Nigerians : A people enslaved in freedom

Leonard Akwo 

By Leonard Akwo

Three things in life are the sweetest – Power, Sex and Liberty. Nothing stirs desperation more than the hunger for these things. In all these, the third to me is the finest, as it is earned only by men driven by a selfless desire to change the narrative for a people. In the strife for liberty; heroes, legends, Martyrs are born. Men whose names remain eternally grafted in the rock of time. Little wonder, that Patrick Henry in his speech stressed the need for liberty during the 1775 congress at Virginia before their colonial masters in the following words:

“It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!”

Six days ago, like many other countries, Nigeria celebrated the greatest day of her existence as an independent entity. A day which marked the beginning of nationhood, and the end of imperialism. On this day, Nigerians, Instead of the Union Jack, dared to venerate the coat of arm. For the British flag, proudly, they projected the green and white far into the sky to meet the east and west wind, flapping in a fit of wild excitement.

Six days ago in Abuja, Aso Rock and Eagle Square were agog with celebration. Stadiums across every local government in Nigeria were filled to capacity with men, women and children from various institutions and civil society arrayed in sparkling colours, marching, dancing; reveling Nigeria in a euphoria untold. As I type, I relieve my childhood in tears. I remember marching along the street of Obudu with throngs of school mates, adorned in our white uniforms like white hens, singing zealously as the words:
Oh freedom,
Oh freedom,
Oh freedom, 
Freedom everywhere…
…tore the young October air from GOSCO, opposite Itek Hotel, through the Sacred Heart Hospital, through St. Charles, all the way to the Obudu Township Stadium. Freedom, oh freedom… nothing else mattered! Nothing else still matters!

As I metamorphosed into adulthood, I make bold to say that I have seen celebrations. I have seen people dine and wine to mark this day. I have seen churches sing in white and green T-shirts and mufflers distributing free booklets, all for this day. I have seen clubs filled to capacity for the same reason. Without thinking twice, I can tell how much we love Nigeria, how much we love freedom. But none of these forms of merriment comes near to the way the Okwa people celebrate Independence.

A community in Eastern- Boki, Boki Local Government Area of Cross River State, Okwa resides by the very edge of the country sharing borderlines with the Cameroun Republic. Unlike her sister communities, it is the only Anyang speaking tribe in Boki, and Nigeria respectively, as the rest of the Anyang speaking communities share about one-fourth, if not one-third of the entire southeast province of the Cameroons. Locked in the very center of a vast virgin forest of over fourty kilometers through all coordinates, and endless numbers of large rivers and streams, it is one community in this country, whose soil has never felt the touch of rolling wheels from inception of creation. That is a story for another time.

With a population of over three thousand people, and still rapidly growing, they have their culture and tradition, so specifically unique to them, cutting across mode of greetings, mode of worship, special meals, special deities, ancestral beliefs and some very unique rules and regulation governing them. They also have their unique festivities like the new yam festival, new cassava, Christmas, new year, Easter, and yes, first October – the very crown of all festivities.

I was so young, as a matter of fact, too new to the community when I first witnessed Independence Day in Okwa. It was back in nineteen-ninety-two. Father just retired from the military as a sergeant, a very lofty office in that environment at the time. He would be returning home after escaping the fatalities of wars and other horrible operations soldiers must engage in, neither incurring a cut, a stray bullet or any form of deformation. His was nothing short of a success story. The accompanying celebration from siblings and well-wishers was a testimony to that feat. All I knew about first October celebration in Lagos where I was born and bred till my sixth year was the march-pass in the stadium and the public holiday as well. Being a remote community, there was no stadium, or an event center to mark first October in Okwa. So I gave up, expecting nothing but a boring Thursday without school.

And I was disappointed.

It was about 5am, in the early morning of October first. I was relishing the cold moment and the sweet dreams you experience at the verge of dawn, when I heard noises of men and women singing and jubilating… I could remember the steel-melting voice of one Mbuako-anento, a very gifted old bloke who could have gone farther than Osadebe, Prince Nico, or Oliver de Coque, if he ever came anywhere close to limelight. As he pierced his enthralling tone through the gray- dark glow of dawn, through every crevice of closed doors and windows, down through my ear drums, helplessly, I found myself sitting face to face with him, beating the drum while he sang:
  Independent Nigeria obeh beh… or so I heard.
Then I woke up. Gosh, it was a dream! But I came out of the house to find out that Mbuako-anento just left my compound with the very song in his mouth. At another glance, I saw fire hearths in every kitchen burning viciously underneath large pots of cocoyam. Again I heard the sound of pestles in mortars hitting in musical harmony from distant houses. In every compound, men and women gathered in groups sharing tumblers of overnight palm wine. Young ladies sat before trails of okazi, slashing their knives through thick folds of the leathery leaves with exceptional zeal. Intermittently, they scrubbed the serrated edge of their knives against the edges of their trails, producing teeth weakening sounds. In an hour or so, I saw kids of about my age strolling with already bloated tummies in new clothing. Same with young men and women. I heard sound of generators – the type you call I better pass my neigbour, grinding from one house to another, music colliding with music.
With head full with questions, I turned to my house, calling out:

“Daddy!” Instead, I saw mum coming out of our bed room with a parcel of beautiful stock jeans shirt and trousers, along with the most fascinating brand of canvass I have never owned.
“Go have your bath, Walter” she said in her usually soft nature, handing the clothes to me. “In a short while, we will all be in the village square to watch cultural dances”. Until dusk, we all assembled around the village square catching cultural vibes – okumanko, makpo ukei, obiamkpor, ntomandei and the likes, thrilled the crowd. We returned home, brimming with excitement.
Over the years, more activities were added to the celebration such that spilled over to other days: football tournaments, beauty pageantry, long and short distance races, fishing competitions, eating competitions, dancing competitions, music competition, etc. In addition, a town hall meeting is held, where the story of Nigerian independence is retold, demonstrated with traditional facts. Libations are poured by the priest of the community deity for a prosperous Nigeria, while Christians also go to church, praying to God for the same reason. For one week, every individual activity within the community, receives a pause button until the celebration is satisfactorily and exhaustively achieved. Even as I write, I do so in hurry to catch up with the semi- final match in the football field between Azikiwe FC and Belewa FC. I feel so distracted now, as the sound of trumpets and metallic gongs tends to jerk my buttocks from this stool. The spectators are compared to half the number of a presidential campaign crowd as every neigbouring community around Okwa are present to witness the October celebration in a grand style.

As a young man, I have realized that the saddest feeling in life is to love and not to be loved in return. I have had the experience and it hurts to the bone. This is what the people demonstrate. They don’t just love their country. They adore her. With their hard earned resources, they celebrate her. They give in their best, their all to show they are Nigerians, to earn a sense of belonging from their dear country. It is not just independent for them; it is a traditional festivity – a yearly addiction. Take this day away from them, and you have taken their soul away. They so love Nigeria. So helplessly, they do.

But sadly, the very country they so love and adore does not even take notice of these patriots. Perhaps they know they exist. Perhaps they don’t. And if they do, what is there to show? I make bold to say that of all villages in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Okwa is the only community that has never felt government presence. Not even through the establishment of a primary school, a dispensary, a road, talk more of jobs for her teeming graduates, or a scholarship or a grant of any sort. Kudos to a very few politicians in the neighbourhood who have been by them sometimes.

Beyond just the October celebration, Okwa (as a community) holds the largest percentage of rainforest (I mean natural virgin forest) which makes up the Cross River National Park after Akamkpa (as a Local Government). What this means is; following the National Park stringent laws, Okwa is duty bound to protect the forest and the wild life in them. They have little or no place left to farm and completely restricted from hunting, being their only occupation. A couple of persons who have tried to break that rule for the sake of survival have suffered squarely for it. Humbly, Okwa has jealously protected this forest and by extension has protected the Cross River State and the nation at large from various hazards, arising from Climate Change without an alternative means of survival. Indeed, the very reason the Ministry of Climate Change is established in Cross River State for instance, is not without the understanding that there is such vast body of forest situated somewhere around there. This Ministry no doubt has attracted quite some income for the state. Even the carbon credits earned by the state are still some compensation enjoyed for keeping the forest hitherto (I stand to be corrected). But the big question is this; what has the Okwa people earned for slaving for the state or the country?

It is shameful to say this, but suffice me do. The distance from Okwa to an accessible community is at least 40 kilometers through thick virgin forest. To this moment I am writing, the people still trek on foot through this distance, crossing tempestuous rivers for at least nine hours to get to an accessible community. The people have lost so much enduring this terror year after year. I will give only one instance.

Sometime in 2008, my kid (half) sister, Sandra just delivered twins after a ten months long pregnancy. Two girls they were, strong and bouncy. Well-wishers had just celebrated the birth, washed the girls and their mother leading them to the bed to be breast fed. Suddenly, Sandra began to choke in her own breathe. What is the matter? Everyone was asking. But no one had answer to give. She was speedily losing the battle. There was no health center in the community. No health giver either. We were left with just one option – carry her to the hospital. Of course everything had to be manual. Hastily into the bush, we brought live sticks with which we made a local stretcher. Damn, time was running out! Lifting her into the stretcher, we carried her on our shoulders (one person in front and one person behind) matching hastily to an accessible point from where she could be taken to the hospital. This was going to take at least nine hours.

To cut the long story short, we managed her through to the hospital, only to be told it was an ectopic pregnancy. She died moments later. Like Sandra, lots of women have died of very curable diseases. There are so many, so many preventable deaths in the course of delivery. Babies have died in the womb of mothers who cannot put to birth through natural means. The best we can do is attribute the catastrophe to a curse or an offence committed by the deceased, all to manage our grief and stay alive for the better. But deep inside, we know that if we have close access to the hospital, we can escape some of these circumstances. Many other persons have drowned in rivers trying to access a motorable place. The disaster has not stopped.

The only secondary school in Okwa was initiated and built by the people. The only primary school was established in the late fifties by the Catholic Missionaries who came preaching the good news of Jesus to them. The school building raised by the Missionaries was the only one there, until it was pulled down sometime in 2010. You may want to ask who pulled it down.

The Border Commission at the time were flying through all border communities in the enclaves to inspect borderlines. In one of these trips, they landed with their helicopter in Okwa Mukwanda, just in front of the primary school building. The strength of the helicopter fan blew open the roof of the building, pulling down the entire structure. They left afterwards. Not without the promise of returning to fix the building they have blown down. But as I type, there is no trace of their return. Series of letters have been written to them, even to the state government, and it’s been all silence. Pupils have to sit under trees and in shades to learn. These are supposed to be leaders of tomorrow. How many of our leaders have ever learnt under such unkind condition? Which of their kids still study in Nigeria, talk more of learning in circumstance as deplorable?

There is the National park Service in Nigeria, as a body saddled with the responsibility of protecting the forest, the wildlife and its people. But the forest is well protected. Of course it is imposed on us to do so. But we are abandoned and despised. The National Park offices are occupied by Igbos, Yorubas, Hausa’s, Efiks, Ejaghams, and some people whose environments has nothing connected to the rainforest or wildlife. The men in power employ only their brothers, despising the very people who are natural owners of the forest. There are a lot of graduates from this community wandering in the streets of Nigeria in search of jobs, while others, strangers to say, are eating fat from the resources they are dying to protect. Up to now, not up to one percent of Okwa people work in a Government establishment. Nobody works in a political office. But we also cast our votes to elect leaders for the same Nigeria. This is the lot of an Okwa man. This is the lot of a people enslaved in freedom. This is a country whose freedom we give our all to celebrate. This is a country we die every day to be identified with.
All the same, we are Nigerians, and Nigerians we shall remain. We love this country and will proudly celebrate it year in and year out. We will protect and preserve our natural gift whether or not it yields a thing for us. We have been suffering. We are still suffering. We shall continue to cry until our voices dry out, hoping that before then, we may be heard. I have dared to put this on papers. I am not afraid who might read about it, even as crude as it is written.

Long live, The Federal Republic of Nigeria!
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