Letter to my Rivers State Brethren: Governor Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi and the Waterside Slum Settlements

As the local economy grows from these activities, the hospitality, entertainment and other industries would follow. Brethren, the looting of the money meant for the trans-Kalabari Highway and the failure to build the highway represents the classic aphorism that because there was no nail the horse shoe could not be repaired, and because the horse shoe could not be repaired the horse could not be saddled, and because the horse could not be saddled the message could not be delivered, and because the message could not be delivered the battle was lost. Brethren, this is the unfortunate face of the lootocracy that we practice in place of democracy, for if democracy is government of the people, by the people, and for the people, in Rivers State under the ex-governor, what we witnessed was government of the looters, by the looters, and for the looters.

Brethren, some have also tried to turn the removal of the waterside slum settlements into an act of ethnic cleansing. These cry wolf where there is no wolf and sow bad blood between one ethnic group and another ethnic group. What they hope to profit from such a project only they can tell. But, brethren, history has warned us that we must be seriously wary of such people, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, and Darfur should warn us that the phrase should be used very wisely and with a great sense of responsibility, for as the story of the boy and the wolf tells us, when one cries wolf where there is no wolf, when a wolf actually strikes no one will take one’s cries seriously.

Many of these people who are hurling the very frivolous and inflammatory charge of ethnic-cleansing against the governor have never lived in the waterside slum settlements. They have never experienced the misery, crippling despair, and sheer sense of hopelessness and ennui that prowl those slums like the monstrous Grendel. So steeped are they in their smug sense of ethno-national consciousness that they will become ethnic champions even if it means massive bloodbath on the streets of Port Harcourt. These people must have people they listen to. Whoever they listen to should please call them to order. Ethnocentrism has caused enough havoc in the world.

But the governor himself has not helped his case. In this matter he has acted as if he were a military governor, answerable to none but himself. The governor has not convincingly answered two very important questions: 1) Where do the slum dwellers go?; 2) Will he not be putting the state in financial peril if he spends all the billions of naira he proposes to spend on paying off the landlords and landladies of the shacks and houses in the slum settlements? Let me add a third: When the waterside slum settlements are demolished, how does the governor propose to develop the vacant land? The governor has said that he wants to build a Greater Port Harcourt. What does that mean in reality? Has the governor come up with a blueprint and a model replica of what a Greater Port Harcourt would look like?

A model replica of the Greater Port Harcourt is of course very important, so that when he meets us and investors from inside and outside the country, he can proudly say: “My fellow Rivers people and investors, look at the shining city. It will be a bit of Cape Town, a bit of Miami, a bit of Dubai, a bit of Venice, a bit of New York, a bit of Paris, and a bit of Hong Kong. In ten or fifteen years to come, you will see a downtown business district at this particular location featuring some of the tallest buildings in the world. I will encourage the oil and gas companies to lead the way. I will invite entrepreneurs to build towering, multi-purpose buildings that will serve as offices, residential buildings, schools, cinema complexes, and theaters. And over here in this section of this city, you will see residential villas that open to the sea. I imagine development in concentric circles, with the downtown business center constituting the innermost circle, and development expanding in ever widening circles to include the farthest villages in Rivers State. I imagine that the time is almost here when some will prefer to come from their villages and towns to work in Port Harcourt than live in Port Harcourt. My fellow Rivers people, this is my vision of Port Harcourt and Rivers State, and I need your help to get us there.”

A carefully-spelt-out vision of Greater Port Harcourt will save the governor and us a lot of inflammatory talk, needless grandstanding, and avoidable conflict. It is apparent that Port Harcourt will never take its place as one of the pre-eminent cities in the world and center of international commerce so long as it stays within its present confines. It is a city that has reached its limits with regard to the type of expansion in human and financial capital that it needs to catapult it into a twenty-first century world-class city, because the land is simply not there for the needed expansion and lift-off to the next level: world-class city status. This truth should be obvious to any astute observer of the city.

To solve this debacle, the city must expand into the outlying Ikwerre, Ogoni, and Okrika villages and towns, as well as waterside slum settlements. In fact, the center of the city, its downtown hub or business district, should start from the Presidential Hotel on Aba Road and fan out toward Rumuola Junction and further to embrace Mile 3 Market, Mile 1 Market, Nnamdi Azikiwe Road, all the way to the Town area. This core should have towering skyscrapers, bookstores, theaters, restaurants, supermarkets, hospitals, research centers, and the corporate headquarters of companies. Outside of this area should be situated well-planned residential areas, whose residents go to work in the downtown business district and elsewhere. As I have already said, such residential areas should expand to include the outlying Ikwerre, Ogoni, and Okrika towns and villages. As I have also said, we should also consider developing some of the islands that partially surround the city into model towns, with sweeping beaches, palm trees, and well appointed streets and houses. If done well, the houses could cover a range of exquisite villas to low-rent story buildings for low-income workers. These new island towns should be connected to mainland Port Harcourt by bridges, or we could simply follow the Venice model and use boats as the primary mode of connection between island town and city. We should also begin to plan for a first-class city-wide, mass transit train service that will make commuting to work a pleasure, ease traffic gridlock, and cut down pollution.

The model that we use to develop the new island towns around Port Harcourt should also be used to develop the land recovered from the removal of the waterside slum settlements. The development of the slum settlements will get rid of the great suffering in them and give the city some of the land it needs for development into a world-class city. There is a great deal of work to be done after the land is recovered, as the bodies of water abutting these settlements are currently being used as public toilets. Over the decades, a great deal of human waste has been deposited in these bodies of water. Where they are stagnant, the visitor who encounters them for the first time goes through nausea and even vertigo. These stagnant fecal “rivers” breed disease and death. The bodies of water would have to be drained of the filth. Then, blocked channels should be reopened, so that the stagnant bodies of water are reconnected with their sources.

The next phase of development should involve dredging and reclaiming more land from the water for development, and deepening the water for small, leisure vessels to dock in docking stations. A part of the reclaimed land should in some places be left as sweeping beachfronts with well appointed palm trees, while at other places the water should go all the way to docking stations and waterside villas. Following the Dubai model, the state government should set up an agency to attract people and busin

esses from all over the world to develop residential homes in the reclaimed land. Wealthy Nigerians at home and abroad would no doubt be the first to seize the offer.

Development should be conducted vertically and horizontally. Vertical development, which would involve low-cost story buildings, should provide housing for those who do not make a lot of money, civil servants, for example. The upper-middle class and the rich would introduce horizontal development with their dream homes, in some cases complete with landing docks for their leisure boats. With careful planning and faithful execution of the master plan, it would not take long before Port Harcourt becomes a world-class city. If such a master plan does not exist, the governor should set up a Greater Port Harcourt Committee to collect expert advice from architects and planners of world-class cities such as those I listed above, and come up with a model replica of Greater Port Harcourt that will point the way to him and us and future governments of Rivers State.

It is apparent, therefore, that the development of a Greater Port Harcourt is not something that the governor or the state can do overnight. By this I do not mean that the governor should not embark on bringing the dream of a Greater Port Harcourt to reality with the kind of speed that the developers of Dubai have used to transform Dubai in less than two decades into a world-class city and center of international trade and development. What I mean is that the governor should stop acting as if he were a military governor and a law unto himself. The idea of a Greater Port Harcourt should involve every Rivers State person, and every business that operates in Port Harcourt, as well as the central government, for a realization of the idea will be a giant step for the entire country.

But, however, great the vision of a Greater Port Harcourt may be, the reality that hundreds of thousands of people currently call these waterside slum settlements home cannot be wished away. To the extent that these settlements are some of the worst places of habitation on earth, I suggest that the governor collate the name of every resident of these settlements by his/her local government and state of origin. The governor should then meet with the local government chairmen of those who are from Rivers State and come up with a satisfactory plan on how to resettle them and even give them jobs. The governor should meet with the governors of those from outside of the state, who should in turn meet with their local government chairmen to devise satisfactory plans on how to resettle indigenes of their states.

Another way to resettle some of the inhabitants is to develop vertical housing estates within the city. Land is very scarce within Port Harcourt city. As far back as twelve years ago when I left the country, land for development within the city had become very scarce commodity, and people were pushing farther and farther into the outlying Ikwerre villages and into the waterside settlements.

Brethren, after all is said and done, there are no easy solutions. The waterside slum settlements are “islands” of despair, disease and poverty that must go. We as a people must stop the vicious cycle whereby a great majority of kids that are born into these places grow up with no hope for the future, and grow into adults and raise children whose conditions of existence are carbon copies of those of their parents. The ethical dilemma we face on how to do away with these settlements in a humane way and in their stead create places of prosperity for everyone is not an easy one. The work is made difficult by people who unconscionably conjure up specters of ethnic cleansing. If I was a governor of Rivers State, and I do not plan to be one, I will remove the settlements. I owe it to people such as my deceased cousin, whose representation of absolute existential despair still haunts me.

We as a people must make sacrifices. It may mean that those of us who live in the government reserved areas, both old and new, and the sprawling mansions that now dot parts of the city would have to open up our boys-quarter rooms and extra rooms for relatives. The governor may think that this matter is his and his alone and that he should go about it in a military fashion. He is wrong. A well-developed Greater Port Harcourt will be the pride of Rivers person, as well as the nation. It will be an economic powerhouse. It will be a twenty-first century world-class city. We should therefore do everything to support the governor to translate the idea into reality. Generations to come will call us the visionary generation and history may well say, Rivers State was the place where the take-off of the nation happened.

Brethren, thank you very much for giving me your time.

With very warm regards,

Dokubo Goodhead

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