It has been a memorable year for Imo State residents. They have seen statues named after prominent Africans wow some and infuriate others. Now traders, artisans, and commercial tricycle (keke) operators in Owerri, the state capital, are seeing major markets being knocked down to make way for the state’s master plan.
It is the remodeling of the capital city under the state government’s urban renewal plan but not everyone is happy about it. Those who did business in the markets are lamenting their losses and inconveniences. Others who see the bigger picture are rejoicing because the capital city is replacing an unflattering exterior with a fascinating one.
Under the remodeling plan, traders were relocated to newly built markets. Gigantic buildings that stood on waterways and other routes were pulled down to expand the urban roads. Tricycle operators, popularly known as ‘keke riders’ were banned from the state capital.
Today not too many returnees flocking into Owerri for the Yuletide will know their way around the capital city. The reason: all the major roads, such as the Bank Road now renamed Muhammadu Buhari Road, Wethdral Road, renamed Sam Mbakwe Road, and Okigwe Road, renamed Nnamdi Azikiwe Road, have been upgraded to four-lane roads on both sides with reflective road signs.
The nerve-wracking gridlock that made the city a nightmare for visitors, especially during festive periods is gone. Motorists plying the roads now relish the comfort of driving through the newly built roads without having to waste their productive time.
The hospitality industry is one sector that has benefited immensely from the urban renewal programme. The hostels are all warming up for a big haul as fun seekers from far and near are already trooping into Owerri for the Yuletide holiday.
But like the saying goes, one cannot make omelete without breaking eggs. The new face of Owerri came at a price. The traders ejected from the Owerri Main Market, also known as ‘Eke Ukwu Owerri’ and the New Market are still counting their losses. The same applies to the mechanics and other artisans who were sacked from the city centre and relocated to the new mechanic village located on the outskirts of the city.
Keke operators are still to come to terms with their eventual sack from the capital territory after years of playing the ostrich with the state government’s directive that banned their activities.
Owners of buildings without requisite approvals are also among those licking their wounds. There is hardly any sector that was not affected in one way or the other by the exercise but gladly the end has justified the huge sacrifice and resources committed to the programme.
The urban renewal, majorly the relocation of the markets, was regarded as historic because of the fierce resistance that greeted the idea for several decades. Indigenes and shylock traders who benefited from the chaos created by the crowded markets grouped against the plan to relocate or remodel any of the markets or widen the roads.
For instance, previous administrations, including the military, have made spirited efforts to relocate the Owerri Main Market from Douglas Road in the heart of the capital city to make way for the expansion in order to check traffic congestion and criminal activities.
The plan was stubbornly resisted by the defiant traders who hid under clannish sentiments to frustrate government efforts. Bemoaning the demolition of the markets, the traders blamed the state government for carrying out the exercise at a period the country was going through recession. They lamented that the urban renewal programme had brought untold hardship on the common people who rely on their petty trading at the markets to cater for their families.
Commuters who had relied on the chaotic services of keke operators for their shuttle now walk long distances to get to their places of work or business.
According to one of the displaced traders at the Owerri Main Market, Mrs. Rosaline Ikuebena, it is still like a terrible nightmare.
“I cannot believe that by today I will be roaming the streets in search of what to do after owning several shops at the Owerri Market,” she said. “We are suffering, many families that depended on trading to survive are currently frustrated. Some of them have returned to the village, while very many others have resorted to begging to provide for their families. We are in big trouble and we need help.
“When we were forced out of the market, the state government promised to assist us to settle down in the new markets but today very few of us can afford the cost of the new market shops”.
The President-General of the Owerri Main Market Union, Mr. Uche Kamsochi, appealed to the state government and other relevant authorities on behalf of the traders to look into their plight, “the traders are suffering and we need assistance. We are not opposition the urban renewal programme but we are asking that the displaced traders who paid the price should be considered”
But very many other residents are happy over the remodeling of the state capital. The new-look Owerri is indeed a sight to behold, especially at night when thousands of light glow, sending a flood of rainbow colour across the city.
The chaos caused by the sound and pollution of the innumerable tricycles that struggled for potential customers from sunrise to sunset, are all gone. To a very great extent, sanity that has eluded Owerri capital city has returned.
Dr. Moses Onwubualiri, a medical practitioner who lives in the city, commended the state government for the political will to embark on the urban renewal project.
According to him, the remodeling of Owerri in line with the capital city master plan is long overdue but successive administrations had shied away from undertaking the responsibility because of the anticipated political backlash. But now that it has been done everybody is happy. You can now move freely in Owerri without having to contend with the noise and pollution caused by the sprawling markets or keke riders.
Another Owerri resident, Ikokwu Ezekiel, a legal practitioner, described the programme as a most welcomed development, “it is a great idea even though it came with a huge price, Owerri is now a befitting state capital, about one of the best in the country”.
Also commending the programme, the state Sector Commander of the Federal Road Safety Commission, Mr. Kayode Aremu, said that the Urban Renewal Programme “has gone a long way in addressing road challenges”.
He said the relocation of major market from the city has paved way for free flow of traffic.
H said: “The city is now decongested and we have more road networks, this is good for traffic management and it has helped us to respond to emergencies promptly”.
Justifying his decision to embark on the project against initial resistance by the traders and members of the opposition party, the state governor, Rochas Okorocha, said that apart from making Owerri one of the best state capitals in the country, the programme is aimed at attracting investors and making Owerri a tourist centre.
Apparently referring to the plight of the traders, the governor argued that “for one to make an Omellete, eggs must be broken”.
He said: “The issue of Eke-ukwu (Owerri Main Market) was taken beyond the scope it represents and I still maintain that the removal of that market was the best thing that has happened to Owerri capital city and has brought sanity to the city.
“Before now the headquarter of all criminal activities was at the Eke-ukwu and as we progress we want to live like other Cities in the world, in decent society markets of that nature must be placed at a proper place and not right in the centre of the city where it does not only constitute nuisance but also promotes criminal activities.
“This will make our State a tourist centre and will encourage investors to come into our land, we shall continue with the urban renewal as we widen the roads, distill the gutters, relocating markets and making sure that keke operators are no longer in the streets of Owerri city”.