Okpeze Alleges Abandonment, Neglect
IT is easy imagine or even tempting to say that the situation in Okpeze, a relatively small agrarian community in Orumba North Council of Anambra State, is no so different from other border communities between Anambra and Enugu states, who are usually neglected, abandoned and left to an uncertain fate.
But a critical assessment will show that its neighbouring communities, including Ndiukwuenu, with which it shares one electoral Ward, from history, gets remembered by the politicians, the state government and its officials only during elections time.
It plays host to the popular Mamu Forest Reserve, which though has been in existence since 1911, but it was not until 1927 that a formal written agreement to its establishment and the terms and benefits accruable to the community was drawn and signed.
Sadly, the agreement has not benefitted the community in any way; hence they are now crying out.
After several letters to the state government without response, the community resorted to self-help- speaking out to be heard, following a Voice-To-the-People (V2P) interface sensitisation and intervention meeting organised in the nearly forgotten community by the Justice, Development and Peace Commission (JDPC) of the Catholic Diocese of Awka, in conjunction with the Christian of Aid/UK Aid.
Paradoxically, besides a barely motorable road to the area, Okpeze, which is on outskirts of Awka, the state capital, lacks government presence.
Even with the government’s forest reserve that covers about seven-by-seven kilometres, the community is connected to Amaetiti and Awgbu neighbouring communities by a narrow wooden bridge constructed by the colonialists in the 1920s when the forest reserve was established.
It has remained weather-beaten, broken and washed out. Except for the light traffic, it would have broken up and the community cut off completely from civilisation.
A flicker of hope came few years ago when Senator Ikechukwu Obiora brought a Federal Medical Centre (FMC) and a borehole project to the area, both of which remains uncompleted and abandoned.
According to the President General of the community, Chief Donatus Nwafor, the siting of both projects gave a ray of hope that Okpeze and Ndiukwuenu have not been completely forgotten by the state and federal governments and their functionaries.
Recently, the state government awarded a contract for the construction of the only access road to the area, as well as the construction of the bridge across the Okpeze River, which remains their only source of water for drinking and domestic uses.
Incidentally, theses projects were awarded without carrying the people along, either for their input, guide or domestication. So, any attempt by the residents and natives to come close to the construction sites for whatever social, economic or community-related reasons were usually rebuffed by the contractors.
Again, this all-important road project has also been abandoned and forced the people to cope with slippery marshy/swamp terrain during rainy seasons and heavy dust at dry seasons.
It is such that once it rains, no one dares to come in or go out of the area until sun shines to improve the grip on the unfortunate terrain.
The people see this as one major reason these contracts fail, especially as a few hands were undertaking the road project, while the bridge has been abandoned long time ago.
Almost all the key materials required to execute the job had been mobilised to site and abandoned under the harsh weather for about three years now.
The iron pillars, rods, mesh and pilings continue to rust, while the imported chemicals that reportedly came in containers were off-loaded and left on the bushy side of the river to cake away.
About three water borehole projects have been brought to Okpeze at different times by different segments and levels of government, including the World Bank, the state government under former Dame Virgy Etiaba, and the one by Obiora many years ago.
It was only the one brought by the World Bank that was completed, but was never reticulated; hence it runs only in one spot, serving just few living nearby, while those families living far off continue to make do with the local unsanitary stream for all their needs, as well as all their animals.
Okpeze, with about 120,000 people, has no secondary school and its two primary schools remain in ramshackle archaic buildings, with broken floors, little desks, without doors and windows, lacking in any basic teaching and learning facilities whatsoever.
Okpeze, one can say without fear of contradiction, is not represented on the map of duty bearers, except during election periods, when politicians swoop on the community to canvass for their votes.
But theV2P project is prepared to bring the attention of the world to the sufferings of Okpeze people and the environs, with a view to rescuing them from living like Stone Age men in a modern world.
As a means of achieving this objective, the group recently organised a media tour of the abandoned community.
The JDPC’s programme manager, Mrs. Eucharia Anekwe, in company of the monitor and evaluation officer of the group, Mrs. Manny Nnanna, said during the tour that that the effort was neither meant to curry favour nor undermine any government or politician, but to highlight the needs and challenges of the people of Okpeze and Ndiukwuenu, who have been suffering untold hardship due to inexplicable neglect by the various levels of government for decades.
Nwafor, in his presentation, raised even more disturbing issues of boundary encroachment from neighbouring communities in Enugu State and urged the relevant governments and their agencies, especially the Ministries of Lands and that of Environment, to get the matter resolved peacefully before it escalates into bloodshed.
He also appealed to the state government to accede to their request for a portion of the forest reserve to be given back to the community, in line with the specific provisions of the 1927 mutual agreement between it and the community.
He stated that Okpeze now need lands for the community’s rising population, a secondary school and additional primary schools.
Other needs include land for developmental purposes, resuscitation and completion of all the abandoned projects and employment for the teeming youths, so as to arrest the rising restiveness and anti-social acts among them.
He lamented that the community’s self-help effort in building an only health centre in the area, when the FMC was abandoned, was thwarted by the refusal of the state’s Ministry of Health to equip and post its staff there.
He also disclosed that the community initiated a secondary school project, with 30 pioneer students, but the project died because there was no interest, encouragement and assistance from the state government or any of its agencies.
He stated that Okpeze had always supported and cooperated with successive governments and wondered why they were so neglected.
He alleged conspiracy of silence against Okpeze by various duty bearers, accusing them of remembering the community only during elections and campaigns.
The councillor representing the community in the Orumba North Local Government, Okoli Ezinwanne, claimed that the town has been laid bare and exposed to the vagaries of deforestation, soil depletion and massive erosion due to deforestation without any attempt by the authorities concerned to ameliorate the situation or replenish the trees. He also lamented that no indigene of the community has ever been employed to work in the forest reserve or its supervising ministry as a form of compensation or in the spirit of the enabling 1911 agreement.
Ezinwanne regretted that the authorities are not complying with the 1911 agreement entered with the town to released land to it whenever needed, pointing out that the population of Okpeze has now outgrown their limited enclave and therefore need land for expansion.
The traditional ruler, Igwe Jonas Onwumelu, urged Governor Willie Obiano to remember Okpeze in his development efforts.
Romanus Obi, representing Orumba North in the Anambra State House of Assembly, claimed that he got to know about the challenges of Okpeze only 24 hours earlier.
Obi, a member of the House Committee on Works, said he assisted the community to cover the wooden bridge with some plates of iron sheets when the issue was presented to him, saying there was no way he could get to know the needs of the people unless if brought to his knowledge.
Chairman of the Orumba North Local Government, Okechukwu Enekwe, also claimed that he got to know about issues raised by the community a few days to Christmas and he had promptly written a memo to the Ministry of Environment and other relevant ministries.
He assured that the problems of Okpeze community would be addressed now that it has attracted public attention.