By Okechukwu Keshi Ukegbu
Illegal structures that dot the length and width of Aba, the commercial hub of Abia State have been a clog on the wheel of efforts to reshape and sanitise the city. The immediate past administration in the state discovered it would take the demolition of 1,800 illegal structures-built on drainage and other unapproved locations to its master plan. This was to pave way for easy de-flooding and proper drainage in the commercial city. It was noted that the houses, shacks, hovels are sitting on and blocking gutters and sewage system in the city; and except these illegal structures were demolished, all the investments by the administration in road infrastructure would end up in smoke. This generated controversy as the owners of these illegal structures threatened hell and brimstone if the government dares to tamper with their structures. Even though the Aba Landlords Association endorsed the proposed demolition of illegal structures, some disgruntled elements, including some mercantilist human rights NGOs, who cry more than the bereaved and see every opportunity as a gold mine, threatened to institute legal actions against the government if it dare carried out the demolition.
From one administration to the other, the threat illegal structures constitute to the sanity of Aba has always been an issue but because of one reason or the other they could not carry out the demolitions. During Orji Uzor Kalu’s administration, consultants engaged to understudy the problem of Aba recommended that over 2000 illegal houses built against flood flow must be pulled down to sanitize the city so that there will be free flow of flood and storm water. Also, Col. Abdulkarim Adisa the Military administrator of the old Imo State, pulled down a multi-storey building located off Faulks Road, Aba and forced the owner to pay cost of clearing the debris.
From day one, Gov. Ikpeazu had demonstrated his courage and will to deal with the dreaded monster called illegal structures in Aba. Few days before the inauguration of his government, Governor Ikpeazu during an interactive session with Aba residents said “I have seen the enormity of the challenges confronting the state, but we must ask ourselves if the omelet we are about to make, are we ready to break eggs? Some people want change but their stores are on the drainages. To them, they want to make omelet, but don’t want to break the eggs. How can we witness the change we want with this attitude? “
The governor called on the residents of the state to be ready to make sacrifices to support his administration to change the face of the state, adding that he has mapped out plans to better the lots of the state within six months of his inauguration.
Later, Abia State Government duly served residents of Aba a notice of the planned demolition of illegal structures in the commercial city, and urged those who had illegal structures to evacuate them in the next seven days.
The statement, which stated that the structures to be affected would include illegal shops, illegal fences, buildings in service lanes and others that impede free flow of traffic, reads: “The government of Abia State is by this notice informing all property owners in the Aba metropolis and the general public that, in line with the government’s commitment towards the rebuilding of the city of Aba, which necessitated the establishment of the Aba Urban Renewal Office, the agencies of government will commence a demolition exercise of all structures, property, stalls and shops which encroach on the road, seven days from this announcement. Government also called on all concerned to take appropriate measures before the arrival of the bulldozers.
Days after the expiration of the notice deadline, demolition of illegal structures on roads undergoing construction commenced. Hardly had the exercise commenced when the professional fault finders in the state, the All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA took to their criticisms.
The party, in a press briefing, accused the state government of selective approach to the exercise, alleging that the exercise was targeted at members of the party.
APGA further alleged that it was the way the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state was paying back its members and Aba residents who supported the governorship aspirations of Dr. Alex Otti during the last general election.
In the words of the State Chairman of the party, Rev. Augustine Ehiemere: “Due process must be followed while demolishing those structures; the owners must be duly informed. Government should discuss with them and if they are going to be relocated they should be well compensated as was done in Akwa Ibom by Godswill Akpabio. Abia is not the only state where construction work is going on”.
Ordinarily, APGA’s opposition to the demolition of illegal structures on roads undergoing construction should not attract attention because, according to the Chief Press secretary to the governor, Godwin Adindu, it is misguided and ill-conceived. But the reaction is to put issues on the right perspective and disabuse the minds of Abians of APGA’s cheap propaganda.
First, Ehiemere fails to explain the information the owners of the illegal structures required when government had served them notice, issuing a seven days ultimatum, urging them to evacuate before the arrival of bulldozers. The irony of the whole episode is that days elapsed after the expiration of the ultimatum before the commencement of the demolition. He also failed to present one structure that was pulled down that did not contravene the master plan of the city.
Second, to exhibit his lack of understanding of issues, Ehiemere posited that the governor could have discussed with the owners of the illegal structures whether they were going to be relocated or compensated. To avoid expending energy on an issue as trivial as Ehiemere’s, an illegal structure is an illegal structure. An instance was cited earlier where a storey- building was pulled down along Faulks Road and the owner was asked to pay for the cost of evacuating the debris. To Gov. Ikpeazu, any illegal structure built on top of a drainage line or on the service lane is not a property, rather should be treated as a weed in the garden of a farmer.
What I consider the most mischievous allegation raised by APGA is that the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state was paying back its members and Aba residents who supported the governorship aspirations of Dr. Alex Otti during the last general election.
Like Adindu has often stressed:”If the government should think or behave in relation to who voted or did not vote for PDP, it will not start its developmental work in Aba at all in view of the voting pattern in the elections. The two local councils in Aba metropolis gave us 12,450 votes or 5.01 percent of our 248,459 votes. They gave APGA 56,216 votes or 33.99 percent of its 165,406 votes. Thus, if Governor Ikpeazu is driving his developmental agenda as a reward for electoral victory, he would not have started in Aba. But, to us, Aba is beyond the voting trend of one election. Aba is beyond the election.
“Aba belongs to everybody; it belongs to all Igbos and all Nigerians. By developing Aba, the Governor is developing a place that is home to all Nigerians and not a place that is home only to APGA people.
“The spirit of the Aba Urban Renewal Drive is to change the narrative of Aba from a city of a lamentable meltdown to a modern city of order and decency. The Governor is driving the agenda to reclaim the reputation of the city as the commercial hub of Nigeria, an epicentre of commerce and industry”.
APGA, instead of engaging in an ill- conceived and misguided aggression against Ikpeazu, should commend him for genuinely seeking to ameliorate the bad situation of infrastructural decay of Aba which has been a major sentiment for a long time now. The party should applaud the governor for mustering the courage and will to tackle the menace called “illegal structures” which defied the efforts past administrations.
Ikpeazu’s developmental strides have gone beyond ill-conceived and misguided opposition seeking cheap sympathy from Abians.
Ukegbu, a public affairs analyst, wrote from Umuahia, Abia State.