By Bonaventure Melah
One of the most ambitious projects of the administration of the Owelle Rochas Okorocha is the Heroes Square located at the heart of Owerri, the capital of Imo state. Ironically, the centre has become a subject of controversy which political activists have latched on, in desperate attempts to pour tar on what would later become Imo State’s Unique Selling Point and therefore Okorocha’s most significant legacy. Historically, most “Future’s Projects” all over the world do attract harsh criticisms, at inception. The Owerri Heroes Square would in the future become Nigeria’s most unique tourism site.
A record 32.59 million foreign tourists visited Thailand in 2016. Out of that number, 21.47Mmillion visited Bangkok the capital of the country making it the first Asian city to top the MasterCard Destination Cities index. Visitors to Thailand are mostly interested in seeing monuments, status of religious leaders and national heroes, temples, monasteries and modern parts while the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Lopburi among others rank among the most striking destinations.
Records from Global Payment Services Company indicate that each visitor to Bangkok spends an average of 145 US Dollars a day. Put that together with 21.47 million visitors in only 2016 and see why the Asians are doing far better than us economically. In Malaysia, its national heroes square ranks among the best attractive sites to visitors. Overall, tourism contributed 8.5% to the GDP of Asian-Pacific countries and 8.7% to employment to the region in 2016.
It is such noble dream that Rochas is pursuing, to make Owerri and Imo State the next tourism destination. It is true that Nigeria’s economy is bad. It is true that unemployment and hunger among other social inadequacies are challenging Nigerian leadership at all levels. Teachers and other workers are being owed salaries by many state governors including Imo, yes. But we have all come to the consensus that the only way Nigeria and the states can come out of economic difficulties facing the nation and biting its people is to diversify the economy. Tourism, creating beautiful cities to attract visitors and investment in modern technology infrastructure are what the Asians have done, that is all the difference.
Apart from the Heroes Square, there are several other projects that the governor has completed while others are on-going, to beautify Owerri and make it a tourist’s delight which is also one of the best ways to diversify the state’s economy. A few of the physical infrastructures include the dualisation of major roads in the capital city, the expansion of Sam Mbakwe road, the 7,000 capacity Imo International Convention Centre, Imo Freedom Square, Imo Freedom Falls, Zuma Road behind Assumpta Cathedral which is an Okorocha creation, Orlu Road roundabout dualisation and beautification. You need to be in Owerri in the night and behold the wonders of the city which now has all round illumination that is solar powered.
From inception, Rochas made it clear that the Heroes Square is dedicated to men and women of goodwill who have done extraordinary things for the good of their communities, nations and to mankind in general. In that Square, you already have the statuses of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, the nation’s first Prime Minister, Ikemba Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu and former Imo State governor Dee Sam Onunaka Mbakwe, among others. And the governor has said that more monuments and statues of heroes and heroines would be erected. It is a Futures Project that would benefit Imo people, and will outlive Rochas.
Some people have argued that their quarrel with the Heroes Square project is the status of Jacob Zuma, the South African President that is erected there. The question such critics should answer is, “Is Jacob Zuma a hero?” You have the right to your own opinion but I will boldly say that Jacob Zuma is a hero both in his home country and in Africa as a continent. Maybe you have forgotten so let me remind you that the current South African President whose status Rochas erected at the Heroes Square is the same South African freedom fighter who was second in rank only to Nelson Mandela. Together the two great men and others fought, slept in trenches and were imprisoned severally in order that Apartheid and there people set free from oppression. That Zuma is facing multiple investigations on allegations of corruption has not in any way diminished his stature and integrity since no court has found him guilty of any of those allegations which are mostly politically motivated.
From Nnamdi Azikiwe, Tafawa Balewa, Ikemba Ojukwu, Sam Mbakwe to the Liberian President, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman to be elected President in Africa, all the people honoured at the Heroes Square are eminently qualified to be there.
On the day she was honoured in Owerri, Madam Sirleaf expressed great joy and appreciation to the government and people of Imo State for honouring her. (She is now the “Ada Di Ora Nma” of Imo State), adding that her status at the Heroes Square is bigger than the one erected in her honour at the Harvard University (of all places). Led by the wife of the state governor Mrs Nkechi Okorocha, Imo women later presented her with assorted indigenous gifts ranging from clothes, jewelleries, mortar, pestle; kola nuts packed into locally made plates, among others. In reaction, the Liberian president said she had never been treated so nicely; which is another way of building bridges and international goodwill in favour of Imo state.
Bonaventure Melah is an Abuja Tourism Expert, Journalist, Author and Public