Nnamdi Nwokedi Jnr.
Few experiences in my adult life have left me as shell-shocked and short of words as my recent foray into the functionally-branded Coal City State of Enugu. And it was patently fortuitous as I was not in the frame for the trip. I had barely resumed from my extended end of year and New Year holidays when my organization received invitation to join the Good Governance Tour of the South-East geo-political zone. My initial disposition was to ask the programme manager to take up the offer on our behalf, but it soon materialized that she, too, was already booked for a crucial assignment over the same period.
Once I took up the challenge, it was not far-fetched what to expect. State governors who routinely host these tours are adept at their game and will stop at nothing to turn the tour into empty window dressing exercises. The tour served off with Anambra State where, it soon became obvious, that even amidst the ruins, there are still traces of architecture. The tour of Imo and Abia states was relatively straightforward, if not altogether predictable.
The team’s tour of Enugu would, however, break the mould. My connections with the state as a whole are fairly strong and long lasting. My Delta-State-born father had resided in Enugu metropolis since the 1960s up to the early 1980s as a staffer of the Post and Telecommunications (P&T) Department. Growing up in the Coal Camp area, and attending the College of the Immaculate Conceptions (CIC), and later as an undergraduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in the ‘80s, I followed closely the ebb and flow in the development and evolution of the town at the time. It did not stop there. I have nothing but fond memories of the capital of Eastern Nigeria: a beautiful, laid back but well planned city, surrounded by alluring rolling hills with its totemic parched red earth and swirling dust storms. By the mid and late 1990s, Enugu, like much of Nigeria, had fallen into torrid times.
Expectations were inevitably high that the onset of a democratic civilian dispensation would roll back the rot and contagion of long years of military rule. Nothing short of that would suffice for a long-suffering people. Once the euphoria and initial sighs of relief that heralded the exit of the men on horseback faded away however, it soon dawned on the people of the state that the more things changed; the more they remained the same! Back in the day, a certain mythmaker wrote a hymn “Enugu is working” which in the nature of Nigerian politics, enjoyed generous playtime on the airwaves to little redeeming effect. The message mocked the messenger! More tellingly, was the cordon of insecurity of life and property that in dramatic fashion enveloped the Coal City. A beautiful, peaceful city was suddenly overwhelmed by violence and gangsterism on all fronts, and before our very eyes, it descended into a killing field!
It was at that point that someone like me virtually gave up on a city that had become an integral part of me. In the past couple of years, I had had to completely shut both ears to news emanating from the Coal City, convinced in a cynical sense that the worst is never too far off. The reader could therefore imagine my uttermost bewilderment as I returned to good old Coal City after more than a decade to the discovery of a new dawn, the on-set of a great renaissance. I must add that nothing in concrete terms prepared me for the last game-changing encounter with Enugu.
The activities of the state government have largely gone unreported in the past six years or thereabouts. The state Governor, Sullivan Chime, is probably the last face to be seen at a typical meeting of the all-powerful Nigerian Governors’ Forum. Besides, the unique political context of this tour to Enugu was not lost on me altogether!
To be on a safe side, as they say, I arrived Enugu on that fateful trip expecting nothing out of the ordinary, but if possible, more of the same menu. The tour, led by the Honourable Minister of Information, Labaran Maku, began innocuously, but it soon dawned on someone like me with an intimate knowledge of the city that we were in for an elaborate shocker. For me, the critical test lay in the very simple things. So on the first night, I was prompted to explore the city some more, and thankfully, an old pal from our Nsukka days had graciously agreed to show me round the city’s new bazaars and entertainment points.
It was well past midnight when my friend eventually dropped me off at the hotel, but in reality I had taken in more than enough for the night, dumbfounded by the scope and ramifications of the transformation that had gripped the metropolis. As my friend prowled the city centre in his well-heeled SUV, there was little hint of the chronic insecurity that ravaged the city for a better part of eight years and which banished nightlife altogether. For good measure, the entire metropolis was lit up with street lights on extra-ordinarily well paved roads, a feat, my friend hinted was made possible by dedicated sound-proof generators. Gone were the dark spots and blind alleys. Gone too were the menacing hi-jack power bikes that enabled criminals and gangsters to operate freely and assured their quick getaway. In place of the bikes, neat, branded yellow, air conditioned taxi cabs and luxurious buses had become the dominant means of transportation; and the taxis in particular operated well into the wee hours, perhaps assured like the rest of the population by the visible presence of Police and military patrols equipped and funded by the state government that, danger was at least a little far off!
The previous night’s outing had gone a long way to stimulate my interest fully in the tour. As the second day of the tour got underway, I eagerly looked forward to setting sight once again on the Nsukka campus of the University of Nigeria, after what has seemed quite like an age. Within thirty minutes of moving around the campus, it became apparent to me that UNN was in the throes of monumental transformation, which in several ways, also mirrored the transformation of the entire Enugu State under Governor Chime. The dusty roads, dilapidated buildings and rustic environment that my generation of students grappled with are systematically giving way to modernization, changing physical infrastructure and a serene, green environment complete with well paved asphalt roads and walkways, construction of several new buildings and the extensive renovation of existing ones including student hostels, laboratories and classrooms Further enquiries would unveil the hands of Chime’s government in turning around UNN’s recent fortunes.
Firstly, the administration partnered with the school authorities to accomplish a new water scheme which has ensured regular water supply on the campus, thus significantly improving hygiene and sanitation on the main campus. The state government also single-handedly built a new main entrance dual carriageway that has bye-passed Nsukka Township completely, running in southerly direction through Eha Alumona to connect the 9th Mile Obollo Afor highway. Thus, by the third day, it dawned on me that I could not possibly shirk the responsibility of providing this narrative, if only to lift the lid on what seems to me like a self-imposed cauldron of anonymity by the Enugu State government.
Of the numerous projects and tangible achievements which may be credited to the Chime administration, none perhaps compares to the sheer quantity and quality of roads infrastructure, complete with asphalt and double drainage system, being put in place, or already completed across the length and breadth of the state. There is no gainsaying the obvious fact that within less than six years, Sullivan Chime has put in place roads infrastructure that will last the state capital another fifty years! At any rate, if further proof was required, an excursion to the Mgbemena – Mbanugo by-pass, CBN – Trans-Ekulu by-pass, the CPS – Akwata – Ogbete landmark dualisation, the second Zik Avenue Bridge, the dualisation from the junction of 82 Division to the Airport Bridge which includes a flyover, would render it absolutely unnecessary. That these roads are fitted with functional traffic lights which have limited the presence of the traffic wardens was quite novel to behold.
Despite the time constraints, I managed to breeze into the main campus of the prestigious Institute of Management and Technology (IMT) which for more than two decades was swallowed up by the state University of Science and Technology, ESUT, and interestingly, the place was bubbling with life and new projects were springing up here and there. At C.I.C, the state’s premier college and my alma-mater, the premises was glittering and there was hardly any building that has not been renovated or re-roofed in the past six years, courtesy of Chime, who is also an old boy!
This account will be grossly incomplete if I failed to draw attention to a burgeoning private sector that is suddenly and gradually taking roots in the Coal City. This sector is beginning to play an important role in the economy of the state, and nowhere is this more apparent than the emergence of huge franchise shopping malls, amusement parks, hotels and industrial plants led by the INNOSON Group. For the quantum of transformation that Enugu has witnessed, I can only conclude that a king who turned a beautiful city into a jungle will be as remembered, albeit in infamy, as the one who turns a jungle into a beautiful city. We can now safely accept that at crucial moments in a people’s history, God intervenes and can write straight on crooked lines.
Nwokedi works with the Initiative for Democracy and Good Governance, Abuja