ENGAGEMENTS By Chidi Amuta.
The 2012 meeting of the Nigeria-US Bi-National Commission took place in Port Harcourt last week. In the same week, the annual week long Garden City Literary Festival dominated the cultural landscape of the city and arguably the nation. It was easily the most serious cultural event taking place in Nigeria in October and has become year-on-year, a constant feature of our scanty cultural calendar. The literary festival was crowned by the formal launch of Port Harcourt as the UNESCO World Book City for 2014. These events saw a high turnout of diplomatic and international visitors to the Garden City.
In particular, the UNESCO World Book City event acquires more significance when it is realised that Port Harcourt emerged as the city of choice from an impressive list of major cities of the world that vied for the status. I believe Port Harcourt was chosen on account of its sustained active engagement with a reading culture since the advent of the current administration in the state. The administration under Governor Chibuike Amaechi has made commitment to the written word a major plank of its social democratic agenda. Himself a student of literature and great lover of books, the governor has relentlessly promoted and supported literature as well as the drive for a reading culture in the last five years.
Amaechi has gone out routinely to read with school children in schools around the state. He has dedicated some of his own birthdays to reading sessions in lowly schools. Through these acts, the governor has symbolically reconnected with his own humble social background through identification with education, a factor to which he has frequently ascribed his own success in life.
I believe Port Harcourt was chosen by UNESCO as a symbol of the healing power of enlightened governance in mending places destroyed by bad leadership and mindless criminality. The emergence of Port Harcourt in recent times as a major national investment and cultural destination requires celebration. The background is of course the recent history of violence in Nigeria’s Niger Delta and the fast deterioration of our national security architecture in general.
Liberation is a word that for many decades was dear to the hearts of the people of Port Harcourt and Rivers State. Liberation from Biafran occupation and its unfortunate ethnic connotation in the context of the Nigerian Civil War was until lately a passionate linguistic departure in parts of Rivers State. In its recent meaning, however, liberation would seem to refer more to the freeing of the state and Port Harcourt city from the grips of bad politics and home grown criminality and self inflicted insecurity. Freed from the latter burden, Port Harcourt is literally bursting at the seams with throngs of local and international visitors as economic and social activities have returned.
Here is a city that was virtually a theatre of war a little over four years ago. By 2008, the streets of Port Harcourt were unsafe both in the day and at night. The city was largely deserted, decrepit and dangerous. Heavily armed criminal bands roamed and reigned freely and unchallenged. Point-blank executions of innocent by-standers at bus stops, markets and other public spaces was common. Nightclubs shut down as criminal gangs looking for choice expatriates to abduct or kidnap for ransom frequently raided them.
Investors fled in droves led by expatriate operatives of oil companies and a literal state of emergency was in place without being formally declared. As business people fled, they left behind numerous uncompleted buildings, vacant shops and residential spaces. International airlines suspended flights into and out of Port Harcourt. Combat ready troops in armoured personnel carriers and light tanks paraded the major streets in the day and manned roadblocks at night. Innocent people could only move about the city with both hands raised and sometimes waving white handkerchiefs to indicate that they were peaceful and not dangerous. Important government visitors were escorted around the state by truckloads of combined police and military personnel. A dusk to dawn curfew remained in place for months.
Today, the picture is markedly different. When you want to gauge the state of security in a place, start from the little things. The ordinary fruit seller, the woman who roasts corn, plantains and fish at the street side, the Suya man have all since returned as features of city life. Street drinking and pepper soup joints are all in place on a regular basis. On one of his numerous project inspection rounds a year ago, Governor Amaechi broke protocol as he is frequently wont to do to buy some roasted corn from a roadside vendor. The old lady sold him the corn and asked him to take a few more cobs if he wanted. He looked the governor straight in the eyes and said simply: ‘thank you my son’.
Nightclubs have remained open all night all over the city for the better part of the last three and a half years without major mishaps. Gas stations now open till well after almost mid night. Happy days are back. Almost.
There are no checkpoints now. No hard eyed soldiers in combat gear. There are of course normal patrols of the Joint Task Force (JTF) and other security personnel. It is not just the little things that have returned. Some big things are also happening. Major roads in and around the city have either been reconstructed or are in the process of being rebuilt. Streetlights along major arteries do work at night. Bridges and flyovers are going up at strategic points.
But Port Harcourt is not yet paradise, nor has it regained its pre-Civil War swing. The battle to wean Port Harcourt of the remnants of its recent history is by far not over yet. By all means let us celebrate the return of a city that many agree is nearly as strategic as Lagos if not more so in real economic terms. But let us also point to the real problems that remain unresolved. It is tragically ironic that in the week that the world gathered in Port Harcourt to celebrate literature and the written word, the nation woke to the awe and shock of the gruesome lynching of four undergraduates of the University of Port Harcourt by an irate mob of barbaric and foolish villagers. That is more a statement on the state of security in the nation than in Rivers State alone.
The road network in the old city is hardly adequate to take the weight of the traffic of the renewed interest in Port Harcourt as a destination favourable for business. The rate of decay of the old roads is beginning to overwhelm the feverish construction rate of new ones. You get this impression when you visit during the rains that road maintenance here needs to be a hands-on-round-the-clock affair. Vital junctions in the city need the help of traffic lights to lessen dependence on manual control.
For a city that is proud in its old name of Garden City, one looks almost in vain for the gardens. In a hurry to reconstruct this city, the Amaechi administration seems to have spared scant attention to the beautification of the city or the restoration of whatever is left of the old gardens if any. In a state that needs to create many jobs quickly, the greening of the city would seem to be a low hanging fruit of opportunity for massive employment of unskilled and semi skilled labour.
In many ways, the overwhelming centrality of Port Harcourt in the life of Rivers State makes the state almost a city-state. Fix Port Harcourt and you fix Rivers State. Bungle Port Harcourt and you unsettle not only the state but also the Nigerian federation. Just as quickly as new double track roads are being inaugurated all over the city, the old network is falling apart, thereby rendering the valiant efforts of the state administration problematic on the surface. Old Port Harcourt is literally at war with the new spirit of the city.
The old city is fighting back, furiously. In Nigeria, old things never pass away. They persist and even sometimes return to haunt the new. That is possibly a metaphor for the contradiction now dogging the silent revolution that has taken place in Rivers State and Port Harcourt in the last five years.
The stresses and strains of an over burdened city are everywhere in evidence. Once security and peace were restored to Port Harcourt, the city was overwhelmed by its strategic importance and location. Corporations that fled in the days of carnage have gradually begun to return. A new confidence on the part of the oil and gas industry is witnessed by the renewed influx of oil and gas operatives, mainly expatriates, flocking into the city. Port Harcourt bound local and international flights are almost always fully booked. Hotel occupancy has risen from near empty to almost always fully booked.
In the wake of crises in other parts of the country especially the North, a good number of returnees to the South-east and South-south head straight for Port Harcourt. Only recently, when kidnapping literally sacked the neighbouring states of Abia, Imo, Ebonyi and parts of Anambra, the daily influx of persons either coming to transact business or set up shop in Port Harcourt was clearly visible.
The recent plight of Port Harcourt is multiply significant. Its decent into anarchy and violence shows how bad politics and abysmal leadership can bedevil good places and imperil cherished memories. Its resurgence and recovery indicates the opposite: strong leadership and pragmatic visionary leadership can transform even a nightmare. In the renaissance of Port Harcourt in Rivers State, there are the germs of Nigeria’s own possibilities of collective self-retrieval and true transformation.