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The Port Harcourt Waterfront : Confronting the curse of an oil city

By Ochereome Nnanna, George Onah & Jimitota Onoyume

PORT HARCOURT—If you visit any of the Waterfront settlements  in Port Harcourt, you are unlikely to want to come back unless something or someone dear to you is one of the victims trapped in their bowels.

Ajegunle in Lagos is touted as Nigeria’s foremost slum settlement. Compared to the Waterfront slums of Port Harcourt, Ajegunle is “London.” At least, Ajegunle is solid ground built on approved government land.

Port-Harcourt Water-Front, Abonema waterside
Port-Harcourt Water-Front, Abonema waterside

There are roads and streets accessible to motor vehicles, and some of the roads are even tarred. There are schools, hospitals, clinics and potable water.

There is legitimate access to public power supply. Sanitation may not be at its best, but Ajegunle is amenable to sanitation, more so as there are few homes without toilets.

Above all, Ajegunle is under the authority of the state and subject to the laws of the land, even if criminals have not completely lost the fight for their share of the social and economic space there.

Come to any of the waterfronts in Port Harcourt, these elements of modern living are absent. The houses are made mostly of corrugated iron sheets and timber. A few are normal block houses, but they are invariably so tightly spaced together that even commercial motorcycles find it difficult to gain access.

Vehicle owners in the settlements park their vehicles along the major roads and trek to their homes down in the hovels. When there is high tide from the mighty Bonny River coming in from the Atlantic high seas, the water from the adjoining waterways comes into homes.

You can imagine what people who live here go through when it rains as it frequently does in Port Harcourt. There are no toilets in homes in some of them such as Bundu Waterfront. People answer the call of nature by either going close to the edge of the salty seawater or packaging their excrements in plastic bags and throwing them into the water.

Let us quote the words of a former Commissioner for Information in Rivers State, Mr Emma Okah, who, in an article in The SUN newspaper on Sunday, September 13, 2009, aptly captured the stigma the waterfront settlements leave like a diabetic scar their dwellers: “There is an awful stench that hangs in the air, and those who spend some time there carry this odour around town, giving off a whiff of decay.”Water-Front

Water-Front

Apart from sanitation, the most distinguishing attribute of the Port Harcourt waterfronts is the total lack of security and the reign of the laws of the jungle put in place by underworld mafia lords who made themselves immune to the laws of the land.

For years, the state law enforcement agencies were unable to take control of crime in these settlements. Women are regularly raped. Hardly does a day pass without people being murdered. There is an unwritten law which forbids victims of crime to report to the police. Those who break the law will pay with their lives or those of their dear ones.

In fact, some gang chiefs have erected permanent outposts where sentries are stationed to watch out for the presence of law enforcement agents.

Okah again: “There are landlords who rule by the gun. There are gunrunners who feel free and fear no laws. There are drug dealers who fear no NDLEA operatives; there are gangs that decide the fate of the rest of society. There are hired killers who laze about with sharp knives and tout for jobs; there are freelance killers waiting for any odd jobs. Of course, there are sundry criminals (they are legion) who serve as recruits for political thuggery, oil bunkering foot soldiers, chieftaincy tussle warriors, militants, prostitution, etc.”

The Chief Press Secretary to the Governor of Rivers State, Mr. Blessing Wikina, told our team: “The most important aspect of this whole thing is the security and development. Once, there was a shooting at Abuja Waterfront, when the governor and the Brigade Commander got there they saw those bad boys swimming and sailing across from the settlement to the other side of the water.

These bad boys had observation point ‘OP’, where they stay and observe when security men would be coming to the place. Again, the waterfronts exist on their own and this means that they have a government of their own. Whatever happens there is not reported to the police; they mete out justice, crude justice as it were, and they kill people anyhow.

“For instance, if you have a sister who lives in the waterfront and somebody comes and kills any of the children, your sister is forbidden from reporting the matter to you or the police because, according to them, they have their own internal mechanism to sort out their problems.

It was also at the waterfront where somebody went to protest the nomination of another person from Rivers State and when the man returned they shot him in the presence of his family at the waterfront. As a matter of fact, all the security agencies in the state have stated in their security reports that the waterfronts must go.”

The Justice Kayode Eso Panel on Truth and Reconciliation put together to probe the political disquiets arising from former Governor, Dr Peter Odili’s eight years in power in the state also noted on the security situation in the waterfront slums, inter alia: “We recognise, from the evidence before us, that lack of security is a major problem in Rivers State and we believe that everything possible should be done to provide security of lives and property in the state.

We support government’s determination to make Rivers State safe and secure so that its citizens can go about their legitimate business without fear. The waterfront areas are porous and pose a threat to security within the state.

We recommend the destruction and dismantling of all waterfront houses around Port Harcourt namely: Eastern Bypass Waterfront, Marine Base Waterside, Nembe Waterside in Creek Road , Bundu Waterside, Elechi Beach Waterside, Njemanze Street Waterside, Iloabuchi Waterside, Witt and Bush and Isaka. We recommend that the government should provide alternative accommodation for the residents of these areas. These water front areas should be taken over by security personnel.”

Demolishing  to rebuild

The Port Harcourt waterfronts later became a strategic staging area for militants and criminals, who killed and kidnapped both local citizens and expatriates at the height of the crises in the Niger Delta. Many of the toughest secret cult groups had their headquarters in these shanty towns because they provided excellent hiding places and access to the creeks through the waterways for criminals seeking quick getaways.

When former Governor Celestine Omehia assumed power and decided to tackle criminality head-on, he determined that to achieve this, the waterfronts had to go. He approached President Umaru Yar’Adua and painted the grim picture of the challenge the waterfronts posed to security, development and social wellbeing of the people.

Prototype of Port-Harcourt Water-front
Prototype of Port-Harcourt Water-front

The President gave him the go-ahead to remove the water fronts. Omehia’s plan was to develop housing estates in alternative parts of the state, such as Iriebe in Oyigbo local government area for high, medium and low income earners and relocate the inhabitants of the waterfronts there before demolishing and redeveloping them.

Even though government officials assured that when the waterfronts were redeveloped the inhabitants would be brought back, many dwellers of these enclaves did not believe them. They pointed to Maroko in Lagos which was evacuated and developed for the benefit of the rich.

Omehia also ran into heavy political storms with ethnic stakeholders (or those who declared themselves as such), especially Okrika indigenes of Rivers State, who have vociferously for years claimed to be the aboriginal owners of the waterfront parts of Port Harcourt.

Backed by such eminent Ijaw leaders as Alabo Graham Douglas, Chief Albert Horsfall, Chief E. K. Clark who hails from Delta State and the head of the Okrika Council of Chiefs, Senator James Tari Sekibo, the Okrika chiefs who opposed the demolition and relocation on the ground that it would remove them from their ancestral land, lobbied President Yar’Adua to declare a state of emergency on Rivers State and appoint an administrator in place of Omehia.

As usual, the waterfront issue degenerated to the old riverine/upland political dichotomy. Just as most riverine Rivers people wanted the demolition to be halted, most upland commentators urged Omehia to proceed with their removal. Undeterred, Omehia was priming to move against Bundu Waterside, when the Supreme Court verdict that removed him from office in November 2007 descended.

With a new helmsman, Hon. Chibuike Amaechi as the new governor of Rivers State in office, there was a temporary respite as he announced that he was staying action on the demolitions. There were widespread jubilations in all the waterfronts because apart from the ethnic claims to ownership and despite its subhuman living conditions, these are the only parts of the oil city where the truly downtrodden could afford to rent accommodation.

Many of the inhabitants are subsistent seafarers and fishermen who would be cut off from their livelihood if moved.

Amaechi actually enjoyed the warm embrace of Ijaw leaders, and Senator Sekibo and Alabo Graham-Douglas who were opposed to Omehia jumped on board with him.

However, the “romance” did not last. When Amaechi got over the euphoria of his victory, he decided to launch what he termed an “Urban Renewal” programme.

This involves the total restoration of Port Harcourt to restore its “Garden City” image, the removal of all illegal structures, development of new roads, construction of drainage and the development of a Greater Port Harcourt to befit an African oil city of the 21st Century.

Clearly, the squalid waterfronts would not survive the scale of renewal that Amaechi contemplated and launched. Part of this policy involved the demolition of perimeter fences around houses in the city which, over the years most landlords had extended to the edge of tarmacs thus blocking the flow of traffic and closing homes from public view.

At the end of the exercise, the city started breathing again, and the ugly traffic snarls for which the city is well known eased off somewhat.

Who owns Port Harcourt?

The crises of the waterfront settlements have their roots in the very history and character of Port Harcourt, which itself is shrouded in controversy and oftentimes, violence. The Okrika residents of the waterfronts have always made it clear to all that care to listen that they are not opposed in principle to the idea of demolition and redevelopment of these enclaves per se.

A memorandum by the Wakirike-Bese (Okrika) Council of Chiefs to Governor Amaechi on the subject dated July 7, 2009 and signed by 19 top Okrika indigenes, states: “First, we have to put it on record that we are not against development in Port Harcourt in particular and Rivers in general.

We are in total support of providing modern facilities and amenities for the citizenry…however, we place on record our total opposition to any large-scale social, economic and habitation dislocation of our people and communities by way of demolition of the waterfront communities in the name of development and urban renewal without any alternative for their relocation.”

And yet the same Council had opposed the Omehia regime even when it had a clear agenda of first setting up modern housing estates within the Port Harcourt metropolis and resettling the waterfront residents.

The Amaechi government plan is a little bit different. According to government sources, the sum of N850million has been set aside to pay what amounts to bonus commercial rates to homeowners in the enclaves to seek and acquire choice property in any part of the city.

According to the Rivers State Director of the National Orientation Agency and secretary of a government committee that conducted enumeration in the waterfronts, Chief Andy Nweye, each of the owners of structures in the Bundu and Njemanze Waterfronts so far targeted by the Amaechi administration was offered nearly N30 million to encourage them to move out to enable government bulldozers to move in.

Officials say even tenants were also offered financial incentives, and both gestures were made based “purely on human consideration” and not as compensation since government does not believe the dwellers of the waterfronts have any legal or other entitlements.

Amaechi, officials say, is a believer in the private-public partnership for development, and after the redevelopment of the waterfronts, the compensated waterfront dwellers could still, just any other Rivers indigene or public bidder, bid for the houses.

The question that arises is: why are the Okrika leaders (who have forbidden their indigenes of the targeted waterfronts to take government’s offer, opting to seek redress in the court of law) resisting every strategy to relocate them as their demand indicated?

According to a former Commissioner for Education in Rivers State, Professor Tam David-West, the whole issue boils down to the old bone of contention: who owns Port Harcourt . Ikwerre/Diobu indigenes of Port Harcourt have historically laid exclusive claim to their ownership of the lands on which the city was built.

On the other hand, the Okrika counter-claim that Port Harcourt was ceded to the British Crown in 1913 by both Okrika and Ikwerre/Diobu chiefs. However, one Dr. Abam, an Okrika indigene, has written a pamphlet in which he makes a claim of exclusive Okrika ownership of Port Harcourt .

And which Port Harcourt , anyway? We are not talking about the city as it is today and will soon be when the Greater Port Harcourt is completed. We are talking about the parcel of land that on May 18th 1913 was ceded to Sir Alexander Boyle on behalf of the King of England registered as 16/211/17 and deposited in the Lands Registry in Calabar (the then Capital of the Southern Nigeria Protectorate) but now in the Lands Division of the Rivers State Ministry of Lands.

The Okrika in their above-mentioned memo to Governor Amaechi, assert that all the waterfronts belong to them. Senator Sekibo in an interview with our reporter put it like this: “On 18 May, 1913 by deed between the chiefs and head men of Okrika Ijaw and Diobu communities for and on behalf of themselves and their people on the one hand and Sir Alexander George Boyle, the Deputy Governor of the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria for and ….

Continues tomorrow


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