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Owerrinta and the burden of lost British civilisation

Owerrinta and the burden of lost British civilisation -

The old generation residents of Owerrinta have continued to remember with nostalgia, the golden era of civilisation in the historical satellite town in Isi-ala Ngwa South local government area of Abia state.

 Those who experienced the good old days have continued to bemoan the fate of the once economically vibrant and civilising town that had suffered prolonged neglect. Joe Akwarandu, tells the story of the legendary metropolitan town, situated along Owerri/Onitsha expressway and the growing demand for restoration of the town.

Trailers and lorries parked along Owerri-Onitsha expressway at Owerrinta which used to be the melting pot of economic activities in the 1920s. The town is today a shadow of its self due to over 100 years of neglect

Regarded as a gateway city of Abia from the Imo end of Eastern Nigeria, Owerrinta is renowned as the first industrialised town in Igboland. The reason is not far-fetched: The British traders who explored the Imo River from Port Harcourt in the early 20th century found the town very lucrative for business. By early 1920s, Ow­errinta was dotted with shops and business centres established by British merchants and their trading partners. No other town in Igboland could boast such large commercial presence at the time.

Owerrinta has many advantag­es that endeared her to the British traders. The town is situated at the bank of Imo River; it is also centralised in the heart of palm produce areas of Owerri, Mbaise, Umuahia and the entire Ngwa land. The Imo River, being an easy access to Port Harcourt and the Atlantic Ocean, Owerrinta became the next port of industrial call for the white man after Port Harcourt which was then called “Igwe Ocha”.

 

For these reasons, the colonial master established shops like United African Company (UAC), G.B Olivant, Patterson Zochonis (PZ) and other subsidiary shops in Owerrinta. They did not stop there. They drafted their business middlemen from Port Harcourt, Bonny and Opobo to man these shops. These shops and their subsidiaries bought the entire palm produce from the Owerrinta areas for exportation to Europe. In return, they imported finished wares, like clothing, drinks and other materials from Britain.

The natives, who were mainly farmers and fishermen, were encouraged to build cargo–car­rying canoes which freighted the products to Igwenga in Opobo via Port Harcourt. The establishment of these colonial stores attracted big-time merchants from all over Nigeria to Owerrinta in those early days. Commercial shops sprang all over the highway stretching from the Imo River bank to Ugba and Umuikaa. Such shops included UAC, John Holt, PZ and SCOA. There was also the Spanish Embassy and where many of our relations travelled to Fernando Po for cheap labour.

Such businessmen and mer­chants like, the Tobys, the Jajas, the Jumbos, the Andonyes, the Omehie from present Rivers state, the Onwutoakas, the Ibetos from Anambra state. Some Yoruba traders like, the Amusas, the Jimohs, the Alakas and Hausa merchants like the Hassans and Usenis et al, found Owerrinta a beehive for their trade transac­tions.

In those hey days, the beach town of Owerrinta was home for all Nigerians irrespective of tribe or religion. Although the Ngwa dialect was the general language in Owerrinta, the people there could understand other Nigerian languages due to the cosmopolitan nature of the town. The national status of Owerrinta then gave it the opportunity to house an outpost of the Spanish Embassy where Nigerians who wanted to work in the Islands of Fernando Po in Equatorial Guinea were screened and recruited.

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Records show that Owerrinta existed and thrived as a business and economic centre before Aba and that a lot of business magnets first settled to Owerrinta before moving to other towns like Port Harcourt, Aba and Umuahia.

People may ponder why Aba, Port Harcourt and Umuahia all now thrive as big economic and developed urban areas while Ow­errinta still remains a neglected smoky village. The answer is ob­vious. The advent of automobiles and other moveable instrument spelt doom to Owerrinta’s develop­ment as a River port. Prior to the invention of lorries, trailers and other means of transportation, the white man had relied on canoes and pontoons in transporting products from the hinterland to the sea port. Secondly the Nige­rian civil war had a devastating blow to the continued existence of Owerrinta as a business town.

The town bore a big chunk of the devastating civil war being that it is situated at the bank of the Imo River and stood at the center between two important Igbo areas – Owerri and Aba.

On the day the air raid sent the inhabitants of Owerrinta parking, one vividly remembered the palm kernel pyramids lining the streets and armada of drums of palm oil which flowed the carriage ways from Afosukwu to Ugba and from the head bridge to Okpala. Mil­lions of yawning pound sterling laid waste as a result of canon fires from the irresistible air raids of the Nigeria air force.

The once famous Afosukwu market which attracted big and small scale traders from Port Harcourt, Aba, Umuahia, Nbawsi, Ikot Ekpene, Owerri, Mbaise and all the interiors of Ngwaland suf­fered a heavy bombardment from the Nigerian Air Force, killing

many traders and refugees. Since that unprecedented bombardment of Afosukwu market, Owerrinta has never been the same again.

Prior to that attack, Afosukwu market which was a household name among traders in Eastern Region of Nigeria which used to open its doors every four days and people could boast of buying and selling every food product, palm produce, bicycles of any brand and clothing. What you could not purchase in Afosukwu market was motor cars and parts of aeroplane. The Mbaise found Afosukwu market a haven for their cassava trade and would arrive at the market before 5am on foot from their homes, every market day. The Yoruba and Hausa traders were seen in the town selling their beads (jigida) and charms to those who cared to patronise them.

Unfortunately, Owerrinta, has degenerated into a smoky village just on the high way between Onitsha and Aba. It has become the Umunede and Obolloafor towns, only patronised by the fun-seeking weary trailer drivers.

It should not be so. The Abia state government and those Nigerians, who benefited from the riches of Owerrinta, should come back to Owerrinta to accord it its befitting status in the establish­ment of modern industries and social infrastructures.

Apart from private individu­als who have found Owerrinta an attractive industrial area by establishing some few industries, the ancient town could be further exploited.

Industrial analysts would agree that the river bank of Owerrinta and Umuocheala could be exploit­ed as a tourist center by establish­ing five star or three star hotels. The river bank can be developed into a tourist beach where people living in Aba, Umuahia, Owerri, Mbaise and environs could come to relax every evening and week­ends after the hustle and bustle of the day in those noisy towns. The state ministry of commerce, industries and tourism should not neglect this write up but should approach the Nigerian Inland Waterways to dredge the river and clear the waterway of any obstruction occasioned by fallen trees and trunks.

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The Nigeria Naval School of Logistics in Owerrinta should also help to dredge the river so that it could be navigable and serve as training base of swimmers and divers.

An Igbo adage says a fowl does not forget the person who took care of it during the rainy season. For that reason, the offspring of the first merchant settlers in Owerrinta, many of them now established as business magnets, should come now and establish one industry or the other at the fertile river bank of Owerrinta. The town is now calling on the To­bys, Jumbos, Onwutuokas, Ibetos, Jajas and others whose fathers exploited the green lands of Ower­rinta in those good days to accord it a befitting status reminiscent of an industrial city. Nothing short of this is good enough for Owerrinta.

Views of an elder in Owerrinta

An elder of Owerrinta expressed his view on the state of the town. Mr. Friday Evulobi, a 76-year-old native of Owerreala, Ower­rinta and retired civil servant, expressed his sadness over the degeneration of the ancient town. “It pains me when I remember how lively and enjoyable Ower­rinta was during the early 1950s and 1960s. In those good old days, we were comfortable as the town was booming with commercial activities.

Evolubi recalled that the town harboured people from all parts of Nigeria. “Even in our schools, we had Yorubas, Hausas, Ibibios, Kalabaris, Okirikas, Ogonis, just to mention but a few. The lingua franca was still Ngwa dialect of the Igbo language mixed with Kalabari alanguage. There was no discrimination, no tribalism and no religious discrimination as it is today. We were like brothers and sisters.

According to him, Owerrinta should have developed before Aba. “It is very sad that the ancient town is still a smoky place after having witnessed sophistication by the Europeans who established top commercial edifice where palm products were exported overseas”, he said, before stressing that all hopes were not lost as the state government, led by Okezie Ikpeazu, had put Owerrinta in his development plan.

The way forward, he suggests: “Government shoulder re-estab­lish factories and appeal to some industrialists who, in the past, had established companies but closed them like Chief Nnanna Kalu’s Star Paper Mill, Smurfit Packaging and so on which were employing more than 3000 work­ers to come back. Also, the water­way should be opened for naviga­tion. The proposed government’s plan to create an educational zone here should be hastened and implemented. We look forward to being alive to witness once again, an Owerrinta, were none is oppressed.”

“Records show that Owerrinta existed and thrived as a business and eco­nomic centre before Aba and that a lot of business magnets first  settled to Owerrinta before moving to other towns like Port Har­court, Aba and Umuahia”.

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