Emmanuel Addeh writes that from what looked like a rural settlement just over two decades ago, Yenagoa, the capital city of Bayelsa, is fast embracing modern life and shedding its once uninspiring reputation a backward city
It was once rustic: plain, simple, unsophisticated and quintessentially laid-back. The city’s seeming slothfulness unveiled even at first contact. It slept during the day and went dead at nightfall.
No one expected Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa State, to compete with the vibrancy of Lagos or take over Port Harcourt’s space in the wrung of world cities that have lost their inherent innocence, but not many were proud of the town’s blandness either.
At some point the city made some progress. But it was short-lived. Just as Yenagoa was about shaking off its toga of a rough-hewn city, the resurgence of militancy which came to a head in 2009, and its associated fear-mongering drew back its little gains, returning it to its drab days.
Yenagoa did not just come into existence. Indeed, it has existed for a number of centuries, but it took on its current garb of importance just over 20 years ago, precisely on October 1, 1996, when the town was pronounced the capital of the newly created oil-rich Bayelsa State
Those in the know say that ever before its exposure to modern times, Yenagoa was a rural settlement harbouring mostly fishermen, canoe-builders and farmers with limited trading by the women.
Then it was made a district headquarters by the colonialists, and later a local government headquarters, where the first military administrator first carried out matters of state at the inauguration of the town as the state capital just over two decades ago.
Indeed, a popular newspaper columnist and a former media aide to an ex-President of Nigeria put the condition of Yenagoa very succinctly during a visit to the city a couple of years ago.
He wrote: “There were two or three make-shift petrol stations which looked like abandoned projects. Didn’t see too many banks. Nothing to suggest that this was the capital of a state.
“Obviously, so many developmental efforts in that part of the country must have been forgotten in the famous, proverbial pipeline.
“The only sign of affluence belonged to one senior retired military official who hails from Delta and the locals talked about him as if he owned the town.”
But all that appears to be in the past now, with Yenagoa bursting back to life during the day and refusing to sleep at night.
Breath-taking edifices, both owned by government institutions and local businessmen are springing up.
Yenagoa no longer compares with a village like some were wont to say a few years ago. It is now far more metropolitan, with people, mostly from the East, then South-west, followed by other tribes owning thriving businesses in the capital city.
Security appears to have greatly improved, leisure points including night clubs, bars, restaurants and joints are also defying the economic recession, especially at the weekends.
For those who have lived under the siege of insecurity, especially in the Niger Delta, Yenagoa seems like a refreshing exception.
While some city centres shut down as early as 8pm in some states of the Niger Delta, petty sellers, usually represented by the ubiquitous ‘mallam’ is still doing business by 12 midnight in the state capital.
The Assistant Inspector General (AIG) of Police, in charge of Zone Five, Benin, Abubakar Mohammed, attested to this a few weeks ago when he said that available records showed Bayelsa State has the lowest crime rate in the zone.
At a meeting with some of his senior officials in Yenagoa, the police chief lauded his men and the state government for their invaluable collaboration in fighting and reducing crime in the state.
Shortly after, the Bayelsa State Government donated four armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to the police, noting that it was a demonstration of the government’s commitment and partnership with security agencies in the state.
”This is a demonstration of our commitment in supporting the police. We will provide more equipment for the police to ensure we improve in our fight against crime, criminality and theft.
“We are taking steps to provide a local security system called State Education Safety Corps to curb child molestation, rape and insecurity in our schools,” the state’s Chief Security Officer, Mr. Seriake Dickson said during the ceremony.
On who should get the credit for the reduction in crime in the state, the governor boasted that he has been lucky to have the best crop of officers posted to the state.
“I would not take the credit for that alone. I want to give the credit for our achievements in the areas of law and order, peace and security on peace building, to all the officers and men of the police.
“With the collaboration of all sister agencies and leaders at all levels, including the people of the state, all the stakeholders must be appreciated for their support in reducing the crime rate,” he said.
It is not yet Uhuru, but residents admit that compared with other states in the Niger Delta, Yenagoa and indeed Bayelsa, takes a vantage point any day in terms of security of lives and property.
The once hotbed of cult activities, armed robbery and politically motivated tension, usually incited by disgruntled politicians who feel they have to get even with their opponents, is gradually subsiding, giving way to civilised behaviour.
But love or hate them, residents of Bayelsa, the young and not so young included, are natural fun-seekers, taking advantage of the slightest opportunity to party and let go of all life’s many vicissitudes, if only temporarily.
Even during an economic recession, they hardly wait for dusk to set in before besieging the relaxation centres in town to unwind after office hours.
Many of the joints provide all-round entertainment for fun-seekers, sometimes combining car wash with a spacious bar and a night club. At the close of work, people troop into the area to relax and unwind.
Especially at the weekends, starting from Fridays, all roads appear to lead to the pubs at sunset in Yenagoa, with friends, business and political associates sitting around, drinking assorted alcoholic beverages as they relieve their work experiences.
In fact, if one feels empty after bubbling on the dance floor, one could be served several plates of Nkwobi, Isi ewu, Shawarma and assorted drinks at night. But like in all cities close to where oil is found, they don’t come cheap.
Made even more adorable by the beautiful streetlights in many of the major streets, Yenagoa, at night gives a picture of a city in haste to catch up with its counterparts that started long before it.
Many popular clubs and bars including Blaze, Stop-over, Lakeview, Car Wash and V10, a club run from the base of a hotel owned by a former First Lady, are a first choice for fun-seekers, including those visiting the state for the first time.
Here, businessmen, government officials, senior security personnel in the state, professionals ranging from banking to the media, hang out after a tedious week.
While some of the spots are obviously above the lowly-placed, with prices of drinks as much as tripling and quadrupling, many residents have also found a way to enjoy themselves without breaking the bank.
Those who cannot afford the high class bars, hotels and lounges, simply patronise roadside sellers of spirits and local aphrodisiacs, popularly called Nwokike, literally translated “ strong man” in local parlance.
Then there are the regular ‘night doctors’ mostly on Hospital Road, always willing to treat their patients ( lecherous men), of course, given the right price.
This business seems to always get a boost when construction work, which attracts various workers from within and outside the state is going on around Yenagoa and environs.
Michael Ayibakuro, who works with one of the construction firms in the town, is a regular visitor to a night club situated along Isaac Boro Expressway in Yenagoa.
When asked why relaxation spots still seemed to be booming despite a lull in the economy, Mr. Ayibakuro responds: “see, my brother, there will always be problems in life.
“I will agree with you that things are hard in this country right now. But it wouldn’t stop me from taking time out to have fun and enjoy myself. Life is short.
“I can’t continue ruminating over the problems in Nigeria. After all, nobody is sure whether he will be alive the next moment. Life continues,” he said, taking a sip off the glass on his table.
Sitting closely beside him was Francis Paul, who said he runs a home appliances business in the state capital.
On why he would patronise clubs that sell drinks far above what obtains in regular liquor shops outside, Paul says the thrills of being on the dance floor with several other “happy people” could not be measured.
“I know it’s cheaper to get these drinks outside there, but ask anybody around, they will tell you that the feeling and atmosphere are not the same when you just sit in your sitting room taking a bottle of beer.”
The Commissioner for Information and Orientation in Bayelsa, Mr. Jonathan Obuebite, ascribes the changing face of nightlife in Yenagoa to the hard work put in by the security agencies, especially ‘Doo Akpo’, a special security outfit, in collaboration with other crime-fighting bodies and the encouragement given by the government.
He admitted that although security was compromised during the last election, the Dickson-led administration went back to the drawing board, giving birth to the relative peace currently being enjoyed by residents.
“Before the governor came to office, the state had a very bad record in terms of security, whereby at least one person was dying everyday in Yenagoa. Even opposition voices couldn’t stay within Yenagoa.
“The first thing we did was to pass the anti-cult law and grant amnesty to many of them, including their leaders who were heavily involved in drugs. And the governor has said he will never play politics with the security of the state.
“During Fam-tamgbe (the security outfit before the current government), they were involved in unholy activities, including even getting involved in husband/wife matters. So, we set up ‘Doo Akpo’, well equipped that in three minutes, no matter where you are in Yenagoa, the team will reach you.
“It led to the arrest and prosecution of some of the criminals. Before now, Bayelsa could not sleep with two eyes closed. But with the new response time and support from government, it was difficult for the criminals to operate, so they fled the state,” Obuebite said.
He added: “that is why the nightlife in Bayelsa has improved. People can now move around more freely.
“Although crime cannot be taken away completely from any society, we have a strategy that nips crimes in the bud before they happen.”
It might not be “see Yenagoa and die” yet, neither would it compare with Paris, the French city from where the original phrase emanated, but Yenagoa, the capital city of Bayelsa, is definitely not what it was before now: rustic and brutish!