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Aba, or the face of degeneracy

By Obi Nwakanma

Two nights ago, I was out in Geneva (Switzerland), hanging out with some old friends at a free musical concert at the gardens by Lake Geneva and in the background of  Jet d’eau – one of the more remarkable landmarks of this city of landmarks.

We’d taken a short leisurely walk from Rue December 31, and down across Rue de Lac, down to the concert. As it happens, in summer, most self-respecting cities in the world put out free, open-air musical concerts and other cultural events; and the idea is to keep city life vital; to draw from its energy and to make it possible for visitors and would be visitors to see the fun part of a city; to draw them and sell to the idea of the city as a possible place of refuge, of pleasure, and of course of investment. People are always drawn to places of happy memories.

They return to spend their money – shopping, eating, loving, visiting art galleries and circulating value. Great cities market their refinements and pleasures, and the great opportunities that await those who come to it. Great cities depend on such visitors for revenue, and often advertise themselves as great epicenters of the human concourse.

The greatest capital available to any city is the human capital – the level of skills available and usable, and the means by which these skills are deployed to make city life both habitable and memorable. This is the exact meaning of civilization. In its most basic meaning, civilization means to create and sustain order out of chaos.

The containment of human energy in that singular space – the uber junction of all human experience – is merely the genius of organization. Only those who understand symmetry can create that kind of order. Perhaps here is where we fail; that we bring the asymmetric pattern of country life with its own unique regulations based on the natural cycle into the urban space with a more necessarily artificial and created form of the chronotype; its own form of regulation.

The result is our inability to manage chaos, and thus create and sustain order. It’s a clash of cultures. Our cities succumb to the law of thermodynamics. The decay happens rather quickly, perhaps because we have not put in place structures that help to contain and attempt to eliminate the natural effects of decay through cyclic renewal. That is the challenge of building and sustaining city life in Nigeria.

There are no bold renewal programs. Things are left as they always are. Utilities are never upgraded. Public spaces are never designed and redesigned, especially to reflect the genius of human engineering or architectural capital or tradition present in a city. One city – Aba – in South Eastern Nigeria reminds me particularly of the level of decay that no human society should be permitted to live with.

Pictures of this once thriving city posted recently on on-line forums on the internet were both shocking and unsurprising at the same time: there was no attempt to photoshop Aba. There was a certain rawness to the images, and they hit you on the jugular.

Broken and flooded streets; shopping halls turned into ghost towns and ghettoes; massive mounds of waste, particularly plastic and the least biodegradable human wastes piled too close to human domestic life. It is a terrible and indescribable sight. It is the result of long years of neglect.

Now, for a city of Aba’s importance, that kind of neglect is both short-sighted and criminal. Under  military rule, there was a great level of divestment in the city, following sustained economic policies that forced businesses in Aba to move capital and relocate to places like Lagos and Abuja.

Aba has not recovered from these moves, but it is also in some very significant ways, a statement about the strategic perspective or lack of it of its business leaders who seemed unprepared, and who had very scant economic intelligence to work with in the era of these policies.

I do certainly remember listening to Dr. Aboim, a business consultant in Aba in the 1970s and 1980s on the old NTV Channel 6, talking investment and re-investment strategies, but particularly about diversification and the development of more strategic port and storage facilities in Aba in those years.

But post-military government in Abia state, under the two Orjis – Orji Uzo Kalu and Theodore Orji – has really left Aba reeling. There does not seem to be any strategic vision for the city under these administrations. Aba was conceived as the industrial engine of the East.

From a barrack town for demobilized WW2 veterans in 1945, Pius Okigbo, as DO (Development Officer) from 1947-1950, laid out the foundation for Aba’s economic and social development. Anyone who wishes can in fact get a small insight into the evolution of Aba from that book by Harry Gailey, The Road to Aba: A Study of British Administrative Policy in Eastern Nigeria.In fact, Aba is one of the epicenters of the Tri-city conurbation of Port-Harcourt-Aba –Owerri conceived by the Eastern Nigeria government to be the biggest economic and industrial conurbation in Africa.

The war ended that momentarily. But it does seem clear that we have an administration and a bureaucracy that has neither institutional memory, nor a whit of strategic capacity. Last week, Ugochukwu Emezue, media aide to governor Orji took umbrage at a statement credited to Mr. Ben Uwajumogu, speaker of the Imo state House of Assembly about his comments on the performance of the Abia governor. He basically asked him to steer clear of Abia issues.

Well, if this Uwajumogu is the one I think he is, he is son of the late BO Uwajumogu, a businessman – of the “Uwajumogu and Sons Ltd” fame, who died quite early. Mr. Uwajumogu literally grew up in current Abia state and has a great stake within it. Besides, the borders between Abia and Imo state is wafer thin.

If I sneeze in Owerri, it is bound to reverberate in Aba or Umuahia. As a city, Aba is of great economic and social importance to especially Imo and Abia states. So, it is in fact impossible to ignore whatever happens there. But to be fair, T.A. Orji  alone cannot be asked to take responsibility for the state of Aba.

True, he has shown a terrible lack of imagination and leadership in transforming Aba, which once stood on the same pedestal as Lagos, because whatever was built in Lagos was built in Aba. But today Aba trails terribly behind. If Aba has to be rebuilt, it would take the genius of organization that is currently under-utilized East of the Niger. It would take the Abia state government, the Aba Municipal authority, the leaders of business and the citizens/tax payers in Aba, to establish what I propose to be the Aba City Redevelopment Commission.

It is an urgent task, and the Abia State governor must stop being defensive about his lack of abilities, but must rather seek strategic thinkers from across the East to help rebuild Aba, because truth be told, he inherited a great Igbo city, and is thus merely, a trustee of this transnational city. Aba must be made great again, and all hands must be on deck.


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