Monday, 21 June 2010

Aba: Elegy for a dying city

Ogechi B. Ezeji (nee Enekwa)

From the stores, my father used to tell me when I was a little girl stories about Aba, the famed enyimba city. According to him, then, the city of Aba was one city that most people in the South eastern part of Nigeria looked forward to moving into in the early 70s immediately after the war with a hope for greener pasture. They indeed found greener pastures there, as Aba was a home for many budding indigenous businesses. The town experienced high urban migration and young men who came to the town with just a plastic bag containing a few items of clothing soon emerged through the virtue of hard work. Then the streets and roads were good and clean.

You could tell a cab driver the place you are going to, even when you have not been there before, and trust him to take you there as the town was modestly planned, houses adequately numbered and men of goodwill were then still many. Though the city was smaller than it is today geographically, it had modest facilities expected from an emerging urban center such as Recreation Park, good roads and planned residential areas. Residents were content and had a great communal spirit such was the hay days of the great Enyimba city, home of Enyimba F.C.

By the late 70’s and the 80’s the good old days were gone. The city’s recreation park at market road had been taken over by carpenters and hair dressers. The city was gradually degenerating into a Slum. Major roads such as Ngwa Road, Uratta Road and Faulks Road were taken over by flood and erosion rendering the roads impassable by vehicles. All the government of the day could do most times was to spray the roads with a few trips of asphalt and carry on with their “I don’t care” attitude. The only roads that remained intact were those built by Mbakwe’s administration in the old Imo State. A feeling of squalor, degradation and hopelessness hung thickly in the air. Then, my father would look back to the good old days and pensively mutter: Aba is dying. However, as compared to what is happening today in Aba, it is clear that the town was only suffering from minor aliment then.

In the late 90’s and at the dawn of the millennium, the problem of infrastructural decay became secondary as there was a geometric rise in crime rate. Armed robbers operated with impunity and dexterity as has never been seen before. Aba City dwellers wailed to the government. The government and state security agents appeared too weak to combat the men of the under-world, hence the emergence and rise to prominence of the Bakkassi movement. Though the Bakkassi Movement resulted in many extra-judicial killings, it marched forces with the bandits overpowered them and temporarily restored security and sanity to Aba City.

Crime in the City took a new dimension with the advent of kidnapping. As an offshoot of the Niger Delta crisis, kidnapping of high net worth individuals became a veritable source of livelihood to the crimmals who have come to be known as the “Big Boys”. The sophistication of the criminals and the ammunitions with which they carried out their nefarious activities to say the least made a caricature of all state security agents in Enyimba City and rendered the Bakkassi boys inept.

As would be expected, high net worth individuals and business movers fled the city and relocated their businesses. The result has been overnight atrophy of the commercial fortunes of one of the biggest commercial cities in the country. This becomes particularly worrisome when one considers the fact that over 60% of Abia State’s internally generated revenue comes from Aba alone. Aba is also the home of many prominent Nigerians, some of whom currently sit in our senate chamber and House of Representatives; decked in designers clothes. The government in its usual manner took some reactive measures to make the people believe they are doing some thing. Stopping of the operation of commercial cyclists was one of the measures and this has long proved abortive.

There was also an influx of all forms of uniformed men into the town ranging from the regular police men, mobile police men and the anti-terrorist squad. Their influx was not just an effort in futility but also increased the menace suffered by the citizens as they resorted to extorting money from commercial motorists and took to their heels at the sight of the “Big Boys” – armed miscreants. The latest of these reactive measures was the amnesty program that was announced by Abia State government not too long ago. The question becomes whether the state government is granting amnesty to criminals as a way of accepting defeat. It is also important to note that in jurisdictions where we imported the concept of amnesty from, amnesty is not granted for funfair. To say the least; the program has proved itself a laughable one.

Today daylight robberies, sporadic shootings and incessant killing of innocent citizens in Aba become a norm. An average six year old can now distinguish between the sound of an AK47 and that of a double barrel. One wonders the difference between Aba and war-torn areas like the Gaza. This however, is not without its attendant consequence on the people such as nervous shock, heart failure and other health hazards.

The climax seems to have been reached with the recent daily robbing of Banks in Aba which resulted in all Banks in Aba embarking on their just concluded one week protest closure which brought the economy of the town to a halt. Banks are formal institutions recognized by the state and in developed civilizations formal institutions do not close shops in fear of bandits. As a solution to this, more ill – equipped uniformed men have been moved into the city. Whether their presence would make any difference is a question for another day.

On a final note, the question for Ngwa people, the so-called indigenes or owners of Aba; all Abians, Abia State government and the federal government is: shall we fold our hands and allow this song of the dead sound louder and louder, close in on us and mark the final demise of the city, Aba?

I do hope that as the 2011 polls draw closer, Abians will not allow themselves to be bamboozled by old politicians in new brocades and their baloney such as: “one good tenure deserves another” “let the good work continue etc. They should rather let their votes make the difference by empowering men of integrity who will restore security amongst other things to Aba and Abia State in general.

Ironically, Aba is not the only city in this unfortunate bracket; many other Nigerian cities are!

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