Egwanga Township Community League, requesting for their exclusion from the area under the jurisdiction of the Ibibio Rural District Council, and the setting up of an Urban District Council to control the affairs of the Township (Goodhead, 1954).This would have brought the Township under their control, which was unacceptable to the Ikpa Ibekwe and the generality of the Ibibio people. As a government official noted, the centre of the Ibibio argument was:

that the land is owned by Ibekwe and any move by Egwanga towards administrative independence would be a flat contradiction of that fact. ... There is a fear that administrative independence would be followed by attempts to upset the ownership of land, possibly by means of compulsory acquisition by the Ordinance. Grave concern is also expressed for the plight of the Ibibio minority within Egwanga if independent status is achieved

(Overton, 1955).

The colonial government appointed a one-man Commission of Inquiry, in the person of the Assistant District Officer, R. C. Overton, to recommend on the matter. It also went on to accept Overton's report, which was a compromise. In place of a separate urban council

 

asked for by the Township or a separate Local Council, it recommended extra powers for the existing Ikpa Local Council, of which Ikot Abasi Township formed a part, and transferred the control over the Egwanga Market from the Rural District Council to the Local Council, which was to give the townsmen, who enjoy a substantial majority in the Local Council, a chance to show what they can do (Overton, 1955). This was also acceptable to the Ibekwe people, but they insisted that the Paramount Ruler for Ibekwe must be the Permanent President and Chairman of the Local Council and that the village head of Ikot Abasi village should be nominated as of right into the Council, so as to protect the village interest (Ekpro, 1956).

These measures restored some degree of social harmony among the stranger and indigenous elements in Ikot Abasi, but not enough to salvage the Township from decline. District Officer Jackson, who shared in the policy decisions at this time, noted that it was a bad time to make a decision about the future of Opobo and that if the serious decline persisted, the Township would be little more than a squatters' settlement in five years time. The truth of this prophecy was terribly apparent by 1987, when an Ikot Abasi patriot, surveying the ruins and decadence of the Township in that year regretted that this once historic port and booming centre of trade had then become a graveyard in outlook:

Trade on the shore has completely folded up. Departmental stores have ceased to exist. Produce-buying agents can only be remembered. Ships that lined the shore can only form a mirage in the mind. The daily market which was anthill activity can now show a handful of traders. Only a few indigenous stores can be seen today scattered about the town. Thus things have fallen apart (Udoessien, 1987: 10). Finally, the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) dealt a coup de grace to the town. Churches and schools were turned into refugee camps or were occupied by soldiers. Furniture and records were used as firewood. European priests were harassed and repatriated (Udoma, 1996; Obi, 1985). There were acute shortages of salt and food. Hunger, disease, poverty and exposure to rain, sun and cold took their toll among the populace.

Ikot Abasi life and infrastructures were wantonly destroyed. Heavy shelling from across the river destroyed the storey buildings in town, housing the shops and mercantile houses, as well as the big trading establishments along the river front. The UAC buildings, BOPOL, the CWS premises and big houses along Reservation Road were left in ruins. The beautiful Opobo Store building was also destroyed and its legendary owner, Egwang - killed in the air raids. The safe of the British Bank for West Africa and the UAC strong room were blown out with dynamite (Afia, 1996). The European factories were not only abandoned, shelled or their European proprietors and other staff scattered, but the business environment also proved utterly non-conducive (Udoessien, 1987:12).

The fact that Opobo Division had been the stronghold of the anti-NCNC, pro-Action Group and separatist state movement forces, on one side, and the pro-Igbo and NCNC camping of Opobo Town and Eastern Obolo, on the other, provided an excuse for encouraging revengeful destruction and killing by both sides. Since no side was safe, the best thing remained to run and hide in the bush. Only after the war was the score taken to find out that everybody had been the looser.

 

Ikot Abasi waterfront, 1996Ikot Abasi waterfront, 1996Post war reconstruction was slow and painful. Without the trading activities, Ikot Abasi was a ghost town. Social and economic life shrunk to village level with only a few state and federal establishments' field offices, mostly in the area of fishing and agriculture, enlivening the place. The once famed Opobo Boatyards dwindled in neglect amid repeated proposals for reactivation. Ikot Abasi indigenes in the higher echelons of the state civil service rallied around to push for the provision of basic social amenities. Pipe borne water was finally supplied to the town through the Rural Water Supply Scheme in 1970's, and electricity - in 1980's. The main road to Uyo was also resurfaced. Telephone services, however unstable, were extended shortly after, to a community that had seen all these facilities existing at the Egwanga European settlement in the early 1900's (Ekpo, 1996; Etukafia, 1996). A new Opobo (Ikot Abasi) Township plan was commissioned by the state government in 1976, as for all other major towns in the then South Eastern State of Nigeria. It delimited residential and commercial areas for development.

After the exit of, first, Opobo Town and the Western Obolo area (1976), and, then (in 1987), the carving out of the present Mkpat Enin Local Government Area, the efforts of a few administrators of the newly reorganised local government area, such as Chief Steven A. Ikpim, Obong Aniefiok Uwah, Obong Amaete Ntuk and Barrister Mfon Inam could not bring a drastic economic revival in the lack of strong central government commitment. All hopes for development were then keyed on the location of a major industry in the area, which would reactivate and utilise the existing infrastructures, like port, buildings and beach landing facilities, and would re-open the area to development (Etukafia, 1996).

The precursor of Mboho Ikot Abasi - the Ikot Abasi Leaders of Thought group, which sprang up from the late 1960's Opobo Divisional Meetings in Calabar, played an active role in the process, using effectively its strategic operational base at the state capital, Calabar (Etukafia, 1996). It constituted itself into a pressure group in the 1970's-1980's government and private circles, and sponsored, financially and organisationally, the vital initial steps in facilitating the infrastructural development of the area and the siting of a heavy industry there. Patriotic indigenes taxed themselves and organised diligently local guides and assistance, boat transport, labour for bush and path clearing etc. for the many on-site inspections and carried out a thousand other needed tasks, for which there were no official provisions made (ibid.).

 

Community leaders, like Obong O. D. Etukafia, A. M. Nelson, Dr. A. U. Ekpo, E. A. Essien (Samphill), M. Essien,. Mfon Usen, L. U. Essien, Architect L. S. Asana, H. R. Uko, A. Ikpainyang, Eng. A. A. Udoette, Paddy Davies, etc. along with Hon. S. F. Urang and Chief Owen Ukafia of Eastern Obolo and Victor Inyangudor, Arch. Mfon Ekanem, Harry J. Etukudo, Obong Morris Ebe and Mrs. Valerie Ebe of what is now Mkpat Enin LGA, joined forces with the efforts of Sir Udo Udoma at the centre of government in ensuring the success of this endeavour. Failing in its bid for a flat sheet mill, Ikot Abasi, finally, won, despite political machinations and financial complications - through its strategic location and abundance of material and human resources - the heavy industry for which it had craved (A. U. Ekpo, 1996).

 

Ikot Abasi Local Government Administrators

 

 U. S. Oton, 1989 Chief S. Ikpim, 1989-1990Obong Aniefiok Uwah, 1990 
 Obong Amaete Ntuk, 1990-94  Barr. Mfon Inam, 1994-96  Prince E. W . Ufot, 1996

 

Notes

 

1 During 1910, much of the swamp between the Government Beach and Maclver's was reclaimed and new quarters for beach and boat boys were built on the reclaimed land (Pryce, 1910). Several members of the Reservation Board would later protest against the presence of these quarters.

2 In 1919, Miller Brothers', the African Association and Fond A. Swanzy had merged to form the African and Eastern Trading Corporation Ltd. This in turn merged in 1929 with the Niger Company Ltd to form the dominant United Africa Company Ltd (UAC), followed shortly by the merger of its Margarine Unit with the UAC.

 

 

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Category: Urbanisation of Ikot Abasi

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