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19.03.2009 Feature Article

UN-Habitat Commission & The Urban Renewal In Rivers State

In the late 1940s, nonstop into the late 1970s in the British English, urban renewal (similar to urban regeneration) was known as a program for land re-development in areas of moderate to high density urban land use. It did not stop there, traces of it was still occurring in the early 1980s. Analyses also proved that land re-development has a major impact on the urban landscape. There was Atlantic Yards project in downtown Brooklyn which stands as an exception. Reports say that similar apparatus perform an interesting responsibility in the times gone by and demobilization of cities around the world, including: Beijing, China, Melbourne, Victoria; Saint John, New Brunswick; Glasgow, Scotland; Boston, Massachusetts; Warsaw; San Francisco, California; and Balboa, Spain. Commonly cited examples include Canary Wharf, in London, and Cardiff Bay in Cardiff. However, the world over, urban renewal is seen as exceptionally contentious: this characteristically engrosses the destruction of businesses, the relocation of people, and the use of eminent domain (known as Compulsory Purchase in the UK). This is an apparatus to repossess hush-hush property for city-initiated development projects. It is on record that in the 1960s James Baldwin famously dubbed Urban Renewal "Negro Removal".

In some areas, Community Renewal Initiative for Renewal Communities and urban Empowerment Zones, the Renewal Community tax incentives are worth approximately $5.6 billion to eligible businesses of all sizes in Renewal Communities. Renewal often resulted in the creation of urban lounge and measureless areas of cities being demolished and replaced by freeways and expressways, housing projects, and vacant lots, in the second half of the 20th century, while many of which still remain vacant at the beginning of the 21st century.

But in Nigeria, Nigerians seem to be newborns in the urban development issue. For example, the on-goings demolition exercise in the capital city of Rivers State, Port Harcourt, have generated a lot of raising eyebrows and many petitions written to different organizations that their sole duty is to look into people's habit of which the UN-habitat Commission was among such organizations that were petitioned.

It was applicable in Abuja when there was demolition exercise during the ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo-led administration. The Minister for the Federal Capital Territory, El'Rufai was nicknamed 'Hell Rufai' because he was not kind in bringing down any structure that was built as against the Master Plan of that city. In the same vein, in the Alhaji Musa Yar'Adua-led administration, the cities in Nigeria are experiencing such demolitions. In Owerri, the capital of Imo State, Governor Ikedi Ohakim initiated the 'New Face of Imo' project which has seen many structures brought down on that state.

In Rivers State, the Ministry of Urban Development headed by Barrister Osima Ginah would have suffered setbacks following the mammoth of supplications which the National Union of Tenants in the state have hipped on him. Allegedly, the petitions were sent to the United Nations Habitat office in Abuja. This compelled the Abuja office of the UN-habitat Commission to send a four-man-fact-finding entrustment to Port Harcourt on the 16th of March, 2009.

The HABITAT Programme Manager for Nigeria, Professor Johnson Bade Falade met with the Hon. Commissioner Ginah to prove things right or wrong as contained in the petitions. According to Falade, 'the visit was not antagonistic, but to verify claims and accusations of government's insensitivity and abuse of the rule of law in its ongoing demolition exercise, brought to the organization by the National Union of Tenants, for a balanced and purposeful report for the way forward.'

But the Hon. Commissioner Barrister Osima Ginah was of the opinion that, 'I will like to reiterate all the same that the Urban renewal Exercise of the Ministry has its legal backing from the Physical Planning and development Control law No.6 of 2003. This law is not aimed towards victimization of any individual or group of people, but to properly regulate development and bequeath to the State a sustainable decent habitable and business friendly environment. Urbanization being a global phenomena and process of replacement, imposition and modernization for true social re-orientation and development has its own challenges no doubt…These challenges and task before us are not only assiduous but is the goal the Rt.Hon Chibuike Amaechi, Governor of Rivers State is contending with, in its ongoing urban renewal programme, which is geared towards correcting the heinous wrongs consciously perpetuated by individuals and government alike, in the built environment which has not only deprived the State and its people of needed social infrastructures and its prided Garden City glory, but has effectively defaced and distorted the painstakingly outlined master planes of the Capital City, Port Harcourt and its environs.'

Does the people of Nigeria like living in opaque? Was the Ministry of Urban Development not empowered to be removing illegal, offensive and contravening structures as contained in the Physical Planning and development Control law No.6 of 2003? Was it not also empowered to recovering road setback for utility and beautification and urbanization of the city? Why then do people revolt against the law of the land? The Hon. Commissioner Ginah did not wake up and start reinventing the city, what he is doing is according to the already laid down law.

According to a statement from the office of the Press Secretary to the Hon Commissioner, Ministry of Urban Development: 'As a democratic and people oriented government, Mr. Ibilaba N. West reiterated that the government in carrying out this exercise, has deliberately and consciously sensitized and involved various stakeholders, including Landlords and tenants in decisions and that government has paid adequate compensation for structures it intends to acquire for public purpose in its Urban renewal Exercise. Such acquisition are made in complete agreement and support of the owners, who are even given the rare privilege to get the services of private valuers and attorneys, an indication that government does not carry out any secret deals or plans to victimize its citizens as we are in government to serve the people.'

Mr. West went further inciting, 'The Urban renewal Exercise in the Njemanze/ Abonnema Wharf area of Diobu is not only to transform the aesthetic beauty of the environment, but also to ensure security of people and property considering the high rate of Criminality perpetuated in those areas. The Upland part will serve its original commercial purpose, while sand filling will elevate the waterfront, and road and other social infrastructures provided in addition to low cost houses for the people. To ensure International best practice in Urbanization, my Ministry has setup a professional body in the built environment to review the existing Physical Planning and Development Control law to conform to Modern Development and social realities.'

Let Nigerians stop seeing any proponent government of Urban renewal as an economic waste-engine. The idea of opponents seeing the project, 'as a regressive mechanism for enriching the wealthy at the expense of taxpayers and the poor' is not always good. Though the project as proved by analyses, carry 'a high cost to existing communities, and in many cases resulted in the destruction of vibrant—if run-down —neighborhoods.' But time is a good healer to let go events. Nigerians should stop saying that Urban renewal in its original form is a failure, even though that many urban planners and civic leaders have not always been up and doing. But Hon. Commissioner Osimah Gina, from what he is doing in Port Harcourt, has since been reformulated with a focus on redevelopment of existing of the state. This could be why, on realizing all these that the amiable Commissioner is bent to achieve in Port Harcourt, was why Professor Johnson Bade Falade commended the State Government on its initiative to better the state through its urban renewal project.

Odimegwu Onwumere is the Founder of Poet Against Child Abuse (PACA), Oyigbo, Rivers State. 08032552855. [email protected]

Odimegwu Onwumere
Odimegwu Onwumere, © 2009

This author has authored 586 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: OdimegwuOnwumere

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