Change, Politics

Cry, My Beloved Port Harcourt

There is a popular proverb in Nigeria which states, “The person who has never left his father’s farm thinks the farm is the biggest in the village”. If the meaning has not jumped at you, here’s another version: “Until you leave your father’s house, you will think your mother is the best cook on earth”. There’s some kind of epiphany that happens when you go outside your conventional zone and get to experience life in other areas. This has been my experience with Port Harcourt. 

Before we proceed, note that Port Harcourt is used here to portray the entirety of Rivers State. The state was one of the first twelve states created at the borders of the civil war. Since then, we have had a string of governors take charge; some memorable, some bland, and some others infamous for unleashing a clime of bloodletting. I was born in Port Harcourt in a place called “Town” (Old Port Harcourt Township), which was the original city before population growth made people living in far-flung areas like Ahoada claim they “live in Port Harcourt”. I grew up hearing people call Port Harcourt “Garden City”. Although I surely could not see the garden, I grew with the impression of my city being the best thing since fresh fish pepper soup was invented.

Then, between 1999 – 2008, a supercharged reign of terror was unleashed across the entire state. On one hand was the militancy crisis over the oil poverty [wealth] of the Niger Delta. On the other hand, was political bloodletting that claimed lives and properties at a scale that even included the annihilation of entire communities like Okuru-ama. While many Nigerians would be aware of the military atrocity in Odi (Bayelsa State), not many are aware that in Rivers State, some blood thirsty Rivers people unleashed the equivalent of Odi across some communities. To crown everything were communal conflicts and “regular violent crime” that made safety an illusion.

The violence caused emigration of persons, families, and businesses. This emigration worsened when kidnapping became a regular occurrence in Port Harcourt. The international oil companies were the first to begin relocating their staff to safer states like Lagos as their staff were not seen as humans but as magnanimous meal tickets to be kidnapped for ransom. The kidnapping then extended to other “rich persons” and right now, in 2018, literally anyone in Port Harcourt can be kidnapped, as ransoms have crashed well enough to accommodate those who can pay ₦100,000. Accordingly, places like Elele in Rivers State have now become known for roadside kidnappings, including the kidnap of all passengers in targeted buses.

Why have I typed what renders as the Lamentations of Jonah? I am typing this article at 4am when I should be sleeping but my worries have taken sleep away. I recently had to do some research for a report at work and discovered unemployment in the South-South region that includes Port Harcourt, is among the highest in Nigeria. Despite its black gold, resources have barely trickled down to the generality of the people living here, and a greater percentage of persons are unemployed compared to the South East and South West regions. I believe rampant unemployment is one of the drivers of deviant violent behaviour in the state, however, other drivers are contributing.

There is the contribution from low economic activity compared with the state’s potential. With eighteen floors, Point Block, the tallest building in Port Harcourt sits within the Rivers State Secretariat Complex and was erected in 1983. This means that in thirty-five years there has not been any reason whatsoever by any government or private sector player to erect any taller or comparable building. In fact, most “tall” buildings in Rivers State have less than ten floors. Compare this to Lagos where privately-owned skyscrapers housing numerous firms dot the skyline like periwinkle in an Okrika woman’s soup pot.

I returned to Port Harcourt for the Christmas break to learn that more young persons in my area had joined street-side cult groups. This is in spite of the existence of a dedicated “Anti-Cultism Unit” (“Anti coycoy”) in the police and enough evidence of the dangers of cultism. Even some persons I had hope for, believing they had enough sense to better their lives have walked into the embrace of hooliganism. I have heard a certain cultist in my area lament he wanted to leave but feared for his life, yet others in the same area open their arms wide to “blend”. The life of a cultist is summarised as this: You join Cult A and become a target for Cults B-Z, and the day you decide to leave Cult A, your erstwhile “brothers” would place a target on your back. Sadly, whereas some would have assumed this were a male-alone problem, there are quite a number of females touting the blessedness of cultism.

Why do cult groups flourish in Port Harcourt? I think there is a blend of factors including but not limited to rampant unemployment, political demand for thugs, lack of role models, peer pressure, drug-influenced mis-decisions, and even parental negligence. Whereas unemployment might be stretched as a reason for persons ready for the labour market, it does not explain why secondary school students and persons yet to be admitted to tertiary institutions join cult groups. My hypothesis is that there is an enabling culture in the state that drives the surge in cultism.

The enabling culture is the Spirit of Entitlement that blankets Port Harcourt. This “spirit” drives the guy who kidnaps a struggling businessman and asks for ₦20 million ransom. It drives the group that demands a trader should pay money as contribution towards the burial of an unrelated cultist. It drives the group that goes berserk destroying shops as a sign of grievance towards the death of a cultist killed by drug overdose. It drives the guy who demands a businessman pay a “development fee” before he can erect a building to set up a new company. It also drives the guy who refuses to work but expects to be paid, so he can fund his drinking, drug use, and womanising habit. This spirit even drives the guy who gets a “job slot” in a firm and instead of resuming work to earn an honest living, he finds someone else to take the slot and pay him a percentage of the wages.

I heard of a certain Lagos-based entrepreneur who wanted to setup a business somewhere in Port Harcourt. Different groups came to demand for him to pay a “development fee” to be allowed to build the required facilities for his business. None of the entitled claimants spared any thought about the number of jobs the new company would create in the area. The businessman was willing to pay for peace to reign but requested that the different groups present one person as a fund recipient to avoid duplication of payments. A day after this representative was paid, the recipient’s body was found floating in a nearby creek as a result of a passionate dispute over the sharing ratio.

In case you’re wondering why I spent some time on cultism and the entitled mentality, it is because I think they underpin the violence and dwindling economic activity in Rivers State. I have no empirical data but from my experience alongside discussions with some persons, I think at least 90% of violent crimes are committed by persons affiliated to cult groups. Hence, fixing the menace of cultism would help turn things around in the state. Governor Nyesom Wike and any other governor after him can build all the roads they want, but regardless of the importance of infrastructure to economic development, the battle of the mind still needs to be won.

I cringe at the underperformance too glaring in Port Harcourt. Despite its potential, the Gross Domestic Product and Internally Generated Revenue are disappointing when compared with Lagos State. Much work needs to be done to improve prospects for the people in Rivers State. Like me, I see many friends plotting their exit from the state in search of better opportunities elsewhere. Sadly, it seems just as Nigeria loses its best minds to saner countries, Port Harcourt would continue to bleed its finest minds to saner states like Lagos. We need to turn the tide around.

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PS. You might want to read this article, and this one about issues affecting Rivers State.

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