VISIT ABA AND WEEP

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Aba, a foremost city east of the Niger, established before the advent of colonialism, is dying. The ancient city has since become a metaphor for dirt and decay, and many now refer to it as if it were an Augean stable of sorts, completely unprepared for the challenges it has to face in today’s world.

Aba’s reputation as a city of filth is derived from its intractable poor waste management, stemming from the lack of a regular garbage disposal, which means that trash piles up in the streets from the many markets that dot the city. Solving the waste management problems has been tried through the Federal and State Governments. However, the problems still persist, and really worsening and blighting the great city, which has rightly been described as the commercial hub of Eastern Nigeria. Indeed, the Eastern region and up to West Africa rely on Aba’s well-known markets such as Ariaria International Market, Ahia Ohuru (New Market), Eziukwu Road Market (Cemetery Market ), Shopping Centre (Ekeoha) and others.

Someone put the condition quite succinctly: ‘Aba has refused to grow’. But, now, the situation is even worse; the problem is beyond stunted growth, sprawling to decay, complete dilapidation and squalor instead of splendor and master image befitting of its status as a city that has come to be equated to Igbo identity and prestige.

Aba ought to have become a full-blown, exemplary urban setting of global reckoning for decades if it has grown as expected and undergone renewals and developments akin to cities of its age and status. Aba is one of the contiguous urban areas in Nigeria, with a population of at least 500,000, taken from Demographia’s “World Urban Areas” study 2016, which gives the city its pride of place but only nominally. Instructively, Demographia, an international organization, uses maps, satellite photographs and more to estimate continuous urbanization. So, its assessment of Aba is fairly scientific and in order.

Cities are futuristic, characterized by ever-increasing population density, symbolic function, and urban planning. Some have even existed for thousands of years and still retaining and improving their beauty and opulence. More than half of the world’s population – 55 percent – lives in cities. By the year 2050, that figure is predicted to jump to 68 percent, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The implication of this is: all cities should be prepared to host more people, a capacity that one legitimately fears Aba is ill-prepared to withstand, being unable to face its present-day challenges.

Civilization and the city are Siamese twins and follow from the development of agriculture, industrialization and commerce, which enable production of surplus goods, and thus a social division of labour (with concomitant social stratification) and trade. Aba, a city in the Southeast of Nigeria and the commercial center of Abia State, was similarly and consciously created by the Ngwa clan of the Igbo people before 1900.

Aba has a very rich history. Originally, the Aba city was established by the Ngwa as a market town. The city became an administrative centre of Britain’s colonial government in colonial days apart from being a major commercial centre since the old Eastern region. The rise of Aba can be linked to the Aro Expedition, which was part of a larger military plan to quell anti-colonial sentiment in the region that took place in the area of Aba during 1901 and 1902, which led to a military post being created there by the British colonial administration in 1901; and in 1915, a railroad was constructed to link it to Port Harcourt, which transported agricultural goods such as palm oil and palm kernels for onward shipping to Britain.

Like most great cities are located around the river, Aba lies along the west bank of the Aba River, and is strategically located at the intersection of roads leading to Port Harcourt, Owerri, Umuahia, Ikot Ekpene, and Ikot-Abasi. The city is also the most populous in South Eastern Nigeria, going by the 2016 estimated population of 2,534,265, making it bigger than some states in Nigeria and even some countries.

Aba is surrounded by oil wells, which separate it from the city of Port Harcourt and a 30 kilometres (19 mi) pipeline powers Aba with gas from the Imo River natural gas repository. Its major economic contributions are Textiles and Palm Oil along with pharmaceuticals, plastics, cement, and cosmetics. This trade makes the Ariaria International Market the second largest market in Nigeria after the Onitsha Main Market. There is also a Heineken brewery, a glass company and distillery within the city. It is also famous for its handicrafts.

Unknown to many also, Aba was pivotal to the Christian evangelism of the Southeast of Nigeria since the British brought the Church Missionary Society (CMS), an evangelism vehicle of the Church of England used to plant what today has become the Anglican Church of Nigeria, to say nothing about the great Enyimba FC, which has won trophies nationally and Internationally.

Aba, therefore, has everything going for it – population, symbolic significance, purpose clause and function, location, name it. What seems to be lacking is simply urban planning to impose staged growth and development, which is what turns cities of the world into masterpieces and architectural man-made wonders.

Without urban planning and a clear master plan, what can go on in Aba may be growth but certainly not development. A city’s master image is achieved through a comprehensively executed master plan. A master plan is a dynamic long-term planning architecture that provides a conceptual layout to guide future growth and development. A master plan includes analysis and proposals for a place’s population, economy, housing, transportation, community facilities, and land use – a fusion of land use laws and local land use objectives and strategies. This is clearly not being followed even if one exists for the Aba city.

Aba has not shown it is benefitting from a successful long-range master plan aimed ultimately at producing a master-image and a healthy city. A master plan serves as a blueprint for the future expansion of any city and must be directly tied to the core goals and planning. It will identify political, social, economic and other factors such as utility infrastructure development, planning, acquisition and sustainability. There is no evidence that Aba is planned to achieve any preconceived objective that will make it comparable to modern cities.

To understand why Aba has turned out poorly the way it is today, the purpose of a master plan needs to be put in perspective, which is to promote growth and guide and regulate present and future development of towns and cities for the long-term. The master plan provides direction to develop or improve (land, a community, a building complex) through a long-range plan that balances and harmonizes all elements. With a master plan, a pictorial representation of a city can be developed. This has proved not to be the case with Aba.

The ancient city is but a shadow of its glorious past. Aba of old was served by a station and a halt (mini station) on Nigerian Railways, but today, this is totally dilapidated and rarely used. Aba is also a major hub for road transport in the region – a large number of transport companies operate transports for people daily to various parts of the country. The city is second only to Onitsha in mass transportation daily volume in the eastern part of Nigeria. But today, commercial motorcycles (“Okada”) and commercial tricycles (“Keke NAPEP”), and minibuses are popular as means of transportation. Yet, what Aba needs and deserves is an urban bus system, the world’s most common form of public transport that uses a network of scheduled routes to move people through the city, alongside cars, on the roads.

As part of the past efforts to bring Aba city to par, in 2012, a monorail system was proposed but the great plan was truncated by politics and left a stillborn with no information that the proposal progressed past the signing of a memorandum of understanding let alone commencement of any form of construction.

Government after government has mouthed the need to recover Aba and restore the city to glory. But so far, this has not quite succeeded. A strategic urban renewal to upgrade Aba as a city in distress and decay is now urgently needed. Urban renewal programmes should address the physical aspects of the urban decay that the once a great city has suffered. However, efforts must be made to guard against its negative consequences.

Urban renewal programmes can have negative effects on social and physical environments by contributing to unsustainable increases in property values and lifestyle costs, leading to social exclusion, gentrification and displacement of long-term residents of lower socio-economic (SES) levels.

What Aba urgently needs is a complete overhaul as a blighted city for a new lease of life by paying attention to a number of strategies, which include but not limited to: filtration; social planning; the boot-strap strategy; replacement; and guiding urban growth through investment and conservation and heritage preservation.

Aba needs to benefit from the essential characteristic of urban renewal, which is bringing about change in the use or occupancy of urban land and buildings and therefore results in changes in where, how and under what conditions people live. For some people these changes bring about improvements in living conditions; for others, things get worse. Care must be taken to balance out the two.

One way of ensuring this delicate balance is by paying attention to the difference between city gentrification and city revitalization. Revitalization means reinventing the existing community. It involves reinforcing social networks, neighbourhood services, and local businesses. In contrast, in gentrifying neighbourhoods, the community transitions to an exclusive community, inaccessible to those who once called it home, as happened in Maroko in Lagos. Revitalisation is the way to go, to carry the present-day inhabitants of Aba along.

All considered, recovering Aba will take a lot of political will and may mean relocations of human habitats and businesses. Restoring Aba to lost glory is a win-win for all and very crucial for the entire Igbo race, who have come to attach themselves psychologically to the city that raised the first generations of Igbo millionaires. Aba urban renewal could be implemented in different ways and a sure way is acquiring and clearing the slums and blighted areas, and disposing of the land for redevelopment in accordance with planned uses.

For Aba to really stand out as should, the city also needs a regular power supply. Though Aba is powered by the Enugu Electricity Distribution Company, there is another electrical company that is starting power generation called the Geometric Power Company, operated by the globally acclaimed Robotic Engineer, Professor Barth Nnaji. As part of minimum urban renewal requirements, if the private power initiative for Aba guarantees electricity, it will revive the Aba economy and social life.

Urban infrastructure involves various physical networks and spaces necessary for transportation, water use, energy, recreation, and public functions. Aba roads are, in large part, in disrepair and in need of reconstruction. Pipe-borne water was last seen in the city soon after the colonialists left the nation’s shores. Sanitation, necessary for good health in crowded conditions, requires water supply and waste management as well as for individual hygiene, which is also quite basic.

Housing of residents presents one of the major challenges every city must face but that of Aba is a peculiar mess. Adequate housing entails not only physical shelters but also the physical systems necessary to sustain life and economic activity. Housing in Aba has been an eye-saw with the rickety and quaint buildings scattered around like broken china, adding to the fiasco that the once great city has become.

Igbos are no longer happy and proud to be associated with Aba as in the past. What has gone wrong is known and the situation is therefore salvageable. Nobody should be proud living in a city where he or she does not have access to the most basic social amenities – drinking water, health care, electricity, clean environment, good roads, decent housing, and so on. If the Igbos do not want to live in Aba, hope for investors will be a much taller dream.

Returning Aba to a modern city to compare its peers in Nigeria, Africa and in the world, government and citizens have to join hands and when Aba is remade, it will add to the dignity of the Igbos in Nigeria and elsewhere. For now, not developing Aba is a big question mark on the acclaimed Igbo capabilities and possibilities.

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