“Waterfronts Are Hideouts Of Criminals”

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This is part III of The Tide Roundtable encounter with Hon Osima Ginah, Commissioner for Urban Development, Rivers State, first published last Monday. Read on, very refreshing. One of the main problems we have in the physical development of Port Harcourt emanates from the attitude of staff of your ministry. Since you came on board, what have you done about your in-house cleansing? The first thing when I came up, you know I run a law chamber and to run a chamber is very tasking. As the pioneer commissioner, I don’t run alone. I work with the management team. Every week, we have a management meeting. So one of the things I’m happy about is that we run with a governor that is transparent and preaches transparency, we inject the spirit of transparency. But I came to realise that it is not the fault of the civil servants that work in the ministry but the politicians. Like I said, the civil servants now know what to do. This building, you cannot build there because you are not supposed to build there. But influences come from government House, don’t you know that I’m involved? Oh! ‘Oga’, I’m sorry. Let me give you approval. Building approved. That is the way the woman who build in No. 177 Niger Street got her own approval. And so, it was the inability of the politicians to enforce the law. You know it is the executive that enforces the law. Now those who drive the executive are those in the executive council. Now the commissioners are the heads of the ministries. The permanent secretaries as civil servants are the accounting officers. They take care of how much is being paid, how much was approved to be paid. But those who drive the policy are the commissioners because they sit with the governor and the governor sees the vision to his ministry and now moves ahead to say this is what you are supposed to do. In management meeting, they put heads together, this department, move ahead and implement this. Now as you move ahead, implementing it somebody now calls the commissioner: ‘Don’t you know that; that is the property of my in-law. Now if you have a commissioner who probably does not worth his salt and wants to play politics with the job, he says, yes sir, what do you want me to do? And he says it is approval and he says yes sir, it’s done. But now we have a governor who says we must not look at who is our friend or who is not our friend but that we must look at our state as our paramount concern. Our concern now is the state. Because we are part and parcel of the state. So in that way, the mistakes of our civil servants at that time were the faults of the politicians and the commissioners. They are the driving force of the policies in the cabinet. Now those who were directing the civil servants are the ones that toyed with the entire thing. That’s why we have approval flying from here and there. Now when the director finds that the civil servants are being forced to do what ordinarily they are not supposed to do and they don’t want to lose their job, they too will have to take advantage. Now if you see any ministry or any department that there is fraud, you know that the head is corrupt. Once the head is rotten, it moves down to everybody. Look at Rivers State, in my own assessment, corruption is to the barest minimum because the governor is transparent and he preaches this down to the directors to the civil servants below him So in the Ministry of Urban Development, what we do is that let us do what the law says should be done. I monitor them. I go to the field to monitor them. I go to my directors, their offices and monitor what they are doing. Where there are mistakes, I discuss with them and say no, you don’t need to do this because that amounts to a mistake. This area, you were doing this before but you don’t need to do that. Then two, we infuse confidence in them. Please go out and do your work. I’m solidly behind you. The governor is solidly behind me. And the governor says we should do the right thing. We should be fair to all concerned and that we should follow the law. And that’s why you see me I am also in the field. I’m not an armchair commissioner. I move to the field so that I will be able to observe and monitor what they are doing. When the directors know that the commissioner is also in the field, obviously, they will do the right thing. And when they know that they are doing the right thing and the commissioner will not call him and say, “this is my brother’s own, this is my sister’s own; they have that confidence to do the right thing. And when the commissioner also knows that the governor will not call him to say, leave that property, that is my brother’s own. Leave that property, that is my sister’s own. Let me also tell you, even our Development Control exercise, we demolished the governor’s wife’s shop. Now, before now, you cannot touch that. When we started we demolished all the illegal structures in the PDP secretariat. We got to the gate of South-South office of the party, we demolished it. Before this time, such a thing cannot happen. In fact, in the PDP secretariat, the bill board that carries the governor and party chairman’s portraits were not supposed to be there. But we marked it and did all necessary things and I as the person driving the ministry monitored the demolition. Now we thought heavens will fall, then I was prepared. If the power that be says no you can’t do this, we may leave it but the governor said no do the right thing so that people will learn from what we are doing. Don’t forget that we are instilling discipline in our system. Driving the state, in our Urban Renewal and Development Strategy. What we are trying to do is for people to see reason why we should do the right thing. Also for people to see that if they are doing something wrong, no one in government can help them. And that is why in GRA Phase 1 and 11 the owners of the property are demolishing their fences by themselves. The Commissioner of Police who ordinarily for one reason or the other should say, Oh! Commissioner, if you don’t allow my own, I will withdraw your security! But you see, the Commissioner of Police was the first person who complied because it is a government that will not look at faces because we are not interested. We are only interested in doing the right thing so Rivers people will know that this is the right time for us to do the right thing ourselves. But did you pay compensation to the Governor’s wife after demolishing her property? No, we did not pay compensation to the Governor’s wife because the shop she developed where we demolished it was an illegal structure. We marked it and later demolished it. We didn’t pay her anything. In the case of interacting with the staff, you must have discovered cases of indiscipline or may be sharp practices. So far, how many people have you fired? I must tell you that in the Ministry of Urban Development, I took about three months to monitor operations, tell them the new policies of the government. They are very responsible people, they keyed into that policy. They know that I am a man who is determined, they have a governor who is determined and all of them made a U-turn. When you repent, your sins will be forgiven. Once you repent, old things are passed away and you become a new person. In Ministry of Urban Development, as soon as I came in, all of them repented. And no single man has ever been caught of any sharp practices. No back slidding. Take for instance, one of my directors who just retired, when I came, there were a lot of rumours of ah! This man spoilt everything anywhere he is going. But I tell you that the man saw the Commissioner who is determined and he is the greatest asset in Ministry of Urban Development. While he was retiring after he served for thirty-five years and following his contributions to the state, I believe that the man is retiring but is not tired and it didn’t take me much time to recommend him to Greater Port Harcourt for him to be absorbed to do his work because for those who have great experience, we don’t need to throw them out. He was taken to Greater Port Harcourt to also continue and serve his fatherland. In the demolition of waterfronts in Port Harcourt, there is this feeling that the owners of these structures were not properly consulted before the demolition exercise. How do you react to that? First of all, I will approach your question in two ways. You see that in the issue of waterfront, even the issue of Development Control of Port Harcourt, the Governor called stakeholders meeting. Rivers State is not Amaechi. Amaechi is the governor of Rivers State and the people of Rivers State gave him the mandate to be there. So he always consults and I also always consult. This is what I want to do and this is how I want to do it. Governor will say okay let us call a stakeholders meeting. Now before we started the demolition, we called a stakeholders meeting and the stakeholders agreed with the idea. Now the issue of waterfront, we consulted. Let me first of all say when the Governor saw the vision, I was with him. Like I said, the governor is the visioner and the members of the Executive Council are the people who help the governor to implement the vision. We key into this vision when he saw the vision, he called me and said he has seen a vision and I asked, His Excellency what is the vision? He said my vision is that we can develop the waterfront to a modern city. He give me the responsibility and I asked, where do we start? And we agreed to start from Njemanze. And I called the people of Njamanze, the landlords, infact it is an organised community and so they came with their leader and we started in August 2008. We finished in August 2009, one year. If we were not consulting, he gave me the assignment in August, I should have finished because I have the security with me. We moved in there and we demolished every where. But we didn’t do that. So we consulted. We called them and they gave the mandate on their own that they need compensation and the stakeholders of Rivers State said yes. Then I advised His Excellency, we will pay them but we are not going to pay them what the law says should be paid but let us purchase the property. We shall pay them what is called Replacement Value instead of Depreciated Value. We have what is called the Replacement Value and we have what is called Depreciated Value. If Government said the depreciated value, we would have recovered over N200 million. But we paid replacement value which is an additional sum to enable the people do other things. But even then we didn’t stop there. The governor called stakeholders meeting. This is what we want to do. If you don’t want us to do it say no but if you want us to do it, say yes. And stakeholders of Rivers State said yes to it. Apart from the stakeholders, when we came on board, we were contending with the issue of militancy and insecurity in Rivers State particularly Port Harcourt which is the one city state that we have. What do we do? We cannot move freely. Six O’clock we have all gone into our houses. In fact some of us were already sleeping under the bed because if we sleep on top of the bed, the flying bullets will come and kill us. Insecurity was there. We then had to set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by retired Justice Kayode Eso. Now the Justice moved into action and the result of it was that apart from other recommendations that they have made, if we want to reduce crime and insecurity in the state, then you must demolish the waterfront and develop it. The reason is that the waterfront has been hideout for criminals. Because of the nature of it, it is not easy for security to move in to control and reinforce law and order in that area. They have their own government. Infact if I’m living in the water front and I commit any crime, maybe I take your daughter or wife, you can’t come and report me to the police but it is the government of the militants and the criminals that will settle the matter with guns pointing at you. Now if you dare go and report me to the security, then, you can’t come inside. For instance in Njemanze where the militants have their camp, you are a witness of the frequent shootout. From the security report and from what all of us see, the waterfronts are the hideout of these criminals and when they kidnap people they move them into these waterfronts. And once they enter the water fronts, you cannot reach out to them. Now some few months before we paid compensation and demolished Njemanze, one medical doctor was kidnapped in Mile I Diobu and was taken to Njemanze waterfront. And it took the security about three good hours shootout with the criminals before they released the man. But thank God today no one can take anybody there because there is no hiding place. It is just an open space. So if a militant is coming, from far, you will see him. So, first it has solved the issue of insecurity. But it is also said to have ethnic colouration? No. Definitely it is also good for the system because in a democracy, we have what is called freedom of expression. So people should be allowed to say what they feel is their right. Now it is left for us to tell you, no that is not what should be done. In law we say “obujus, ibu remeduim”. It means that you who have a cause has a remedy. When we first started it and we said we want to demolish the water front, the Okrika people came up and said “no, you can’t. You want to destroy our ancestral home”? And you and I know what an ancestral home is. An ancestral home is where, like I said I am a commissioner, I come from Angulama community and Angulama is my ancestral home. At my backyard you have my mother’s grave, you have my father’s grave. You have my elder sister’s grave and you have my aunt’s grave. Because we have nowhere to go, we bury our people there, we live there. That’s my home. Now, I’m here in Port Harcourt. Port Harcourt is a commercial place any day any time I go home. Now they said it is their ancestral place. They met with me. We met several times and they demanded to meet with His Excellency and so His Excellency gave them opportunity and they met. And in their presentation, they came up with a 1913 agreement and said in 1913, the Ikwerre people and the Okrika people ceded parts of this land to government, the Crown Council which means that all the land becomes that of the government. That was before the 1978 Land Use Decree. Already, the land as you have it in Port Harcourt becomes Crown land. Now, you and I also know that when you build your house, in your backyard is the waterfront which is supposed to be a serene place for you. But over time, because of government’s inability to control development, illegal structures started coming up. At that time, they called it Temporary Occupation Licence (TOL). The civil servants, at the period they worked, if the head is corrupt, the tail will also be corrupt and so, they also found a way of giving out Temporary Occupation Licence (TOL). Now if TOL is given to you, you know that in a period of 21 days, the owner can come to say your stay at that place is expired. When they give it to you, you are not expected to build any permanent structure. What is permanent structure? A block structure. What they were building is half block and they now use batcher to finish up. A lot of people were living in batchers. Over time, people in government take it as an avenue for them to grab land and so they started giving TOL to themselves, their brothers and sisters and they started building up these places. That’s how these places were built up. We have said that where the people can claim as their own; that it is their ancestral home, the government will relocate them. But we never found it. Take for instance, Njemanze water front, who owns it? Now one of those who claimed he had no place to go, said afterall he is from the same place with the commissioner. It means that he has a home. Then the other man said he came from Calabar. Calabar is Cross River State, then he has a home. So, you see that we never found one person that is an aborigine in that place. Where we find an aborigine, then we find an alternative place for the person, but for now we have not found an aborigine. And we also give opportunity to the people. Do you want to be resettled? The answer is no even from the places we have not reached. Take for instance Abonnema Wharf they come to us to say please leave, we need payment of compensation, don’t resettle us. They say they need money, they can resettle themselves after all we have homes. Some of us come from Ikwerre, some of us come from Buguma and some of us come from Angulama. My brother there, one Digibo built about seven houses. That’s a lot of money. He has gone to build house. What about Ogbunabali you have not gone there? I promise that in this October I will be in Ogbunabali. I have already started doing studies on Ogbunabali. We will move into Ogbunabali. The Abuloma people, even though we have not reached there, the Council of Chiefs has written to the ministry to say “please come to Abuloma. We need urban renewal in that place. Come and demolish illegal structures.” The people are calling us because they have seen that what the government is doing is the right thing to do. I hope they are not targeting the demolition team? No they are not targeting, they said come to Abuloma, use your law and demolish illegal structure. Now Bundu people have called us to say please come to our place. The Rumuolumeni called us to say please leave Abonnema Wharf people and Njemanzes, if they don’t want, come to our place. While we were waiting, the Elechi people called us and said “no, you can even demolish before you pay us” because we are tired of criminal activities in that area.” And I tell you, even before I started the demolition in Njemanze, it was not without challenges. Because like I said, they are about three camps. Very heavy camps and they are the ones that are ready to fight. Over time they say from this axis, shootout but now you can go because we have moved them. When we first started, we had some challenges and we planned again and moved in and you know what we did? The boys seeing that they cannot fight us joined to work for us and we paid. Those who don’t have guns said no ‘oga’ we don’t want to fight we are hungry. So can we work and we said you can work if you want to. They worked with us and instead of taking us two weeks, we demolished Njemanze for five days. For all the structures we demolished there, we paid everybody. To be contd.