Seeing the traders break into spontaneous songs eulogizing the Enugu State governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, it’s hard to believe he had only moments earlier informed them of his administration’s resolve to carry out a thorough cleanup of the city which would entail the dismantling of illegal roadside stalls. But this was the scenario for two days and the fact he did so personally underlines his determination to make the exercise a painless one.
From the perenially gridlocked Market Street at Ogbete where traders and transport operators had reduced a three-lane road to just one to the virtually impassable Abakpa Road, the governor’s language was unmistakable – a plea to owners of illegal structures and indiscriminately parked commercial buses to relocate to designated areas. As simplistic as this approach may seem, it worked. “What humility,” a middle-aged man who owned one such shop said to no one in particular. “He is pleading with us even when he has the powers to demolish our shops.”
Its success was evident too as crowds of traders and cycle operators at the IMT/Shoprite intersection chorused “yes” to Governor Ugwuanyi’s question, ”we are all brothers and sisters, aren’t we?” The governor was, of course, reiterating his message that constructions and actions that constitute an environmental nuisance shall no longer be tolerated.
“My people, I came here to inform you of our plan to clean up these areas and appeal that from tomorrow morning, whoever has business here should relocate inside the market or to other approved areas. I am your brother and I do not want the police to come here and harm anyone. We want to sanitize the place so that all the vehicles that are supposed to ply these areas can do so smoothly and comfortably. If you paid anybody to stay here, give me their names and I will recover your money,” Gov. Ugwuanyi said to traders whose stalls sit literally on the road.
He explained further that the decision to come personally was consistent with his conviction that it’s wise to first interface with the affected traders to explain the imperative of the exercise, as well as seek their understanding to enable the government carry out the sanitization without any undue harassment and to ensure that they are not caught unawares. “It is not the style of this administration,” he told them.
Indeed, the scale of municipal blights seen across the Enugu metropolis begs the question how such could have been allowed to fester over the years and not nipped in the bud as it should. Was it the desire to be politically-correct or sheer willingness to elevate commerce above aesthetics and the common good? Whatever instincts may have impelled past administrations to overlook these obvious infractions are merely conjectural. But there is no doubt the situation was worsened by the sustained influx from rural communities across the state to the capital.
This has been the case for years because the capital was perceived as the only escape from the drudgery of rural life, resulting in the city’s population growing to a level that puts an unbearable pressure on public space and utilities. The governor had long realized the implications of this dilemma and was determined to find a lasting solution. “Enugu State under us will pay special attention to rural development because majority of our people live in the rural area,” he said in his inaugural speech on May 29, 2015, stating an intention to create additional urban areas to increase economic opportunities and ease the pressure on the capital.
“In line with this we must equip and modernize Nsukka, a university town founded over a century ago, to compete with other university towns in attracting technology and knowledge-based businesses and other industrial support ventures, bearing in mind that Nsukka is the second largest town in Enugu,” he added.
The result is that Nsukka now wears a new sheen with all the trappings of modernity from streetlights to wide, well-paved roads and pipe-borne water. A similar conviction to create new urban centres has been seen in Awgu Local Government Area where a major infrastructure upgrade was approved recently by the State Executive Council.
Days after the cleanup exercise commenced, the outcome has proved a strong validation especially as evident at areas noted for traffic congestion. The roads, once severely narrowed by encroaching roadside shops and transport operators, now experience free flow of traffic to the relief of commuters.
The traders may have been stoic about the entire exercise, but the governor has no illusions about the economic consequence which a loss of livelihood could have on individuals even where their actions had essentially breached the law and distorted the city’s masterplan. As he pointed out painstakingly, the administration is blind to social class because the poor is just as entitled to the good life as much as the rich. It was a point worth emphasizing as it is, more or less, a philosophy that has defined his governance style and personal relationships. He demonstrated this when he offered immediate employment to two university graduates whose shops were among 31 illegal structures listed for dismantling.
The shops had been built in front of the Enugu State Library Complex, virtually obscuring access into the facility and banishing the serenity that should normally prevail at such centres of scholarship. Ugwuanyi’s magnanimity nonetheless shone through as he equally approved some financial support for the 29 other affected shop owners at the location to enable them to relocate elsewhere.
Painful though the exercise may be, there is however a growing consensus that it was carried out, inevitably, for the common good so Enugu could flourish like the historical world city that it is.
- The writer was formerly editor of ThisDay, The Saturday Newspaper and later Saturday NewTelegraph.