South Eastern Nigeria lies prostrate and without dignity today. It has been thus for a long time now. Enveloped by an incubus of snarling befuddlement as it is dragged towards a benighted terminus, the region has become a metaphor for how to exist (without really living) in a federation of supposedly equal partners. It twists and turn piteously in subdued pain. There is an unvoiced gnashing of teeth and a bitter forbearance. Denuded, ridiculed, swindled and roundly scandalised on all fronts by an elaborate pretense at nationhood that has been to its detriment for far too long, the South East Nigeria is at best a metaphor for nominal and fraudulent citizenship. Its gifted, energetic and bold youths are forced to scavenge around the fringes of morality and legality.
That is because they have found themselves in a system that excludes them from what their peers and supposed fellow citizens take as a matter of course; and regard as their entitlement. There is, for people of the South East, an unnamed fear here and a semi-uncertain confusion there. There is also a semi-real trembling yonder. Anon, it is as if there is always some creeping, inexplicable, yet ever-present, but clearly unhealthy quivering of political and economic nerves. Perplexity walks the land – and with bold, intimidating steps.
But, being a people resolved not to dissolve under inclement currents and the unrelenting assaults of a merciless state that seems determined to annihilate them, Ndigbo remain resilient in the face of inhuman political and economic odds. But does the rest of the Nigerian federation really know, and to its fullest measure, that thralldom and misery have taken permanent residence in the entire South East? Put differently, does anyone really care what people of that region feel, or do not feel, about everything going on around them – and sometimes in their name? I think not. And that is because everyone has been living with a badly treated South East since after the civil war in 1970. It has become normal to reckon without the people in every way.
The failure of the post-war rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes, the decades of burgeoning neglect by the central government, the lack of group cohesion among the people themselves, the curse of poor strategic group leadership, the political incompetence of new “Igbo leaders” and an emergent attitude of presumptive preeminence by most eastern Nigeria’s public office holders of today, have taken their toll. That is why the land and the people now bleed from all pores. Yes, the South East mourns. And so might the rest of the nation if things are not put right and in good time.
It is a matter of fact, and record, that the South East region has remained sidelined in federal developmental projects for decades. The nation has lived with this reality for very long before the current government. The region lacks relevance in the siting of impactful institutions and major drivers of our economic environment. It is mocked by the wretched profile of its most visible political actors. Its sons and daughters in national public positions mostly live to survive their tenures. They sneak off to some recondite and narrow existence, or to their villages, once out of office. Not so for their peers, contemporaries and supposed equals from other parts of the country.
Look around you calmly and you must conclude that there is really nothing happening in the South East to warrant serious national human, economic or political traffic in that direction. It boasts the most dilapidated federal roads in the nation. It is the least considered in the new epidemic of rail projects springing up all over the nation. The second Bridge over the Onitsha end of the Niger was on the cards for decades. It became a metaphor for what should have happened immediately after the civil war, but which did not happen. The over 30 years of traffic nightmare for travelers on that route lingered and became the norm. Local economies even sprang up around the area; which have thrived for decades.
When finally approval was given for the Bridge to be built under the PDP government of yore, it turned out to be a Build Operate and Transfer (BOT) arrangement. In other words, the bridge was approved to be built by whoever was willing, able and available to put down his money for it. Yes, the builder will fund the project and then later recover the money by putting up toll gates on both ends of the new bridge. It is those using the bridge that would pay for the cost of building it; and it was not to be handed over to the government to be used free of cost, until the number of years stipulated as adequate for the builder to recover his cost, along with the accruing profit. And, mind you, there was no case of national bankruptcy; or a dearth of projects of even higher net value being executed all over the nation at the time.
But the bridge was still not built. Had it been built as initially planned, it would most probably have been the only spot in the federation where toll gates were erected so that users of a public, land transport, facility like a bridge would pay for using it. And this was at a time the federal government banned and dismantled all toll gates in the country. It does not matter now, as observed earlier, that projects of higher value have been, and are still being, built all over the federation at government expense. Only the South East must moan, groan and bleed through the nose for a bridge that should have been constructed over 40 years ago.
Now that work has finally commenced on the bridge, thanks to the Buhari government and after a protracted toing and froing on several fronts, the euphoria of this “breakthrough” has, again, exposed the myopia and infantilism of South East political leadership. An elite that clamoured, and still clamours, for an inland port in Onitsha is blind to the fact that this new bridge has been deployed as undertaker for the port project. Go on, take a look at the main frames of the ongoing construction on the second Onitsha Bridge. What type of ship will pass under it? With what type of cargo, if any, or finished products will the ship pass? What in the current specifications show that it is being constructed with a contiguous inland port facility in mind? Who will now stop the work, given the stage it has reached and the amount of money already spent on it, to raise the beams so ship can pass under it?
To be fair, there is enough head room for, crabs, swimmers, speedboats and rafts. For good measure, it may even endure a flat-bottomed steamer ferrying sand around the now-dry banks. But that would be all. So we can at least commission the Onitsha inland port for some form of retail shipping, using canoes, fast swimmers and speedboats between the creeks of the South South and Onitsha. The South East mourns!
Which brings us to the recent presidential intervention on the rehabilitation of the Enugu airport, which was shut down some two months ago. It was with relief and gratitude that many people noted President Muhammadu Buhari’s directive that the sum of ten billion Naira be released for rehabilitation work on the closed airport to start. This was after the South East governors, accompanied by the President General of Ohanaeze, the region’s foremost socio-cultural organisation, paid him an all-important visit. It was like a trip to a shrine to appease a mighty oracle. The issues were presented. The pleas were made. The period of pensive waiting, with bated breath was not missing. Then came the magnanimous pronouncement of a reprieve. Phew! Hurray! But, that is because the South East is involved.
The plan to shut down the airport should ordinarily have been on the table along with the plan for its rehabilitation and re-commissioning. The aviation minister’s explanation, that there was no budgetary provision for the project, thus that it just could not be taken on and executed after it was shut down, begs the question. Does it not? So it was actually the visit to Aso Rock that suddenly, magically and perhaps miraculously, put the rehabilitation of the Enugu airport in the budget? It was also the visit that mysteriously, worked out the cost of the project and ferreted out the funds? So should we then assume that the figure magnanimously announced by the president was advised by actual verifiable calculations, or was it just announced on a whim? Whichever way we choose to look at it, there is cause for misgivings about public administration in Nigeria, the concept of “national emergency” and much more. The South East mourns!
Sorry to those who on seeing the title of this article easily assumed that it was to address the recent series of misfortunes, including fires, avoidable deaths and loss of property, in the South East? No, the misfortunes of the South East are much more than that. Many of them are self-inflicted. The misfortunes are there alright. So are the fires and the avoidable deaths and other losses. But over and above all these stand in bold relief the sustained diminution of a region of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, through deliberate government gymnastics and the political illiteracy of its own ruling elite.
Yes, it has the largest population per square kilometer. But it also has the lowest number of local governments, based on population density. It has records of exceptional performance in all competitive examinations, but the lowest representation in federal institutions. It has the highest number of dilapidated federal roads, no place in the national gas plan and no mention in the epidemic of rail series springing up everywhere else in the country. That is the South East for you. The region mourns today!