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Okorocha’s urban renewal scheme has negative consequences on Owerri town

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Prof. Philip Chidi Njemanze

PROF. PHILIP CHIDI NJEMANZE is a medical doctor and chairman of the International Institute of Advanced Research and Training as well as Chidicon Medical and Diagnostic Center, Owerri, Imo State. He is a Prince of the Njemanze Royal Dynasty of Owerri Ancient Kingdom, cultural custodians of the Eke Ukwu Owerri Market. In an interview with IGHO AKEREGHA, Abuja Bureau Chief, he underlined the health and economic implications of the demolition of the Eke Ukwu Owerri Market by the Imo State Government.

What is your take on the destruction of the Eke Ukwu Market in Owerri by the Imo State Government?
The human costs are very high, many people lost their lives, some are still unaccounted for and some people suffered permanent disabilities. Many families are devastated with some suspected to have committed suicide since they lost their livelihood in the market and some we have seen in the clinic with severe depression and suicidal thoughts.

It is an immeasurable tragedy that has never occurred in Owerri before, not even during the civil war was there much damage on a single day. The economic devastation is immense. Over three and half trillion naira in the value chain was destroyed that include infrastructure, goods and services, factories, which closed at distant sites because no outlets for their goods, perished farm produce of thousands of small scale farmers and goods stolen by looters.

The inflation rate in Owerri has skyrocketed by at least 10 points above national average for most products since when available via telephone marketing; some traders now sell from their homes with added costs of transportation and telemarketing. Over 10,000 people were rendered unemployed; 5,000 young people had termination of marketing apprenticeship programs; financial transactions of over N10 billion every quarter have been put on hold.

Over One billion naira of reported imports of products are accruing demurrage at ports. The Eke Ukwu Owerri market was the economic engine that accounts for over 30per cent of the GDP in Imo State, because it is the market of markets in Imo State. Over 80per cent of bank loans in Imo State for short terms are given out to traders at the Eke Ukwu Owerri Market. The financial markets and economic growth prospects are devastated by the actions of Imo government on Bloody Saturday. Imo State economy shrunk by over 30per cent compared to 2007 levels. Eke Ukwu Owerri market is the main tourist site in Owerri attracting over one million tourists per year who spend about $100 million per year. All this is no more! An eclipse of dark era came on Imo State.

Imo State Government said the demolition is part of its urban renewal Programme to widen the streets and improve aesthetics in the city. Is that not a good reason for relocation of the market?
No, it is not. First, Owerri Municipal of the indigenous people of Owerri according to the 1999 constitution is an autonomous self-governing local government area. It is not under the administration of the Imo State government by the 1999 Constitution. However, the Owerri master plan was designed as a twin city with the Old Municipal Area under the Owerri Municipal Local Government Council headed by His Royal Majesty Eze Dr Emmanuel E. Njemanze (of blessed memory) presiding over the council parliament and the New Owerri under Imo State Government Owerri Capital Development Authority (OCDA).

There are four municipal local government areas in Nigeria, which include: Owerri, Calabar, Kano and Abuja. Owerri, Calabar and Kano were municipalities granted even under British rule and hence inserted into the Constitution of Nigeria after independence. Under the 1999 Constitution, Fourth Schedule 1(h) provision and maintenance of public conveniences, some roads, sewage and refuse disposal; are under the Local government and hence not a State government responsibility. The Owerri Master Plan law indicates that the offset from the edge of the gutter is about 1.5 meters; hence the building codes were planned to that offset limit. The roads in old city centres are not suppose to be wider than they are now in Owerri, because wider roads increases speed limits and leads to greater number of accidents and deaths within the city. The older people and children will have considerable problems crossing the streets. The idea in city centres is to create slow traffic and allow pedestrians enough time to cross the road. There is no justification to widen old city roads moreover, this could create infrastructural problems. For example, many of the roads widened in Owerri now have buried pipe-borne water that are no more accessible and therefore created scarcity of potable water in the city. This has increased rainwater harvesting around homes, which become breeding sites for mosquitoes.

The incidence of diarrheal diseases and malaria are rising considerably. This could account for an 80per cent rise in infant and child mortality in Imo State. The stress on mothers taking care of their sick children in Owerri would also raise the maternal mortality wiping all the gains of the past years of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and making it impossible to enter into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The so-called Imo Government Urban Renewal project has damaged drainage system, creating unprecedented floods in the City of Owerri. The condition is a health emergency with impending outbreak of Cholera, Lassa fever and Malaria in the City of Owerri.

Never, have the people in Owerri witnessed such a catastrophe. Compare these life-threatening consequences with whatever aesthetic improvements the urban renewal programme could bring. The so-called beautification of streets with metallic masts is a ‘death trap’ that would kill many in lighting accidents and motor vehicle accidents when they fall. These things are forbidden in city planning codes worldwide. Unfortunately, the so-called Urban Renewal is Urban Destruction of Owerri.

What is your actual grouse against actions of the Imo State government in Eke Ukwu Owerri Market demolition?
Yes! The Imo State Government disregarded a subsisting High Court injunction issued on September 2016 in suit HOW/380/2016, to execute the demolition of Eke Ukwu Owerri market.

The demolition is a major violation of human rights and the right to life of those who were killed and injured. The actions of Imo State Government are in violation of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Land Use Act, the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the 61/295, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007, and we wrote to the Secretary General of the United Nations.

We also briefed many heads of states participating in the General Assembly of the United Nations. We had earlier warned that the attempt by the Imo State Government to relocate and erase historical sites in Owerri could result in very dire consequences for the indigenous people and the entire Imo people, in a petition written in 2015 to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Ref: NHRC/OES/091/VOL. III/440 Case No. C/2015/587/HQ.

However, we have been disappointed that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) did not act in a timely manner that could have prevented the loss of lives on ‘Bloody Saturday’. Petitions have been submitted to the Office of President Muhammadu Buhari. We requested from President Buhari that the Federal Agencies (Police, Army, Civil Defense and others) must not participate in any military actions that could degenerate into acts of violence against the people, and that all injunctions of the courts must be adhered to strictly. Anything to the contrary could precipitate a state of anarchy. There is need for the NHRC to act on the petitions and call to order the actions of the Imo State government that are inconsistent with constitutional provisions and international UN protocol for Universal Declaration on Human Rights. We also call on the presidency to act expeditiously since there is a downward spiral into lawlessness in Imo State. The Federal Government has the constitutional obligation to examine the matter carefully and if the remedies fail may resort to implementation of Section 305 (3) (d) of the 1999 Constitution. Under the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, historical monuments or potential sites are all under the National Assembly. These historical sites once identified must not be relocated or defaced in any manner. If actions are taken to change the historicity of a site, that may constitute gross violations under the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It is also regarded as a Crime Against Humanity, which is under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Den Hague, The Netherlands.



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