Any time government moves into any community with intent to acquire land for people-orientated projects, the host communities focus attention on what they stands to gain in such ventures.
So for the people of Bunu, in the Tai local government area of Rivers State, the scenario was no different when the Rivers State government acquired more than 300 hectres of their land for the now famous Songhai Rivers Initiative Farm.
The programme was conceived after the State Governor, Rt. Hon Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi visited the Songhai Centre in Porto Novo in nearby Benin Republic and was impressed with what he saw as a good model in agriculture development in Africa and decided to replicate same in the state.
Believed to be about 20 times the size of that in Benin Republic, the farm according to the initiators would provide the opportunity to train young Rivers men and women in new farming methods.
It was expected that the project when fully operational would check the poor farm produce resulting from obsolete farming methods and replacing them with modern innovative technologies in agriculture business.
According to the founder of Songhai International Centre, Porto Novo, Benin Republic, Father Godfrey Nzamujo, “Songhai is an extention space that produces functional individuals. He said sustainable agriculture could become a weapon of mass construction.
Before work actually began at the Rivers farm in 2010, according to records, a group of 105 young Rivers men and women from the 23 local government areas had been sent to Songhai International Centre for an 18 months training in various specialized agric and agro based areas. Fifty of them, it was gathered were already deployed to form part of the first corps of workers.
In addition, they were made to imbibe an entrepreneurial culture with an opportunity to drive their own farm units and eventually progress to start their own businesses in their respective communities with the support of the centre.
Of course such ventures are not without objectives. These objectives include the provision of skills for the unemployed youths of Rivers State, development of human capacities for empowerment of individuals and groups and broadening of the socio-economic band width in the region and most importantly to reversing rural-urban immigration among others.
The question then arises, has the youths from the host community availed themselves of the opportunities of becoming business farmers as offered by the presence of Songhai and if so to what extent?
What efforts has the Songhai management made to make agriculture and particularly farming, a technology based venture that could be attractive to the youth and even the unemployed graduates and make them avail themselves of the opportunity offered by Songhai through the instrumentality of the Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency (RSSDA) to become big time business framers not only in their community but beyond.
According to the communications officer of Songhai, Mr Gabriel Epelle, before Songhai Rivers Development Initiative – (SRDI) even moved to Bunu community, it was not unmindful of her social responsibility role.
“If you talk about expectations, you talk about employment, scholarship and all these boil down to corporate social responsibility” he said.
According to him, the SRDI has been on top of the game and most of the people doing one thing or the other in Songhai were from Bunu Tai. “when we talk about employment at management level, we may not have met the community’s expectation but when you talk about labour and people that work and get their wages immediately we talk about them”, he revealed.
He said it was important to note that Songhai was not stopping at that stage and the fact that they just began operations barely two years ago and to have employed a good number of the community people speaks volumes.
According to the Communications Officer, Songhai attaches much importance to training during the first phase of its operations that was why such programmes were being pursued with passion.
He explained that in whatever capacity the people were employed, training took top priority.
He said the training process includes skills and techniques which Songhai has been applying with much successes since it inception. The system, he said, has helped fertilise farmlands as much as fertiliser.
“We teach them how to recycle things that are considered to be waste to enable them apply them into their practice” it is a process whereby what is considered to be waste is used like the food we eat and the crumbs, instead of disposing them, you bring them back, you keep them, use them and create what we call mug guttery which you use to feed the fish”, he said.
Epelle stated that a lot of money has been saved through such skills and that the normal feeds cost more to procure, adding that the innovation has benefitted the community.
According to him, agriculture on its own could not succeed without the application of compost and that Songhai has successfully taught the people the act of preparing the product.
He said the primary role of Songhai for now was the proper acquisition of the various skills by the people to enable them become the main hub were different individuals and groups would come and learn the skills.
While calling on the indigenes to look beyond top level employment in Songhai for the moment he said that there has been a great change in the community since the inception of Songhai there.
He stated that if the skills developed by Songhai were present before and after the discovery of oil, we could not have relegated agriculture to the background as it is today.
For the paramount ruler of Bunu Tai Community, Chief T. L. K. Oebere, the presence of Songhai in his community was a welcome development.
“Infact let me say they are welcome, yes because from the time they Songhai entered, we’ve not got any quarrel with them”, he said.
Chief Oebere who spoke from his sick bed in his palace, explained that it was too early to expect much from Songhai as it was just two years old in his community.
“Well I cannot critisise them now because they have not stayed here for long. “But what is there is that they are doing fine with us, they are helping my boys, my women and my other inhabitants here because we have to work with them and if we want anything from them they do it”.
He said although the presence of electricity in the community did not begin with Songhai he was of the opinion that their presence has helped maintain power.
On employment, Chief Oebere said the community was bidding its time in terms of management level positions for indigenes given that no big company has come to their community before and that one cannot state that school to land was better than Songhai so far.
While corroborating some of the views expressed by Chief Oebere, Chiefs T. S. Kabari, Israel Agbolo, Prince Oebere, and Bale Joseph expressed the hope that the presence of Songhai would in the long run positively affect the lives of their people while calling on the state government to remember them in the scheme of things.
They expressed their support for Songhai for a smooth operation as no meaningful progress would be made if there was not peace.
They further called on the state government to name the Songhai farm after its community just as it was being done in Omagwa where we have the International Airport, and that the sign post should read Songhai Farm, Bunu Town and not Bunu Tai.
However, for soft spoken Emmanuel Lebete, the Youth Leader of the Community, “our people are not at loggerheads with Songhai”.
According to him, “problem we have with the establishment of Songhai was a minor one”.
He acknowledged that some of the people especially the women folk lacked land to farm on but added quickly that it was a matter which the state governor, Rt. Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi and the community would settle amicably.
The youth leader who described governor Amaechi as a humble and listening man said the community would give the Songhai venture all the support it deserves to enable the people benefit from the various agricultural training programmes which have been on ground since the inception of the agric outfit to enable his people benefit maximally.
On the contention issue of employment, Lebete said they were watching closely as things unfold saying that “if they liaise with us in fact the community is not against anything development so we want the management of Songhai not to take certain things for granted on their own” he said.
“We are a peace loving community”, Lebete explained saying that the community would not engage in violent activities to undermine the smooth running of Songhai.
He said that the youth as a whole listen to every advice from the chiefs and elders and that there has not been any time they ever considered violence as a resort rather “we believe in peaceful dialogue”.
However, for any close watchers of Songhai and its activities for the past two years, it would be stating the obvious to say that the Songhai Rivers Initiative has been on the forefront in the development of agriculture skills and so it behoves the people of the area to avail themselves of the ample opportunity.
Infact, the chiefs, elders, youths and the generality of the people should look beyond top management employment for now and strive to make their community the hub of what Songhai had from inception, that is, the assimilation of farming skills and techniques to enable them become business farmers.
Infact posterity would not forgive Bunu community if they let this opportunity pass them by because it was becoming clearer by the day that outsiders might take advantage of the benefits of the various training programmes put in place by the Songhai management in the past two years.
Why the so called developed countries of the world pride themselves as leaders was not because of technological knowledge alone but because they were able to feed their citizens and even donate to the less privileged ones across the globe in times of need and this alone should be enough food for thought for the Bunu Tai people in particular and Rivers State as a whole.