Where In Nigeria Is Gakem?


By Nkrumah Bankong-Obi

All liberal-minded Nigeria Civil War non-fictional narratives agree on one thing. They trace the launch pad from where Biafra began firing to announce the commencement of hostilities against the larger Nigerian government to a certain hilly settlement called Gakem. Such writers say Gakem was also the base from where, when the General Yakubu Gowon government decided shoot down Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s gumption at declaring a war on Nigeria, began to bring war to the rebels with troops led by Major-Gen. Mohammadu Shuwa, who was shot dead by gunmen in front of his house in Gwange, Maiduguri on 12 November, 2012 by the Boko Haram terrorists. Moreso, when such documentations thrive on verisimilitude and good conscience, Gakem ordinarily assumes a pride of place in our national discourse. This centre of attraction and a key setting of the war has not been recognised since the war. Gakem is a decrepit rural community in the present Bekwarra Local Government Area of Cross River State.  Gakem is a grassland with a hum of ramshackled buildings, surrounded by mountains and a sprawling population put at tens of thousands.

In the real sense, Gakem’s outlook should be edifying. But sadly it is not. It is not difficult to hazard why this has been so. It is not a suburb of Lagos, Calabar, Kaduna, Kano, Lokoja or even Enugu. In a way, these cities may have hosted talks aimed at gluing the seemingly uncoupling Nigerian state together. Gakem has however, was invaded, trampled, deflowered, rubbished, abused and depopulated in a grand bid to keep Nigeria one. Gakem in the real sense was the altar where the blood of lambs was shed to atone for the imperialist amalgamation of Nigeria. This premise is arrived at based on the premise that the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates by Lord Lugard was dictatorial political expedience dispatched with the expertise of a uniformed imperialist thug. More than any place or anyone else, if we understand the devastation that war brings, which other town has done better in cementing Nigeria’s unity than Gakem or the entire old Ogoja Province?

War veterans, war-time bureaucrats and even the secret files recently released by the United States of America point to Gakem as the plinth from where attacks on Biafra were launched. Tacticians were said to have advised the Gowon regime against direct attack on Biafra soil. Therefore, since it had the hills and being geographically close to the epicenter where the conflict was gathering storm, Gakem became the launch-pad from where that seceding territory was assaulted. This reportedly worked like magic, pushing the rebels to the Biafra mainland where a combined effort of aerial and land firepower eventually succeeded to put down the insurrection in a three and half-year war.

Many Gakem natives still live with harrowing memories. As it is the case with Ulli, Ahiara, Umuahia, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Auschwitz, Suez, Golan Heights and other places licked by the fiery tongue of war, Gakem still bears the scars of heavy fighting. Children were killed, retreating rebels deprived the people of their goods, especially edible items. It is unknown, since there has been no interest in the area, whether there are dangerous war weapons buried in Gakem soil or not. This deprivation extends beyond Gakem Community as many people who witnessed the war in Obudu, Ogoja, Obanliku, Boki still recall how they lost valuables to fleeing Biafrans.

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In the heat of the crises, Ogoja was dealt a huge socio-political blow from which it is still reeling in pain. Biafra high command moved the provincial status from Ogoja to Abakaliki, thus requiring anyone who had business to do at province level to travel to Afikpo or so to get it done. Till date, that marginalization is still very obvious.  The growth and development of the area has been retarded and it appears no one is prepared to arrest this sclerosis. A journey spanning what used to be the old Ogoja Province will prove this: only a federal science college, a federal college of Education, two military barracks and perhaps a horde of old buildings that house outlets of federal establishments give the area a pass to identify itself as a Nigerian territory. What’s more? The road linking Ogoja, Obudu, Yala, Bekwarra and indeed the entire Cross River State to Benue State are just swampy puddles that dry into baked clay when the rains abate. I doubt if there is any former province that still suffers this overdose of neglect in this country today the way Ogoja suffers.

The sin of Gakem and the old Ogoja Province is that it is not conspicuous on the Nigerian map. It is neither a Hausa, Igbo, Kanuri, Igala, Urhobo or Efik community. Gakem is an epitome of the stagnant tribalistic lake in which Nigeria as an entity swims. There is for example, a national day, if January 15 can be so-called, to commemorate the anniversary of the war. There are museums in some parts of the country, stocked with military relics as part of our national history. Yet, nobody thinks of Gakem where the first gunshot was fired. Some ‘powerful’ people who have ‘loud’ voices but whose communities saw less the suffering that Gakem experienced have been judiciously put on the map and they have been adequately recognised. By every template for measuring development, Gakem and the entire Ogoja lag behind. The place is bare except for a mass of crumbling hamlets and a frothing community of other ethnic groups who have something good in Ogoja to warrant their coming there.

In its decrepit state, Gakem is like an old woman, raped and left to die. Not even a pole has been erected to show the community’s place in our national life or its historical significance. She is still bereft of infrastructure, educationally backward and economically starved. And when there was controversy earlier this year about whether a country existed or not, nobody remembered to whistle on behalf of this people. Gakem and Ogoja are limping on with scars of the war all too glaring for all to see.

•Bankong-Obi wrote from Lagos. •E-mail: [email protected]

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