Warri, undoubtedly Delta State’s economic nerve center, usually surprises first-time visitors. The Oil City is the state’s commercial heartland and a once-thriving nexus of oil and gas business in Nigeria. It was once only matched in significance in the south-south by Port Harcourt. It was a refuge for investors. Even in its heyday, the city promised so much to first-time visitors, yet delivered so little. “Is this all there is to Warri?” is a common refrain.
If Warri was a failure in the past, its current plight is disheartening for Old Warri (men and women born and/or raised in the city). This thriving town, which formerly housed oil majors such as Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, Chevron, Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation and its subsidiaries, as well as numerous ancillaries and service providers, is now dormant.
Reflecting on the underdevelopment of the city, MC Mecoyo, a skit maker and comedian from southeastern Nigeria commented this on his recent visit to the city: “I saw Warri and I was worried!.” He recalled that in the past when people trooped to Warri because of its fame and companies, concluding, “As I am talking to you now, Warri is worrisome”. Mecoyo is a comedian, but the current state of Warri is not a joke.
For Mike Tom, a middle-aged man, who was born in Warri and has live there for most part of his life, “the fall of Warri is painful; Warri is finished and in shambles.” He described Warri as a city that has been crippled and in its final lapse of collapse”.
With pain in his voice, Tom, who fits the bill of the famed ‘Old Warri’, recalled growing up in the 1970s to 80s with Snaprogetti, Santafe, the Schlumbergers, West Minster Dredging, AGIP, SSNL, and GloryLux, which provided jobs for women to support their families, concluding that Warri’s fate agonises his inhabitants.
Those who knew the city well could not disagree with Tom. Apart from the above, Schlumberger companies (Dowell, Anadrill), Halliburton, Pan Ocean, Oceaneering, Edikan, Nestoil, LAMNALCO, WEAFRI, ELF, and others, even small businesses thrived and the common man enjoyed chunky crumps of this success. Although there wasn’t much in infrastructure to go with its fame, Mcdermott (later Globestar), Nigeria Dredging and Marine, and Seismograph Service Limited (SSL), and several others ensured that those who had little to no formal education were gainfully employed.
SCOA, Mandillas, John Holt and several other motor and leisure companies jostled for space, contracts and bite of the apple. The Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) hosted dozens of maritime and shipping firms; ships berthed with cargoes and provided menial and daily job opportunities for locals. Merchant mariners and stevedoring thrived; everybody had something and even market women benefited from the thriving middleclass in the city. Warri was peaceful and enjoyable.
Then the Warri Crisis erupted in 1997 and everything changed. Militias fighting site of a local government headquarters went on a five year rampage that unhinged the city. Dichotomies surfaced, tribal distinctions were highlighted and underlined as Ijaws and Itsekiri ethnic nationalities on one hand, the Itsekiris and Urhobos (mostly of Okere descendants) on the other, as well as the Ijaw/Urhobo of Ogbe-Ijaw/Aladja, battled for supremacy and land ownership. The wars exerted huge tolls and peace was its first victim, and it remains elusive. In Aladja and Ogbe-Ijoh-Warri, Urhobo and Ijaw communities in Udu and Warri South respectively, several commissions of enquiries, white papers, and peace accords have failed to sate the thirsts for blood.
The city paid heavily – and is still paying – for those crises; many lost their lives, others lost loved ones and breadwinners; children were orphaned and parents, including a pastor at the Foursquare Gospel Church, Koko, Warri North, who lost four children (thrown into the raging fire that used to be their home), and others have emblems of destructions etched in their hearts.
Any government aiming to teach its citizen the effects of war and inter-tribal crises needs look no further than the once pulsating business hub of Warri – a bustling city that went from the acme of its success to its abject nadir in a couple of years. The fall was as steep as its effect was caustic.
As this reporter drove through the city in April 2022, one could feel the ebbing pulse of this dying city. It still wears the garbs of its lost glory shamelessly; its precipitous fame and lost opportunities are unabashed. The roads are deplorable, and everything about it is bleak. The current administration failed even a new road in seven years and the ones built by past government are in ruins. The unending flood control drain achieves little, apart from making commute painful and slow. From Airport road to Okere-Ugborikoko, Okere, Jakpa, Refinery and dozens others, like the city, lay in ruins. The few shining spots are results beautification projects by a Christian organization in the city.
The crests of fratricidal tribal wars survives in burnt buildings, hearts and psyches of men and women who remember what the city used to be like when there were no ethnic fault lines; when the Ijaws, Itsekiris and Urhobos intermarried and lived as a unit, and were happy to be called Waffarians. Now suspicions becloud the land where ethnic groups’ social intercourse, intermarriages, shared history, values and tradition, once blurred differences.
“There was a time when people are not identified as Ijaw, Itsekiri or Urhobo, they were merely Warri and Waffarians, but today the war has taken away our unity and development,” Lucky Isah rued.
He recalled that in those good old days Ijaw, Itsekiri and Urhobos celebrated boat regattas on the Warri River; the yearly Agbassa, Okere and 30-yearly Awankere festivals, which drew tourists from within and outside the state. “In the 90s to late 1990s, oil-stained coveralls, helmets and life vests were indications of successful youths. Some earned up to $4,000 monthly as unskilled or semi-skilled workers, fitters, welders and dockworkers.
The city has turned on its head. The signs of successful youths in the city are Mercedes Benz GLKs, Lexus RXs and Toyota Camry (Spider) that are driven by school dropouts and teenagers, who brandish university ID cards but can barely read the inscriptions therein. They are aged from 20 – 30, and didn’t make their money as welders or roughnecks working in offshore rigs as their counterparts of decades past; these are heartless and ruthless youths who kill, engage in obnoxious money-rituals, and trade in human parts. They are slayers of their parents and siblings for money-minting rituals, and those who engage in armed robberies, kidnapping and other dirty deals that bring money – no matter how bestial.
Famously called ‘Yahoo Boys’, they’ve replaced the oil and servicing firms. Instead of vibrant young men and women who inspired others to learn skills such as welding and fitting, scaffolding and other high-demand oil and gas-related skills, these are criminals. They inspire younger ones of similar ilk, who dream of success without work; those that want to hammer (make money) without labour.
Ladies are not left out. The ambition of those who can’t engage in these crimes is to marry one. Young girls whose life ambition is to own boutiques where hair extensions and wigs (human hair), clothes with fake designers’ labels are sold at outlandish prices; eateries where badly cooked meals are given exotic tags and sold at prices that only crooks can afford.
“You see and hear of how girls are murdered, their genitals and vital organs cut off, yet our ladies are not bothered. Some are even engaging in these acts while others want to be married to yahoo boys.”
The economy of Warri, like other cities in Delta, is driven by crimes and frauds. All moral compasses are pointed south: Parents, who ought to teach their children morals, regale in their ill-gotten wealth – they even help to conceal the sources by claiming ownership of multimillion naira cars and houses bought with proceeds of these crimes. Pastors don’t preach hard work as prerequisite for success or righteousness as the path to paradise; they aid crimes, collect offerings, tithes and offer their temples and altars for thanksgiving.
In the Oil City, businesses are oiled by activities of ‘Yahoo boys’. Only they, politicians, pastors and people with questionable sources buy properties. Landlords who once wouldn’t let properties to yahoo boys have made volte-face
“They come posing as businessmen, or techies, owners of shops in Robson Plaza (the city’s answer to Computer Village in Lagos), or importers,” one landlord whose apartments are fully occupied by Yahoo Boys in Effurun, said. “We (landlords) pretend to believe them and hope that they do not use our children and family for money rituals because of the condition of the city.”
In between those are the graduates and master’s degree holders who are determined to stay on the straight paths. For those, the escape route is commercial tricycle (keke) operation. The menace of the contraption and its operators has made the city one of the worst to drive around in Nigeria. Tom said Warri is the world headquarters of tricycle, even calling for it to be banned. The stress of surviving in the crowded business ages operators faster than their ages.