By Uchenna Nwatu
No matter how expedient the action may be, the demolition of structures – including undoubtedly illegal ones – is often a highly emotive subject. And whereas the brunt of the action may be borne largely by the owners, it is certainly not something the government embarks on with glee. So, it amounts to populism to attempt to further stoke the anger of unfortunate victims of demolition for political gain. I recently watched a video footage of former information minister Frank Nweke’s visit to the site of a demolition in a residential neighborhood in Enugu municipal that clearly fell into this category. He had visited ostensibly to empathize with traders whose stalls were pulled down, but the real intent was narcissistic and a selfish quest to reap political capital from the pains of others.
Totally ignored was the fact that the traders had violated the terms of an earlier agreement they had themselves proposed regarding their relocation to a much bigger space, where they could carry out their businesses without impeding traffic flow and causing grave discomfort for residents.
What sort of rationalization can be made for the indiscriminate conversion of streets and buildings assigned as residential areas to commercial use? And how can the unconscionable conduct of traders who knowingly encroach on thoroughfares with their wares and through indiscriminate extension of shops be ever justified?
When traders spill onto streets and substantially reduce the widths available to vehicles, it is not just a municipal blight, it denies every other rightful residents an unimpeded access through a general infrastructure. Besides, it limits the capacity of agencies (fire service, ambulances, etc) to respond to emergency situations.
Indeed, the scale of municipal blights seen at Kenyatta Market begs the question how such could have been allowed to fester over the years and not nipped in the bud as it should. Was it the desire to be politically-correct or sheer willingness to elevate commerce above aesthetics and the common good? Whatever instincts may have impelled past administrations to overlook these obvious infractions will only be conjectural. But it is defeatist to simply carry on like the malaise is one that cannot be helped and should, as a result, be lived with.
Coming from someone who served in governments with scant regard for human rights and property rights, Nweke’s questioning of the propriety of the Enugu government’s implementing of a clearly expedient action is sheer hypocrisy. As information minister in the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, Nweke rationalized the military’s invasion of Zaki Biam (a community in Benue State), which led to the destruction of countless homes and killing of scores of innocent civilians. Indeed, he also saw nothing wrong when the Chimaroke Nnamani administration, of which he was a principal officer, whimsically sacked thousands of civil servants and, in a diabolical rage, demolished the homes of perceived political opponents.
Besides, Nweke’s criticism of the urban renewal programme is from a comfort zone. He would not have himself tolerated the misery which traders of sundry items had subjected residents at the Kenyatta Market axis for over 20 years. However, residents of those areas whose lives are daily impacted adversely by the activities of the traders have been heaving a huge sigh of relief. The same goes for members of the public who have ever had a reason to commute through Kenyatta and some adjoining streets in Uwani.
Although largely expedient and preceded by an extended notice to the affected traders, the discomfort wrought by the exercise cannot be glossed over. But whatever pain it creates is mitigated by the fact the traders have not been left in the cold; they are in fact relocating to a much larger and fitting space conducive to their kind of business.
As a result of its historical status as capital during different political epochs beginning from the Eastern Region through East Central State and old Anambra State, Enugu has since the discovery of coal in 1909 been a melting pot, drawing hundreds of thousands from surrounding hinterlands and distant communities seeking better economic opportunities.
This has been the case for years because the capital was perceived as the only escape from the drudgery of rural life, resulting in the city’s population growing to a level that puts an unbearable pressure on public space and utilities. The fact that the current administration in Enugu State had long realized the implications of this dilemma and has always been determined to find a lasting solution should be commended. That determination can be seen in the huge funds the administration has so far spent on projects in rural areas, a good number of which had never hosted one in their history.
The ongoing decluttering of the Kenyatta Market should be seen as an integral part of the Ugwuanyi administration’s vision to make Enugu a green and livable city that ranks high as an investment destination. So, there’s no doubt that returning Enugu to its original masterplan as the city’s founders had intended is as much an aesthetically-driven project as it is an economic imperative.
One of the reasons Nigerian cities always rank low on global livability reports is as a result of a failure to deal with physical planning infractions that cause perennial traffic gridlock. Cities that constantly experience such can hardly attain their full economic potential. There is, indeed, a correlation between cities’ livability status and their capacity to attract investments. That, in part, explains General Electric’s choice of Nairobi as headquarters of its African operations, and not Lagos despite its undeniably large market. It is the reason too Google chose Accra as its operational hub in Africa. It is the reason too that cities such as Cape Town and Kigali are prime destinations for conferences and startups.
Governments regularly voice commitments to improving living conditions and eliminating factors that impinge on those goals. Their persistence, sadly, is often a bitter highlight of the chasm between rhetoric and action. Should the government have ignored the many municipal infractions which could result in Enugu’s descent into the kind of disorder that has made life in most Nigerian cities a nightmare? That would be nothing short of populism if it did.
Had governments in the past risen above this populist sentiment and adhered scrupulously to its own laws, Enugu’s masterplan would not be so brazenly assailed because every flouting of physical planning laws will be stopped at the incipient stage. Someone always has to take that painful but necessary action for the common good. That is how societies develop and retain their character for centuries. As one who had been director-general of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group and regularly his fellowship of some reputable global institutions, Nweke ought to know this. Adopting populist posturing will not secure him the governorship seat that he desperately craves. Governance transcends such shenanigans.
- Nwatu wrote in from Enugu.