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See Warri And Cry: Tale Of Oil City’s Fall From Grace To Grass

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SOUTH SOUTH REGIONAL MANAGER, SHOLA NATH O’NEIL lays bare the paradox of the once flourishing city of Warri, invoking its glory days and juxtaposing it with its current decays. He tells the story of how successive governments, policies (or lack of it), the costly, protracted ethnic bloodletting and destruction has humbled a city that at its peak was touted the Dubai of Southern Nigeria.
  • Warri invokes worries, tears for residents, visitors

  • How Ibori, Uduaghan and Okowa ‘killed’ the city

Warri, arguably the economic nerve centre of Delta State, always fazes first time visitors. Dubbed the Oil City, it is the economic hub of the state, and a once flourishing nexus of oil and gas commerce in Nigeria. In its yore days, it was rivaled in prominence in the south-south only by Port Harcourt. It was an investors’ haven. But even in its glory days, the city promised so much for first-time visitors, but delivers agonizingly very little. The refrain is usually: “is this all there is to Warri?”

If Warri was a failure in the past, its current wretched state is depressing for Old Warri (men and women born and/brought up in the city). This bustling town that hosted oil multinationals such as Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, Chevron, Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, and its subsidiaries, and other ancillaries and servicing companies, now lays supine.

Reflecting on the underdevelopment of the city, MC Mecoyo, a skit maker and comedian from southeastern Nigeria commented this on his recent visit to the city: “I saw Warri and I was worried!.” He recalled that in the past when people trooped to Warri because of its fame and companies, concluding, “As I am talking to you now, Warri is worrisome”.  Mecoyo is a comedian, but the current state of Warri is not a joke.

For Mike Tom, a middle-aged man, who was born in Warri and has live there for most part of his life, “the fall of Warri is painful; Warri is finished and in shambles.” He described Warri as a city that has been crippled and in its final lapse of collapse”.

With pain in his voice, Tom, who fits the bill of the famed ‘Old Warri’, recalled growing up in the 1970s to 80s with Snaprogetti, Santafe, the Schlumbergers, West Minster Dredging, AGIP, SSNL, and GloryLux, which provided jobs for women to support their families, concluding that Warri’s fate agonises his inhabitants.

Those who knew the city well could not disagree with Tom. Apart from the above, Schlumberger companies (Dowell, Anadrill), Halliburton, Pan Ocean, Oceaneering, Edikan, Nestoil, LAMNALCO, WEAFRI, ELF, and others, even small businesses thrived and the common man enjoyed chunky crumps of this success. Although there wasn’t much in infrastructure to go with its fame, Mcdermott (later Globestar), Nigeria Dredging and Marine, and Seismograph Service Limited (SSL), and several others ensured that those who had little to no formal education were gainfully employed.

SCOA, Mandillas, John Holt and several other motor and leisure companies jostled for space, contracts and bite of the apple. The Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) hosted dozens of maritime and shipping firms; ships berthed with cargoes and provided menial and daily job opportunities for locals. Merchant mariners and stevedoring thrived; everybody had something and even market women benefited from the thriving middleclass in the city. Warri was peaceful and enjoyable.

Then the Warri Crisis erupted in 1997 and everything changed. Militias fighting site of a local government headquarters went on a five year rampage that unhinged the city. Dichotomies surfaced, tribal distinctions were highlighted and underlined as Ijaws and Itsekiri ethnic nationalities on one hand, the Itsekiris and Urhobos (mostly of Okere descendants) on the other, as well as the Ijaw/Urhobo of Ogbe-Ijaw/Aladja, battled for supremacy and land ownership. The wars exerted huge tolls and peace was its first victim, and it remains elusive. In Aladja and Ogbe-Ijoh-Warri, Urhobo and Ijaw communities in Udu and Warri South respectively, several commissions of enquiries, white papers, and peace accords have failed to sate the thirsts for blood.

The city paid heavily – and is still paying – for those crises; many lost their lives, others lost loved ones and breadwinners; children were orphaned and parents, including a pastor at the Foursquare Gospel Church, Koko, Warri North, who lost four children (thrown into the raging fire that used to be their home), and others have emblems of destructions etched in their hearts.

Any government aiming to teach its citizen the effects of war and inter-tribal crises needs look no further than the once pulsating business hub of Warri – a bustling city that went from the acme of its success to its abject nadir in a couple of years. The fall was as steep as its effect was caustic.

As this reporter drove through the city in April 2022, one could feel the ebbing pulse of this dying city. It still wears the garbs of its lost glory shamelessly; its precipitous fame and lost opportunities are unabashed. The roads are deplorable, and everything about it is bleak. The current administration failed even a new road in seven years and the ones built by past government are in ruins. The unending flood control drain achieves little, apart from making commute painful and slow. From Airport road to Okere-Ugborikoko, Okere, Jakpa, Refinery and dozens others, like the city, lay in ruins. The few shining spots are results beautification projects by a Christian organization in the city.

The crests of fratricidal tribal wars survives in burnt buildings, hearts and psyches of men and women who remember what the city used to be like when there were no ethnic fault lines; when the Ijaws, Itsekiris and Urhobos intermarried and lived as a unit, and were happy to be called Waffarians. Now suspicions becloud the land where ethnic groups’ social intercourse, intermarriages, shared history, values and tradition, once blurred differences.

“There was a time when people are not identified as Ijaw, Itsekiri or Urhobo, they were merely Warri and Waffarians, but today the war has taken away our unity and development,” Lucky Isah rued.

He recalled that in those good old days  Ijaw, Itsekiri and Urhobos celebrated boat regattas on the Warri River; the yearly Agbassa, Okere and 30-yearly Awankere festivals, which drew tourists from within and outside the state. “In the 90s to late 1990s, oil-stained coveralls, helmets and life vests were indications of successful youths. Some earned up to $4,000 monthly as unskilled or semi-skilled workers, fitters, welders and dockworkers.

WARRI NOW NUCLEUS OF RITUAL KILLERS, YAHOO BOYS

The city has turned on its head. The signs of successful youths in the city are Mercedes Benz GLKs, Lexus RXs and Toyota Camry (Spider) that are driven by school dropouts and teenagers, who brandish university ID cards but can barely read the inscriptions therein. They are aged from 20 – 30, and didn’t make their money as welders or roughnecks working in offshore rigs as their counterparts of decades past; these are heartless and ruthless youths who kill, engage in obnoxious money-rituals, and trade in human parts. They are slayers of their parents and siblings for money-minting rituals, and those who engage in armed robberies, kidnapping and other dirty deals that bring money – no matter how bestial.

Famously called ‘Yahoo Boys’, they’ve replaced the oil and servicing firms. Instead of vibrant young men and women who inspired others to learn skills such as welding and fitting, scaffolding and other high-demand oil and gas-related skills, these are criminals. They inspire younger ones of similar ilk, who dream of success without work; those than want to hammer (make money) without labour.

Ladies are not left out. The ambition of those who can’t engage in these crimes is to marry one. Young girls whose life ambition is to own boutiques where hair extensions and wigs (human hair), clothes with fake designers’ labels are sold at outlandish prices; eateries where badly cooked meals are given exotic tags and sold at prices that only crooks can afford.

“You see and hear of how girls are murdered, their genitals and vital organs cut off, yet our ladies are not bothered. Some are even engaging in these acts while others want to be married to yahoo boys.”

The economy of Warri, like other cities in Delta, is driven by crimes and frauds. All moral compasses are pointed south: Parents, who ought to teach their children morals, regale in their ill-gotten wealth – they even help to conceal the sources by claiming ownership of multimillion naira cars and houses bought with proceeds of these crimes. Pastors don’t preach hard work as prerequisite for success or righteousness as the path to paradise; they aid crimes, collect offerings, tithes and offer their temples and altars for thanksgiving.

In the Oil City, businesses are oiled by activities of ‘Yahoo boys’. Only they, politicians, pastors and people with questionable sources buy properties. Landlords who once wouldn’t let properties to yahoo boys have made volte-face

“They come posing as businessmen, or techies, owners of shops in Robson Plaza (the city’s answer to Computer Village in Lagos), or importers,” one landlord whose apartments are fully occupied by Yahoo Boys in Effurun, said. “We (landlords) pretend to believe them and hope that they do not use our children and family for money rituals because of the condition of the city.”

In between those are the graduates and master’s degree holders who are determined to stay on the straight paths. For those, the escape route is commercial tricycle (keke) operation. The menace of the contraption and its operators has made the city one of the worst to drive around in Nigeria. Tom said Warri is the world headquarters of tricycle, even calling for it to be banned. The stress of surviving in the crowded business ages operators faster than their ages.

 

HOW PDP GOVERNMENTS FAILED WARRI FOR 20 YEARS

The tale of Warri fall from grace is incomplete without record of the role played by successive governments that failed to develop the city since 1999. Firmly under the grip of the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), three successive governments have failed to initiate or follow through on projects and policies that were meant to maintain the status of the city as the economic capital of Delta as well as help the state wean its dependency on crude oil.

JAMES ONANEFE IBORI: remains the godfather of the state’s politics, despite his sojourn and incarceration in the United Kingdom for money laundering. Many believe that Warri, and other parts of the state would continue the slide until his influence as ‘selector’ of leaders is curbed.  “He created the culture of picking unqualified among the various ethnic groups and empowering them to lead. The focus is not on development but on people who could ‘deliver’ (help win elections)”, an Itsekiri leader (names withheld) once told this reporter.

In fairness to him, Ibori developed his home Oghara kingdom (at the detriment of the state), ensuring that most projects were sited there. Roads were constructed and federal and state projects taken to Oghara and neighboring abodes. ECONET’s (later Airtel) telecom training school, Nigeria Navy School of Logistics, and (moribund) Independent Power Plant, found Oghara as most suitable location. When he established up three polytechnics, two were sited Otefe Oghara and Mosogar (within 20 mile) in his Ethiope West LGA. Delta State University Teaching Hospital (DELSUTH) was sighted in Oghara, which is more than 31km  from the school, even though a full-fledge Baptist Medical Hospital was at DELSU’s doorstep in nearby Eku.

Despite his shortcomings, Ibori is still revered road dualisation projects in Warri and environs. Sadly, those projects were used for ’empowerment’ of godfathers, cronies and friends. Attention was not paid to quality, resulting in projects failing even before contracts left sites. Airport Road has been resurfaced/revamped about five times since 2007. Today, it currently lays in ruin. The World Bank assisted multibillion naira Warri Water Project, has defied solutions for 20 odd years, making Warri a thirsty city that sits atop water. Landlords and homeowners are their own ‘water boards’, electricity and security providers.

EMMANUEL EWETAN UDUAGHAN (2007 -2015): He succeeded Ibori, his cousin and childhood friend, in 2007. He is a Warri boy, whose emergence raised hope that the Oil City would finally be developed. Sadly, during his tenure, oil multinationals fled the city in droves. From downsizing in the mid-2000s through SoFu (Securing our Future) initiatives, SHELL shut down its operation in Warri and moved to deep sea (circa 2013), and in 2014 crude prices crashed throwing the state into abyss. Critics blame Uduaghan for not doing enough to stop the relocation of SHELL, but the yeast that destroyed Warri started fermenting years earlier..

Shell relocation was just the final nail in the coffin; oil companies were fleeing Warri in the wake of the crisis, and unfriendly operating environment. The Warri Crisis sowed the wind that yielded the whirlwind that finally blew companies out of the state, and taking with them jobs, opportunities and multibillion naira monthly tax revenues. The destruction of oil facilities and cut of oil supply also hit the state’s finances.

Uduaghan tried to stimulate economic activities in the city with lobbies to resuscitate the comatose Warri Ports and Delta Steel Company (DSC). There were economic projects and initiatives, such as Warri Economic Business Centre, the Oleri Entertainment Village and expansion and upgrade of the Warri Airport (Osubi), in tandem with his administration’s Delta Without Oil vision.  There were others like the Warri-Trans-Ode-Itsekiri (Big Warri) road project, Omadin, Okerenkoko – Oporoza and others to link the mainland (Warri metropolis) to the other Warri LGA’s of the state.

However, Uduaghan’s administration would be remembered by stakeholders as a lost opportunity to turn Warri’s fortune around. He brimmed with ideas for the city, but lacked the zeal of execution. His Itsekiri kinsmen would rue his failure to complete the Warri-Ode-Itsekiri road project. The road would have linked and opened up the Ode-Itsekiri through a bridge over the Warri River to Ubeji and other historical Itsekiri villages into the metropolis.

“Uduaghan was in the best position to build the Ode-Itsekiri Bridge and ensure that we can drive our cars into our ancestral home, yet, he choose to be a statesman and frittered the chance,” an Ubeji community leader said.

There is also his failure to turn the tide on horrendous underdevelopment and squalor in oil-rich Ugborodo community in Warri Southwest LGA. The area accounts for a huge mass of the state’s oil production, and hosts the first offshore oil field in Nigeria (Okan Field), yet stench of its poverty is pervasive. Few powerful youths and leaders amass and fiddle with its resources. A multibillion naira new town project is stalled for over 20 years, while inhabitants live in squalor of makeshift huts and shanties.

Millions of naira paid by Chevron Nigeria Limited for the relocation of inhabitants of the current site of the $9billion Escravos Gas to Liquid (EGTL) went into the pockets of few powerful individuals and politicians. Even sharp sand that was dredged for construction of houses was sold.

IFEANYI ARTHUR OKOWA: If Uduaghan lacked political will to develop Warri, the same cannot be said of the current governor, Dr Ifeanyi Okowa. If anything, the Agbor-born politician has used power brazenly in execution of projects in his hometown of Owa in Ika Northeast LGA, even at the detriment of Warri and other parts of the state. He accused by some of deliberately undermining the status of Warri areas as the goose the lays the state’s golden eggs.

“The governor’s body language is as if his hometown can only develop when Warri is destroyed,” a former member of his cabinet told our reporter. The source, who asked not to be named, revealed that the governor has throughout his administration starved the Warri-Uvwie and Environs Development Commission of fund, while massively funding the Asaba Capital Territory Development Commission and projects in Ika. The source further added that the closure of the Governor’s Office Annex in Warri, was part of the governor’s agenda to ensure that the city does not rival the state capital in prominence. The office annex was used as a venue for peace meetings and to address security challenges in the city and other parts of oil bearing south by the governor’s two predecessors.

“Okowa and some stakeholders in the north do not like the idea that there is a Government House Annex in Warri. They think it is a conspiracy to create another capital city to rival Asaba. So, when Okowa (from the Delta North) came, he saw his position as an opportunity to downgrade Warri, without realizing the role that the office played in peace and security in the riverside areas,” a Warri member of the PDP said, on condition of anonymity because of his political future.

Elder statesman and former labour leader, Chief Frank Kokori, slammed Governor Okowa as an “ethnic champion” with “self-centered policies”. Speaking with The Nation’s Elo Edremoda, Kokori elaborated: “Before, Warri had everything. Now, the whole roads are bad (no (good road) network, nothing. The man is trying to turn his own place to a small London, like we accused Ibori of.”

Our checks revealed that it is not only leaders like Kokori that are unhappy with Okowa’s distribution of projects. Our finding shows that there are other disgruntled segments in the Delta North Senatorial District (made up of eight LGAs), who accuse him of siting all new projects in his Owa (Oyibo and Aliero) hometown in Ika Northeast. A source confided in our reporter that the governor has also drawn the ire of a first class traditional ruler in the north over such antics.

“Okowa has established three new universities, and sited a medical school in Agbor (Ika Northwest), whiles the Delta State University Teaching Hospital in Oghara, is dying from lack of fund. There is already a campus of DELSU in Anwai, yet he felt the state needs three new universities all because he wanted one in his homestead.”

“There is the Oleri Tourist village in Udu (near Warri) initiated by Uduaghan, but instead of continuing with the project, he started a new tourist/film village in Ika land with expedient financing and speedy development,” another source added.

“This clannish mindset is also exhibited with the state’s airports. He is consciously neglecting the Warri (Osubi) Airport, but heavily financing the Asaba Airport initiated and inaugurated by his immediate predecessor in the north. If Uduaghan had been so clannish would there be an Airport in Asaba?

“Okowa also took the Advanced Diagnostic Medical Centre, and the Mother and Child Hospital to Owa Alero; Federal Road Safety Commission Training School, Owa-Oyibu, Teachers Professional and Development Centre, Owa-Oyibu, all centred just within short distance from his home town in Ika Northeast,” the source stated.

For Kokori, the location of the medical centres in the governor’s hometown is to kill DELSUTH in Oghara. “Okowa is becoming something else. It’s an egocentric sort of attitude. He won’t be the governor forever, so he should think about that. That is why his legacy will just go back to the dustbin when he leaves that place. We are not saying Ika people should not have something, but not by neglecting sections of the state, like the whole Ukwani, Ndokwa people.”

“Every governor of Delta state should treat the three senatorial districts equally and distribute all these infrastructures equally among them. It is unfair to the people. I am not in PDP, but I am not happy with what he is doing. He should think of the future and being patriotic to the people. Delta state needs a leader that carries the whole people because Delta is a multilingual, multiethnic state. He should put that in his mind in all the policies he makes,” Kokori added.

The Chief Press Secretary to Governor Okowa, Mr Olisa Ifeajika, was unperturbed by the allegations against his boss. Rather than react to the issues raised by the governor’s critics, the CPS engaged in a game of hide-and-seek with our reporter, Okungbowa Aiwerie, who was detailed to get the governor’s reaction. For over one month Ifeajika kept promising to react without doing so. He made and broke similar promise twice without responding at press time on Saturday.

(Nation‘s report)

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