By Cosmas Omegoh
The harmattan wind was sweeping through Lokoja, Kogi State, lashing at everything in sight. The air all over was dry and grey. On that cold morning, the haze spread over the city’s landscape like a sheet of blanket, literally preventing the sun’s rays from piercing through the clouds. The accompanying wind was howling mildly, scourging everything in its way, whistling as it continued its drift towards the southern fringes.
That was the prevailing weather condition when Daily Sun set out on an expedition of the majestic confluence of the rivers Niger and Benue in Lokoja.
And one of the right men to provide the lead was Mr. Joseph Olowolaiyemo, General Manager, Kogi Hotels and Tourism Board, and instantly he set the ball rolling, talking with the excitement of an infant. “What you are going to see is a natural feature, the meeting point of the river Niger and Benue. It is an amazing sight,” he announced.
Indeed, one of the best vantage spots to see this spectacle is the unmistakable Mount Patti, a range of wooded hills in the heart of the city, towering a little above 458.3 metres above sea level.
Ascending Mount Patti is not a mean feat and does not come as easy as breaking biscuit. It is an ordeal indeed. Only the physically and mentally strong dare. Not every Tom, Dick and Harry contemplates an expedition up Mount Patti.
Reaching its top, one is struck by the mount’s amazing flat surface. On its top, a panoramic view of Lokoja and its environs can be fully gained. It is one rare sight better seen than imagined. From there, one sees the breathtaking beauty of rivers Niger and Benue and how they gracefully co-join in an awesome manner.
In the years before 1900, Sir Lord Frederick Lugard, the British astute administrator who amalgamated the then Nigeria’s Southern and Northern protectorates in 1914, was enamoured by Mount Patti’s unique features. And he had every reason to feel so. For one, the temperature at such height is as cool as cucumber. From there, a fuller view of the great rivers – Niger and Benue – and their confluence could be seen in their dazzling beauty.
After Sir Lugard had observed the scenic splendour of the rivers from the mountain peak, he reached an emphatic conclusion that it was a place to be. That was how he embarked on building for himself, a resting place on Mount Patti. And till date, he gets full marks for developing the scene, which is unarguably one of the nation’s unsung tourist spots.
Sir Lugard had built his office on a lower part of the range about two to three kilometres away from Mount Patti. That was many years ago when Lokoja was the capital of the defunct Northern Protectorate. Many decades after, that office was to be inherited by the Kogi State government when the state was created in 1991. So far, the building has undergone a series of renovations to reflect the taste of the time. However, it retains the name Lugard House and serves as the official residence and office of the state governor.
The story is told about how Sir Lugard had ingeniously constructed a snaky, tough-to-navigate thoroughfare all the way up to the top of Mount Patti. It was said that when the colonial master discovered the uniqueness of Mount Patti, he instantly drove away the indigenous settlers perching precariously on its top. The natives had fled to the spot to escape the onslaught of rampaging slave raiders who then snatched everyone in sight and sold them to European merchants in exchange for gifts and cash.
And so, having built a relaxation spot for himself, Lugard at his leisure time, always ascended up to Mount Patti to relax. And from there, with the aid of his binoculars, he viewed with clarity, the cocktail of activities going on across the great rivers. At that time, both the Niger and Benue rivers were the hub of commerce and transport. On Mount Patti also, Lugard watched other activities elsewhere on the low lands.
The relaxation centre he built is a little two-room house, which stands strong till this hour. But it had had to undergo a recent facelift though, courtesy of the state government under Captain Idris Wada.
Indeed, Mount Patti is a very significant feature in the history of Nigeria, according to Olowolaiyemo. “In fact any version of the Nigerian history which does not make reference to Mount Patti as the spot where the seed of the Nigerian project was initially planted is incomplete.” That seed, he said, was planted in the heart of Flora Shaw, a British lady journalist and fiancée to Sir Lugard whom he later married. Shaw, who was writing for the Times of London at that time, was said to have visited Lord Lugard and was relaxing with him when she got absorbed into the engaging and dizzying landscape unfolding in the distance. She was deeply astonished by the majestic splendour of the rivers Niger and Benue.
According to Niyi Ejibunu, a guide up Mount Patti, “the two were probably enjoying some good time together with a bottle of rum when Shaw got fascinated by the great sight of the magnificent confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers and the sprawling, greenish landscape in the distance. And then she said to Sir Lugard: ‘This is Niger area; why not name it Nigeria?’”
The idea was to stick as quickly as it was mooted by Shaw. Olowolaiyemo noted: “When Shaw returned to London, she wrote to the British parliament making a case that the area should be christened Nigeria.
“Till this hour, that edition of the London Times in which she made the appeal is secured in one of the rooms in Lugard’s rest house.”
Even the giant statues of Sir Lugard and Shaw holding hands as husband and wife still adorn the centre, which the former built.
On this occasion, the enthralling view of the confluence was largely veiled by the hamarttan haze. However, its magnificent posture remained too dominant to ignore, appearing like a giant “Y” in the distance. Certainly, everyone who sees this rare sight from that standpoint will admit that it is one place every tourism freak would rather die to behold at least once in their life time.
Now, another vantage point to see the Lokoja great rivers’ confluence is a spot right at the back of the Confluence Beach Hotel built by the late Abubakar Audu. He built the hotel when he held sway as governor of the state.
Olowolaiyemo informed that “the hotel was primarily built to serve as a place of relaxation for tourists coming to undertake boat cruise to the confluence point. It was also meant for those of them who would come to observe the great rivers, watch boat regatta or even fish for fun.”
However, the hotel is now abandoned. In its hey days, it was eminently the pride of Kogi State. But now, it lies not only fallow but forlorn. Only the now run-down buildings within its premises are the things left to remember its once glorious past.
As the reporter continued on the expedition of the compelling and gargantuan rivers Niger-Benue confluence, he observed why the spot seemingly casts its huge spell on visitors, binding them with awe and occasionally leaving them some space to contemplate on its wonders.
Getting to the point where the ‘wedlock’ takes place, according Olowolaiyemo, is a thrilling experience. Said he: “One feels one is in another world. The confluence becomes real all the more and awe-inspiring too. It increasingly assumes this uncommon personality enrobed with breathtaking beauty. It inspires this unusual sense of emotion that keeps running unceasingly wide.”
However, this nature’s eternal gift still remains and retains its pristine nature. No giant and sustained effort appears to have been made by the relevant Federal government or Kogi State agencies to raise the stake.
This was alluded to by Olowolaiyemo, who said: “For now, in terms of development of the tourism potential of this confluence, not much has been done.
“We have to admit that we need to develop the confluence so as to attract high-level patronage. This is not a project any government can undertake alone; it requires a big amount of investment. That is why each time we have the opportunity, we call on private investors to come and assist provide funds to develop the place.
“For now, we package people to the confluence area with the cooperation of the National Inland Waterways (NIWA). So what we have done so far is more of promoting the site than developing it.”
Tourism analysts believe that in these days when the price of oil has fallen precipitously in the international market and revenue from it has descended abysmally to its all-time low, this alternative revenue source might come handy.
Right at the bank of the River Niger, the confluence could be seen far off. However, its entire beauty is best seen and appreciated unreservedly from above. On this occasion, the harmattan haze was still hanging in the air. This combined with this air of quietude around the area that set up this enthralling mien of mystery about the rivers Niger and Benue.
From this point, everyone sees the confluence in one full breath, lying far off, up to three to four kilometres away. It is as far as the eyes can see. However, it can only be reached via a speedboat.
Only the brave hearted and expert fishermen dare.
The confluence point is never sacrosanct; it shifts with the time, the reporter learnt. “The position of the confluence depends on the volume of water arriving at the spot from both rivers at any point in time,” informs Solomon Ibejiagbe, Curator, National Museum and Monuments, Lokoja. “And so, during the rainy season, the confluence point shits northwards because the rivers receive a lot more water which they are in a hurry to discharge.”
Indeed, the great rivers’ confluence is one distinguishing feature of Lokoja that is as old as time itself. Every native of the city grew up to see it, but cannot tell actually how it all began.
For a tourist, a moment at the bank of the River Niger is not different from a visit to the graveyard. The place is so quiet that even the noise of the rushing water could be heard. Only a few fishermen – one each in small wooden boats – operating far apart from one another – are seen, spreading their nets as they carried out their acts. Everywhere is quiet. The rivers are calm, with their waters flowing with incredible speed. The experience easily sets one meditating on the amazing wonders of nature.
For the records, the River Niger rises from Futa Jallon Highlands, north of Guinea and travels over a distance of 4,160 km before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean in Southern Nigeria in a series of channels. Much longer before recorded history, its fame and fortune reverberated in faraway Europe, forcing many curious European explorers to come searching for its course. Many set out – all at the risk of their lives – to see this majestic Niger. Many of them who embarked on that costly expedition paid dearly with their lives.
Today, a certain English explorer, Mungo Park, is acclaimed to be the discoverer of the River Niger. However, furious Africanists insist he was only the first European to see it, contending that before his arrival, Africans had been putting the great river into much use.
Seeing the River Niger, Mr. Park reportedly broke down with immense joy. Reporting his own experience he penned: “Looking forward, I saw with infinite pleasure, the long sort majestic Niger flowing slowly eastwards. I hastened to its banks, and having drunk of it waters, I lifted my hand to God for having thus far, crowned my efforts with success.”
From the source, Mr. Park and his party, according to history, sailed all the way down the Niger, but ended tragically at New Bussa where they plunged to their death. Only the Lander brothers – Richard and John – successfully explored the river course to the point it empties into the Atlantic.
From Guinea, the Niger flows northeast, tearing through the expansive arid land before reaching Timbuktu in northern Mali. There, it makes a dramatic turn to flow southeast through Niger Republic until it bursts into Nigeria through the present day Kebbi State.
As it hastens to reach Lokoja, Benue, its ‘bride-to-be,’ is already eagerly waiting. Cascading from the Cameroonian side of the rugged Adamawa highlands, the Benue flows swiftly down, compelled like a woman in love eager to meet her groom. Receiving larger volumes of water from rivers Gongola and Katsina Ala, it travels west before reaching Lokoja. There, both rivers come together to form a ‘Y,’ uniting their will and their waters, their flow and their forces, forming one big geographic entity rich in splendour.
At Lokoja, like a bride fully married to her love, the River Benue loses its maiden name, taking up the Niger. Not only that, it loses its graceful, blue waters to River Niger’s mere mud. And together, they flow as one great entity, the River Niger, through the gentle-rolling plains, pressing for the big, restless ocean.