By Tunde Olusunle
Pardon me if my epistlolaries on Okunland, my part of Nigeria which is part of present-day Kogi state, have become recurring subjects in my recent public offerings. It may interest readers to note that surprisingly, I was not born, raised, or educated in Okunland. Yes, I was introduced to Okunland by my parents in my childhood years, even as they desired that my siblings and I, should be acquainted with our homeland early enough. My closest affiliation to my Okun-Yoruba country, however, was my two-year sojourn in Ponyan one of the communities in Yagba East LGA. I was deployed by my erstwhile employers, the Kwara State Education Management Board (KWSEMB), to teach in that community between 1986 and 1988. Fresh from the mandatory one-year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), teaching was the only job available to some of us, out of the teeming numbers of graduates at the time.
Intent on mitigating unemployment, the Kwara state government took the radical step of terminating the appointments of foreign teachers in the education sector at the time. This was to facilitate the absorption of some new graduates into teaching positions. Before then, Indians, Togolese and Ghanaian teachers taught science subjects, French and English respectively, in secondary schools in the former Kwara state. Their layoff therefore paved the way for graduates in the sciences and languages, to replace them in the educational system. And that was how I found myself teaching English in Oke-Oyi Secondary School, Ponyan, an experience which richly impacted my appreciation of the culture, customs and traditions of my people.
Today’s Okunland, regrettably, is a study in grim, even grave contrasts: It is an area, a people so highly endowed, so blessed, in human and natural terms, yet so worsted, so neglected, so viciously abandoned. Ours is a home-country whose name rings across the world, courtesy of the cross-professional exertions and triumphs of its people, which, conversely, is so forlorn, consigned to the backwoods of time.
As against the past when I was a regular traveller to my home state, Kogi, and my homeland the Okun country for sundry programmes, commuting has become few and far between, in recent years and months. There are ever-streaming invites to wedding ceremonies, anniversary commemorations, church consecrations, rites of passages, community launches, new yam festivals, political meetings, and so on. Of late, however, news and reports of happenings on Nigeria’s roads, have been anything but heartening. The daredevilry of bandits and kidnappers on our motorways and the physical conditions of the roads themselves have been most discouraging. The economics of it all, particularly the wherewithal to attend to recurring needs and expectations of home folks who perceive their kinsmen in Lagos, Kano, Abuja, Port Harcourt and so on, as being in perennially more solvent situations than them, has equally been a source of discouragement. These are not times to play Santa Claus.
At the instance of Okun Patriots, a pan-Okun socio-cultural body committed to the harmonisation and unification of the people of the Okun nation for the rediscovery and development of the area, however, I had to visit our homeland, early September. The group, Okun Patriots, constituted a committee to visit the College of Education (Technical), in Kabba. Video clips trending on social media had highlighted the inventions of a young fabricator of miniature airplanes and drones, Adedayo Kehinde, 24, who graduated in automobile engineering from the institution. Opinion on the WhatsApp platform which aggregates the members of Okun Patriots favoured an interface with the young man and the authorities of COETK, to help in guiding his career path. The visitation committee was led by a former acting governor of Kogi state, who was also speaker of the state house of assembly, Clarence Olafemi, while I served as secretary.
The ride from Abuja through Abaji, Chikara, Gegu Beki, Kotonkarfe, Lokoja, Obajana, Odo Ape and thenceforth to Kabba was good. Sections of the Abuja-Lokoja road which has been undergoing reconstruction and dualization since the twilight of the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, remain undone. Age, weather, wear and tear are equally impacting parts of the highway, with cracks and gullies, here and there. The Obajana-Kabba stretch of the road recently concrete-built by the proprietor of the Obajana Cement Company, Aliko Dangote, is gradually giving way, no thanks to the dead weight of heavy duty trucks regularly ferrying products from the cement plant. Sections of the road have yielded openings and potholes which require immediate remediation.
The Okun Patriots delegation was well received by the leadership of the college led by its provost, Victoria Olusola Jagboro, at the temporary site of the school.
Physical development of the main campus is progressing rather slowly. There is no access road to the new campus and the footpath into the place has been severed by a stream running through the approach to the College. The luminous land area of the new site is also in dire need of a perimeter fence to keep out trespassers. The visiting team watched demonstrations by the young inventor, Adedayo Kehinde, and interviewed him on his plans and vision. He told us that the Chinese Institute of Drones has been talking to him, with regards to offering him a scholarship to train in a Chinese university. Proforce, an Ogun state-based manufacturer of military hardware, has also reached out to him. The Olafemi team has since forwarded its report with recommendations, to Okun Patriots.
Having gotten as far as Kabba on the Abuja-Lokoja-Kabba-Egbe-Ajasse-Ilorin road, there was the temptation to hop into my hometown, Isanlu, to see our folks back home. Once upon a time, the Kabba-Mopa-Isanlu drive was a smooth 30-minute ride. If your automobile was being fixed in Isanlu and there were components which could only be sourced in Kabba, you could dash into Kabba, make your procurement and be back in Isanlu in an hour and a half. On this occasion, however, there was no such contemplation. News stories, photographs and video clips on the internet alluded to the pitiably decrepit conditions of all accesses to various parts of Okunland.
The Kabba-Aiyetoro Gbedde stretch of the road to Isanlu and Egbe, through Mopa, had broken up, around the entrance to the College of Agriculture, Kabba, a federally owned institution affiliated to the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, which transformation into a University of Agriculture, has been the longtime desire of Okun people. The span between Kabba and Aiyetoro-Gbedde is passable, but the Iyah Gbedde-Mopa-Amuro-Ijowa ambience is decrepit. Respite comes between Mopo Isanlu to Makutu, but the Idofin-Ejiba stretch en route to Egbe, is the ultimate test for the fitness of your vehicle. This part of the cross-Okunland road, has depreciated further in recent weeks, because of the breakdown of the Kabba-Iyamoye-Omuo Ekiti road, hitherto preferred by trailers, luxury buses and similar heavy duty vehicles.
Some of these articulated vehicles have succumbed to the treacherous conditions of the road at various parts, falling over across the road in various places and complicating the already terrible state of the road. Commuters are thus compelled to detour through bush paths, to continue their trips. A combination of the support of some federal parliamentarians and well-meaning Okun compatriots, notably Tajudeen Yusuf and Leke Abejide (both members of the house of representatives) in partnership with local government officials, has provided some palliatives for the Kabba-Iyamoye section of the road to other Okun communities on the Ekiti direction of the area. Such is the trauma, the perspiration, the pain of commuting to Okunland, from the northern destinations of the country.
The situation is not any more consoling, accessing Okunland from Kwara state and parts of the south-west. Sections of the Ilorin-Ajasse Ipo-Oro-Omu Aran-Odo Owa-Eruku-Egbe road have long fallen into miserable disrepair. Pedestrians fare better on some bits of the road, much better than speed cars in the crippling morass called a federal road. Criminals, robbers and kidnappers, can very easily mount sentry at such intersections, which are usually in deserted areas. Rather than ply this route to their homelands, some Okun people from the Ilorin end, detour at Omu Aran, onto the Ifaki Ekiti-Ado Ekiti-Omuo Ekiti-Ekinrin Adde, into their domains, especially in parts of Ijumu and Yagbaland respectively. This is the manner of rigmarole, of circumlocution, the kind of harrowing experience of travelling home, for the Okun person today.
The politics of 2023 is up in the air and trust politicians not to spare opportunities and seasons like this for self-glorification. Former member representing Yagba federal constituency in the House of Representatives, Sunday Karimi, is eyeing the senatorial seat of Kogi West zone, encompassing the entire geographical space between Chikara in Kotonkarfe LGA, which abuts Abaji, all the way to Egbe in Yagba West, on the outbound extreme, to Kwara state. Karimi is undertaking some palliatives on the Egbe-Okoloke-Pategi road in Yagba West, which leads to Nupeland in Kwara state. The road is one of the security weak points of Kogi state because it is basically an un-policed interstate exit. It is believed that the band of robbers who invaded Isanlu June 2020, killing eight police personnel and robbing First Bank in that single operation, came through that access. Abejide, incumbent parliamentarian representing the same Yagba federal constituency, has flagged off the rehabilitation of the Iyamoye-Igbagun axis of the much longer road which leads through communities like Ife-Olukotun, Ponyan, Ejuku, Jege, Takete and Ijowa.
Specifically, state-owned roads in the state are not any better, and it would be worthwhile to appraise the situation in Lokoja, where Bello has his office. Three decades after the town was pronounced capital of Kogi State and five years into Bello’s administration, Lokoja is everything that the headquarters of a modern state should not be. That town which is the historic intersection of two of West Africa’s largest rivers, the Niger and Benue remains a troubling testimonial to pitiable poverty, screaming squalor, unfathomable underdevelopment, deathly dilapidation, and an eye-popping eyesore. Visitors are received into Lokoja from the Abuja-Kotonkarfe approach, by a rowdy, riotous, squirming village-type contraption for buying and selling, dubiously designated an “international market.” The road network in Lokoja evokes the tearful sympathy of Ajegunle in Lagos.
What with roads like Yamayama (what a name? It’s actually suggestive of rubbish in popular parlance) in Ganaja; Army Signals;” Ibrahim Babangida; Lokongoma Housing Estate Phase Two and “500 Housing Units and Extension?” And how about the roads in Phase One and Extension; Adankolo Market; Hassan Katsina; Paparanda to IBB; Sarkin Noma; Kupolati and Cemetry? This is not forgetting the road from NTA roundabout to GTB junction; the Federal University of Lokoja road and Dunamis junction abutting Adankolo. The Zariagi to Army Barracks road and the Felele to Agbaja roads are other roads underneath the nostrils of the state government in Lokoja.
In Kabba Bunu, there are among others, roads in unbelievable states of rot and disrepair, like the Suku-Taki; Kabba-Edunmo-Ayede-Olle; Olle-Iluke; Olle-Igbo; Ayede-Aherin-Odo Ape and the Odo Ape-Igori roads among many others, who haven’t seen scrapers, graders and compactors in decades. Advancing towards Ijumu LGA, one confronts the ugly spectre of state roads like the Asaya-Ogidi-Ayere-Arima-Ogale- Aduge road; Ogale Ayede- Ogale Idioro-Kabba/Okene road junction; Iyara Odokoro road; the Okoro- Agirigbon Oke- Ayeh- Ayegunle road; the Ayetoro-Gbede-Ekinrin Adde; Iyara-Ogidi and Iyamoye-Igbopin road, among others.
In Yagba constituency, beginning from Mopamuro, how would one describe the physical health of the Effo-Takete Ide-Aghara; Takete Ide- Aiyedayo-Aiyegunle; Mopa- Okeagi-Ilae and the Mopa-Imela- Takete Isao roads? How about the Ijowa- Ejuku-Jege; Iyamoye- Oranre- Ponyan- Ife Olukotun; Bagido-Irunda; Itedo-Ilotin-Iye; Makutu-Oba, all in Yagba East? The story is not any better in Yagba West, where roads like Egbe-Okunran-Isanlu Esa-Okoloke; Egbe-Koro-Ogbe; Odo Ere-Iyamerin-Igbaruku; Odo Ara-Omi, are in various depressing conditions? The only road linking Egbe to Ogbe was washed off by the 2020 rains. The people of Okeri in Yagba West have inaugurated an “Okeri Development Task Force” under the leadership of Sanya Oni, a senior Lagos-based journalist which is presently conducting a fundraiser to rebuild the Egbe-Ogbe and Iyamerin-Igbaruku-Okeri roads. Simply put, the road profile in Okunland appropriately deserve to be festooned with the medals and bunting of the very worst, anywhere in Nigeria.
An inquisition into the state of roads in other senatorial zones in Kogi state, will be the subject of another piece. But for now, this is the trajectory of roads in Okunland, an area whose roads, in the words of the governor of Kogi State, are literally at par with roads anywhere in Europe or America, in terms of the quality of roads. It is bad enough that people have to scrimp and exert themselves to build their homes without any form of official facilitation; provide their own sources of potable water and provide or contribute to the procurement of electric transformers to power their neighbourhoods and homes. It is sad enough that people have to provide electricity backup facilities like generators, inverters and solar systems, and also make arrangements for their security, building skyscraping perimeter fences, nursing alsatians and enthroning civil guards and armed personnel.
Ordinary folks shouldn’t be burdened with the added responsibility of rebuilding roads, bridges, culverts, drainages and similar infrastructure which should be provided by the government. This is a wake-up call to Yahaya Bello, who, in his recent pronouncements and dramas, supposedly aspires to the leadership of this country. How he leverages federal and state assistance for the rehabilitation of roads in Okunland, and how he empowers the leadership of the local government areas to undertake emergency measures on the state and community roads in their domains, is squarely his responsibility. Except of course, if his presidential bid is just an expression of some kind of ‘awada kerikeri’.
*Tunde Olusunle, PhD, poet, scholar and publicist, is a member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE).