Joe Effiong, Uyo
Last year, they were in the streets. And the year before, they had performed the same ritual, protesting the lack of electricity in their area.
But all that seemed to have generated only heat but no light in Ikot Abasi, especially in Ikpa Ibekwe, the community that hosts the local government headquarters, the abandoned Aluminium Smelter Company of Nigeria (ALSCON) and the Ibom Power Company (IPC), which has been in operation in the past 10 years.
Surprisingly, while the power company with its installed capacity of 190 megawatts of electricity has been generating electricity and feeding its output to the national grid, the entire Ikpa Ibekwe clan, with 10 large villages, has not benefitted from hosting the power plant. And the people say they have been in total darkness, especially since ALSCON closed shop and shut down its turbines, which used to give them electricity.
It was gathered that all efforts to get the company to look in their direction were ignored, even as trailerloads of promises were said to have been made either by the management of the company or by the state government. Yet none was fulfilled.
As there appears to be no solution in sight, the youth recently embarked on a protest, which confounded the elders.
Ikot Abasi has, since Monday last week, been on lockdown. And the youth, joined by women and some elders, have vowed not to leave the streets till the company restores power to their community.
Effects of the protest seemed to have spread from Ikpa Ibekwe, which hosts the council headquarters, to other areas, forcing businesses such as markets, banks and even the council headquarters to shut down.
When Daily Sun visited the area on Tuesday last week, youth and women bearing placards took over the streets. The placards had different messages such as ‘No light, no work;’ ‘Ikpa Ibekwe says No to Darkness;’ ‘No Negotiation, No Meeting, Only Light;’ and others. The youth and women barricaded all the roads leading to the power company’s office, and forced traders in the adjoining market in the town to close shop.
The youth president of Ikpa Ibekwe, Mr. Friday Benjamin, told our correspondent that it was embarrassing for the community to host the power company but not benefit from power supply.
Benjamin said, for the past 10 years that IPC had been producing and contributing power to the national grid, the company had not deemed it necessary to connect the community to its electricity supply.
“The Ibom Power Company started generating electricity since 2010, and since then it has not met its corporate social responsibility to this community. They have not given us light. We didn’t bother so much then because ALSCON used to give us light. But now that we are in perpetual darkness, we can’t have this giant facility and continue to live in darkness.
“We have been facing so many hazards as a result of the operations of the company here. Many of our people have died from strange diseases caused by toxic fumes. We are not ready to suffer the hazards alone; we also want to enjoy the benefits of the plant,” he said.
The chairman, Youth Presidents Forum of Ikot Abasi Local Government Area, Mr. Archibong Williams, said the people had been suffering for more than 15 years without power despite being hosts to the Ibom Power Plant. He regretted that the community’s numerous appeals to the management had fallen on deaf ears. He said the people, therefore, decided, in conjunction with marketwomen and students, to shut down the operations of the company, until it gives positive responses to their plight.
“We have a power plant that is called Ibom Power Plant and for years it has been generating light but we don’t see this light and we the host communities have nothing to show for it. We have been in darkness for 15 years.
“So, the aggressive youths, women and students are here. Sometime last year, we gave a 21-day ultimatum which was extended to one year and some days but our grievances were not met.
“The youths then decided that the company is not going to operate again. So, we have shut down the company and put eight corpses as traditional injunction to stop movement into and out of the company. As we speak, there is no market in Ikot Abasi LGA. There is no shop opened and there is no school going on,” he said.
The reporter, however, saw only one simulated “corpse” hung and surrounded with other fetish and juju artefacts at the gate of the company. The access roads to the company were barricaded with felled palm tree trunks supported with some fetish items.
Unlike previous protests, which usually lasted for a day or two and the protesters would disperse to go look for their daily bread, the current protesters have remained steadfast for days. Food was provided and they cooked and peacefully served food among themselves in the streets.
President of Mboho Mkparawa Ikot Abasi, Frank Enoidem, who described their condition as pathetic, said the management of the company had been making things difficult by not coming out with any positive response since the agitation began.
“What we have done is a peaceful protest against poor electricity supply to our communities. This agitation has been there for a long time but nothing positive has been done. Last year, the governor was here and after that we saw some transformers, but no light. So, we are beginning to suspect that those transformers were for political reasons.
“The Ibom Power Plant management has been making things difficult for us, because they have not come up with a positive response for us to hold and know that something is being done.”
But the managing director of IPC, Meyen Etukudo, said the management and the representatives of the host communities have been meeting. He informed that “something” was being done about the situation.
He said: “The overall youth president was in my office on Friday, January 10. He saw me here as I was going to see the governor for the approval of the substation at Ikot Abasi.
“The governor said I should present the memo at the Finance and General Purpose Committee headed by him and that was my first time to present a memo there, all because of the power issue at Ikot Abasi.
“But the next thing they would do was shut down the place. The paramount ruler called me and I was there about 3pm yesterday. He explained that when the Ibom Power Plant was constructed, the station service transformers to bring down the light to the host communities was not done
“The people think it is just as easy as bringing down the light from the turbines. This needs a separate substation, which the governor has already approved. We are talking about engineering and conception here; not to talk about the cost,” Etukudo said.
The paramount ruler, Edidem Udo Ntuk Obom, while speaking with the reporter in his palace, praised Etukudo for all the efforts he had put in to make power available to the communities. He said the man could not be announcing every step he made toward the realisation of such dream.
The royal father, however, put the blame on the doorsteps of the Port Harcourt Electricity Distribution Company (PHED), which had disconnected the community when they refused to pay the company’s “exorbitant” and estimated bills.
“PHED is the cause of the problem. The temporary measure was for them to give us light while the long-term measure is what the government is still handling. And the governor sent in money, millions of naira to pay to PHED to restore light for a very short period. And they have been coming to collect bills.
“How do you collect bills for light that you have not supplied? So, the people said they cannot pay because they got light for only two days and you came to collect the bill for a month.
“After collecting the money, they came back to say the bill was paid by government and that the bill was now over N60 million. Where will the people get the money to pay for these highhanded bills? That is where the problem is. And the whole problem is now laid at the doorsteps of IPC because they generate power in Ikot Abasi.
“My people say they don’t want to be Afam. They were generating power in Afam for the whole Eastern Region but Afam had no light for years. They say they cannot stay here and see light generated and Ikot Abasi has no light.
“But I told them yesterday that there is no war that ends without negotiation. I told them they should have gone through due process. But the boys said they didn’t want to tell us about the protest because, according to them, if they had told us, we would have stopped the protest.”
For now, the IPC and Ikot Abasi remain locked down. And until the community is supplied electricity, the people have vowed to remain in the streets, where they are sometimes joined by masquerades.