The Fireside Critic
Letter to my Rivers State Brethren: Governor Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi and the Waterside Slum Settlements
Good morning. I hope all is well with you. Before I begin this letter, let me quickly issue a disclaimer: I am writing to you as a fellow Rivers person and lover of the state, not as a seeker of political office. Let me now go to the subject of the letter: Governor Rotimi Amaechi and the waterside slum settlements. The governor’s plan to demolish the settlements has generated a lot of heated words and a couple of deaths. My heart goes out to the dead. I offer my deepest condolences to the families of the dead. Should the waterside settlements go? I say absolutely!
I will start the discussion with some personal encounters with one of the slum settlements, encounters that I still recall with horror and a deep sense of existential ennui. My family owns land in one of the slum settlements. A relative put up some structures and gave them out for rent. Nonetheless, it is a place where anyone in the family that is down on his/her luck could go and take a room and stay for free. The result has been catastrophic. One relative is dead from tuberculosis. Another narrowly escaped death from tuberculosis only after our late grandmother waged a titanic battle with the disease and death. A death threat to an employee of my cousin that caused the employee to flee the settlement, cheap and mind-numbing sex, early pregnancies, and single motherhood complete the rest of the sordid tale.
Let me explain. More than a decade ago, I lost a beloved cousin. My last visit to her before her death in the shack she called home haunts me to this day. A racking cough repeatedly split her fragile frame. Abject poverty, disease, and death stared back at me in that wretched corner of the earth. A look of total bewilderment sat like an incubus on the face of her little boy. Whatever was going through his young mind I could not tell, but I knew that the little boy was not unaware of the loneliness, helplessness, and absolute horror that had established a totally disorienting presence in the dismal room. I was in school when I heard that she had died. I recalled my last encounter with her, and could not help but meditate on the terrible fate that hung over her children. I wished I could help them. I wished I could pull them away from the edge of the abyss. I wished I could stay the hand of the unpleasant fate that stared them in the face. But I could not. And today, those children, now adults, are producing children that continue the vicious cycle. None of them had a decent environment in which to grow up and none of them has a decent education, and except fortune gives them a break, the future looks dismal for them.
A second cousin was given up for dead. Tuberculosis, that vicious taskmaster of the slum, ravaged her body. It raped her so repeatedly that she became a wreck. No one gave her a chance to survive, and our late grandmother sent word to Port Harcourt to say that her granddaughter should be sent to her. Grandmother waged the greatest battle against death that I had seen. She emptied her granddaughter’s spit bowl, bathed her, fed her, made sure she took her injections and drugs, and comforted her. Grandmother stood on the other side of the door from the Grim Reaper. She placed her shoulder to the door and made the sort of valiant stand against death that still unnerves me. How could a person love so much and so sacrificially? Grandmother prevailed against death and her granddaughter lived. But I could not help but remember where the miserable tale had started: a shack in a waterside slum settlement.
The third case still leaves me shaking my head. I went to visit another cousin, an engineer. He had a little boy. If my memory serves me right, the boy was no more than three at the time. As I talked with his father, the little boy scampered into the corridor of the shack and began to violently thrust his hip forward as if he were engaging in sex. His father was horrified. I was horrified. A sharp rebuke from his father forced the little boy to order. I told my cousin: “Get your family out of here immediately!” “But I am saving money on rent,” my cousin protested. “I don’t care how much money you are saving on rent,” I fired back. “Get out of here, or you will bring your children to ruin.”
Brethren, such is the ugly face of the waterside slum settlements. It is a brutal place where human life has been reduced to a Sisyphean struggle of poverty, disease, and death, a struggle sometimes relieved by crime, acts of senseless violence, and cheap and mind-numbing sex. In these theaters, often worse than anything conjured up in Dante’s Inferno, mankind falls from its perch. Reality is like a hallucinatory nightmare. And that nightmare must give way to a refreshing affirmation of life.
The governor has received some very heated opposition, some of it well deserved, and I will address that shortly. But a good deal of the opposition to the governor’s project is based on fear mongering, ethno-nationalist jingoism, and an atavistic celebration of dissolute governance. There are persons that have emerged in the public sphere, particularly in Internet forums, as spokesmen for the dissolute government of the ex-governor of the state, Dr. Peter Odili. As far as these are concerned, the present governor can do nothing right. Brethren, because my support of Governor Amaechi’s agenda of development of our beloved state is based on nothing but my desire to see us succeed, to cut down human misery, and to make the entire state a place where we can all say, “Thank God Almighty for Rivers State,” I will pose a set of questions to those who are today trying to stand in the way of Governor Amaechi because of their support of the ex-governor.
Let me begin. 1) Was there not a complete breakdown of every institution in the state under the ex-governor? 2) Did our health system not suffer a systemic collapse? 3) Did our educational system not suffer a systemic collapse? 4) Did Port Harcourt, our beloved Port Harcourt, not become a war zone, where criminals gunned down people with impunity in broad day light? 5) Was the distress of Port Harcourt and the entire state not so much that companies began to vote with their feet to Lagos and other cities? 6) Did the state, particularly the riverine villages and towns, not turn into theaters of war and the most gruesome violence?
More questions. 1) Did many inhabitants of violence-ravaged villages and towns not flee to other places where they could at least secure their lives, if not their property? 2) Did the state not witness the assassination of political titans such as Chief Dikibo and Chief Marshall Harry? 3) While the entire state was falling apart around him, in other words, while Rome was burning, did the ex-governor not fiddle away chasing his political dreams? 4) Did the ex-governor not use our money to acquire two jets to campaign for the presidency? 5) Did people not call the ex-governor Donatus (Donate-tus) because he gave away the common wealth to anyone who would support his political ambition, as if money was not our problem, but how to spend it? 6) Did the state not become a cash cow for the Peoples Democratic Party?
Yet more questions. 1) Did the governor not use our money to build a new government house fit for an emperor? I saw pictures of some of the rooms in the mansion, complete with chairs that looked like thrones for an emperor, and my heart bled for us. Why so much profligacy in a place where people are dying daily of very treatable diseases? I remembered the prophet Jeremiah, and I wept for us. I remembered the psalmist, and I cried out: “Oh, Rivers State, Rivers State, if I ever forget you, may my tongue cleave to my palate, and may my right hand forget its cunning.”
Brethren, recently I learnt that the
ex-governor awarded a contract for a trans-Kalabari Highway to a prominent Kalabari chief, and that not even one kilometer of road was paved. The money simply disappeared into the pockets of the chief. The ex-governor did not retrieve the money from the chief and award the contract to another contractor that would execute the contract. Such was the wholesale pillaging of our commonwealth, both at the state and local government levels, under the ex-governor that it attracted the attention of Human Rights Watch. I spoke with some of the officers of the organization after their panel presentation at the African Studies Association Conference in New York in 2007.
Brethren, let me quote a portion of the report. “Rivers had a budget of $1.3 billion in 2006, larger than those of many West African countries, with a smaller population. But the state government has done little to alleviate poverty or improve the delivery of basic services…. At the same time, the governor of Rivers State budgeted tens of millions of dollars that year alone on questionable priorities like foreign travel, ‘gifts,’ and ‘souvenirs’ to unspecified recipients, and the purchase of jet aircraft and fleets of new cars for his office.” Thankfully, Human Rights Watch has put the entire report, entitled Chop Fine, online. It can be accessed at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2007/nigeria0107webcover.pdf. Brethren, I suggest that every one of you get hold of the entire report and read it from cover to cover. You will weep.
The ex-governor’s supporters have every right to worship at the altar of their patron saint. What they have no right to is to presume that the rest of us will follow suit, or that so great are their magical powers that they have the ability to dupe us into drinking from the river, Lethe.
Now, brethren, let us look at the very high cost of the failure to build the trans-Kalabari Highway. The trans-Kalabari Highway would have increased the volume of commerce between Kalabari towns and villages, between Kalabari towns and villages and Port Harcourt and other towns and villages in the state. It would have increased the volume of commerce between Kalabari towns and villages and other villages, towns, and cities in the country and beyond.
Also, the trans-Kalabari Highway would have meant the trans-Kalabari Power Highway, as electricity would have followed the highway to every town and village to which it goes. The trans-Kalabari Highway would have meant that as in Lagos, where one can live in Ojuelegba and go to work in Victoria Island, people can go from Kalabari towns and villages to work in Port Harcourt and return home at the end of the day. It would have relieved the strain on housing in Port Harcourt. The trans-Kalabari Highway would have meant too that one could leave one Kalabari town or village and go and work in another Kalabari town or village and return home the same day. Growth would follow. Even non-Kalabari people would be able to follow economic opportunities to Kalabari land.
Furthermore, the trans-Kalabari Highway would have meant that a governor could seriously consider placing institutions such as colleges of universities or their satellite campuses in Kalabari towns and villages. The educational and economic profile of such towns and villages would rise, as colleges of universities and satellite campuses inevitably attract businesses that cater to students and faculty. The problem of teacher recruitment that plagues many island towns and villages because teachers, including those from the islands who do not want to live in them because of the absence of electricity, potable water, health facilities and connecting roads to Port Harcourt, would gradually disappear, because such teachers would now have the option of going from Port Harcourt to these islands to teach and return to Port Harcourt at the end of the day.
Also, as soon as electricity follows the road to these towns and villages, the people would ask for potable water and health-care facilities. Once these facilities are there, supermarkets and other goods stores would follow. These towns and villages would suddenly become more attractive as places in which to live, and the state would no longer become a one-city state, with everyone clamoring to live in Port Harcourt.
Furthermore, as I have said elsewhere, an enterprising governor could create a fishing and marine-vessel building hub around some of these islands. Let us say he/she sends the School of Fisheries and the Department of Marine Engineering and allied departments to one of these islands, situated strategically at the center of a chain of islands that are fully supplied with electricity, potable water, well-equipped schools and health facilities, a fishing and marine-vessel building hub could be nurtured with the help of the academic institutions and determined and talented entrepreneurs. Sea-going vessels would be built and repaired in these islands. Fishermen would set off for the high seas in vessels built in these islands. They would return from the high seas with catches that would immediately be sent to other parts of the state and beyond. The fishermen would have homes in these islands. Their fishing would give work to others that would package or transport the seafood elsewhere. Marine vessels built in these islands would be sold at dockyards, and some would be built on order from individual customers.