By Obi Nwakanma
Recently, I drew attention to the decay of Aba, arising mostly from the criminal negligence of a city once known for its vitality and industry. I placed much of the blame at the doorsteps of the current T.A. Orji administration in Umuahia, with the caveat, certainly, that rebuilding Aba would require a concert of efforts. I have not shifted from this position. I am in fact more convinced that the current administration on Okpara Avenue is not only bereft of ideas, it lacks style and consequence.
I am prepared to concede that Governor Orji’s administration did not cause the decay of Aba; it is a progressive decay; the preceding government led by Mr. Orji Uzo Kalu did nothing either to salvage Aba; it was as incompetent an administration as the current one in the management of the affairs of Abia State, and particularly in the development of a broad vision of regeneration for one of the East’s key cities.
The problem might simply be that the current administration, much as it struggles to redefine itself, is an off-shoot of the previous administration. Clearly, it is the case of new wine in the old skin. The current Abia administration is too inbred; too provincial in its mindset; too parochial; too intolerant of criticism and differences in perspective, too unimaginative, and above all too incapable, it seems, of mobilizing the broadest capacity necessary to recreate and revitalize a potentially powerful economic region in which Aba once again plays a leading role at the commanding heights.
In response to my initial piece in this column, ghost writers and guttersnipes acting apparently on behalf of the Abia State government, failing to engage the real issues, and using Goebellian tactics began to circulate spurious lies about my person.
The most amusing of the lies is that I was not only in the pay but also a money laundering front for the former governor Orji Uzo Kalu, a former ally but apparently these days an adversary of the current governor T.A. Orji, and thus implied, the reason for my criticism of the current Abia government. I do not wish to make this personal, but such a tactic simply shows that even at the most ordinary things, the Abia state administration is so incompetent and lacking.
It cannot even do good propaganda. My one challenge nonetheless is for the administration in Umuahia to step up; stop deploying faceless ghosts, sign the allegation in visible ink, and publish their claim in a medium of record.
But I do wish to address a different piece, “Between Nwakanma, Abia govt., and Aba City” published in the Vanguard last week in response to my own piece, by Mr. Erasmus Akanwanne, “a medical practitioner” writing purportedly from Aba. I did look at the index of membership of the Nigerian Medical association (NMA) in Aba and there was no record of an Erasmus Akanwanne registered on its roll as a surgeon.
The description, “medical practitioner” may, of course, just be an omnibus reference to work as a pharmacist, Medical Lab Technologist, nurse and nurse assistant, all of whom are “medical practitioners.” But I’m convinced that “Erasmus Akanwanne” does not exit; he is a ghost – an invention: one of those masked ventriloquists who assume names and guises to do trickster things for the Abia state government.
The Yoruba call these figures, “Esu Elegba” and the Igbo call them, “ndi Agwu ji.” It might serve newspapers well to verify the authenticity of their contributors lest they fall to defamation. But for whatever it is worth, the writer of that piece raised two salient questions, and my response is, yes, Aba was on the same pedestal as Lagos.
The major industrial investments – Lever Brothers, NBL, PZ, Procter and Gamble, etc. had their Eastern operations in Aba, which catered to the Central West African corridor. Indeed, by 1980, Aba’s GDP output was either at par or outstripped Lagos.
Aba was a major supplier and trade center for buyers of local finished products from across West and Central West Africa, down in fact to the Congo. I think Tom Forrest’s book, The Advance of Capital: the growth of Nigerian Private Enterprise gives a fair sense of Aba in the era, because it shows the rise of indigenous capital much of which emerged and was located in Aba.
An exodus of investment commenced in Aba from about 1987, following the deleterious economic policies of the military government, which among other things centralized much economic activity. But a critical part was also the failure of subsequent governments to stem this exodus and decline by expanding the investment environment in Aba.
The writer complains that a single part of Lagos has a tax base larger than the entire Abia state. Well, here’s the deal: tax bases do not come as a blessing from God. One of the central goals and functions of governments has always been to expand their tax bases through strategic re-investment in city and municipal services. What particular incentive does the city of Aba and the Abia state government offer to any potential movement back to Aba? Cities and governments create attractive narratives to attract people to move to them.
Come here, they say, there are loads of work. Great industries and laboratories needing your skills; great opportunities for investors – a highly skilled manpower base. Here are the things you can enjoy if you move here: great schools for your children; a great hospital with some of the finest doctors in the world; great urban life – pedestrian friendly streets with good sidewalks, well-lit, motorable and well maintained roads; great city transportation; twenty-four hours of social life – great night clubs; restaurants, spas, recreational facilities like city gyms, a great sports club, fantastic golf greens, a really sexy cricket pavilion; open city grounds; galleries of art; a world class city Orchestra and Theatre; we also offer a great shopping experience in our shopping areas. Come here, and buy, buy, buy!
There are great residential neighborhoods too – really well built, very modern and affordable homes and apartments; friendly suburbs with individual characters, and above all, it is a great crime-free city. Minimal crime because we have a great security plan and a great City police, etc. Come therefore and settle here.
Bring your skills and your capital; make this city your home. Can Aba offer these words to anybody today? Not on your life. Therefore its tax base will remain absolutely low because what remains is a skeletal city that has been unable to rise to the great potential height of its power. But is it possible? Yes, it is. It requires a great deal of thinking and a capacity to mobilize and lead.
This is what is currently lacking both in Umuahia and in the City hall at Aba. It ignores the fact that Aba is located less than thirty minutes apart from a powerful conurbation including Port-Harcourt, Uyo, Ikot-Ekpene, and Owerri from which it is separated by Owerrinta and the Imo River at Okpala, and therefore has great grounds for expansion.
When governments come, they come as with a development plan. But I’m afraid T.A. Orji had no such plans. He has run a praying-mantis administration in Abia, and now a lame duck government, it is too late in the day to do anything of significance. We talk of him now merely as a cautionary tale.