By Ochereome Nnanna
Urban renewal is an activity that signposts a city is ready to leave behind the past and move into a newer phase of development. Former Singaporean leader, Lee Kwan Yew, in his famous book: From The Third World to the First, detailed the iron determination with which he fought long encrusted traditional values to build an exemplary city-state out of formerly stigmatised shanty water front settlements.
Of course, Singapore was not the first to go this route. It is the compelling story that its leader tells to an entralled reading world, especially the Third World, that makes it a handy example. Anyone familiar with the stories of old cities such as London, Paris, Rome, New York, Chicago, Barcelona, Beijing and the rest will be amazed at the vision and sacrifices that went into turning them into the modern marvels they are today.
The fad of urban renewal has caught up with many states in Nigeria with Lagos proving to be truly the Centre of Excellence. Under the Bola Tinubu/Raji Fashola continuous flow of visionary governance, Lagos has, in spite of itself, gradually begun to wear the looks of an emerging mega-city and hub of modern business in the sub-region. The same trend is noticeable in Benin (a hardcore traditional city), Port Harcourt and Uyo.
However, commercial and business cities in the South East zone seem determined to rebuff every effort aimed at bringing about change for the better, with Aba, Onitsha and Nnewi the biggest culprits.
The case of Aba is in particular focus today because the Governor of the State, Chief Theodore Orji, has announced his determination to demolish no fewer than 1,800 houses and shacks illegally erected on designated waterways. These distorted the “Garden City” approach to town planning which the colonial masters adopted for the development of railway towns, Port Harcourt and Aba.
The White man planned the centre of the Aba urban in rectangular sections, each with gutters draining water into the massive Big Gutter that took all waste-water and floods away from the city and emptied it in the Aba River. As soon as it stopped raining, the flood disappeared as if by miracle. Many recreational parks, which were called “open spaces” were used to give the urban setting “breathing space” and room for children to play and adults to relax. This plan remained in effect until the regime of Chief Sam Mbakwe as the Governor of Old Imo State. Mbakwe decided to upgrade the four principal urban towns left behind by the colonialists in old Imo State: Owerri, Aba, Umuahia and Okigwe. He took foreign loans and dug up these cities, widening the roads and drainage and sealing gutters and their contents off from view. He was abused by those whose oxen were gored in the process. But today, Mbakwe is often cited as the next best thing since Dr Michael Okpara, even though the debt he took is still being paid today.
But as soon as the visionless military took over, all hell was let loose. The open spaces were invaded and residential and commercial structures sprang up. People brazenly blocked the gutters, erected “German floors” over them and built shops on them. Even the Big Gutter was not spared. So, whenever it rains in Aba flood water has nowhere to go anymore. It simply goes into people’s homes and the rest stays put on the roads, thus subjecting people to weeks of untold suffering until, somehow, it evaporates. Since it rains so heavily during the rainy season in Aba, most of the city is under the flood and mud until late in November.
A particular consequence of this anomaly is that roads do not last in Aba. Some roads are reconstructed almost every year, and yet by the next rainy season it is as if nothing was done.
The time has come for the dwellers of Aba to summon the courage to part ways with uncivilised living. When the war ended and Igbo people turned to trading as if with vengeance, it was seen as the only means through which a people who lost everything to the civil war could survive, especially in the face of well-laid out systemic marginalisation. Forty years have passed. Igbo people has “survived” very nicely; in fact they have done better than some other Nigerians who lost nothing to the war. It is time to leave the stage of primitive survivalism and upgrade to modernisation, at least in tune with the above-mentioned cities and others not mentioned.
I want to encourage the government of Abia State to proceed and remove any structure that stands in the way provided for running water by the city’s planners. Trading and commercial activities must be regulated. This “shop-mania” must be arrested. There must be trading/commercial zones as well as dwelling/recreational areas. It is only when the city is properly organised that you can have a planned approach to provision of basic amenities. Amenities cannot be provided in a jungle; and there is no greater jungle than urban jungles because then it is inhabited by human wild animals.
I am happy that Governor Orji has summoned the courage to tackle this problem, rather than pander to cheap popularity and leave it for an in-coming regime to tackle. To build Aba into a Twenty First Century commercial and industrial city able to attract local and international business is a task that must be done. I advise the landlords and residents of the city to borrow a leaf from the self-sacrifice of the Oba of Benin, Omo N’ Oba Erediauwa Uku Akpolokpolor, who wrote Governor Adams Oshiomhole and the Edo State House of Assembly volunteering to allow the fence of his palace to be demolished if only to help actualise the urban renewal plans of the state government. Today, Benin is a showpiece of modernity with wide streets and very agreeable atmospherics.
However, I caution that all efforts must be made to ensure that nobody is victimised politically or otherwise. Any building covered by legitimate documents must be properly compensated according to the law if it has to go. Injustice or impunity must not come into it.