For almost 400 years, little has changed about Gberefu Island in Badagry area of Lagos State. The vast land is sparsely populated as the communities located on it are few and far between, reports OKORIE UGURU. A stretch of sandy soil runs into miles. The beach has little activities except by some white garment worshippers whose churches are located there. The Atlantic Ocean has pushed a lot of waste, including plastics and rubber slippers, to the beach, making it to look dirty, desolate and unkempt. At the beachfront, small peasant communities have sprung out. Fishermen’s boats and large nets could be seen on the beach front. Most of the inhabitants’ houses are thatched. Many of them augment their incomes with the little earnings they get from selling coconuts.
On a good day, Gberefu is a haven of peace and tranquility.
It is a place that anybody in search of relaxation could retire to. But beneath this veneer of tranquility lies a dark past that has become at once a source of shame and pride. More than 400 years ago, the peninsula brimmed with slaves and white slave merchants. In those days, helpless men about to be sold into slavery could see slave ships anchored on the ocean, waiting for their infamous cargoes of human merchandise. It was at Gberefu that slaves were taken into small boats for onward transfer into the big merchant ships that took them to the New World (America). Any potential slave who made it to Gberefu must have already endured a lot, including the humiliation of being hawked at the Vlekete slave market in Badagry. From there, the slaves would be ferried across the water to Gberefu. Any slave whose feet touched Gberefu had no hope of being rescued or being reunited with their families. Hence Gberefu was also referred to as the ‘Point of No Return’.
The Badagry slave port was responsible for probably the largest number of slaves shipped to the New World. It was in recognition of the historical assets at Gberefu that the United Nations World Tourism Organisation added Badagry to the Slave Route Project. Relics of slave trade activities are still visible. There is the slaves’ path from the lagoon front to the ocean beach front. Along the walkway is also the deep well where slaves were re-nourished with water during their long walk to the beach. The distance between the lagoon front and the ocean beach front is about two kilometers. At the beach front, there is an arcade built in remembrance of the slaves shipped to the then New World from Badagry. Because of these historical sites, Gberefu has always been the haven of tourists. Legendary pop star, Michael Jackson, and his brothers had proposed the building of a world class event centre in memory of slaves taken from Gberefu before he died. Many believe that the inhuman activities of slave traders and merchants during the slave trade era had had negative effect on the peninsula, hence the little development in Gberefu. However, the community head of Gberefu (Baale), Dr. Nojeem Adeniyi Mautin Sanni, said the slave trade era had no negative effect on the peninsula and that now was the time for Gberefu to experience development with the deep sea port, which will be the biggest in Africa sited there.
He said: “Gberefu is a haven of tourism. Without Gberefu, Badagry’s history is not complete, and without Badagry’s history, Gberefu is not complete. They go hand in hand. But Gberefu was founded before Badagry. The person who founded Gberefu also founded Badagry the same year, but made Gberefu his home and Badagry his farmland. In the process, he died in Badagry. “In Badagry as a whole, there are tourism potentials. We have three markets and the slave port. But in Gberefu, we have the slave route, the well, the Point of No Return for slaves on their ways to unknown destinations. It became a point of return when our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora came back. This place has become home to them. When they are on holiday, they come over here, spend their holiday and make Gberefu a home. “I thank God who in His infinite mercy made me to be the custodian of this renowned community, which is blessed with so many things, not just tourism. The tourism potential is there. We have vast land here and the first deep sea port in Africa will be situated here. We are calling on all tiers of government to join hands and make the project a reality.
“Work is supposed to start this month, not next month, because every arrangement has been put in place. The community and Badagry people are looking forward to it. Every hand is on deck in terms of security and the community’s support for the project. “Let me tell you, God’s time is the best. Actually, Badagry is first in a lot of areas: first in education, first with missionaries, first in this and that, but its growth has been retarded for years.” Asked whether the role the area played in the obnoxious slave trade has contributed to its backwardness, the Baale said: “I cannot say precisely. God knows best. Many people say it is because of the slave trade, but other countries like Ghana and Benin Republic also contributed to the slave trade even though their impact was not as high as Badagry’s. I don’t want to be specific.
“Like I said earlier, God knows best, and our ancestors too. But whatever it is, I know God has forgiven Badagry. That is why laudable projects are coming. And when these projects are fully established, we will get our glory back, because there is nowhere in Nigeria that is as blessed as Badagry. That is why all hands are on deck to achieve this. When this is combined with tourism, a lot will be achieved.” He talked about the botched efforts by the late Michael Jackson and his brothers to build a world class centre in Gberefu and the proposed sea port, saying: “Marlon came here twice. He promised that he was going to continue with the project despite the death of Michael Jackson. Then he met with one of Nigeria’s veteran musicians. I had rumours that there was a kind of misunderstanding between them, which made Marlon to step back. He had earmarked resources for the project. Not that the project has really died, but it has been postponed. We are hoping it will come to fruition. Maybe tomorrow, it can be resuscitated.
“While we were on this, the port project came. It will complement the tourism aspect of Gberefu. That is why we are now meeting to see how the Lagos State Government can contribute to collaborate with the company building the seaport. The port will boost the economy of Lagos State and the entire Nigeria. “They promised that they were coming back to help elevate Badagry. We were to have the Michael Jackson Events Centre from the Jackson family. We earmarked about 50 hectares of land and they promised to develop it to world class standard that would attract people from all over the world. But man proposes and God disposes. After one or two years of this plan, Michael Jackson died. Marlon Jackson emerged to continue with the project but along the line, Marlon became sick, so the group was handicapped.” The community leader also explained why Gberefu has low tourism traffic compared to its counterpart in Ouida, Benin Republic and Elmina Castle in Cape Coast Ghana.
He said: “We focus so much on oil to the detriment of other areas. If not for oil, other areas of the economy will be properly developed. Nigeria has a lot of tourist attractions. Go to Calabar, East, North and so on, there are so many tourist attractions. But because of oil, the government seems not interested in developing them, forgetting that there is more money in tourism than oil. “But now, the government is beginning to make a u-turn because oil revenue is dwindling. Our neigbours like Benin and Ghana, because they did not have oil like us, they developed their tourism assets. I believe the present government of President Mohammadu Buhari will develop other sectors. “When they were migrating from the jetty to the Point of No Return, many died. Many were humiliated.” After more than 400 years, development is now coming to Gberefu. There are plans to build the biggest deep sea port in Africa on the peninsula. There is so much excitement among the indigenes of Gberefu and Badagry as a whole.
The Badagry deep sea port is a public-private private partnership initiative involving the federal and state governments as well as private companies, including world renowned shipping company, the Maersk Group. It will be built on 1000 hectares of land. However, there is equally apprehension on the part of some tourism experts who believe that Badagry’s history and heritage is being sacrificed on the altar of economic development. The Governor of Lagos State Akinwumi Ambode gave this assurance during his visit to the site: “We are going to have the largest cargo container port in Africa situated in Badagry. That means a lot to us in terms of employment generation and new settlement.
“Like it has been said, we hope that in the next two months we are coming back here to kick-start this project.” Ambode promised to bring development to about 12 communities in the area and ensure that every community “is duly compensated.” He said: “In any direction that we have one or two that are still dialoguing, we would protect their interests. We would ensure that their interests are protected. “It will be long-lasting for generations yet unborn. I want to assure the Aivoji community that they are safe and that our administration will continually support them and protect their interests. “Like we have been told, this project is 500 metres away from the Point of No Return, which is also a tourist attraction for us. So, we have decided to protect that particular place to make sure that tourism is complemented.
“With a deep sea port project, it means there will be new settlements in Badagry, new towns and the standard of living will be positively affected by this kind of project.” However, a school of thought believes that the economic gains will be little compared to the adverse effects the port would have on the Badagry tourism assets in Gberefu. One of them is Mr. Ashamu Fadipe, a tourism expert and the first permanent secretary in the Lagos State Ministry of Tourism and Inter-Governmental Relations. Asked why he was uncomfortable with the deep sea port’s project, he said: “You know that activities in the port anywhere in the world are rowdy and noisy. Point of No Return is a place of sober reflection. When somebody is in a place of sober reflection, does that person need noise? This is why I said it is going to have negative effect on the Slave Route. But once the government has taken a decision, we must manage the situation so that the adverse effect is not too much”
Asked if the government had not taken care of his fear by situating the port about 500 metres from the Point of No Return, Fadipe responded: “It is still going to negatively affect it since it is a sea port where ships will be berthing near the Slave Route.” Fadipe was reminded that government was paying compensation to those the project would affect, but he said the compensation would be at the cost of losing history. He also believes that the government has not adequately worked out plans on how Badagry people who are the hosts would maximally benefit from the presence of the port. He said: “It was the Federal Government’s initiative. The port is to be opened in 2020 and they have not taken any developmental capacity building for the people. No training on activities at the port. This means they are bringing foreigners or non-indigenes. The people will be left to do labourers’ jobs.
“I have approached some of them but they only said they will do it. They don’t know the magnitude of the effect on the people, both positive and negative. The government must at least take care of these people. It is not only about paying compensation for land, cash crops and resettlement. “They are supposed to be part of the port project. How much of the shareholding is coming to the community? They should find a way of empowering the people so that they will complement the port.”