The deplorable state of the once flourishing and functioning Okitipupa, a sleepy town in the south side of Ondo State is a sad metaphor of the Nigerian condition. Okitipupa, the palm oil rich town is home to the indigenous Ikale people, a micro-ethnic Yoruba group to which I proudly belong. According to the 2006 census, the town has a paltry population of just over 200,000 people. But it is a melting pot. The town welcomes strangers. In the years that I spent there as a teenager, even while I had not travelled to various parts of Nigeria, I had been aware, through contact with other Nigerians, that the country is a multi-ethnic nation.
I remember with nostalgia how people from the neighbouring Ilaje, Ijaw and the Urhobo flocked into the town to be part of its growing commercial activities. The riverine Ilaje, a predominantly fishing people with a common variant of the Ikale language with the Ikale complemented the Urhobo. The Urhobo had also long established themselves in local palm oil production. The geographical location of Okitipupa which lies in the mid-section between the South-South and the South-East makes it a port of call for traders and travellers alike.
The town can easily be accessed by land and sea. In my childhood years, I remember how the Hausa population mingled freely with the indigenes and other ethnic groups. As a teenager, I had the first taste of the Suya and Kilishi delicacy in the Sabongari area of the town where the local mosque also stands adjacent the Anglican Church. Religious rancour was unheard of. The Igbo population characteristically engaged in trading. They provided the goods that the indigenous people cannot easily access. There were other ethnic groups who lived in harmony with the indigenes. Inter-ethnic mistrust which is gradually tearing the country apart was unheard of.
The idyllic setting of Okitipupa also made it conducive to the British colonialists. During the British rule and in the years before Independence from the colonialists, the palm oil-rich town provided the raw materials that fed the industries of Europe. It can also be safely said that the wealth that built the British Empire was sourced from the sweat of the Ikale people and their palm oil. But that is the story of Africa.
The story of Okitipupa during colonialism was that of exploitation and neglect. Its mineral resources were exploited to develop Britain. But its people became the “wretched of the earth”. However, the resurgence of the town came after the British left our shores. The period after independence saw the rebirth of a town that was on the throes of extinction. Obafemi Awolowo regionwide development efforts had rubbed off on the town. Okitipupa became a model town. As the headquarters of the Old Ikale area, it attracted development from the centre. Awolowo’s development model was felt instantly. Even in the late 1980s, Okitipupa still bore the development imprints that stood the South-West out. I grew up to see well-connected road network. The streets were paved. The waterworks piped water to every home. Light was constant. The Post and Telecommunications delivered letters and returned them promptly. It was in those years that we wrote letters to our pen pals in distant lands. The public hospitals had qualified doctors. Drugs were in abundance. I attended a public school that provided good education. There was a sports centre known as the Government Field. It was there I first saw Nigeria’s Second Republic President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, who had come on an official visit. Okitipupa was that important that even Awolowo came often for campaigns. The Technical College in the adjoining town of Idepe supplied graduates who upon leaving school established small scale industries that also created employment. The town was also an industrial town. The oil palm industry created by Awolowo’s Western Region produced palm oil in commercial quantity. Massive oil palm plantation that served the industry was cultivated in all parts of Ikale. These in turn created employment for oil palm farmers. The sector also encouraged private partnership in oil palm cultivation and production. In the mid-1980s, the establishment of a glass sheets manufacturing plant drastically changed the face of the once sleepy town. With the arrival of expatriate workers, the town was transformed. Oluwa Glass Company produced glass sheets in commercial quantity. The sheets were exported to other states across the federation and other neighbouring countries. The effect of the industry on the local economy was instant. In a few years, qualified Ikale youths returned home to take up employment in the company. Its subsidiaries also created employment. Meanwhile, roads were repaired. New ones were built. The town also wore a new look as many of the employed youths rehabilitated the homes they grew up in – the homes of their parents.
Those were the glorious years. People came from far and near to trade and to build houses. Okitipupa was fast turning into a big city. It was in that environment I spent my teenage years. But soon, like every young people, I soon got admission into the university and left the town. I left with the impression of a town fast developing into a modern city. But it was a fairy tale story that was not scripted to a happy after ending. Within years, the town began to suffer decline. Its demise came to a head during the military government of Ibrahm Babaginda. I remember visiting as a young undergraduate to behold the forlorn faces of inhabitants. The romance with development did not last long. Their hopes had disappeared like the morning mist as day light approaches. The glass sheets company had folded up. In all of the years the military was in power till 1999, all attempts to revamp the companies came to nothing. Now they lie comatose, all their assets wasted away. The oil palm company has also stopped producing palm oil and other allied products. The company that I visited on excursion in my secondary school years had become a shadow of its former self.
The change I saw on a visit recently was shocking. The town has become such an eyesore. The roads are nothing to write home about. The once enviable public schools have become so run down that parents now send their children to private schools. Even Okitipupa now has private schools. It is scandalous. What happened to the missionary schools that we went to? The specialist hospital where I was treated for a dog bite as a six-year-old has become worse than a consulting clinic. The waterworks have dried up.
Now to make matters worse, many young men have become commercial motorcyclists. The demise of the once promising town of Okitipupa is the sad metaphor of our country. Youth unemployment, broken infrastructure, dilapidated public schools, moribund industries tell the heartbreaking story. The coming of democracy seems to have, ironically, impoverished the town and its people the more.
More than 14 years of democratic government has done nothing to revive the industries that once provided huge revenue for the state government. Even the oil palm plantations in the whole of Ikaleland have all been taken over by weeds. That is the tragic story of my once beloved town. A town ruined by those who had the good fortune of ruling the state in the past.