Feature Article

ONITSHA EYESORE: What Has Environment Got to Do With It?

The city of Onitsha is home to the largest open market in West Africa and possibly the entire Africancontinent. This river town is connected to the sister city, Asaba, on the western bank by the only bridge that straddles the lower Niger River thus making it a strategic communication hub in south central Nigeria. Onitsha is a bona fide Igbo city replete with an ancient cultural institution that is presided over by the Obi of Onitsha. Since the advent of British colonial rule, Onitsha has steadily been transformed from its tranquil past into a bustling urban center that is driven mostly by commerce. The city also hosts the headquarters of Anglican and Catholic churches as well as the two oldest educational institutions in the area, DMGS and CKC, which were founded since the colonial era. For most Igbo-owned businesses, Onitsha acts as base from where their tentacles are fanned out to reach all corners of Nigeria and beyond. Almost all major bus operating companies that handle intercity transportation nationwide are based out of Onitsha . It is also from this city that distributing outposts for building materials, pharmaceuticals, auto spare parts and a host of other goods are supplied and replenished throughout most parts of the country, especially the East and North.
Because of its importance, Onitsha was a hotly contested theater during the Civil War. Suffice it to say that post-war Onitsha was a ghost of what it used to be and remains so till today in the eyes of many. Rural-urban migration, which kicked off during the oil-boom epoch of the 1970s and 80s, led to explosion of the city'spopulation without a commensurate growth in infrastructure development to cope with influx of new residents from near and far. The city limits expanded haphazardly engulfing farmlands and settlements that lie to the north, south and east. Whatever city plan that was in place prior to the Civil War was virtually discarded in post-war period thereby setting the stage for evolution of the chaotic development process that has transformed today'sOnitsha metropolis into an eyesore. The city and its environs belong to the equatorial rain forest belt of West Africa and receive more than 80 inches of rainfall annually, mostly during the 6 months of rainy season. Increasing demand for housing to accommodate population explosion resulted in widespread clearing of vegetation cover in farmlands and woodlands throughout the area. Traditional floodwater channels were blocked when new buildings were sited in their paths and roads were poorly constructed without adequate provision for drainage. Due to Onitsh's peculiar topography, erosion has become the greatest menace to the livelihood of this city's residents.
Post-independent Onitsha was administered under the purview of an elected mayor whose task it was to take charge of the city'saffairs. In post-war era, management of urban centers throughout the country was transferred to government bureaucrats who, for decades, took direct orders from military top brass that ruled Nigeria until recently. With pervasive official corruption that permeated all aspects of governance, succeeding administrations looked the other way while cities like Onitsha decayed beyond belief. As we speak, Onitsha , a city of more than 1.5 million people, has no functional waste management system. Every inch of the metropolis is being smothered with heaps of garbage and other refuse which, at times, pile up in shape of mountains. Open sewer flows into roadways and streets even in the middle of dry season. Major thoroughfares and streets are partially or completely blocked by human waste that spill over from illegal garbage dumps that appear daily across the city. Bewildered residents have no choice but to walk and ride on piles of all this filth routinely to get from one place to the other. Effects of floodwater erosion throughout the city are compounded by ubiquitous mounds of garbage and trash which are routinely washed off and carried downhill after a typical torrential downpour. Tons of debris, in turn, soon choke up drainage channels thereby forcing floodwater to spillover and inundate roads, streets, business premises and homesteads on regular basis. Okpoko and Fegge sections of Onitsha bear the brunt of these combination punches on regular basis.

Onitsha is not only the largest urban center in Anambra state, but it is also the economic engine that drives the livelihood of the overwhelming majority of its citizens. The state government, therefore, has an obligation in making sure that Onitsha lives up to its potential as a vibrant commercial capital and a safe living space for millions of its residents who call that metropolis home. Succeeding Anambra state administrations have not lived up to expectation in addressing the dual menace of erosion and pollution that have transformed urban centers like Onitsha into eyesores which are unfit for human habitation. Anambra State Environmental Protection Agency (ANSEPA) was created to ensure that residents and businesses comply with environmental standards delineated in existing statutes. The role of this agency should thus be essentially that of monitoring and supervision to make sure that all who violate existing codes are identified and disciplined according to the law. As far as Onitsha is concerned, ANSEPA has failed woefully to discharge its responsibility to Anambra people, in particular and Nigeria , in general. Ongoing investigations have shown that, contrary to defined role of ANSEPA, this agency has assumed the function of garbage and trash collection from some Onitsha residents for a fee. Which authority should then monitor ANSEPA to ensure that its new assumed role as a trash/garbage collector agency is discharged effectively?

The filth and infrastructural degradation that have overtaken Onitsha as a consequence of decades of neglect are beginning to pressure the State House in Awka to do something concrete now to change the present image of Onitsha and other decaying urban centers in the state. The situation in Onitsha, however, is so bad and the damage so extensive that the process of deriving and implementing workable solutions, which can provide a much-needed facelift for the city, must not be left to the whims and caprices of government bureaucracy. Anambra state government obviously lacks the manpower and material resources which shall be required to even make a dent in correcting the mess that is all over the city as we speak. This is certainly not the time to point fingers and apportion blames to anyone or group, including the present ANSEPA board. This agency should never have been charged with the task of waste management in the first place since it was never equipped to perform that function. Changing the composition or leadership of ANSEPA, though politically and administratively expedient in the short run, may not yield any tangible results down the road because this agency lacks what it would take to meaningfully deal with the forces that deface Onitsha .

The forces that create and sustain the eyesore that is glaringly manifest in Onitsha are evident anywhere one looks in Anambra state and beyond. Anambra is particularly vulnerable to floodwater erosion because of its peculiar topography and soil formations that are unusually fragile once the age-old equilibrium that has persisted for centuries is recklessly trampled upon by modern-day developers. Managing the eyesore in Onitsha cannot yield expected results without thorough understanding and review of collateral issues that continue to devastate our God-given land. There must be a comprehensive and sustainable plan of action to address erosion menace throughout Anambra state before anyone can stop recurrent flooding that ravages Okpoko and Fegge sections of Onitsha , for example. Proper environmental etiquette needs to be inculcated into the generality of the populace before anyone can get a handle on mountains of garbage and trash that litter the streets and block natural drainage channels in Onitsha . A government agency like ANSEPA should focus on enforcing the removal of buildings and other illegal structures situated in traditional drainage channels, such as the Otumoye Creek (Nwangene) basin, in order to restore normal floodwater drainage and leave trash/garbage collection and disposal to city authorities. Most important, appropriate legal and legislative framework must be put in place soon at each level of governance to ensure that Onitsha eyesore, once removed, shall never be allowed to recur.

Present condition of eastern Fegge epitomizes everything that has gone wrong with today's Onitsha. Silas Works Road branches off Zik's Avenue, Fegge, just one block from the famous Ochanja Market. This street used to be home for the once popular Silas Bread and later, a base for retail tire business in Onitsha metropolis. For those who wished to avoid traffic congestion at Ochanja, the street provided a last-minute diversion to link up with Port Harcourt Road which lies a few blocks to the South. In the 1980s and 90s, it was a choice route for Run-for-life Campaign jogging exercises that used to originate from what is left of former Government Field, Fegge. Silas Bread has since gone out of business and tire dealers have also been relocated to Nkpor, off Onitsha/Enugu expressway. This once-famous street can only be entered now via Zik's Avenue, but one cannot proceed beyond 50 feet because most of the area is permanently under water (open sewer). Just around the corner from Silas Works is what used to be a paved short-cut access to Ochanja Market. This busy thoroughfare for residents of southeastern parts of Fegge still handles heavy traffic even though the street is completely blocked by a mountain of garbage. Access to Ochanja via Port Harcourt Road to the south and Zik's avenue to the north have fallen into disuse for quite a while because of total ruination. Getting in and out of Fegge these days is certainly no child's play. 

The eyesore in Onitsha and elsewhere across the land requires a broad-based citizens's action now to assist in mobilizing and deploying the enormous manpower and material resources that shall be needed to turn things around for the better. A broad coalition made up of individuals, groups and institutions (both national and multinational) shall provide the platform for liaising with governments in affected jurisdictions to institute models that shall eliminate and prevent recurrence of urban decay, starting with Onitsha as ground zero. The nucleus of such a coalition is already in place and is currently increasing the scope of consultations to include individuals and groups that have genuine revulsion for the inhuman conditions in which our folks are compelled to seek their livelihood. Onitsha can never attain its potential as a burgeoning economic center for south central Nigeria until decent people, including multinational investors, find it an attractive and profitable destination for investing their hard-earned capital.

The present image of Onitsha portrays us as a people without a sense of self pride and sound cultural values. The eyesore that Onitsha has become in this era does not represent what we are as a people and our aspirations for the future. It is our patriotic duty to do our utmost now to help to give this city a facelift.

Executive Director,



Copyright 2006 World Igbo Environmental Foundation, Inc.
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