Warri: So Much Oil, Yet Little Ambition

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Once, Warri had a similar destiny as Lagos. It had the coastline, the colonial legacy, the culture, and even oil. Then, the city missed its way. Solomon Elusoji writes

Some 25 minutes into Warri, from Benin-city, the scenery consists of vast stretches of green fields and wiry palm trees. But, soon, the greenery gives way to white soil, a couple of gas stations, uniformed school children by the roadside, waiting; but it is an army-checkpoint that makes the official introduction into the city.

Above, the sun shines brilliantly as the bus zooms past wooden roadside stalls, hawkers peddling fried snails and plantain, and rows of dusty bungalows. I alight at the first stop, which is an open garage lying at the edge of a complex intersection of expressways. An army of tricycle drivers swarm around, pitching cheap taxi services. But I wriggle away and pull out my phone. My Warri contact tells me to step out of the garage and board one of the public taxis at the edge of the road heading east.

It’s a hot day, but the harmattan breeze – with all its dust and grime – clogs the nostrils with discomfort. I slip into the front seat of a taxi heading east. A petite girl joins me in front and one of my butt literally has to rest on the driver’s handbrake. Fortunately, the petite girl alights less than two minute later. She hands the driver a rumpled note. “You see the money so,” the driver turns to me, “if you do money outside country like this, dem go arrest you.” The driver is a thirtyish bearded man sporting a red vest, faded blue jeans and a flat cap. He counts his money while his arms guide the steering wheel.

Following my Warri contact’s directions, I disembark at a busy junction and board a motorcycle driven by a swarthy young man who complains incessantly, during the ride, about the rising cost of gas. Ironically, much of the ride is spent coasting the length of the Warri Refinery, one of the three major oil refineries in the country, none of which are functioning optimally, a phenomenon President Muhammadu Buhari recently described as “disgraceful.” Nigeria is Africa’s largest crude oil producer, but still imports a significant chunk of the petroleum products it consumes.

Minutes later, I am in the company of my Warri contact. There is an embrace, then loud laughter before he leads me to a hotel, one of the cheapest in that part of town – the halls are dank and reek with cigarette smell, the room is crampy, the bedsheets are coloured and old, the air conditioning does not work, and rodents roam freely. But there is power. “There are a lot of yahoo boys who lodge here,” my Warri contact, whose name is Nogho Omasan, tells me. “It is the light that attracts them.”

Yahoo economy

I met Omasan several years ago, during our time at the University of Benin as communication students. A bright, bubbly, fair-skinned guy, he was renowned on campus more for his entrepreneurial energy than for the ability to cram pages of media theories. When I started selling fiction pamphlets on campus, he signed up as one of the distributors. In our penultimate year, he took up catering and started a music blog. In 2014, months before our final examinations, he dreamt up a photography magazine that would capture the cultural essence of Nigeria. He was always full of ideas, always trying to make a mark on the world.

But as he leads me to my hotel room, more than three years after graduation, Omasan is a subdued man. His gait, a kind of steady rhythm, has not changed much, but the spark in his eyes is gone and the cadence of his voice is flat, no irregular excitement, no joy. After youth service, which he observed in Kebbi, he had returned to Warri but had found it difficult to hold down a job or sustain a business. He worked in a hotel for about six months, but was paid just once; he started a catering business with his girlfriend, but the rented kitchen was flooded and burglars were a constant menace; he applied for tens of job vacancies, both in the government and private sectors, but his Communications degree was not good enough. “It is like you have to know somebody somewhere to get a job here,” he tells me. Then he sank into depression.

“Sometimes, I feel I have been very lazy in the past four years,” Omasan tells me. We are sitting on the hotel bed. The television is on but muted, a curtain has been drawn apart to let in light. He is doubting the choices he has made and wonders whether they could have been better. But he feels powerless, not very much in charge. He has plans to leave Warri (No matter how long I stay here, I don’t feel I belong here, he tells me later), to maybe Lagos or Asaba, but he feels like he needs to have a lifeline, a kind of insurance, to make the leap.

With the heat rising, Omasan suggests we move outside. We find a balcony with an open view of the community. Two guys with scruffy hair and faded jeans are there, too, smoking. There is a small cough-syrup bottle beside them. “This is codeine,” Omasan tells me as he picks it up and I nod knowingly. We exchanged greetings with the scruffy-haired guys, grab seats and settle down to enjoy the silence and marijuana-smoky air. But the silence does not last for long as we – Omasan and I – begin to discuss his money-making prospects. He needs to tap into his skills, his abilities. But he has so many doubts. Offhandedly, he suggests going into ‘Yahoo Yahoo’, a kind of identity theft cum financial scam business that became popular among Nigerians in the early 90s.

I applaud, and say I’ll bring food for him in prison. We laugh it off, but he wants me to understand that virtually every ambitious Warri youth engages in ‘Yahoo’. “If you are not doing Yahoo in Warri, you are not safe,” he tells me. What he means, though, is that if you don’t have money in Warri, you cannot be seen as a decent human being, even by family members. And ‘having money’ is not being able to feed, clothe and put a roof over your head; it is being able to buy luxurious cars, visit clubs and flood the dance floor with champagne, purchase iPhone 8 for your fleet of lovers. This is the Warri Dream, he tells me, this is how to matter.

While we converse, the two scruffy-haired guys do not speak. A roll of joint stuck between their lips, they cannot be bothered. Then I start to talk about why ‘Yahoo’ is bad for the local economy and one of them, the one closest to me, raises his voice. “I disagree with you,” he said. “This thing helps the economy; it distracts people from crime.” His English is not broken or hesitant. It is smooth, composed and nothing like his faded jeans. His joint is completely incinerated. “Look at this hotel for example,” he continues, “it is sustained by people who are ‘doing street’. Do you know how many people this hotel employs? Do you know how many people are able to eat just because this hotel exists?” There are a dozen brilliant ripostes to this line of logic, but I am thrilled by the delivery, so I simply lean back and ask him to tell me his story.

He starts with his name, but I make a mental note not to remember it. About two years ago, he had graduated from Delta State University, Abraka, studying Economics. During his youth service, together with a friend, he conceived the idea of starting a waste recycling business, but he could not secure a start-up loan. Then he turned his attention towards agriculture, although start-up funds, too, have been difficult to come by. Now, he tells me, he is ‘doing street’ – Yahoo – so he can fund his agriculture business. “I want to boost the Nigerian economy,” he says. For him, the end justifies the means because, he insists, the government has failed his generation. “You need an enabling environment to start a business,” he points out, “and even if you go to school, the beauty of that is to come out and get a job. But where are the jobs? So it is a self-service economy: help yourself.”

Last January, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) released a report that put the number of unemployed Nigerians, as at the third quarter of 2017, at 16 million, out of a total active labour force of 85.08 million people. The report said the category of unemployed persons comprised 8.5 million people “who engaged in an economic activity for at least an hour” and 7.5 million people “who did absolutely nothing.”

While the national numbers are depressing, unemployment in Warri is exacerbated by the violence it engenders. The region is rich in oil, but this violence – militancy, bunkering, general insecurity – scares away foreign investors and even local oil companies. The young people who perpetuate this violence justify their actions by pointing to government’s neglect of the region, despite being the cash cow that has sustained the entire country for more than four decades.

Looking for life

The next morning after arriving Warri, I decide to visit the Warri Port. The city is drenched in harmattan mist, with dusty cold that assaults the nostrils and hurts. I board a motorcycle but, first, we have to look for an Automated Teller Machine to withdraw cash. We find one at a filling station. The screens and buttons are splattered with grime and it is “temporarily unable to withdraw cash.” And, according to the motorcycle driver, there are little alternatives. The nearest ATM is probably more than 4km away. So he drives to a shopping complex. There, a woman with a POS machine collects my card over a counter and asks how much cash I want.

At a Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) administrative building just beside the Warri Port, an NPA media official, Ejike Nworgu, refuses to speak to me. “Go to Lagos,” he says. Unperturbed, I descend five floors and walk towards the Port entrance which has a wide green-background billboard which has ‘Delta Ports, Port of Warri’ scrawled on it in yellow font. The gateman is hesitant to let me in, until I show him a THISDAY identification card. It’s almost past ten in the morning. The clouds are clear but the sun is yet to show up for work.

The first thing that strikes you about this Port is its voidness. It’s a Wednesday morning, but there are no incoming or outgoing trucks; a group of Navy officials are jogging across the grounds, their heavy grunts echoing in the distance. I find a motorcycle driver who takes me round and we travel kilometres without encountering much. We pass an Intels administrative block; a rare truck whistles past; we speed past signs screaming ‘Don’t Take Photographs’. At a berthing terminal, a couple of security officials linger, but there is no ship, no life. “This place, it is anytime dem see ship, dem see ship,” my motorcycle driver tells me. He points to a ship in the distance. “That’s the only big ship that has arrived this year,” he says. The ship, apparently a private ship ferrying things for Julius Berger, is painted blue with yellow-coloured cranes sitting atop its deck. On the side, it bears the letters: combi-lift.net.

Perhaps the dormant state of the Warri Port is a kind of metaphor for how the city has stagnated despite its oil riches. One of the security guards at the berthing terminals, a round man with a bushy moustache, tells me the Port’s inactivity is a “pure political issue”. According to him, it is more expensive to ship via Warri rather than Lagos due to shallow waters and higher security insurance fees. But none of the problems, he maintains, are intractable, if the government really wants it to function. He appears to be heading towards the promulgation of a popular theory, one that suggests how Nigeria’s federal structure is set up to benefit some regions, more than others.

From the Warri Port, I decide to visit some of the oil tank farms in Ifie community. The air in this part of town carries the sharp smell of oil and the roads are splattered with dark liquid; oil tankers are everywhere. The private tank farms (I counted six) are clustered at the mouth of the lagoon that connects to the Atlantic. At Matrix, one of the private tank farms in the area, some tanker drivers are creating a small scene, claiming they are not being allowed to load oil products despite having made payments. The local NUPENG office is rowdy. It’s a chaotic little world, but things are working.

It’s well past noon, almost 2p.m., by the time I leave Ifie. I want to head to the Warri Refinery, but my attention is drawn to a much more interesting story: the abandonment of a multipurpose youth training centre in Egbokodo community. The centre was built during the tenure of Mr. Emmanuel Uduaghan as governor of Delta State and was equipped by the United Nations Development Project (UNDP). The idea behind the project was to create an institution where young people could go to learn new skills. So it was equipped with the tools necessary to learn Welding and Fabrication, Automobile Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Instrumentation and Control, Catering and Hotel Management, Wood Works, Electrical Engineering and ICT. The centre was also designed to be able to award City and Guilds 1 and 2 directly from London. After it opened circa 2015, the centre was managed by United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and trained its first batch of 150 students. In 2016, it was handed over to the Delta State Government.

When I visited, the centre, a sprawling set of buildings fitted with recreational courts, is deserted and overgrown with weeds. The people at the gate tell me no one is allowed inside but intimate that the state government is attempting to revive the centre. While we discuss, a young man with luggage appears, saying he has been posted to the centre for work. He is directed to one of the buildings. “This country needs deliverance,” one of the gate people say. “Under the United Nations, the whole place was standard. But immediately the government came in, they said they don’t have money to spend on this place.” The government’s renewed interest in the centre, they argue, is a political move designed for the 2019 polls.

Later that evening, I sat down with Mr. Martins Micah, a lawyer who has practised in Warri for the past five years. He studied Law at Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma and was called to bar in 2012 after a brief stint in politics and business. The problem with Warri, he tells me, is the successive enthronement of poor leadership both at the state and local level. “They’ve been unfortunate with the kind of leaders they’ve had,” he says. Most mornings, he wakes up to find black substances clustered on his car, a result of the local bunkering and illegal refining that goes on in his community.

A fallen star

Warri used to be a British colonial headquarters during the early 20th Century, but its known history dates as far back as the 15th Century when it was visited by Portuguese missionaries. Once, the name Warri Province was previously applicable to the area now called Delta State, under the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria. However, now, its boundaries are much more defined, bounded in the Northeast by the Sapele/Udu Creek, Forcados River in the Southeast and Jameson Creek in the Southeast. The city, today, is one of the major hubs of petroleum activities and businesses in all of southern Nigeria, while harbouring quite distinct, cosmopolitan population comprising originally of Urhobo, Itsekiri and Ijaw people.

To say, at the time of Nigeria’s independence, Warri’s destiny was similar to that of Lagos is barely an exaggeration. It had everything: the coastline, the colonial legacy, the culture. It even had oil. (Lagos was only declared an oil producing state in 2016) But while Lagos is, on its own, now among the largest economies in Africa, Warri is only a fledgling urban town, a young bird that is still learning how to fly. Despite all its riches, there is nothing spectacular here, no grand projects, no dizzying ambition.

“One problem Warri had was that its three major ethnic identities – Urhobo, Itsekiri, Ijaw – could not unite for a common purpose,” a Political Communications Scholar at the University of Benin, Dr. Daniel Ekhareafo, tells me. The city was once earmarked as Delta State’s capital before it went to Asaba, and it used to play host to more oil and gas companies, who have been forced to move key operations further east to cities like Port Harcourt because of Warri’s constant communal clashes. In 2005, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), which used to be the highest employer of labour in Warri, moved such departments such as finance/treasury and major recruitment/procurement logistics to Port Harcourt. The city protested, but it was too late. “No one wants to stay in an environment that is not safe,” Ekhareafo says.

The University Don, however, lays most of the blame on successive state and local governments in Delta State. “If you go to Warri and see the roads, you will be ashamed,” he says. “How can this be an oil city? This is a place that is supposed to be the centre of attraction but successive state governments did not pay attention. I see no reason why you cannot give Warri a world class look; it’s not rocket science. Warri is a place that can easily be turned into a tourist centre, but if you don’t have visionary leaders, what you get is the Warri of today.”

Writing in the early 2000s, former Presidency spokesman and veteran journalist, Reuben Abati, wrote of Warri: the city “is a haggard old lady with tired feet and a mouth that has been robbed of its teeth.”

Homecoming

On Thursday morning, two days after I arrived Warri, I pack my bags, ready to leave. But before I exited, I head to Warri South Local Government Council Office. It’s an impromptu visit and a random pick. (There are two other local government authorities in Warri). The Local Government Chairman, Mr. Michael Tidi, is locked in a meeting with his party members. I wait for about an hour before I get someone to speak to, the Council’s Head of Information Unit, Metsese Anthony.

Anthony is a contradiction, a reporter’s dream. Along with his government job at the council, he also runs a private news magazine, Fresh Angle News, which attempts to generate as much original content as possible, rather than regenerate the stories published by the mainstream newspapers. “I discovered that Nigerian journalists were always reporting the same stories,” he tells me. So in 2010, he started Fresh Angle with the intent to publish more local stories across the Niger Delta and Middle Belt region.

How does he manage the contrasting identities? “I really can’t separate both,” he says. “Yes, I can’t write anything negative about Warri South Local Government, but outside here I am a journalist.”

When I asked him about what the local government is doing to create an “enabling environment” for young people to thrive, he starts by telling me that youths who believe in the merits of ‘Yahoo Yahoo’ lack initiative and creativity. “Our people are looking for money, not skills and jobs,” he says, “only lazy people cry that there are no jobs. Youth empowerment in the Niger Delta is all about ‘ego’, money, not people wanting to learn skills.

“Our society does not have value for you if you don’t have money. And any society where people place value on money rather than inventiveness and intellectual strength, that society is doomed.”

Then he practically informs me that I have come to the wrong place to ask the right questions. The local government, he explains, has virtually no power to effect any substantial change. They are simply vassals to the state government.

“Revenue collection in the local government here is carried out by the ‘boys’ of those in Asaba,” he says. “They are the ones feeding fat on these revenues while the local governments are impoverished. So what happens is that the revenue collection is contracted out to a third party and the person pays a stipend to the Council per annum. And they are usually loyal party boys. For example, they can pay a hundred thousand to the council while they go ahead to make millions. At the end of the day, almost nothing comes to the council. And even the little that trickles in is not properly accounted for.”

He also questions the calibre of persons elected as local government chairmen in the state and for a moment I cannot shrug the feeling that the public relations official is indirectly taking a swipe at his boss. He describes the elections as “coronations” and the people who emerge victorious as “baby state commissioners”.

As I leave Anthony’s office and head for the bus-park, I wonder about what I have learnt from my short trip to Warri. Two obvious things perhaps: one, that leadership matters; two, in the words of seminal economic historian, David Landes, “that wealth is not so good as work, nor riches so good as earnings.”