Residents of Abonnema Wharf Waterfronts in Port Harcourt would not forget the last week of June in a hurry. It was the week the Rivers State government moved the bulldozers to the area. In spite of a court injunction restraining the government, officials of the state government demolished the area as residents looked on in amazement.
Since Governor Chibuike Amaechi came to power in 2007, there has been a thick opposition to his decision to demolish waterfronts in the state. Several moves made by the government, either through dialogue or the use of force, have been opposed by those who claimed to be original ‘owners’ of the waterfronts.
Abonnema Wharf Waterfront was among the numerous waterfronts that surround Port Harcourt, the state capital, predominantly occupied by low-income earners. It hosts oil giant, Shell Petroleum Development Company facilities and Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA).
Although, in some quarters, the community is regarded as a dark spot, at the entrance of the area is a military post. Also, there is a police station in the centre just as a Naval facility is located at the jetty. The jetty is mostly used by passengers travelling to Akuku-Toru, Asari-Toru and Degema Local Government areas of the state.
That is why the route remains a busy one. But the big question is: now that government has demolished the waterfront, invariably limiting the presence of people in the area, is it going to shut down the route used by travellers?
That was one of the big worries of Mr. Jim Tom George, Public Relations Officer of Abonnema Wharf Community House Owners Association. He told Daily Sun that though government had succeeded in ejecting the residents, it would be a partial success, as the occupants would still come back.
“What we are saying is that, 80 percent of the residents find their livelihood in the river and the marine services. So, even if the people are moved forcefully, they will still come back to create slums. There is no doubt about that. So the target or goal which government wants to achieve is defeated.” Mr. Tom-George, whose three separate apartments with over 70 rooms were demolished, faulted government in all areas. He argued that if there was good intention on the part of the government, it would have followed due process. \
“What we are demanding is that compensation does not solve the housing problem in Abonnema Wharf and the entire Rivers State. Government has failed in its housing policy. It has failed to follow due process in terms of consulting, notice and giving respect to the landlords and tenants, as regards the law. The so-called payment was pre-mature because some of us are in court. And if we are to talk about it, it would not be while we are in court.” He decried the huge loss and untold hardship that had befallen him and other victims.
On what led to the demolition of the waterfront, secretary of the association, Rev. Sowari Amachree, accused the state government of sponsoring hoodlums who engaged in a shoot-out in the area on Monday, June 25. He maintained that it was a ploy designed by government to commence demolition of the area.
The cleric argued that the shoot-out was not enough reason for government to embark on the exercise without giving the residents notice. He lamented that inhabitants of the waterfront had been exposed to more danger and hardship.
“Even myself here, I don’t know what to do or where to take my family to. I have lost all my property to this demolition. The state governor, who came in through a court ruling, is now disobeying a court ruling. It is undemocratic.”
Another pathetic story was the experience of one Pastor Ejike Onuoha in the hands of security men. Narrating his ordeal, the cleric said soldiers arrested him during a house-to-house raid. He told Daily Sun that he was carrying his baby when he was arrested and tortured He said further that he was, along with over 130 other suspects, ferried at midnight from Abonnema Wharf jetty to Aker Base, where the Nigerian Navy Ship, Pathfinder, is situated.
“I was bundled and taken away by the military personnel. We were taken from Abonnema Wharf jetty in the midnight through the waterway to Aker Base Navy Barracks. And before we left, we were badly tortured.
“I asked them what my offence was. I even told them that I was a man of God. They tied my hands behind with my back. I was badly manhandled. We were kept from that Tuesday night to early morning on Thursday when they released us. They said they were looking for those who were shooting. And majority of us in that place were businessmen and men that have credible handwork, people that are law-abiding.”
Rev. Onuoha said when he got home, he could not find members of his family, as the demolition had commenced. “We were released around 5am on Thursday. We were given a token of N500 each for transport. Before we came back, demolition had already started. When I got home, my family members and my aged mother were nowhere to be found. It took me time before I found them. I don’t know where to go from here.”
The story of one Ibiba Batubo was more pathetic. The single mother of four had been abandoned by her husband. The 38-year old woman, who operated an eatery in an open space, said she was an orphan.
When the reporter met with her, she was looking for where to buy fruits for her sick child. She lamented: “I feed my family through this mama put. Now, if government destroys this place, where will I go and what will I do? My child is sick. What does government want us to do? I have no father, no mother. Where do I go from here with my children? Government should please give us time so that we can look for money to get a new place. They cannot drive us away like that and make us homeless. Please, beg government for us.
“I am begging the government, even if it is annoyed with us, it should be patient with us and give us time. Look at me, a single mother of four children. My husband abandoned these children and ran away. I am the only one taking care of them.”
The distraught mother, who is a native of Buguma in Asari-Toru Local Government area of the state, wept that she and her children had been in a painful situation without food and water. “Since Monday, we have been passing through hell. There is no food to eat, no water to bathe and now, nowhere to go.”
Deaconess Ibiso Jackric also has tales of woe. She said she had lived in the community for over 25 years and wondered how she could lose her efforts in life within a second. The 51-year old widow and mother of six from Buguma decried that the demolition was unfair. She expressed anguish at the excruciating moments inhabitants of the area were passing through. “I’m a woman and at the same time a widow.
I don’t have power or arm to fight the government. If they say I should go, I don’t need to fight them. Government should give me time and I would quietly pack my things and go where God will give me. I can’t fight government. I am a law-abiding citizen. Government is sending people to go and die. But, I will not die because I don’t know why He has brought me to this level.”
She wondered how she could start a new life at her age as a tenant. The embattled mother of six said if government had compensated owners of buildings with reasonable amounts of money, it could help them to secure places of their choice.
The deaconess added that what worsened the situation was the excessive house rent in the state. Many persons lost their belongings in the confusion that followed the demolition. And for those who were able to bring out perishable materials from their homes, the heavy downpour on the first and second days of the exercise destroyed such materials.
The Abonnema Wharf waterfront is the second waterfront destroyed by the Amaechi government. The first was the Njemanze waterfront