At the lobby of the Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt, Professor Tam David-West, a former Commissioner for Education in Rivers State, who grew up in the city, spoke to OCHEREOME NNANNA when approached to comment on the waterfront demolition and development crisis.
What do you make of the Rivers State Governmentâ€™s programme to demolish and redevelop the Port Harcourt Waterfronts?
It is not possible to return Port Harcourt to the Garden City of the early 20th century. You can only redevelop it. But to say that you are going to reinvent the Garden City of 1906 is absolutely impossible. I am not from there. I am from Buguma.
But I believe that when government wants to do something like this it must educate the people first. The waterfronts are dens of hoodlums, anarchists and militants.
But Governor Amaechi was the Speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly. Why did he not make a law for the demolition of the Waterfronts when he was there?
Since these undesirable elements are there why not flush them out and remodel the place to what you want it to be without causing so much public odium?
If he wants to make the waterfronts to be more habitable I expect him to carry the people along with him. I expect him to tell the people what he is going to put there when he removes the slum.
Professor Tam David West
Why I say this is that Governor Amaechi has demolished a number of structures without replacing them with something satisfactory.
Take for example, the state Cultural Centre. It was built in the central part of Port Harcourt . When he demolished it I thought he was going to replace it with something more beautiful. Instead he gave the site to Silverbird Cinemas! Who goes to cinemas these days? It does not make any sense. It is not even Rivers State cinema but a private man from Bayelsa.
The same thing happened with Port Harcourt General Hospital , the best we had. I was born there. When you want to rebuild the system there are some things you donâ€™t touch.
They are called â€œheritage sitesâ€. Governor Amaechi demolished this 500-bed general hospital built during colonial times. Someone was saying that it took a lot to be able to break the burnt bricks because it was a solid structure. Later he turned round and said the soil would not take the structure he wanted to put there.
Why did he not test the soil first to know if the structure would be well carried? It shows you are not organised as a policymaker because you are putting the cart before the horse.
Having done that you now took the new hospital to a place (Greater Port Harcourt) that people are now saying is near your hometown. The new hospital is named after Justice Adolphus Karibi-Whyte. Adolphus and I were in the same class, so I have nothing against him personally.
I wrote against it. If you are going to name the hospital after anybody in Rivers State Dr. Mason Braide was the person. Dr Braide was already a medical doctor when Adolphus and I were in secondary school. I donâ€™t think it was handled very well.
As a former commissioner in the state can you say that those who are laying claim to the waterfronts as their ancestral home are making a valid claim?
No. no, no. It takes us to the argument of who owns Port Harcourt . This has been a permanent and ongoing controversy since I was a youth. There have been tons of court cases over whether the city belongs to the Ikwerre or Okrika. There are court judgements that show that Port Harcourt , if anything, belongs to the Diobu/Ikwerre axis.
However, I have reasons to believe that some of these judgements gave the Okrika some rights and even at that I am sure the court decision was aiming to make both sides happy. But claiming the waterfronts as some peopleâ€™s ancestral home is another thing. Nobody can claim the waterfronts as their ancestral home.
Those places were trading depots. When we were children these were the places we went to take boat rides home to our towns in the riverine areas. Port Harcourt was founded in 1914 and named after Sir Harcourt, a British administrator of this area.
The same happened in Lagos . Many parts of Lagos Island and Victoria Island were reclaimed from the sea and some people came later to try to claim ownership.
Port Harcourt was the first city in Nigeria that was built from the drawing board. From day one, Port Harcourt was an omnibus city, with Igbos, Yorubas, Hausas, Okrika, Kalabari, Efik and even foreigners fully represented and living here as â€œPitakwa peopleâ€, and the main street language here was Pidgin English. Waterfront is not a home. It is a transport depot, a garage. Those claiming ancestral home just went and built houses there.
How did those settlements come about, and how did the Okrika start staking their claim to the land on which the settlements were built? Before the war I am certain there were no human settlements there?
I donâ€™t support any Okrika claim to the waterfronts. Let them bring documented evidence to that effect. I know that there have been court cases on the whole Port Harcourt itself. That you have Okrika waterfront does not mean it belongs to Okrika, any more than Nembe Waterside belongs to Nembe people.
These are commercial zones. Port Harcourt by law does not belong to any one people. The Okrika claim started with Governor Rufus Ada-George. That was when they started balkanising Port Harcourt and Okrika people felt free to build and colonise areas near the water.
That was when Amadi-Ama, â€œAma-this, Ama-thatâ€ sprang up all over Port Harcourt.
He sowed the seed of ethnic discord by allowing this to happen. If you go to Borokiri, you will see a lot of â€œAmaâ€ and â€œPoloâ€ (Okrika word for compound). There are not â€œAmasâ€ but only one â€œAmaâ€ â€“ Port Harcourt .
When Ada-George became the governor of Rivers State , in order to extend the tentacles of Okrika people he allowed his people to embark on indiscriminate colonisation and naming of sand filled areas and Ikwerre people protested. And they had a right to protest because you were now creating â€œamasâ€ land to which Ikwerres had full valid claim to of which nobody can deny them.
Ikwerre people have original ancestral right to certain parts of Port Harcourt . So when the Okrika started the expansion of â€œamasâ€ it excited Ikwerre nationalism. Nobody will like hostile people around him.
That Ikwerre sensitivity I support it even though I am not Ikwerre. I am Kalabari and riverine. How can you circle Port Harcourt with Okrika â€œAmasâ€? Of course, no Ikwerre man will take it. You cannot because you are the governor, make water to flow uphill or order the sun to rise west and set in the east.
Is the redevelopment of the waterfronts an upland agenda against the riverine people?
You can take the argument as both factual and specious. This has come because of the way it was done. And that is why I am advising my Ikwerre brothers not to â€œIkwerreniseâ€ the Governor Amaechi administration. It will not do you good. It will not do us good.
I also advised former Governor Diete-Spiff not to convert his government into a Brass affair. When he was military governor I counted more twenty Spiffs in and around his government.
He was more interested in the job for the boys rather than land. He even made his father the Chairman of the Transport Corporation. I wrote against it. Then the governor replied me saying his father had a big transport business so he had the cognate experience to run the Transport Corporation.
I wrote him back reminding him that his father had only two dug-out canoes! I described it as nothing but Big Job for Big Papa.
Perhaps everybody goes for what he needs most. Spiff was more interested in juicy government positions for his family members and people from his town.
That time I was senior lecturer at Ibadan and I wrote an open criticism of the military governor. I warned him that putting so many of his people in government at the expense of other people will only create enemies for them. Spiff never tampered with the topography or other peopleâ€™s land.