For the second time ever in my life, I took a boat ride. The first and last time I was on a boat was as an only a child who accompanied her parents to the popular Lagos Bar Beach. I cannot recollect whether I was over the moon excited or dead terrified by that experience. The only memories I have of that particular boat ride was the feel of the wet sand under my feet as I played by the bank of the beach; the horse rides which were painfully short as well as the saccharine taste of the melting colored sugar we called ice cream.
As memorable as my first boat ride was, it cannot be compared to the tense trip I took from Warri to Burutu Federal Constituency in Delta State on May 28th, 2017.
My colleagues and I embarked on a journey from Abuja to Burutu Federal Constituency, Delta state, to take part in the Constituency Accountability Dialogue organized by Honorable Julius Pondi, member representing Burutu Federal Constituency of Delta State in the Federal House of Representatives.
This is a component of the Young Legislators Accountability Project (#YLAPNG), a brain child of the Youth Initiative for Advocacy Growth and Advancement, with support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa. I have worked on #YLAPNG for over a year and have gained tremendous experience from engaging constituents from different parts of the Nigeria. It was for this reason that I was embarking on the journey to Burutu Federal Constituency. Nothing gives me greater joy than knowing that I am playing my part in strengthening democratic governance in Nigeria by working to provide a platform for constituents to engage their lawmakers representing them in the National Assembly. The only means of transport to Burutu is by boat from Warri. The journey takes about 45 minutes.
Before I continue narrating my boat ride experience, let me tell you a little bit more about the Young legislators Accountability Project (#YLAPNG).
The YLAP project is designed to promote legislative accountability and promote constituents-legislators relationship by providing a platform for constituents’ engagement. This project was informed by the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth, and Advancement (YIAGA) Constituents Needs Assessment report which revealed a low level of understanding of the legislature’s core mandate by citizens. This, the report revealed, is due to poor information sharing and communication between the legislature and citizens, ineffective mechanisms to guarantee regular interface between constituents and legislators as well as challenges to effective legislator -constituent engagement.
Burutu Federal Constituency is one of the oldest LGAs in Nigeria, which has never been divided since its creation in 1976. It is also one of the constituencies in Nigeria that is still not accessible by road. Burutu community is an oil and gas economic hub which interestingly is host to Chevron & Shell Agip installations and the Delta State School of Marine Technology. Burutu has a historical town called Forcados. Forcados and neighboring Burutu played a significant role in slave trade era. Evident are decaying relics of colonial monuments such as the Wind Mill built in 1472, the Slave Dungeon built in 1475 for the storage and exportation of export slaves as well as the Slave Wharf in Forcados built by the Portuguese and reputed to be the longest in Africa littered all over the town. The Infectious Diseases General Hospital, built in 1890, and which at the time was the first of its kind in Nigeria and West Africa, could become a major tourist site in Delta State. Sadly, this monument is rotting away from abandonment by several administrations- both Military and Civilian. Burutu community has an estimated population of 280,000.
The Nerve Racking Journey on a Boat
The boat from Warri to Burutu departed the dock around 8pm. Yes, you read that right. We were embarking on the journey at night. I shivered as I got on the boat. It was hard to tell whether the shivers were from the cold weather or the fear I had. The realization that we would make the trip in the dead of the night filled me with so much dread I could hear my heart beat so fast and the blood pump ferociously in my ears. To say I was terrified beyond anything I had ever imagined is a gross understatement. My fear was not unconnected with the news that the pathway our boat would take en route Burutu was a notorious militant creek. But for the other members of the team making the trip to Burutu with me, I would have opted out. As the engine of the boat came alive, I did a quick sign of the cross, took a deep breath and closed my eyes.
The early stage of the boat ride was uneventful. The river was calm and the boat sailed smoothly towards Burutu. The reflection of the stars on the water gave it a glistening, silvery look. The palpable fear I felt could not, in any way, stop me from appreciating the beauty of nature.
Midway into the journey, I was jolted by the sound of the boat stopping in the middle of the river! The driver had stopped to take a lick or as some folks would call it, “to answer the call of nature”. My heart beat that had stabilized went into overdrive. I had a mental picture of the boat capsizing. It didn’t help that I could have the wildest imaginations ever. I imagined what the newspapers would say if we drowned:
“Boat capsizes off Burutu Village. Emergency rescue searches for survivors”…
I shook my head vigorously to snap out of my reverie. When I did, I noticed the driver was back at the wheels. I said another silent prayer as the engine restarted.
It seemed incredulous to me that a community like Burutu with an estimated population of 280,000 lacked an ordinary bridge to link it with Warri. Farming is the major means of livelihood for the Burutu people. To sell their farm produce, they commute by ferries to neighboring towns. The least amount paid for each commute is between N1,200 to N2,000 daily. The implication of this is that the prices of the goods are tripled by sea merchants who have to make profit after paying so much for transportation. This makes the cost of living in Burutu community quite high. I wondered how much it would cost an oil-rich state like Delta to build a bridge linking Burutu Community and Warri.
A bridge linking the oil-rich Burutu Federal Constituency with the uplands to access over 30 communities: Burutu–Forcados, Ngbilebiri-mein/ Ogolobiri-Gbekebor, Obotebe, Ogulagha districts as well as neighboring communities in Bomadi LGA including oil Export terminal at Forcados and Trade Port, will inevitably, solve the problem of transportation by connecting these communities and even beyond. It will also boost the agrarian economy of the Burutu Community.
There have been several calls for the diversification of the Nigerian economy. Imagine the ripple economic effect a simple bridge linking Burutu Community and Warri will have not just on the people of Burutu but on the economy of Delta State as well. Alternative means of transportation will lower the overall cost of transportation, making it easier for farmers to sell their products at cheaper prices. This will also provide job opportunities especially for young people and women, who are major players in the economy of any nation. Economic boom will improve the standard of living of the Burutu people.
Constituency Engagement with Hon. Pondi
The townhall meeting in Burutu Federal Constituency provided an avenue for citizens to interact with their representative and share their concerns and needs. The enthusiasm of the constituents to meet with their legislator confirmed the finding of the Constituents Needs Assessment conducted by YIAGA which recommended that legislators frequently engage their constituents. According to the report, townhall meetings were identified by constituents as the most preferred medium of engagement because it provides an avenue for face-to-face interactions between the constituents and their representatives. It also provides an opportunity for the legislator to give account of his stewardship in the legislature. Townhall meetings also encourage immediate feedback and information sharing.
The people of Burutu interacted with their representative, Hon. Julius Gbabojor Pondi who gave an account of his stewardship and amongst other things. The people expressed their needs, some of which included: the absence of fuel in the NNPC floating jetty in the community, the abandoned road project in Ogulagha, the need to upgrade the boats to speed boats to match what obtains in other urban areas, electricity, and the urgent need for a bridge linking the community to the city.
The highlight of the session was the practical solutions and suggestions the constituents proffered to tackle some of the challenges they faced. A constituent urged the legislator to seek collaboration with MDA’s in providing scholarship opportunities for the youths in the community. Another called for government to leverage on hydropower as a source of improved electricity in the community.
I took out time to engage some constituents on the role of the legislators and the importance of engaging lawmakers on their constitutional mandate of lawmaking, oversight over the executive, appropriation, and representation. Interestingly, I found that a few had basic knowledge of the constitutional duties of their legislator but still yearned for more.
The great role the legislature plays in ensuring accountability, transparency, inclusion and strengthening democracy cannot be overemphasized. There is, therefore, the need for citizens to hold their elected officials in the legislature and other levels of government accountable through constant engagement. Citizen engagement is a two-way learning process between citizens and their democratically elected officials – not excluding public institutions – in the search for common ground.
I consider it an honor to work with an organization like YIAGA which prioritizes providing support for the legislative arm of government, in a bid to strengthen constituent-legislator relationship. It was a pleasure to partner with Honorable Julius Pondi to host a Constituency Accountability Townhall Meeting in order to give an account of his stewardship and representation in the Federal House of Representatives.
Above all, my visit to Burutu Community, brought to the fore the fact that citizens’ engagement remains crucial for democratic sustainability as it contributes to building public trust in government, ensuring accountability and strengthening civic capacity.
#YLAPNG is an initiative of the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth & Advancement (YIAGA) with support from OSIWA is designed to enhance legislative accountability through effective citizens’ participation whilst building a cohesive young legislators hub for political mentorship, peer learning, and capacity development. In enhancing accountability and citizen participation in legislative activities, the project seeks to strengthen the linkage between young electorates and young legislators.
For more on #YLAPNG, please visit www.ylap.org
Yetunde Bakare is learning and relearning how to make the world a better place through building a culture of democratic accountability.