In December 2007, few months after Rt. Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi assumed office as the governor of Rivers State, he created the state Ministry of Urban Development and saddled it with the responsibility of physical planning and development control of the state.
The decision of the governor was born out of the desire to change the face of the city of Port Harcourt and other urban cities in Rivers State, a vision he began midwifing through the enactment of a law in 2003, then as the Speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly.
The law known as Rivers State Physical Planning and Development Law, 2003 first abrogated all existing laws on physical planning, development control in the state and gave the urban renewal responsibility to the state government through the Ministry of Urban Development which hitherto existed as the department of Urban Development in the then Ministry of Housing and Urban Development.
The intention of government was to pull down all illegal structures and shanties that blocked the right of ways and return the city to its original features that earned it the name “garden city”
Port Harcourt City acquired the name “Garden City” from inception because the geographical boundaries including the old Port Harcourt, Diobu, Ogbunabali, GRA Phase 1 to 8 and Amadi Flat were all properly planned and their development control by the government.
“Over time, the inability of government to muster the political will to embark upon this exercise caused the inhabitants of the state to carry out development without control. So we looked at it and said one of the first things to do is to clean up the city of the illegal structures,” Mr. Osina Ginah, pioneer commissioner of the Ministry told newsmen.
In implementing the demolition policy, the state government established fence lines and declared any property developed outside the fence lines as illegal structures.
“But we also have situations where government because of favouritism aided some persons to build where they are not supposed to build. Some areas that are sanitary lanes, government has given Certificate of Occupancy (C of O) for people to build. And the law says once a structure is declared illegal, you demolish without payment of compensation,” Mr. Ginah said.
The plan of the city describes fence lines as a measurement of between 3 to 5 metres or 10 metres away from the edge of the road or from the centre of the road depending on the approved plan while sanitary lines are the drainage and water ways.
The government has so far carried out demolition of illegal structures in areas including Borokiri, Town, Diobu, Aba-Road GRA 2 and 3, and D/Line axis of Port Harcourt city while other areas have been marked for owners to remove structures marked illegal. In all these the government has denied that it carried out indiscriminate demolition in some places.
“We did not carry out indiscriminate demolition of homes or fences. When we started, we first mapped out Borokiri and Town axis. We took it from one point to the other. We phased it. So as we are through with one phase, we moved to the next. So you can determine where next we are going because we tell you. We did not just jump into the streets, we took our time and enlightened the public of this law and what we intend to do and what we think are illegal structures because we take time to define,” the commissioner said.
However, Mr. Ginah agrees that the law is not without its flaws. “I looked at the law. Take for instance one of the amendments that are very apparent is that the law makes a provision for the setting up of a board to take care of the development and physical planning and development control. This law is obsolete because we now have a ministry charged with that responsibility.
His Excellency is the visioner, he saw the vision and he believes that he needs something much more than that and he wanted a ministry that he can hold responsible in driving that vision and he created a Ministry of Urban Development. And the law provides that at the time they made the law, we had what is called the Land Bureau, Land an Survey Bureau.
Now we don’t have Land Survey Bureau because that was part of Ministry of Land and Survey. So for you to set up that board, the Special Adviser for Land and Survey will recommend the members of that board for His Excellency to appoint. The question is, how will the governor cross over that hurdle to appoint and constitute the board because there is no Special Adviser for Land and Housing. And so the Law has to be amended and the power to recommend members of the board given to the commissioner,” he explained.
Another amendment is that the law provides that it gives seven days to owners of illegal structures and at the expiration of the seven days, if the owner of the structure fails to remove it the government demolishes it and the law went further to say if the government demolishes, the owner pays for the cost of demolition.
“So we studied the law and found out that there is law and there is equity. So what we are applying is the equitable principles. We have never asked anybody who owns an illegal structure that we demolished to pay the cost of demolition because the government spends huge sum of money for demolition in hiring equipment and security for demolition of the illegal structures.
The law says pay for demolition but the law did not spell out how much you have to pay. Now who determines how much that should be paid? Another aspect is, is that seven days enough? Say for somebody to remove a storey building will seven days be enough?
Even if the seven days were enough, you may not have the resources to pay for the demolition and if government demolishes, while you have lost the property, you are in pains, you don’t even have the money and government is saying pay for the demolition. The law did not say what should happen to you if you don’t have the money to pay government for the demolition.”
In driving the urban renewal effort to success, Rt. Hon. Amaechi has taken a paradigm shift from applying favouritism and nepotism that characterized government policies in the past.” In this case the government has not interfered with our functions. From day one we started this assignment till today, the government has not interfered. He only told us, be in charge provided you are following the law and be fair to all concerned.
The government has also ensured that cases where past governments gave Certificate of Occupancy for people to build where they were not supposed to build; the administration has ensured payment of compensation to owners of such properties before they are demolished. “Take for instance, a property in GRA, in Bishop Dimeari Street. There is one hotel in that area. In the course of our urban renewal we saw in the mater plan of GRA that that place is supposed to be a link road, but the owner has a C of O during the Musa Shehu era.
We demolished the entire hotel, three storey one side and one storey building and a duplex on the other side and we paid compensation because he has a C of O. In the present government, we have learnt the lesson that we cannot use privileged position to do what we are not supposed to do because nemesis one day could catch up with us,” Mr. Ginah said, adding that government has already spent close to N4 billion on payment of compensation.
The compensation payment covers demolition carried out at Ada-George road by Rumuolumeni junction, Old cultural Centre, Town axis among others which fall under government’s development control programme and the demolition of the Njemanze Waterfront which falls under its urban renewal programme.
The execution of the demanding task of development control and urban renewal has not come thus far without meeting resistance from the people. Recently, at the Bundu Waterfront, government security forces were engaged in a fierce exchange of gunfire by some armed residents of the area who tried to resist government enumerators.
The gun battle was reported to have claimed some lives and left several others injured. Also, there are a number of court cases pending before the Port Harcourt courts challenging the implementation of the urban renewal policy of the state government. “We have cases but we have never disobeyed one court order,” says Osima Ginah.
One thing is certain, in all the issues of development, Governor Amaechi had called a meeting of stakeholders who reviewed the idea, considered it, made suggestions and gave approval for its execution, “In the case of the waterfronts, and even the issue of the development control of Port Harcourt, the Governor called stakeholders meeting of Rivers State and the people of Rivers State gave him the mandate to implement the policy. And we agreed to start from Njemanze. And I called the people of Njemanze, the landlords; in fact 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 assignment on August, I should have finished because I have the security with me. But we didn’t do that so we consulted. We called them and they gave the mandate on their own they need compensation and the stakeholders of Rivers State said yes,” he explained.
Equally challenging in this vision of reinstalling Port Harcourt city to its past glory is the interpretation from some quarters of ethnic coloration in the entire exercise. Some persons and groups have expressed fear that the action of government would subjugate the interest of some ethnic groups in the state.
But the commissioner for Urban Development insists that what the government is doing has no ethnic agenda,” I say it and the governor has said it several times that it is open to all Rivers people. Now what the government is doing is not an Ikwerre agenda after all the governor has said it that Ikwerre people who have taken over government land, take for instance, “Eagle Island.” We will demolish all the structures there. We will move into Elekahia Stadium. All government land taken over by the Ikwerre people will be recovered,” he said.