Owerri, yesterday, today and tomorrow
The controversy over the demolition of the Ekeukwu Market in Owerri is unwarranted considering that Owerri has grown from a farmstead to a virtual city. A lot of changes have taken place over the centuries. Nothing is more dynamic than change. The phenomenon of change is necessary for development to take place. Without change, everything remains an egg or embryo. Everything would remain in primitive stage.
It is the dynamism of change that ignites development, the development we see in humans, cities, countries, science, technology, industry and trade. There is nothing that we see and admire that has not gone through the process of change and development. Therefore, if we desire development, there must be change. We cannot desire development and at the same time remain obdurate to change.
Owerri, the capital of Imo State has come a long way. The evolution of the sprawling urban centre was rather slow considering its age. Only a new vision will move Owerri forward. The slow pace of growth is not unconnected with the low level of economic activities that characterised the hitherto small town. Owerri is landlocked. It was one of the forgotten backyard towns in the old Eastern region.
As the tempo of development intensifies, there is no doubt that Owerri is gearing towards becoming a conurbation as it coalesces with the neighbouring towns. Sustainability is needed. There has to be a visible hand, visionary government, to sustain the tempo of urban renewal and transformation taking place in Owerri. The development of Owerri is strategic given the concentration of population and the ingenuity of the people. The out migration from the region is due to the low development in the city.
The evolution of Owerri can be broadly divided into three phases. Phase one dates back to about the 14th century (600 years ago), when Owerri was founded to the end of the civil war in 1970. History has it that a certain man named Ekwem Oha, whose mother’s name was Arugo, founded Owerri. He was said to have fled from Uratta in the present Owerri North Local Government Area following a family feud over the sharing of the funeral cow of their father, Oha. The escapee Ekwem finally arrived at a hill top called Ugwu Ekwema and settled there. He was in the middle of a thick rainforest infested with lions, tigers, pythons and other dangerous wild animals.
That was where Owerri originated. The original settlers were famers, cultivating local subsistence crops. How the one man family settlement attracted other settlers and expanded is a long story. But suffice it to say that Owerri grew from obscurity until the end of the civil war in 1970.
From 1970, the Second Phase of evolution began. The most popular roads in Owerri were Douglas and Mbaise roads. The other roads radiating from Owerri were Aba, Okigwe, Onitsha and Port roads. All these roads were dilapidated following the civil war. The most important landmarks were Ama JK, Control Post, Assumpta Cathedral and Okigwe road roundabout. The only tertiary institution in Owerri was the Alvan Ikoku College of Education.
At the time, Owerri was one of the urban centres in the defunct East Central State that was created by Gen. Yakubu Gown in 1967. Most of the buildings in Owerri then were mud houses with thatched roof. There was nothing special, nothing significant about Owerri until 1976 when Imo State was created by Gen. Murtala Muhammed and Owerri became the capital. That ushered Owerri into the Third Phase of evolution with changes coming to the town.
The creation of Imo State brought Owerri into sharp development focus as a state capital. Although, the first three governors between 1976 and September 1979 were military men did little to improve Owerri, nevertheless, the idea of a New Owerri, World Bank, Ikenegbu and Aladinma neighbourhoods were conceived during this period.
The development of Owerri took a dramatic turn after Governor Samuel Onunaka Mbakwe (Sam Mbakwe) took the mantle of leadership. Without wasting time, Mbakwe rolled his sleeves and got down to work. With practically nothing on ground, Mbakwe started from the scratch to put things in place. His first assignment was to give Owerri a facelift. Douglas road was rehabilitated and made passable. This was followed with the opening of Wetheral ring road to reduce traffic on Douglas, the only arterial road in Owerri.
The iconic Mbakwe then embarked on the construction of Imo Concorde Hotel and the Imo Airport. Mbakwe fought a battle with the federal authorities who initially opposed the construction of the airport and refused to give support. Undaunted and determined to make a mark, Mbakwe persisted on the airport project without federal assistance. Instead, contributions came from Imo people who gave their full support to the project. He also founded the Imo State University (IMSU) that became the first university in Imo State.
After Mbakwe, whose tenure was truncated in December, 1983, little was added to Owerri until 2011, when Owelle Rochas Okorocha came and assumed the mantle of leadership.
I have previously enumerated Okorochas’ strides in Owerri in particular and Imo State in general.
The demolition of the Eke Ukwu market at the centre of Owerri by the Imo State government headed by Okorocha for me, is warranted given that the market constitutes a big nuisance to the functionality of the city. Around the world, authorities are building smart cities that meet the demands of the 21st century. Owerri cannot be an exception. If there is a place where scores of markets have been demolished in order to create a smart city, it is Lagos. Nigeria cannot remain archaic while parts of the world are advancing.
Having taken the bold step, Okorocha should not leave the site of the demolished market empty. Appropriate development should follow immediately. It is good that the state government has decided to compensate the family of the lad, Somtochukwu, who was shot accidentally during the demolition and also change the street to his name. That immortalises the young boy as Owerri takes a new look.
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