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BusinessDay 08 Apr 2018

12 BDSUNDAY Feature

12 BDSUNDAY Feature C002D5556 Sunday 08 April 2018 Hidden treasure from the bamboo INNOCENT IWARA, Port Harcourt His hands danced rhythmically weaving a nexus of cane into a-near complete native hat. He whistled to himself as though intending to wade off external distractions. He smiled slightly, looked almost askance, and then compared the size and beauty of the yet-to-becompleted hat to a ready one. But his efforts towards getting a loan facility to ease and expand his cane business have proven abortive, yet he seems to retain a tinge of pride and self-fulfillment. “This is what I do for a living,” he said. “Apart from the money it brings, it gives me a sense of nature because cane craft adds to our culture and tradition,” he said. Lucky Ebong, 43, is the chairman, Cane Workers Association in Oyigbo Local Council of Rivers State. He is also one of the 71 percent of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) that a 2015 survey by The Credit Crunch (commissioned by the Central Bank of Nigeria) said lack access to financial credit due to factors such as “lack of required collateral, high interest rates, and a lengthy documentation process.” The father of four ekes out a living through cane-crafting at number 34 Aba Port Harcourt Road. He has been in the vocation for 23 years and it has been pivotal to his livelihood, right from childhood. “As a child, I used this business to train myself in school. This is what I used to do my marriage. I train my four children in school from this business. I trained my three sisters and brother with this business until two of them (girls) got married and one of them is in the polytechnic,” the Akwa Ibom State indigene said. Being a vocation that involves the production of furniture and artistic works with skeletal com- Ekop …Cane crafters tell success stories …Urge government to emulate Ghana Cane works produced by Ebong Sunday ponents from willow, natural thick canes and bamboo stems; does cane craft deserve any government and private sector investment? Can it contribute significantly to the reduction of unemployment and boost export? To these questions, past experiences from the cane weavers lend a resounding yes. Raw materials for cane products are abundantly found in Akwa Ibom and Cross River States as well as in some other places in the Niger Delta. Finished cane works range from traditional tents and walkways for traditional marriage ceremonies to cane hats; from baby beds to different categories of chairs, cupboards, stools, baskets etc. Hike in the prices of iron and wooden upholstery furniture has, in recent times, given relevance to cane furniture, which is priced lower. Beyond the Nigerian and African shores, cane craft has assumed a universal recognition as it is well consumed in Europe and America. It is no wonder that Ebong and his colleagues once had patronage from foreign expatriates who worked with multinational oil companies in the Niger Delta. “The business was very attractive and fast-moving. I know foreigners and oil companies that used to come here and buy in bulk from us”. But following the surge in militancy and high level kidnapping, most MOCs and their expatriates moved their offices from the Niger Delta to Lagos, thus halting patronage to cane crafters like Ebong. “When many oil workers left this place because of kidnapping, it affected our market,” he said rather agonizingly. However, consolation came suddenly when people began to go for cane works as items of gift, decorations and through the Ebong use of cane tents, walkways and baskets. “In the year 2000, there was the introduction of marriage cane tents and walkways into traditional marriages. That has attracted good market for us,” said Akan Sunday, another cane crafter. Sunday, 39, and father of three said well-built cane furniture and products are durable and can last for between “10 and 15 years”, hence can compete with wood furniture in terms of durability. The challenge however, is in the lack of necessary machines to move from manual production and give top-notch finishing touches; an aspect the crafters said they need government to come in since loan acquisition is almost beyond their reach. “The future of cane craft is a good one. But if government comes in, we can afford to introduce machines for making the products. Some of these machines we need for scraping of wood, drilling and sawing are very expensive. For now we do all these things manually using nails and hammer. For example, the light we use to bend the willow is ordinary burning fire, that is why you are seeing those black spots there (pointing at finished cane chairs),” said Blessing Ekop, another cane craft professional. Lucky Ebong’s elder brother, Effiong Ebong, is also into cane crafting and said prices for the required equipment can be as high as N1.4 million. For example, he said, wooden pole grinding machine costs N1.4 million and table saw costs up to N600,000. Nigeria should learn from Ghana that set up one with N127m. In February 2015, the government of Ghana recognised the potential of cane craft and followed suit with the establishment of a craft centre at Ayi Mensah in the Greater Accra Region, at the cost of $416,000 (N127m). The centre; known as the Bamboo, Cane and Rattan Village; houses bamboo, cane and rattan artisans, with many empowered by the government. That venture saw the return of many Ghanaian cane craft practitioners who were hitherto in Nigeria. “I had Ghanaian colleagues here working with us. But when their government invested in cane craft, they left us and today they are doing very well. Their government takes it (cane craft) very seriously and they (government) ensure that it is well taught in schools. This is what our government should do,” the senior Ebong, who is also a tutor to potential cane crafters, said. On its employment potentials, 38-year-old Blessing Ekop who takes care of his family of three (two children and a wife) from the proceeds he makes from crafting cane, said: “We want government to see with us that this is something that can create employment for youth in this country. They (government) should make it popular by giving it the required attention. We need machines to make this work easier and to give good finishing like the foreign ones we see.”

Sunday 08 April 2018 13 C002D5556 NewsmakersOfYesteryears Agbekoya: The farmers’ revolt that put Western Nigeria on its toes You don’t take people for granted for too long – you do not take farmers in particular for granted. If you do, you will be forced to have a bitter taste of frustration/aggression theory. The farmers in question here are rural farmers - our uneducated rural farmers. They are not privileged to acquire Western education but they have native intelligence. They are local orators who are master people mobilisers. They are unstoppable rabble rousers when the need arises for such. They go all out to fight for their rights when occasion calls for it. SIAKA MOMOH Peasants’ revolt The Agbekoya, farmers group of Western Nigeria of old, which revolted against the Western Region Government of Nigeria in 1968/69, typifies the farmers referred to here. The farmers group received an additional tonic when some political elites who felt shortchanged in the scheme of things in governance joined them. More on this later. According to Wikipedia records, the Agbekoya Parapo Revolt of 1968–1969, popularly known as Agbekoya or the Egbe Agbekoya Revolt, was a peasant revolt in Nigeria’s former Western Region, home to the majority of the country’s Yoruba population. It is the most well known peasantdriven political revolt in Western Nigerian history, and continues to be referenced by grassroots organisations as a successful example of collective action against unpopular government policies. The revolt was predominantly aimed at agitating for a reduction in taxes, though some believed there were also political catalysts. Commodity depots During the 1950s, the colonial government of Nigeria established local commodity depots in many parts of the country. The depots served as stores of exchange for goods the government was interested in buying from peasants. The prosperous Western region was one of the world’s most prolific producers of cocoa, and the regional government hoped to increase its tax revenues from farmers by regulating the sale of the crop through state-regulated agricultural cooperatives, also known as marketing boards. Most of the products to be sold were to undergo a process of grading, examination, and sometimes bargaining before purchase. Against this backdrop, a farmers’ organisation was created to represent the interest of the farmers within the new marketing system. This was how Agbekoya was born. Wind of change First, during the early part of Nigeria’s independence, a systematic approach to solving the general problems of the region was taken by the Action Group, the leading political party in the Western Region. Many roads leading to villages were tarred, credit was extended to cooperative societies, and schools were equipped for better education. But as the Nigerian political scene became more volatile with the jailing of Agbekoya_militia foremost political leader Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the 1966 coup, and the beginning of the Biafran War, politicians came to view the farmers as pawns to be used for electoral strategies. The local depot officials also began to present themselves as minor vassal lords, demanding bribes and other concessions from farmers before accepting their harvest for sale. The amenities provided began to slide towards deplorable conditions, even though the government continued to demand taxes for their upkeep. Militant tactics According to records, members of the loose farming guilds that eventually coalesced into Agbekoya first developed more militant tactics during an epidemic of swollen-shoot disease on cocoa plantations during the 1950s. Calling themselves the Maiyegun (or ‘Life Abundance’) League, they resisted attempts by government representatives to destroy affected trees on the premise that farmers could not afford to lose their crops without compensation. Several violent clashes occurred before the matter was settled in favor of the league. One popular story that was ruling the waves then was that some policemen who were detailed to arrest protesting farmers got their uniforms stuck to their skin – a spiritual attack of such! As the local depots became institutions in the economic life of average farmers, the organisation and many other peasants continued to complain about other issues they found unjust. Primary problems The primary problems the farmers have were the arbitrary standards used for examination, which meant that significant amounts of harvested cocoa were dis- Ex-security personnel, who are now our members, are handling the training. Agbekoya from inception was established to fight for human rights. We fought for the rights of farmers during the time of the late Gen. Adeyinka Adebayo in the old Western Region carded as unfit for sale; and the low prices they received for the accepted produce that reached the marketplace. The farmers complained about the neglected infrastructure of roads they had to travel to reach the depots. Moreover, they were also asked to pay a flat tax, a hefty imposition during times of economic uncertainty. The Revolt Military rule descended on the political scene as a result of the perceived failures of the previous administration by many, including the peasants. Some political elites were soon left from government participation. Also, a few university-educated citizens began to emerge as a result of the education policies of the region in the 1950s. The combination of these elites, mixed with a much more sophisticated leadership among Agbekoya Parapo, created a juxtaposition of sort and a stronger political movement was born. The Agbekoya lead- ers of the time were Mustapha Okikirungbo, Tafa Popoola, Adeniyi Eda, Adeagbo Kobiowo, Rafiu Isola and Mudasiru Adeniran. The leaders decided to set an organisational target as follows: The removal of local government officials pillaging their villages The removal of some Baales A reduction of the flat Tax rate from $8 An end to the use of force in tax collection An increase in the prices of cocoa An improvement of the roads leading to many villages The farmers said they were prepared to pay only 30 shillings, as they marched through the village after village to persuade the local farmers not to pay any taxes to the military governor of the Western state. These peasants were led by the ringleaders of Adegoke Adekoyejo, Tafa Adeoye, Folarin Idowu, Mudasiru Adeniran and Tafa Popoola. Government employed the use of force and violence to quell the uprising and arrested some of the Agbekoya leaders. As a method of protest against the military government, the Agbekoya attacked major symbols of state power like court houses and government building, setting free thousands of prisoners alongside their jailed members. However, the release of Chief Obafemi Awolowo helped to quell the riots, as he negotiated directly with the movement’s leaders. Gains The following followed: Removal of local government official administering the villages, removal of Baales, reduction in flat tax rate, end of the use of force for tax removal, increase in price of cocoa and the improving of roads leading to the villages. The government at the time agreed to these concessions. The riots in the long run were seen as possessing distinctive characteristics which differentiated from earlier riots. The Agbekoya story is instructive of how strong and effective a union can be. Only recently, the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), and the Agbekoya Farmers Association, AFA, mobilised fighters in the Southwest against the continued killing of innocent farmers by Fulani herdsmen. The groups vowed to adequately protect Yorubaland from herdsmen attacks. This development followed an attack on the farm of a former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Chief Olu Falae. Leaders of the OPC and the Agbekoya across the South-West, who spoke with Punch, said vigilance groups have been established across the region. The National Publicity Secretary of the Agbekoya Farmers Association, said: “We have established a vigilance group and it will take off with 1, 000 men any moment from now. “We are training others who will join later. The vigilantes, who would be on oath, will be deployed in to all the nooks and crannies of Yorubaland. “Ex-security personnel, who are now our members, are handling the training. Agbekoya from inception was established to fight for human rights. We fought for the rights of farmers during the time of the late Gen. Adeyinka Adebayo in the old Western Region.”

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