An Encounter With Port Harcourt's Gridlocks
Since graduating from the University of Port Harcourt many years ago, I always look forward to any opportunity to reconnect with Port Harcourt, although it is always difficult to say what exactly fires the attachment. Maybe, the inexplicable joyful feeling that often wells up in one at the thought of visiting again a place one had spent some very useful years of one's life. Whatever it is, that feeling betrayed itself again when I had a reason to visit Port Harcourt two weeks ago, specifically, Saturday and Sunday, October 5&6, 2013. Although an important assignment had taken me to a sub-urban community in Rivers State a couple of months ago, the last time I was in the Garden City was in 2009 to attend a literary conference we had put together to mark the 70th birthday of my former Creative Writing teacher, INC Aniebo, who was formally retiring from the University of Port Harcourt.
This time, I came in by road from Owerri, and I had nothing but anger for the Federal Government which owns that road. From the point a green signpost welcomes you to Rivers State (with this rather rude advice: “Do No Not Litter”), the wide, dualised road is so smooth that most drivers are virtually flying, which, ironically, sometimes makes one wonder if it was not even safer to leave Nigerian roads in very bad shape, if only to slow down some demon-pursued drivers. But there is a state agency called the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), whose job it is to control over-speeding on our highways; they need to wake up to do their job and save the many precious lives being wantonly wasted daily in this country.
The part of the highway that falls into Imo State can only be best described as the road to hell. So, what is the meaning of that? That part of the road wears an angry look always and viciously attacks cars in such a way as to suggest it is punishing them for mustering the effrontery to ply on it. Now, was the contract for the entire road awarded to the same contractor? Why is one part made so good and welcoming and the other left to remain so dangerously bad? President Goodluck Jonathan should order the immediate completion of work on the Imo State section of that road or he would be sending a very ugly signal whose interpretation would be very hurtful to his image. That he does not need to pass through that part of the road on his way from Port Harcourt Airport to Otuoke does not mean it should be left in such a horrible state. Other human beings with red blood equally running in their veins also use that road. Well, enough said on this for now.
Port Harcourt town, in my opinion, now effectively starts from Rumuokoro, although one could notice its very rapid encroachment into hitherto rural communities like Igwurita, or even as far as Omagwa where the airport sits – that is, if for you, township means the disappearance of long stretch of bushes on both sides of the highway and proliferation of shops in small buildings on the hitherto quiet, uninhabited lands where those bushes once stood guard. Rumuokoro itself used to be a near-lonely bus-stop where we disembarked in those days as students to find buses or taxis to UNIPORT, further down the East-West Road. It is now a hub of human and vehicular activity, and equally, the starting point of Port Harcourt's greatest and most enduring challenge, namely, terrible traffic congestion.
Visiting Port Harcourt any day just reminds one of being unwary enough to embark on a journey to Lagos Island from the mainland during the 'wrong' hours. You already know the energy-draining ordeal that awaits you, and so the fear of it dominates your thoughts until it is all over. A woman at Rumokoro told me that even though she always endeavours to come out there as early as 5 pm, she would always get home at Elelenwa around 9pm because of the unspeakable traffic situation. Her voice betrayed her deep sorrow and frustration as she related this story. (Elelenwa, by the way, is where you have the famous Archdeacon Crowther Memorial Girls' School, Port Harcourt).
But I was lucky that beautiful Saturday. Everyone congratulated me, because it was a rare favour from the Garden City. The traffic welcomed me to Port Harcourt with less stress, far below my expectation. And before it was dark, I was comfortably relaxing in my hotel room at the other end of town. My friend said that Saturday afternoons occasionally offer such surprises. But the next day, Sunday, October 6, it rained in Port Harcourt, and the stress experienced by many motorists who dared to leave their houses that morning to enter the streets to attend church services took my mind back to the notorious Port Harcourt traffic, an issue that always dominates discussions in the city. Residents discuss it with great passion and bitterness, despair written all their faces. The state governor, Mr. Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi, has deployed quite some efforts to confront this monster, but it simply appears untamable. I would, therefore, wish to offer him some advice on how he could achieve better, quicker results, even with less resource. As the current 'bright star' of the Nigerian media, I hope he would be humble enough to listen.
It would be unfair to not acknowledge the measures Mr. Amaechi has taken to alleviate the suffering of Port Harcourt commuters. One of the first to attract my attention was the Agip Bridge, which starts from the School of Nursing and terminates at the Rivers State Sanitation agency, a few poles away from the UST gate. If there is some relieving difference in the traffic situation on Ikwerre Road down to Mile 3, and even up to Mile 1, this bridge would get some bit of the credit. Another one is being built from Azobie to Woji; I hope it will soon be completed. A number of roads have also been widened and dualised by the present administration. These include the Elekahia Road, Stadium Road, Ada George Road, Okporo Road (Rumudara), Rumuola–Rumuokwuta Road, Rumuokuta–Choba Road (Choba is where you have the University of Port Harcourt), Igwurita–Rumukurushi Road and Slaughter–Artillery Road. Although, these efforts have contributed their own quota, the traffic problem is still very much alive and breathing well, appearing largely unscratched.
The most ambitious project in this regard is the Rivers Monorail, which was presented as the final solution to the Port Harcourt traffic problem, and planned to go around Port Harcourt. What has so far been achieved in this really gigantic project is a four kilometer stretch of rail, from the Station Bus-stop to UTC. And for this, according reports, billions of naira from the really deep purse of the oil-rich and high revenue earning state have already been spent. Some may wish to dismiss the monorail as some white elephant project, or worse still, a drainpipe, but I would prefer not to call it that. If some miracle happens and the next regime does not abandon it after Amaechi leaves office, it may eventually, after a very long period, prove to be a blessing to Port Harcourt residents, that is, if they would be able to maintain it, given what we know about governments in this country and maintenance culture.
Although, all these billions being talked about may just be another “small change” for a state like Rivers, what I think Amaechi ought have done (and should do now) is to look for a quicker, less costly solution to this traffic problem and ease the untold suffering of the people he is governing. He should commence immediately the building of bridges across some of the most notorious traffic spots in Port Harcourt. He needs no one to tell him that even the cost of demolition of structures and compensation alone being undertaken in respect of this monorail project is enough to build all the bridges required to cause the long-suffering residents to heave a sigh of relief.
There are road junctions which are urgently crying for such bridges because of their reputation as the worst sources of torments to commuters. These are, Waterlines, GRA, First and Second Artillery, Okporo Road by East West Road (Rumudara), Rumokoro, Rumuokwuta, Wimpey and Garrison. These are road junctions whose gridlocks can keep one on the road for hours. Their combined nuisance value has the capacity to halt every vehicular movement in several parts of the city. Erecting flyover bridges over them will usher in such refreshing traffic decongestions across Port Harcourt that would quickly spread joy on many faces and lengthen many lives being abridged by perennial, excruciating tensions and frustrations.
Like I said earlier, on my second day in Port Harcourt, on Sunday, it rained early in the morning, and an already depressing situation was grossly compounded. Flooding came in to contribute its own trauma. The worst hit was Rumuola, St. John's, Market Bus Stop by First Bank, etc. The case of Rumuola was particularly very depressing. The flood was so much that heavy duty trucks which had been barred from using the bridge there (built by Peter Odili) had no choice but to start climbing up because the ground had become impassable (I guess this happens each time it rains, and I wonder how far the weight of these trucks have affected the bridge's health and stability). Those who dared to enter the water on the ground were stuck in the pool, thereby, worsening an already bad traffic situation. Why not find immediate solutions to this flooding by reexamining the drainage system and seeing how the water could be rechanneled? Imagine the trauma people pass through each time it rains in Port Harcourt. There appears, for instance, a ready solution to the overwhelming flooding that occurs at a place like St. John's. Why not channel the water that gathers there to the nearby Nwaja River and let peace return to that spot? Certainly, this is not an unreasonable demand from long-suffering residents. There could also be other equally simple, viable solutions waiting to be applied to ease the flooding at the other spots. These, certainly, should NOT be beyond a vibrant, celebrated governor like Amaechi.
An example of how far these bridges can go in solving the traffic problem in Port Harcourt could readily be seen at the Air Force flyover which was built before Amaechi came into office, but which he rehabilitated when it began to collapse. Today, it has brought immense relief to road users by easing the gridlock that once earned the place its dreaded reputation. Indeed, the Port Harcourt traffic problem has lingered for so long. It has since grown to become a prominent trademark of the Garden City. Mr. Amaechi can decide to change this story and earn himself a prominent space in the people's memory. At the end of the day, what a governor would be remembered for would be the extent to which he positively affected the lives of the people he governed. That is why I have taken the time to put together this essay.
Yes, he can tame or completely eliminate the monster. After all, wherever I went to in Port Harcourt, I saw very beautiful schools that looked like pictures out of tastefully illustrated children's story books. I can imagine what learning in such beautiful and serene environments could do to the psyche of school children. Amaechi should, therefore, hasten to excuse himself from the too many distracting dramas he is unduly staring in which only blind him with loud, mostly dubious applause, and face the real issues. Where people are seeing a 'revolution', I am only seeing nine a day's wonder!
Beckoning on him is a brilliant opportunity to plant himself in the history books as the man who solved the famous, resilient Port Harcourt gridlock – a perennial headache that has defied several regimes. He may wish to quickly inform himself on this very elementary truth, namely, that undue media celebration can at times alter the focus and sense of direction of an unwary public officer. But if such an officer would stop awhile and ask himself: why have I suddenly become everybody's hero? What exactly have I done or doing to deserve the sudden wild celebrations? Why is it at this particular period in history that some people are falling over themselves to carry me shoulder high? What exactly is driving this frenzy? Is it not possible that soon, very soon, all the sweet lullaby in the media would just peter out and I would wake up from this “midsummer night's dream,” after I had burnt out my relevance (or is it nuisance value), to discover that I had all the while been a mere dispensable, willing, naïve tool in the hands of some mischievous big players – and nothing more! By then, cold, crude reality would stare me in the face, as daylight intrudes to halt what has all along been a most pleasant and unimaginably beautiful, royal treatment in a majestic dreamland.
So, this is the time to really think deeply, return to the things that matter and endure. It is the time to get real.