Port Harcourt Waterfronts Raze: Unanswered Questions?

The waterfront inside Port Harcourt was previously the mariners and boats Station located a few meters outside Port Harcourt watersides and part of the newly built cultural centre alongside. Its aged collection has more than 5,000 rare mangroves and sand-filled swamps. Today the Rivers State authority is announcing its demolition; the residence and their backbone is repealing the demolition.

Letters have been sent, adverts has been conducted, Madam Jonathan has kicked and fliers were also branded in a last ditch effort, to the Rivers state government who alone have the power to overrule the decision. But neither has yet responded to the letters.

The waterfront is one of 1,400 settlement that houses makeshift and slums. Port Harcourt waterfront residence started out as an informal settlement where traders from the hinterlands as well as the riverine made temporary abodes during trading trips. The waterfront has a multiethnic population and a density of 750, which makes it the most, populated of all the Port Harcourt slums.

Houses are tenement buildings housing more 5 – 6 families with an average family size of eight who share toilet facilities mostly designed as outhouses alongside bathrooms and kitchens. Although houses are accessible by road, most roads are unpaved or badly rutted and characterized by a lack of drains, street lightings and sidewalks. Some streets have overtaken completely by refuse. Residents are either self employed or employed in the informal sector.

Rivers State capital, with its 7% GDP growth rate last year and a target of 8% for this year, occupied the top position in a global survey of business confidence by Grant Thornton International, pushing behind it not only the Africa’s oil-giants but also its nearest rival south Africa. In order to sustain this position, providing infrastructure to local and foreign investors is at the top of the state Government’s priority list. Land acquisition on a large scale by the government in both rural and urban areas and then passing it on to industrial house builders at a nominal price is at its historical peak.

The space is being cleared for building roads, flyovers, multiplexes, skyscrapers to house offices of IT and financial businesses, multinational corporation-owned shopping malls and housing colonies for these few neo-rich. The construction industry is growing at a rate of 5% and is at 12th position in the world. On the other hand, with a high level of automation in new investments and the upgrading of previous industries, large scale closure of small scale industries and cities becoming the hubs of IT and finance sectors, the requirement for manual, skilled and semi-skilled labourers is at its minimum in the cities. So the local governments in all the major and minor cities and even towns are on a slum demolition spree.

Four hundred thousand waterfront buildings are slum where some underprivileged Nigerians live. Within a period of some months just before heavy rainy season of next year in the city of Port Harcourt alone, the government has sworn to demolish them. The exact figure for other community is not available but demolition of waterfront is almost a routine affair in all the cities and towns – perhaps with or without alternative accommodation and expected 7 days notice plus extreme brutality during these operations.

There had been four or five slum demolitions a week during last year or thereabout with each waterfront having from 100 to 700 dwellings. A temporary brake has been applied in Borokiri because of the organized protests as will be described later. Bundu waterside where the prisons have occupied for last 25 years is no exception, the only difference being the demolitions there are the fastest, using the most brutal force, giving no time to waterfront dwellers to organize any help.

Nigeria is signatory to the declarations by UN conference on ‘Human Shelter’ 1996, which only reconfirmed the previous commitments of 1976 conference. In this declaration it is said that enough shelter with all basic amenities is recognized as a human right and it will be the government’s responsibility to see that all the people get it. In the last 10 years, umpteen number of times promises have been made by the state governments to build houses for the waterfront dwellers. Rivers state government’s policy on paper is to provide houses to every waterfront dweller wherever they are located at present. But exactly contrary to all these on paper promises a large scale waterfront demolitions are underway to ‘beautify’ the cities.

The only problem with this whole dream of Nigerian ruling class to create ‘beautiful’ cities for themselves is that the people who are being uprooted do not want to take it all lying low. After all they had erected these dwellings by saving pennies from their meagre earnings. Most of them have lived there for last 25 to 30 years or even 50 to 60 years. To get their votes in elections they were given water connections metered electric connections and charged taxes and now bulldozers are coming and destroying everything pushing them back by 25-30 years!

The resistance to waterfront demolition has always existed on the part of different groups working independently, the authorities giving practically no response as the resistances remained low key because of waterfront dwellers’ difficulties in waging a continuous fight as most of them are daily wage earners, the inability of the organizations working with them to realize the need for unity or the hold of one or the other bourgeoisie political parties in waterfronts fooling them giving false promises and so on.

The recent spate of demolitions adjacent silver bird auditorium (mile 0ne) has brought some of the organizations and waterfront dwellers together and an umbrella organization “Waterfront People’s Movement” has been formed. It has started organizing waterfront people, forming committees for putting up a long term fight. Taking legal help of activist lawyers who are among the founder members of “Waterfront People’s Movement”, quite a few court orders staying demolitions have been won at the same time. In its first state wide protest program, rallies and demonstrations were held in two cities Abonema, Ozuboko and four towns Tere-Ama, Wakirike Island, Buguma, Haris Town of Rivers State on 21st December 2010 demanding Housing as the Fundamental Right, implementation of the government’s own policy and an immediate stop to demolitions.

Rallies were held on the 8th day of local civic election results in Agudama and though no mention of Waterfront dwellers’ wellbeing was present in the pre-election manifesto and in fact notices were being served for demolitions from the day one of the election results, by the 5th day of the rally the elected council-boss started talking of settling them in Bile town! Municipal offices have started responding the demands for basic amenities in Waterfront very quickly. In fact the Town council assignee promised to provide light and water wherever it is absent right at the time of receiving memorandum. The promises can be just to calm down the tempo of the movement and actual work is not done at that speed.

The picture is not as rosy at other places in Port Harcourt and demolitions may continue. In Marine-Base the schemes are being prepared by the government under the pressure of the agitations there. But it is very difficult to sustain these movements during time taken to prepare and implement the schemes. Some of the Waterfront-slums are saved intact with quick legal actions using lame laws of Nigerian constitution but where bulldozer has already destroyed it all, how long can they stay in the half or fully broken houses or tents to occupy the same place facing the extremes of weather vagaries that Port Harcourt has.

“Waterfront dwellers Movement” has been formed with a long term perspective of taking u

p all the other issues like unemployment, education, health, etc, of poor people and not demolition alone. Much more is required to be done and this is just a beginning.

It is therefore most imperative and urgent that the land settlers bill be enacted during the upcoming House sitting period. Otherwise we can forget about ambitions to expand the economy by more than 6.5 percent a year, because the economy will burst at the seams without adequate infrastructure. We don’t see any reasons why the bill should not be passed by the House, because it is designed to remove uncertainty in land acquisition for infrastructure projects by preventing land speculation, while securing appropriate compensation for landowners through independent land valuations.

The new land law will provide greater clarity on the availability and price of land because the complex procedures for land acquisition have made this component the biggest factor of uncertainty regarding infrastructure project costs.

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