A few days ago, the Federal High Court, sitting in Port Harcourt declined to grant the request of Ijaw community in Rivers State to prevent Governor Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi from going on with the demolition of waterfronts in the state capital.
The Ijaw community had gone to court following the demolition of Njemanze waterfront, a notorious slum in the Diobu area of Port Harcourt , by the Rivers State Government.
As the threat to demolish became louder, more waterfronts after Njemanze grew, the people of Okrika, a section of the Ijaw community in the state, filed a suit at the Federal High Court and subsequently, secured leave to sue the Rivers State Governor, the Chief of Naval Staff, the Chief of Air Staff and the Chief of Army Staff, as well as the Inspector-General of Police for an order of restraint.
The order sought was an injunction to restrain the defendants from undertaking and participating in the demolition of the waterfronts.
When the suit came up for first hearing on August 14, 2009, counsel to the Okrika people, Professor Yemi Osibanjo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) prayed the court to restrain the Rivers State government from demolishing the waterfronts and the prayer was heard as the presiding judge, Justice G. K. Olotu, made an order of status quo ante, preventing the Rivers State Government from carrying out demolition of any of the waterfronts, pending the next hearing date.
The people of Okirka, since then had never hidden their displeasure to the state government’s policy as they strongly believe that the idea of demolition of waterfronts in the capital city was orchestrated by the Ikwerre ethnic group.
To Chief Levi Tam-George, Secretary, Borikiri Council of Chiefs, Governor Amaechi was merely carrying out a written script in order to satisfy the yearnings of his Ikwerre kinsmen.
According to Chief Tam-George, the Ikwerres had vowed to drive the people of Okrika away from Port Harcourt , a city that is co-owned by them.
Also, the people of Okrika were not happy at the idea of being compensated by the state government for demolishing the water fronts, which many of them see as their ‘ancestral homes’.
For Chief Senator Tari Sekibo, Chairman, Okirka Divisional Council of Chiefs, payment of compensation to landlords was different from resettlement of the people.
Senator Sekibo noted that the people of Okirka wanted the government to reclaim the lands and resettle the people in the reclaimed areas, stressing that if the government was allowed to go ahead with the planned demolition, the people would be rendered homeless in areas where securing decent accommodation had been a herculean task.
Apart from the Okrika leaders, several local and international organizations such as Amnesty International, UN-Habitat and the Social Action, a non-governmental organization have, criticized the planned demolition exercise.
While Amnesty International and UN-Habitat strongly believe that demolition of waterfronts and the forceful eviction of over 200,000 residents living in these water fronts are not the best approach, Social Action suggested that alternative housing be provided for the residents first before demolition.
On its part, the Rivers State government has continued to explain that its decision to demolish the over 21 waterfronts in Port Harcourt is irrevocable. The government insisted that the exercise was aimed at making life consequential for the people, by getting rid of the noxious environment for a hygienic one.
It is on record that it was the immediate past Governor of Rivers State, Sir Celestine Omehia who first mulled the idea of demolition of waterfronts.
Omehia, who governed the state between May 29, 2007 and October 25, 2007 when he was deposed by the Supreme Court judgment , after his election had been challenged believed that the water fronts are haven for criminals.
He told the Rivers State people that for the state government and security agencies to check the rising rate of insecurity and criminality, waterfronts must be demolished.
However, when Governor Amaechi took over office on October 26, 2007 , he announced that he had suspended the planned demolition of the waterfronts, a decision that earned him followership and admiration from the Okrika sect in particular and the waterfronts dwellers in general.
But a few months later, based on security reports, the governor reversed his pronouncement by declaring the waterfronts as ‘dens of criminals’ that must be demolished.
Both a stakeholders’ meeting held at Government House, Port Harcourt on July 14, 2009 and the state Truth and Reconciliation Panel led by erudite Jurist, Justice Kayode Eso endorsed the demolition exercise with the strong belief that it would check criminal activities.
Speaking at the stakeholders’ meeting, Governor Amaechi said there were a lot of arms and ammunition at the waterfronts and that when the areas would be demolished, the army, navy, air force and riot policemen would be involved to prevent resistance.
“Arms and ammunition are stock-piled at the waterfronts. When crimes are committed there, they will not be reported to the police and other security agencies. There are observatory points there to monitor security agents. With the volume of arms and ammunition at the waterfronts, we are sitting on time bombs.
“When we want to demolish, the Airforce will deploy helicopters, the navy will move to the areas with gunboats, while the army will have its officers and men on the land, to ensure the demolition is effected and to prevent resistance”, he said.
The state government earlier said that over N20billion would be paid to the affected landlords as compensation, even though some of the houses do not have approved building and survey plans, as well as certificates of occupancy (Cof O).
The government further said that the demolished areas would be redesigned and rebuilt for the people, including former landlords to buy at affordable rates, while other parts would be guided development, where the buyers of the plots land would build structures they wanted.
Though, the affected waterfronts are not dominated by Okrikans alone, as other Ijaw communities such as Kalabari, Obolo, Ibani and Ogonis also reside there, the people of Okrika argue that most of the affected waterfronts are their ancestral homes.
This argument, however, has been disputed by the state government that insists that no ethnic group can claim ownership of the waterfronts.
According to the government official saddled with the duty to demolish the waterfronts, Barrister Osima Ginah, who is the State Commissioner for Urban Development, any waterfront found to be an ancestral home of some people would not be demolished immediately until the people are relocated.
“We are not carrying out indiscriminate demolition of waterfronts, we are carrying out planned demolition and when we demolish it, obviously, government has plans to develop the area. And I want to put it on record that we will demolish all the waterfronts in Port Harcourt , one after the other.
“But if we reach any waterfront and where the people can, with facts prove that the area is an aborigine and that the people have no where to go and they can show us, as Rivers people, their ancestral artifacts, the things that they worship so when we find ancestral home, then we will relocate the people”, Barrister Ginah said.
Now that the coast is clear for the Rivers State government to actualise its dream of transforming the waterfront to inhabitable areas, residents of the affected waterfronts need not to be told that time has come to let go.
The landlords and residents of the areas are expected to start looking for alternative accomodation to shelter their families and properties pending when government would be through with its development plan for the waterfronts.
Though, it is painful that a lot of residents, and even landlords, who have no resources to get a new accommodation within Port Harcourt and its environs, may be forced to relocate to their various villages for the main time, the government has gotten a legal backing courtesy of the judgement of the Federal High Court to demolish the areas.
However, apart from radio and television jingles on the need to give waterfront in Port Harcourt a new face,which is sponsored by the State Ministry of Information and Communications, the state government has not shown any sign that it is ready to demolish the waterfronts at least for now.
But, the truth is that every resident of Port Harcourt is anxiously waiting to see the day government bulldozers will move into the waterfronts to carry out a demolition exercise that have been ordained by the court of law.