By Henry Ekpe
It was the late Ikemba Nnewi, Eze Igbogburugburu, Chief Emeka Ojukwu that wrote the epic Novel “Because I am involved”. Therefore writing about the sorry present state of Owerri, the capital city of Imo State is “because I am involved”. The Town as today is decaying fast and turning a night mare to both visitors and inhabitants.
I know Owerri as far back as a child, because my parents were part and parcel of the town. So also were my uncles, who spent their sweats in developing Imo State.
Late Chief Raphael Ekpe (RU) my father’s elder brother was a Local Government Administrator in nearly all the LGAs in Imo State during the military era, except Ngor Okpala LGA his own place of birth.
Dr Alex Ekpe, my father’s younger brother was a senior pioneer staff who came back to Nigeria from USA at the request of late Governor Sam Mbakwe to join others and establish Progress Bank.
My late father Dr Hilary Ekpe died as a Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Imo State.
Therefore, when I write with passion about Imo State, I do so with the conviction that I have a duty to continue from where my relations stopped. So, I do not make my commentaries based on personal disdain for any administration in Imo State, but rather as my own little contribution in advising our Leaders to make things better for us. After all, each administration comes and goes, but Imo populace and Owerri capital city remain forever.
Indeed, I have seen administrations come and go, with their various plans for the State capital, Owerri.
It was the first Military Governor of the State, Ndubisi Kanu that gave Imo State the Owerri Master Plan, which outlined how best Owerri could be developed to be one of the best State capitals in Nigeria.
This Abia State born Naval Officer was at the point of realizing his dreams for Old Imo State then, when he was suddenly removed and posted to Lagos State as Governor.
Since then, subsequent administrations have tried to follow the design of Owerri as mapped out by the Ndubisi Kanu era.
For those of us born and bred in Owerri, the city has out-grow because development has shot the population of Owerri to a high level.
And I think that in the bid to contain the human flow into the now-attractive Owerri city, the Governors made some adjustments in the original plan of what Owerri was envisaged to be.
However, the present regime of Governor Rochas Okorocha has completely altered Owerri city. It was a thing of joy when the Okorocha regime introduced its Urban Renewal policy, with Owerri given a priority. But it has gone awry.
There is no gain saying the fact that in order to comply with the present global trends, Owerri needed to be turned into a modern city with best acceptable facilities.
I think, this was what propelled the Okorocha regime to decide to remodel Owerri with wider roads to accommodate the high traffic flow witnessed in the city every day even as the population of the town skyrockets astronomically.
Experts told me that the Governor was right in embarking in his Urban Renewal project as it would change the face of Imo State capital and attract visitors including investors who will join in developing the State.
However, seven years after, it is now left for the Imo populace, visitors to the State capital and the Okorocha government itself to take a look at this signature major project of the Okorocha administration and give a final verdict on what Owerri is presently, from what it used to be seven years ago.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I saw Owerri when it was barely a semi village with two major “streets” Douglas and Wethral Roads.
Then life was sweet for us young people. There used to be a clock at Ama JK Round about opposite Nze HSK Osuji’s House.
Incidentally, the means of transportation then was “Oke-Beke”, these small Buses that the Okorocha regime has returned to Owerri roads.
We had the Library at Wethral Road Round About which Okorocha has since demolished and replaced with a church and car park. We had Mbari Effigy at Arts and Culture and the Beautiful Ama JK Park at Douglas Road which have all been demolished too.
Legendary Shell Camp has also given way to new structures that are springing up. Before, Shell Camp used to be the high brow Area of Owerri, which haboured the Commissioners Quarters.
I am talking about when the likes of Loveday Ememe, KK Ogba, Henry Okwusa, Agom Eze, Rev Dr Anozie, etc used to be Commissioners. Those days of yore when my father’s friend, Chief Egbesa Ihute used to be Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, a position I later held in Imo State. The Shell Camp primary school was for children of the rich.
The Okorocha’s urban renewal has claimed the Ikenegbu shopping Plaza at Mbari Street that had about thirty shops and employed over five thousand people directly and indirectly. The Family Support Programe FSP complex constructed by the Tanko Zubairu regime has gone. This premises had a Gym, Halls, Children play ground, Super Markets, eatries and well tended grasses and trees. What is there now are three round Halls under construction since three years now.
The Urban project led to the mauling down of the ancient Eke Onunwa Market, New Market, and unfortunately, the Shopping Mall at New Stadium on, Wethral Road. The Old Stadium shopping complex has also gone.
After the serial bulldozing of these edifices, I doubt if they could be replaced before the present administration leaves office in the next ten months. And it means that the millions of Naira spent in constructing have gone down the drain pipe of the peoples fund.
However, the questions many people ask is; why demolish these existing structures, and yet begin another one on the same spots?
Were the old ones destroyed because of their present conditions or for space? Why not start new buildings at different places to boast the economy of the State, while these old ones be left alone to add to the number of structures owned by Imo State?
Meanwhile, in Owerri, there has been pipe borne water since the era of Ndubisi Kanu up to Ikedi Ohakim. But in the present Urban Renewal policy in Imo, water is not reckoned with. Rather than embarking on low cost Housing Estates for the teeming civil servants in Imo, private homes and Government property and pulled down.
I remember the old Secretariat at Orlu Road where my late father worked. I also remember the Ministry of Works along Okigwe Road where we used to hunt Birds those days. Both Buildings including “Water Cooperation” sites have been leveled, and these places now look like desert.
The Otammiri Water Distilling site has been taken over by weeds. Today no Tap runs in Owerri town, as individuals resort to personal bore holes. At a time, the Government which ought to provide this essential commodity to the masses, but failed, comtemplated charging fees for private bore holes in Owerri after it saw that a lot of families were digging bore holes.
While growing up in Owerri, Otammiri was one of the tourist centers where we usually go to see how water spill up from the Distilling Pumps.
But today, our Kids would never believe that there was pipe borne water in Owerri just seven years ago.
Infact, the Okorocha regime deserved accolades for the dualization of Okigwe Road, which is the only road the regime has been able to completely expand, since it started expanding Owerri roads.
However, the poor drainage work on that road is the cause of floodings witnessed now at Government House/Bank Road round about. Then, we usually go to the Tunnel at the old Library to listen to the force of flood as they empty into the major manhole at former Cooperative and Commerce Bank.
Unfortunately today, the water-way to that man-whole seems to be blocked or partially blocked. And the flood running down from Prisons to the manhole is too heavy for the narrow gutters to contain the force of water that flow down from Government College/Federal Girls axis.
With the Okorocha administration having barely ten months left in office, Owerri has returned to a two-street Town. How do I mean?
Apart from Tetlow and Okigwe Road, other roads in Owerri have collapsed. To locate any part of Owerri is a difficult journey. Most people now prefare using public transport, but unfortunately, Taxis do not ply what I call the “back-streets” of Owerri.
Why Government decided to commence construction on ever-busy wethral road during this raining season is difficult to fathom. Already Douglas Road is closed and now taken over by mountains of refuse Bins. And there are skeletal or no work at all on this busiest road in Imo, an indication that the Owerri inhabitants still have long days to endure suffer.
Relief Market Road is washed away and unpassable, erosion is nearly cutting to two the MCC Road at the point where the two Filling Stations are located. There are rumours that Government is no more interested in the MCC road project since a certain Business centre on that road has closed down following court ruling.
There are no link roads leading into Prefarb Estate from MCC Road, except you drive up to Uratta by Pilgrims. You cannot connect StartRight or Methodist Church from MCC Road again.
The Dick Tiger road up to Shoprite has been closed finally, while the adjourning roads through Trans Egbu are all death traps. Royce Road, Nekede Road to west end cannot be accessed from Douglas Road again.
Taking wethral Road through Emmanuel College is unimaginable, even as the Road about at Aba Road at Emmauel College is dangerous.
All the roads in the various Estates in Owerri are not worthy; Egbeada, Trans Egbu, Prefab, Aladinma, Works Layout and World Bank. Every junction now in Owerri is a motor park , Ama Hauasa West End and form Ogbo Osisi are like Oshodi of those days. If this is the case, where are the Urban Renewal projects? It seems the policy only targeted demolitions than constructions? For how long would it take to complete a road like Wethral Road, so that the people can do their businesses without pains?
The junction at School Road/MCC has been a death trap for seven years now without Government doing anything, yet the Houses around that junction were all mauled down in the spirit of Urban Renewal. Every day, vehicles fall there.
I am certain Okorocha meant well to change the face of Owerri, but pulling out large drainages constructed with concrete and replacing them with those made of inferior quality and narrower gutters beggars the reason for the Urban Renewal policy.
It is heartwarming that Mbari road was reconstructed and expanded but it was surprising that the engineers did not realize that the area around UBA is usually flood-prone and therefore should have deep drainages.
And again, Trees are important in urban development as they serve as wind breakers and also function in ecosystem. But rather than plant trees that can last for hundred years, pillars and a rods are rather preferred by the Government.
And unfortunately while concentrating on Buildings, we seem to have forgotten the importance of a clean environment in our State. Owerri used to be the cleanest State capital in Nigeria prior to 2011. For sure Owerri people are known for their neatness and clean dressing. But the situation has changed because of Urban Renewal. When shall it get better? I remember old Owerri.