ABA and Onitsha are cities in the South-East of Nigeria with an importance that sets them apart. They have never been regional or even state capitals, yet they tower above most of the “A” grade urban metropolises in Nigeria, most of which enjoy the status of political capitals.
What makes the two towns tick is the fact that they were built up through the sheer enterprise of the people into some of the most renowned commercial centres in the entire West African sub_region.
Aba, Abia State’s foremost township, stands out even more because of its reputation as “the Japan of Africa” as former military President, General Ibrahim Babangida once put it on a working visit to the town.
It is Nigeria ’s leading fashion manufacturing hub, competing with Italy and France, especially in the areas of shoes and clothes. What gives the two countries the edge is Nigeria ’s lack of enabling environment for improvement with basic infrastructure like electricity available in inadequate measures.
It was this city’s potential for industrial greatness that led former Minister of Finance and current Managing Director of the World Bank, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo_Iweala, to invite the former President of the bank, Mr. Paul Wolfenson, to Aba to assess how the bank could help the city.
They went on that visit with Professor Barth Nnaji. After that fateful visit, Nnaji pioneered the first private power plant, the Geometric Power Company, at Aba with April this year billed as the date to switch on uninterrupted power supply to the city and environs.
However, this was not to be.
The epidemic of kidnapping and violent armed robberies, which intensified in the city, partially as a result of the amelioration of the Niger Delta crisis, soon developed to emergency proportions.
The various efforts the state government made to support the police and security agencies to curb the menace, by installing trackers in the three senatorial districts, equipping the police with well fitted vehicles and communication gadgets, failed. The kidnappers grew in their boldness and the situation got out of hand.
No day passed without the banks in the town being robbed and people killed in most callous manner. These attacks have become a feature of the town to the point that Aba has lost its most important reputation to criminals.
Two of the most celebrated kidnapping incidents which involved the snatching of touring journalists and the seizure of nursery school children riveted the wondering eyes of the whole nation and the world on Aba. The attendant condemnations, the bad publicity and the general global concern helped in galvanising government to act decisively.
A news magazine even called Aba “Nigeria ’s crime capital.” Banks, schools, offices and factories closed down. People started relocating to other towns and some even to their villages. Aba shut down! It was like a situation of war, as the kidnap cases seemed intractable and nowhere appeared to be safe.
Governor Theodore Orji secured the approval of the President for the Joint Military Task Force, JTF, to commence a massive security operation about three weeks ago. Media reports indicate with a measure of success. About 100 kidnappers, their collaborators and sponsors have been arrested.
There could have been cases of some innocent people been arrested, but the good news from the operations is that the security people are releasing those who have no links to the criminals and the interrogations are conducted under civilised and humane settings.
Criminals have fled. Most of their camps have been destroyed. Calm is back and the people are seeing a different Aba.
Aba is back on its feet. Banks, markets and schools are reopening, and life is also returning to normalcy. The security operatives have gone into villages and dislodging the gangsters from their hideouts and no new cases have been reported since the operations began.
However, the military operations must be seen as the first step in a painstaking process of making Aba unsafe for miscreants.
After the current operations, what would be the next steps?
Residents of Aba must be involved in ensuring their own security, especially by identifying fully with vigilante efforts and giving useful information whenever they notice suspicious activities. Of particular importance is the provision of investment friendly environment so that jobs and opportunities would be available to the teeming hundreds of thousands of young people who are growing up without a future.
Many of them resort to crime for the quick answers it provides to their daily needs.
Urgent reform of the police in Aba is necessary. Aba is easily the worst policed city in Nigeria.
Policemen see their post to Aba as a bonanza. Their concerns have little to do with securing the city. The police are at loggerheads with most residents of Aba who are appalled by allegations that the police look the other way while criminals operate.
Aba, if left with the same set of self_serving policemen, would not be secure for too long. The authorities have to address this matter quickly.
Politicians should be closely monitored to ensure they do not recruit these criminals as thugs for their electioneering campaigns. If they are able to return to business under this cover, it portends more crises for Abia State. Thugs turn into kidnappers and armed robbers once their principals abandon them after elections. There have been proven cases.
The government of Abia State must seize the opportunity the successful routing of the criminals in Aba provides to improve the town. It should repair the many bad roads in the city as one of the confidence boosting measures to enhance the flow of commerce.
It should also encourage Biometric Power Company to complete its project and generate electricity for the town to enable it reignite its arrested development and regain its prominence as a commercial town of distinction. Stable power supply in Aba would improve the economics of investing in the city, as it would make it the only in Nigeria where manufacturers could be guaranteed stable power supply.
Aba people and the government of Abia State must raise their voice in unison and say “Never again”! It would take more than words to achieve this — only concrete actions can change Aba, for good.