By Obi Nwakanma
Dear Emeka: in two previous open letters published here in the “Orbit,” I tried to suggest, and cast into some perspective, possible areas of strategic policy that you might consider to stir Imo again into economic and social wellbeing. I already articulated two broad objectives.
The third of what must constitute your signal objective should be to rebuild Imo’s natural ecology as both an economic and environmental imperative. To that end, your government must very quickly initiate the Imo Ecological rehabilitation program that will establish public land trusts and forest reserves, rebuild the rain forest ecosystem, and dredge the local rivers- the Nworie, Otammiri, Njaba, Orashi and Imo, and the stream channels that crisscross Imo, and strategically repopulate them with fish and other marine life using contemporary Environmental Engineering. Ecology is the wealth of the future, and the disappearance of the rain forest umbrella that once covered Imo especially is a disaster that must be averted or remediated.
Besides, it is a project that could provide jobs for trained environmentalists, engineers, biologists, Agriculturalists, Forest Rangers, Wildlife and Fisheries scientists, Marine scientists, and so on, and also stimulate eco- tourism/recreation, and river transportation. Imo’s five river sources are a wasting asset! Just as an example, the Imo government , say in joint action with Ezinihitte Mbaise and Ngor Okpala local governments could create a long beach from Ife to Okpala/Owerrinta for beach goers/tourists around the vast, and properly dredged banks of the Imo River. This long beach project may not only serve for receation, but may become the basis for a natural habitat protected zone for what I propose to be the Okpala/Owerrinta satellite city and industrial zone, that would build warehouses, turnkey property for investors, and an in-land port that should utilize the old trade river pathway to Igwenga, Asa, Opobo, and the Atlantic Beachfront extending to the old Oron ports in Akwa-Ibom. This should be a partnership between Imo, Abia, Rivers and Akwa-Ibom who would benefit tremendously from the in-land movement of people and goods, and the tax benefits from re-opening this old trade route for a 21st century economy. Its economic impact alone will be humongous. This project is capable of employing at least 100,000 people.
There are many such sites in Imo to create beaches for recreation and tourism. You must work with the incoming state Assembly to start the Natural Resources Development Trust Fund which will buy private/communal land, and preserve ancient sacred groves, and put them in perpetual trust for the public as land reserves. You must create the Imo state Forestry and Wildlife Services to rebuild strategic forest reserves, repopulate them with game, and stem the loss of the rare species of tropical trees from which we not only once harvested timber but which also absorbed greenhouse gas. For years, governments in Imo state have neglected this area of public investment, concentrating only on Palm plantations.
And still speaking about tourism, no one yet has been able to systematically calculate the amount of foreign exchange Imo loses (as do many other Igbo states) because it has failed to attract, engage, and sustain the interest of the young Igbo diaspora. The younger generation of the Igbo living across the world is a wasting asset.
Today, properly arranged, the new generation Igbo in the Diaspora can have breakfast in their country homes anywhere in Igbo land, enter the plane in Owerri or Enugu or Port Harcourt or Asaba, and have dinner in New York. It requires organization, the right infrastructure, and the right professional capacity and orientation to attract them. Without the appropriate environment – natural and built – there can be no tourism. There can be no visitors if an environment is not welcoming. If there is no sense of security. If people see gun-toting policemen and soldiers daily on the streets, stopping and harassing passengers, and generally giving the sense of insecurity. If potential tourists do not sense a culture of well-being in the environment, they will have no incentive to come and spend their money.
Tourism as it is currently understood in Nigeria and Imo in particular is primitive and limited. A bold, integrated policy, that must include local communities preserving their shrines, sacred groves, heritage sites, festivals, etc; that would re-orient the general populace to create a polite and welcoming culture is necessary to attract paying visitors to Imo.
Again, a great source of tourism and investment to Igboland, and particularly to Imo, is the generation of young Igbo in the Diaspora who can potentially bring about $10 billion in annual tourism revenue to Imo, if the environment is properly created.
Contemporary travel technology makes this increasingly possible. However, these Igbo do not come home. They’d rather go to Paris, or London, or Bogota, or Cape Town, and increasingly to Accra or Nairobi. If they come to Nigeria at all, they’d stop briefly in Lagos or Abuja, and turn back. They have no connections with the East except ancestral connections that are hardly nurtured, and which might just fade in one generation.
Nothing draws them. Once we die, our children bury us, turn away, and never return. What dies with us is not only the memory of the land, but the disappearance of an entire generation and culture, as well as the regenerative transgenerational energy that comes with the replacement of human stock. The quantum of transferable revenue thus possible by the large population of Igbo resident abroad, who could come spend their money or invest is lost to the Igbo and to Nigeria, in large part because we neglect the fundamental means of seeking, partnering, engaging, orienting and connecting with this generation of diasporic youth. Emeka, you have the opportunity of crafting a far-reaching policy that will attract these young folk increasingly to the East, especially, to Imo state, through special programs some of which I do not necessarily need to elaborate in this letter. You must develop the “Eje-Alo” program whose aim will be close to the “rights of return.” We must look at what the Jews, the Irish, and even the Sicilians have done in that regard in terms of reconnecting their Diaspora to their ancestral heritages and homelands. It will not happen with mere preachment.
The aim would be to connect with, and INCLUDE this young generation of alienated Igbo in the diaspora, and encourage them to travel, vacation, work, and invest at home. This cannot be achieved by any other means except by closing the gaps of underdeveloped or even nonexistent cultural and metropolitan infrastructure. Owerri must be turned into a memorable and inviting city- the Paris of the tropics – with a new downtown and business district redevelopment initiative that will invest massive funds in space transformation.
The greening of Owerri is imperative. The Owerri business district must be redesigned and redeveloped. Aside from the need for well-built offices and business-use property, development of Lofts and apartments for young, middle class and professional city cats that will animate the city, and shopping areas, pubs, bookshops, and galleries, and such things that make up self-respecting cities, you must oversee the building of the Owerri City Repertory Theatre, the Owerri Metropolitan Gallery of Art (OMEGA), the Mbonu Ojike Performing Arts Center modelled after the Kennedy Center in Washington DC or the Lincoln Center in New York, or the MUSON center in Lagos; the Owerri city Philharmonic Hall, and the Owerri City Library with its Igbo Archive. The development of three huge urban epicenters in Imo – Owerri, Orlu, Okigwe, will draw Igbo resources into Imo state, and bring a good number of Igbo entrepreneurs home, and thus raise the tax base of the state.
The Tri-city Commission must be constituted to carter to these developments as an integrated project. Among the key drivers of these developments must be the Imo State University system, which must be reorganized.
The Imo state University was originally modelled after the SUNY – the State University of New York system from the hints I got from Dr. Rose Mezu, former commissioner in the Mbakwe administration, and wife of Dr. Sabastian Okechukwu Mezu, one of its original designers in 1979/80. Today, we should create a hybrid of SUNY and the University of California system at Berkley, Los Angeles, Davis, and CalTech – as models. To that end, you must have properly chartered by the Imo State House of Assembly, the Imo State University at Owerri, the Imo state University at Orlu, the Imo state University of Okigwe, and the Imo State Technological University at Mbaise.
The four Universities making up the Imo state university system must be governed individually, and overseen by their own Board of Trustees, and academic leadership under a president, as was the case with the founding President of the original Imo state University, Professor MJC Echeruo, until that title was changed by General Ike Nwachukwu. The Four universities should then be regulated under the Imo State Universities Commission, under a Chancellor, and a Board of Governors.
The Imo state universities Commission should not be constrained by the uniform rule of the Nigerian Universities Commission; under the federation principle it could strive to establish its own independent traditions and curriculum, and development goals, outside of the strait-jacket of the Nigerian Universities Commission. And to these ends, the Imo state University at Orlu could evolve from the campus of the yet to be commissioned Eastern Palm University, built with state funds at Ogboko. Two spanking new campuses should be commissioned and developed for the Imo State University at Okigwe, and the Imo Technological University at Mbaise.
(To be contd.)