In the closing days of the struggle for the creation of Rivers State, the founding fathers must have looked forward to a great future for the State. Why not? After all, the much expected independence from a neocolonial regime of the Eastern Region was at hand. Besides, the young State had a bright prospect.
The weather was generally good, and the lands and rivers sumptuous for good farming and fishing to feed the State population and export market. The people of the young State were, and are still, energetic and hardworking. Of course, 80 percent of the working population were traders, farmers and fishermen and could work in the farms and rivers from sunrise to sunset.
As a bonus, they had oil under their feet which made the story sweeter and their future even rosier. As far back as 1956, there was oil in commercial quantity at Oloibiri in the present day Bayelsa State, followed by the discovery of oil deposit at Afam in 1957 and other ones at Ebubu and Bunu in Ogoniland in 1958. Till date, Rivers State remains the hub of oil industry in the country.
Like a rose fresh from a good night’s sleep, the State was in its pristine, looking regal and vibrant in its new enclave.
Reminiscent of the October 1, 1960 independence day when Nigeria gained freedom from the British colonialists, the creation of Rivers State, along with 11 others, on May 27, 1967, by the General Yakubu Gowon military regime, was celebrated with pomp and pageantry. The people couldn’t hold back their joy and excitement. The Ikwerres, Kalabaris, Nembes, Okrikans, Ogonis, Ibanis, Andonis, Etches and other component units that constituted the new State backslapped one another, clinked glasses, rolled out the drums, broke into songs and quick dances, and bade the imperial government of the Eastern Region au revoir.
Why wouldn’t they celebrate? Rivers State was not created by happenstance. It was a product of years of conscientious struggle. May 27, 1967 was, therefore, a liberation day that provided them a visa and vista to decide their own future. The Rivers people could now sing their own anthem merrily and speak their own dialects heartily without reprimand or fear of Dracula fang. Their own men and women, from among themselves, would now be in charge of their own affairs. What a great accomplishment!
Fifty years have, however, passed since Rivers State was created. Five decades is, no doubt, a milestone in the life of an oil-bearing State. But how has the State fared in the last 50 years? How have the Rivers people harnessed the enormous human and natural potentials to better their lots in the area of physical infrastructure?
Like a pendulum, the assessment oscillates between two polar opposites, yet perches on the dishevelled cliff of the State infrastructure.
To many Rivers indigenes, the State has moved beyond where the Eastern region rulers left it in 1967. They are quick to point to a litany of schools, health centres, roads, overhead bridges, factories and basic amenities that dot every nook and cranny of the State.
They are not being cynical. It will be unfair not to admit that Rivers State, despite individual frustrations over the pace of direction of its development, has made progress in the last 50 years. For instance, at creation, the State had just 647 primary schools, 25 secondary schools, no single tertiary institution, no overhead bridge, and a handful of health centres. Again, besides Port Harcourt which is the State capital, no other part of the State was connected to the national grid.
Today, however, the number of these institutions has soared, while physical infrastructures have leapt by 300 percent. There are now over 3,000 public and private primary and post-primary schools in the State, nine tertiary institutions, tens of health institutions, eight overhead bridges and several roads that spread like spaghetti across the 23 local government areas of the state. The state also plays host to scores of companies including oil multinationals.
What is more, the rural communities which were hitherto in perpetual darkness in 1967, have been connected to the national grid. Never mind if those electric cables mounted on wooden poles in the areas do not supply power to homes.
With gradual development of the state came a complete revolution in tastes and styles. Bicycles were changed to motorcycles, and motorcycles to cars. Except in areas that cannot be accessed by roads, nobody travels by bicycle or motorcycle again, let alone canoe. The number of cars, both passenger and private cars, on the roads has almost outpaced the population. If you are in doubt, count the number of vehicles that ply Port Harcourt roads alone. To make the story sweeter, there is an international airport at Omagwa which serves the middle and upper class of the society. All these were not obtainable in 1967.
So, how come the people, the ordinary citizens are so bewildered about the pace of development in the last five decades? Why do they lament the absence of basic social infrastructure like electricity, potable water and affordable housing and healthcare? Why do they complain about high rate of unemployment in the State?
Perhaps, they think the State’s potentials have not been exploited for the greater good of the greatest number. They think there is no tenable reason why the State which plays host to virtually all oil giants in the country and awash in petro-naira over the past 50 years should complain of bad roads, poor electricity, lack of potable water and functional health and educational institutions. They can’t understand why the quantity and quality of social infrastructure in the State is not commensurable with the resources that had so far accrued to the State in the last 50 years, and why the infrastructural development being witnessed in recent time were not in place before now.
There is no gainsaying the fact that few administrations in the State made frantic efforts to develop the State. Such efforts were, however, frustrated by frequent change of baton, occasioned by long years of military interregnum in the State polity. In other words, frequent policy shifts and official graft have proven to be the State’s Achille’s heel in its path to infrastructural development.
Between May 27, 1967 when the State was carved out of the defunct Eastern Region and now, the ship of the State has been piloted by 17 administrators, more often in rudderless manner. Of this number, only six: late Melford Obene Okilo, Rufus Ada George, Peter Otunanya Odili, Celestine Omehia, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi and the incumbent Nyesom Ezebunwo Wike were democratically elected. The rest were military careerists who were mostly answerable to military authorities that appointed them.
However, these leaders did the little they could to transform the State, especially Port Harcourt – the State capital.
With 40 per cent of the population as traders, farmers and fishermen, 20 per cent as wage earners and 40 per cent as dependants, the task of birthing the young State on a solid footing was initially daunting in 1967. But the pioneer administration of a 26-year old naval officer, Lt. Commander Alfred Papapreye Diete-Spiff squared up to the challenges. The regime laid a formidable foundation for the development of the State, such that it became a reference point for successive administrations.
The Diete-Spiff administration, obviously the longest, lasting eight years and two months (May 1967 – July 1975) left indelible imprints in the area of physical development. Among its enduring legacies is the Rivers State Secretariat Complex, the tallest and biggest government secretariat in the country, second only to the federal secretariat in Abuja. The secretariat complex, located at the heart of Port Harcourt, is a cluster of about six nine-storey building; while the principal secretariat, popularly known as the ‘Point Block’ which currently houses the offices of the Secretary to the State Government, Head of Service and some State ministries, is 17-storey high, the tallest building in the whole of the South South and South East of Nigeria.
Other legacy projects of Diete-Spiff’s administration include the first state sports complex (Sharks Stadium) and the first and only civic centre, both located in the centre of Port Harcourt; the first tertiary institution in the State which is the Rivers State College of Science and Technology, the Rivers State Newspaper Corporation, publisher of the Nigerian Tide, now The Tide; and the Rivers State Broadcasting Corporation, popularly known as Radio Rivers.
Meanwhile, some companies inherited from the Eastern Region government that are now moribund, such as West African Glass Industry, Waterglass Boatyard and Delta Rubber Industry, were well sustained by Diete-Spiff’s government to provide employment for the youth population.
Also under Diete-Spiff, the State had Pabod Supply, Pabod Breweries, Rivers State Transport Corporation, Rivbank Insurance, Risonpalm, Hotel Presidential (now being run in partnership with a Lebanese company), Olympia Hotel (now moribund) and catering rest houses in every local government area of the State. His government also established schools for specially gifted children; built a 30-bed hospital in all the local government headquarters, constructed new school buildings, repaired old ones, built canals in the riverine areas to ease movement in the creeks and connected the towns in the upland through construction of good roads.
Though the breathtaking, arguably unbreakable record of Diete-Spiff’s administration was propelled by the oil boom era of 1970s and concentrated development in Port Harcourt, there is a general consensus that the pioneer administration in the State erected a solid foundation for successive governments to build on.
But were Diete-Spiff’s legacies built upon by successive administrations? May be. May be not.
The succeeding regimes, so to say, performed according to their abilities. But in concrete terms, the military interregnum in the State nay country, lasting over 19 years after Diete-Spiff’s, bequeathed red indicators to the State. Thus, development in the intervening years was nothing much to cheer about.
Following the concentration of development in Port Harcourt by previous administrations, the desire for higher education, employment opportunities, modern social amenities and generally better living condition which were non-existent in the rural communities encouraged mass exodus to the State capital. This threw up fresh socio-economic challenges and put pressure on the existing infrastructure in Port Harcourt.
This situation, peradventure, informed the decentralization policy of the first Chief Executive Governor of the State, Late Chief Melford Obene Okilo, whose tenure, between October 1979 and December 1983, witnessed gradual transformation of rural areas through the “stepping down” of governance to zonal enclaves.
Okilo is believed to have focused on rural development. He made good efforts to extend the one-city syndrome of Rivers State. It is difficult, however, to say if he was successful in spite of the number of infrastructural facilities he and other governors after him sited in the rural areas, because to date, Rivers State is still a one-city state.
Nevertheless, Okilo’s administration built schools in rural communities, upgraded the Rivers State College of Science and Technology built by Diete-Spiff’s government and converted it into a degree awarding university known as Rivers State University of Science and Technology, now the Rivers State University; initiated rural housing scheme in the State, built industrial estates in Port Harcourt and also undertook programmes to reclaim land, control erosion and construct roads and canals. His regime is also credited with the building of Port Harcourt International Airport Hotel at Omagwa (now moribund).
Meanwhile, the regime started rural electrification in the State. One of such power projects is an independent power plant – the Kolo Creek Gas Turbine at Imiringi in Ogbia Local Government Area, now in Bayelsa State.
The Rufus Ada George administration which was the second democratically elected government in the State between January 1992 and November 1993, was short-lived, and therefore, couldn’t do much in terms of infrastructural development before the military regime of late General Sani Abacha came to power through a coup de’tat in November 1993 and dissolved the Third Republic. His regime, nonetheless, conceived the over N4 billion Okrika Ring Road which was completed and named after the former governor by the Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi administration.
The regime of Dr Peter Otunaya Odili which kick-started the current democratic dispensation in the State in 1999 made some appreciable efforts in the area of physical infrastructure. Although Odili’s eight-year administration was flamboyant and tended to favour more human development, it left some valuable imprints in the area of infrastructure.
The achievements cut across housing, education, health service delivery, road construction and empowerment programme. But the high point of the administration was in the area of power supply. Besides creating the State Ministry of Power, the Odili government built a 150 megawatt Omoku Gas Turbine and another 36 megawatt gas plant at Trans-Amadi to generate electricity to the state. This is in addition to the rehabilitation of Afam Power Station and the Eleme Gas Turbine built but abandoned by OMPADEC. The regime also introduced traffic lights on major roads in Port Harcourt.
His administration built the present State House of Assembly and a befitting Government House complex in addition to the already existing old edifice at the Brick House; completed the State Ministry of Justice started during the Diete-Spiff era; reconstructed and modernised the Braithwaite Memorial Specialist Hospital (BMSH), completed the Igbo-Etche Housing project started by Sam Ewang’s government, and saturated the State with modern housing units at Eleme, Bori, Emohua, Elele, Isiokpo, Ahoada and Port Harcourt.
The dredging of the Nta-Wogba Creek was another legacy project of the Odili administration, while the regime also initiated and completed several road projects and two flyovers in the State. Among them are Oginigba-Woji-Elelenwo Road, Choba-Aluu Road, Omoku Road, Rumuola Flyover and an overpass at Air-Force, along G.U. Ake Road.
The Celestine Omehia administration which took over from Odili’s was the shortest in the history of Rivers State. The regime lasted barely five months before it was shoved aside by the Supreme Court ruling that pronounced Rt. Hon Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi as the authentic occupant of the Brick House.
However, Omehia’s government will be remembered for initiating few legacy projects such as the Eleme Roundabout Flyover, the Eliozu Flyover and Rumuwoji (Mile One) Market, all of whom were redesigned and completed by Amaechi’s government. His administration also started the abandoned Rivmall at Aba Road.
Like many other administrations before it, the Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi government that succeeded Omehia’s started with massive investments on roads, education, health care, housing and development of Greater Port Harcourt City. The regime, however, at its twilight, caved in to political extremity at the expense of State’s infrastructure.
Nevertheless, Amaechi has the construction of 350 model primary schools with at least 10 in each local government, 24 model boarding secondary schools across the 23 local government area of the State, 160 modern primary health centres, with at least five in each local government area, Dental Hospital at Garrison and a 100-bed Harrison Kelsy Specialist Hospital at Diobu, as some of the enduring legacies of his administration.
Others include an ultra-modern Port Harcourt Mall at Azikwe Road, near the Government House; Obi Wali International Conference Centre at G.U. Ake Road, a 25,000 capacity Adokiye Amiesimaka Stadium at Igwuruta, Songhai Integrated Farm at Bunu in Tai Local Government Area, the N1.5bn modern fish farm in Buguma, a network of roads across the State, including two flyovers, one at Agip Junction, Mile Four and the other at Obiri Ikwerre Interchange along East West Road, and low cost housing units at Iriebe and Rainbow Town in Trans Amadi which is still under construction.
Amaechi’s government also undertook land reclamation in Ogu Bolo, constructed the Bolo Bridge to link the area with the rest of the State by land; completed the N3.9 billion Okrika Ring Road which was awarded by Odili’s administration at the initial cost of N900 million, and initiated the Andoni/Opobo Unity Road and ring roads at the Kalabari-Okrika axis which are under construction by the Governor Nyesom Wike government. The regime also upgraded the Rivers State College of Education to a university.
Arguably, the most ambitious project of Amaechi’s government is the development of the Greater Port Harcourt City. The Greater Port Harcourt City Development Programme (GPCDP) as the project is being called, and which the Wike administration is fine-tuning, is designed to decongest the old Port Harcourt Township, expand social infrastructure and provide employment and investment opportunity for the people of the State. Already, the city has been designed to accommodate some structural development projects such as the new site of the Rivers State University of Science and Technology, now Rivers State University; Justice Karibi-Whyte Specialist Hospital and Adokiye Amiesimaka Stadium which was completed by Amaechi’s government.
While the Greater Port Harcourt City is perceived to be the most ambitious project of Amaechi’s government, the abandoned monorail project, estimated to gulp N60 billion, appears to be grandiose. In truth, the vision to ease off transportation problem in Port Harcourt by the Amaechi administration was not lacking, but the will to execute the vision was in short supply.
As a Rivers State elder statesman and Niger Delta activist, Mr Sokari Soberekon rightly observed in an interview with The Tide, unless the multi-million naira monorail project is taken over by the Federal Government, the over N30 billion sunk into the project by Amaechi’s government might be a waste and the project itself a pipe dream.
Government, supposedly, is a continuum. Sadly, policy inconsistencies have, over the years, put a cog in the wheel of progress and development of the State. This fact was not lost on the present administration led by Chief Nyesom Ezebunwo Wike. The regime thus took upon itself the responsibility of completing all uncompleted but viable projects inherited from its predecessor, notwithstanding the political differences between the duo.
Within two years of his administration, Governor Wike has turned Rivers State into a huge construction site. Besides the operation zero pothole programme which has seen to the delivery of more than 130 roads in Obio/Akpor, Eleme, Oyigbo and Port Harcourt local government areas, Wike’s government has completed over 150 road projects across the State, with several others on various stages of completion. The major ones among them are N13 billion Abuloma – Woji Link Road, Ilaobuchi – Eagle Island Link Road, Abonnema-Obonoma Link Road with a bridge, Igwuruta-Etche Road, Obiri-Ikwerre Road, the recently commissioned NLNG – Nkpogu Road, East-West Airport (Prof. Tam David West) Boulevard, Ogoni-Andoni-Opobo Unity Road, Trans Amadi Industrial Layout Road, the 16 kilometre Sakpenwa-Bori-Kono Road that straddles three local government areas in Ogoniland, and three federal roads that are critical to economic development of the State, namely the NPA Industrial Road, Eleme-Onne Junction of the East-West Road and the 6.6 kilometre Igwuruta-Chokocho-Okehi highway, among several others.
Meanwhile, there are some legacy projects the Wike government has delivered that place it far ahead of its predecessors, aside Diette-Spiff’s. These include the multi-million naira relaxation centre – the Port Harcourt Pleasure Park at Rumuola, Ecumenical Centre beside Sylverbird Cinema at Abonnema Wharf Road, the N498 million ultra-modern NBA Law Centre located opposite Port Harcourt City Council, Law Faculty building for the Rivers State University, a Federal High Court and over 50 housing units of two and three bedroom flats at the Iriebe Housing Estate.
Meanwhile, the Wike-led government, in a bid to develop a world class education system in the State, upgraded Government Girls Secondary School, Rumuokuta and Birabi Memorial Grammar School, Bori which are among the pilot schools selected for the re-introduction of boarding school system in the State.
The approval rating of Governor Wike in the last two years has continued to soar up, given the pace of developmental projects he has executed and which earns him ‘Mr Projects’ from a no less personality than the Acting President Yemi Osinbajo.
The Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party in the State, Bro Felix Obuah, declared that apart from the pioneer administration of Diete-Spiff, no regime has bequeathed as much legacy projects to the State as Wike’s government.
Bro Obuah, while speaking with some members of The Tide Editorial Board on Wednesday, at his Eagle Island home, assured that by the time the present administration in the State winds up, Governor Wike would have turned Rivers State into a Dubai.
There is no doubt that the journey by Rivers State in the last 50 years has been eventful, especially given the level of infrastructural development in the State. Although the State may have made mistakes and lost opportunities in the last 50 years, as Governor Wike rightly noted, while unveiling the Golden Jubilee logo for the celebration of the State’s 50th anniversary in January, this year, it has also made significant progress that calls for celebration.
Governor Wike captured the reasons for the celebration this way: “Before its (Rivers State) creation, our people, including our brothers from Bayelsa State, existed as second class citizens in their country. They were oppressed, exploited, dehumanized and denied even the most basic opportunities of life.
“Every Rivers person was, therefore, relieved when General Yakubu Gowon (the then Head of State), on May 27, 1967, dismantled the regional geopolitical fortresses of majority domination and pronounced the creation of Rivers State. It unchained and restored our rights to preside over our affairs and pursue our developmental aspirations with a united Nigeria.
“Over the past 50 years, we have travelled quite a marvelous journey. We have made some significant progress no doubt, but we have also made mistakes and lost valuable opportunities.
“It is in this spirit that we have initiated the celebration of the Golden Jubilee of our creation and existence as a State to express our joy and thank God for boundless blessings upon us as a people. We want our people to use this occasion of our Golden Jubilee to unite and together reflect on the tortuous and eventful journey into the future with hope and determination”.
Indeed, with the human and natural deposits in the State, over 90 industrial concerns including virtually all oil multinationals, banks, two seaports, an international airport at Omagwa, an ultra-modern shopping complex (Port Harcourt Mall) at Azikwe Road, one federal university, two State-owned universities, one federal polytechnic at Bonny, two State-owned polytechnics, a Federal Technical College of Education at Omoku, two schools of health technology, two of the largest fertilizer production plants in the country, two petroleum refineries, a functional Rivers State Transport Corporation, an industrial layout at Trans-Amadi and a network of good roads and waterways, it is certain the future of Rivers State is assured.
What is needed, however, is good leadership to exploit and harness these resources for the benefit of Rivers people and generations yet unborn. Luckily, the present leadership led by Governor Wike appears to be too eager to pursue that path.