By Chika Omeje
The first educated person to give us a glimpse of the economic outlook of Nsukka in modern history is the great Scottish explorer; Dr William Balfour Baike, in the 19th century. After sailing successfully up the River Niger and Benue in the Niger expedition of 1854; Baike celebrated his success in the following remarks:
“We have discovered a navigable river, an available highway, conducting us into the very heart of a large continent. We have found these regions to be highly favoured by nature, teeming with animal life, and with fertile soils abounding in valuable vegetable products, and adapted by diversity of position, of elevation, and of character, for all the varied purposes of tropical agriculture. We have met on friendly terms with numerous tribes, all endowed by nature with what I might term the ‘commercial faculty,’ ready and anxious to trade with us, and to supply us with inexhaustible stores, with immense quantities of highly prized articles…”
We should note the way this European explorer felt when he discovered the bulk of the area that would later be known as Nigeria. One can read all the excitement in the explorer’s remarks to his government. It is way bigger than any emotional show of triumph we have seen in modern times.
The people of Nigeria showed less enthusiasm when they discovered several billion barrels of petroleum reserves in their domain, a century later.That however should not distract us from topic.
The great historian Adiele Afigbo quoted another of Baike’s startling observation in 1854:
“At several of the market-towns on the south side of the Binue, near the Confluence, and at Igbegbe, we had seen a peculiar sort of country cloth, ornamented by perforations, which were done during the weaving, and which, we were told, was made by the I’gbo people, the g here being pronounced hard.
We had made many inquiries about this race, but until our conversation with the Galadima could learn nothing satisfactory about them, but now we found they were the same as the ” I’bo,” Tgbo being merely the hard pronunciation of this name. These cloths are most probably manufactured in E’lugu, that being the I’gbo district nearest to Igara, and the cloths being found chiefly in the markets near the Confluence.”
His reference is the Narrative of an Exploring Voyage up the Rivers Kwóra and Binue (commonly known as the Niger and Tsádda) in 1854, page 287-8,a book written by Baikie after his successful expedition up the River Niger and Benue and published two years later in 1856.Afigbo believed that tons of clothes woven in Igbo Nsukka towns like Ibagwa Ani,Aku etc were traded throughout the North and South of what later become Nigeria. “This cloth competed with imported European cloth very vigorously until even as late as the 1940s.Its thickness made it highly valued” Afigbo wrote.
One would wonder what happened to the famed clothing industry in Nsukka, for instance. How did the industry move from Nsukka to Aba, Onitsha and Lagos at the turn of the century? Did Nsukka play any role in the demise of this very important industry? Where is the great potential for tropical agricultural that Dr Baike observed in 1854? Have we not failed to tap into that to make our lives better?
Let take another historical look into another area we may have failed. After the attack on UAC outpost in Onitsha in 1879, the company established a huge trading post at Ogurugu, on the bank of the Anambra River. It would be important to note that Ogurugu has been a thriving river port long before Onitsha. It served as the river port that fed Bonny canoes with slaves captured in the hinterland throughout the 18th century, for the onward trans-Atlantic voyage. The dreaded slave raider;Onoja Oboni once captured the town, at the peak of his war of conquest and turned it into his fortress. We would not try to compare Ogurugu with Onitsha today because many people can’t even locate Ogurugu on the map now. The question is;what happened to Ogurugu?
Those who do not know the history, would not know why Onitsha grew while the hitherto more advanced- in trade links-Ogurugu retarded.The answer is simple;infrastructure! The colonial government and its successors built road links to Onitsha from all corners. Road transport eventually killed maritime transport on the erstwhile River Niger at the turn of the 20th century and the thriving Ogurugu never recovered after the death of maritime transport on the Niger.
You can make the same comparison between Eha-Amufu and Aba.When coal was discovered, railway from Enugu to Port Harcourt through Aba was built between 1913 and 1916.It was extended from Enugu to Makurdi,Jos Kafanchan through Eha-Amufu within ten years. By 1910, Eha-Amufu was much bigger than Aba and had better trading routes with the rest of Nigeria. Both Eha-Amufu and Aba grew exponentially because they became important stations along the Eastern railway line. While Aba continued to grow because better roads and trade links to other destinations were developed, Eha-Amufu stagnated when railway transport collapsed in Nigeria. You can use many other places as example of the role of infrastructure in aiding development.
Then let us ask the real question. How far has Nsukka and its vast communities fared in the provision of infrastructure and where will they be in the coming decades?
Can we say that the people have pushed enough to bring back the 18th and 19th century glory of Ogurugu?While a river port has been built in Onitsha,Baro, others planned for Idah,Lokoja and other places far and near, have we concluded that river port is impossible at Ogurugu?Is river transport impossible on the Anambra river when it thrived 200 years ago?
Have we made a case for the reconstruction of the Eastern railway line that ran through Jos-Bukuru-Lafia-Makurdi-Eha-Amufu-Enugu-Umuahia-Aba-Port Harcourt?If we cannot push for these transport routes due to Nigeria’s obvious economic and infrastructural challenges, what have we done with our basic road connections? What is the condition of our roads and of what use are they to us?
It is assumed that up to seventy percent of food and other things coming to the South East and South South come through Obollo-Afor on the Enugu-Makurdi highway. Do we see warehouses or food processing firms along the road around Obollo-Afor.We know that the highway itself is looking more and more likely to be abandoned altogether due to its state of ruin but what use have we made of it for decades it existed? If the road from Makurdi through Gboko-Garkem-Ogoja in Cross River state is developed all the way down to Calabar and Port Harcourt,that would see Obollo Afor relegated to the status of a remote community just like Ogurugu,wouldnt it?
The road from Ebonyi state-Eha-Amufu-Ikem-Obollo Afor- Nsukka-Adani-Onitsha is still lying in ruins. It has shut Uzo Uwani out completely to rest of Nsukka and the nation.This lead to astronomical deterioration of communities along that road to a point that herdsmen and kidnappers have taken control of a chunk of that Local government. What about the Nsukka-Idah-Agenebode-Auchi road that is also in terrible ruins? What will it take our federal representatives to push for these roads to be reconstructed?
At the state level, Nsukka zone is probably the only colonial era administrative division where you will still see several communities that have never seen asphalted roads or electricity. The Nsukka-Lejja-Aku road,for instance. Nkpologwu-Aku road, Iheaka -Ibagwa Aka-Itchi-Unadu-Alor Agu, Aguibeje Enugu Ezike road, Umuopu AguEgo Amalla Egazi road among others. Why have we not seen asphalt on these roads since the beginning of Nigeria?
Shouldn’t federal legislators in this zone, starting from the Senator representing Enugu North,the House of Representative member representing Nsukka/Igbo-Eze federal constituency, Igbo Eiti/Uzo Uwani federal constituency and Igboeze North/Udenu federal constituencies push the federal government to fix all the federal roads and railways in their constituency as a matter of urgency? Will the state legislators not do more to push the governor and Enugu state government to fix these state roads?
Can wealthy individuals in Nsukka not collaborate with the government in building roads, railways and other infrastructure on public, private partnership-PPP? It is given that once infrastructure is adequate, industries and commerce will return to the area and Nsukka sphere of agricultural, industrial and commercial influence within Nigeria would return to its 19th century glory and even outpace it.
The grand objective is to maintain the provincial agricultural, industrial, trade and commercial influence the Nsukka Igbo had within Nigeria in the past. I don’t see how this cannot be done in the shortest of time. NNL.