Owerri: Metaphor of South-east on a Rebound
Have you heard about the Phoenix, the mythological ancient bird which rises from its ashes? Feel free to replace its essence with the South East, the heartland of the Igbo of Nigeria. Add Owerri and you’re spot on!
Just a few weeks ago, not a few people believed it was going to be the beginning of the end, if not the actual end with the blitzkrieg that besieged the area.
The older generation recoiled at the thought of a replication of the scary era they struggle to forget, with the image of 1967-1970 Nigeria’s cataclysmic eruption flashing like a television montage. They must have pictured once again those tiny limbs, distended stomachs and glazy eyes of the malnourished kwashiorkor children in the refugee camps combined with the human carcasses scattered in the ruins of market places, churches and public places amid smouldering smokes from sustained bombings.
They cried, remonstrated and warned at the gory stories and images that became the byproducts of the sweltering engagements between the Unknown Gunmen, and security forces.
Just like the civil war, conflicting angles, some contrived or deliberately (mis)construed to hoodwink and distort history, the horrible situation of the South East in the last four months would obviously be subsumed in the allegations and counter allegations.
What cannot be taken away is that the mayhem is a product of vested interests. The Federal Government says the mayhem was the handiwork of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), while IPOB and its leaders insist that it was sponsored by the same government to set up the Igbo people for the final annihilation. Politicians, including the governors insist it is all a gambit to turn the people against them, while others argue that the promoters of the turmoil wanted to use it to stop the South East from producing the next President in 2023.
Somewhere in-between, lies the truth and the real culprits. What is constant however remains the toll the conflagration took in human and material resources. Who is going to replace the lives lost – innocent people killed both by the UGM and security forces? Who is going to compensate those alleged innocent caught in the crossfire, some of whom are still languishing in detention till date?
The good news however, is that normalcy seems to have returned substantially and the people appear to have their lives back. They are currently picking the pieces as they did more than 50 years ago.
The situation is not as grim as it was a few weeks ago. That I could confirm. Traversing the South East this past week, through Owerri, Enugu and Anambra, I could safely conclude that the worst days are over, even if temporarily. It is an exhilarating feeling.
There are still vestiges and tell-tale signs of the onslaught. The ubiquitous checkpoints mounted by the military and the police are stark reminders. But like it is understandable that a mad man could still be muttering to himself after getting a cure, the current situation is by far a lesser threat.
Even so, the benign attitude, if not comeliness of the soldiers, contrasts with the images of those unleashing the brutalities and torture on citizens as depicted by those gory images captured in the videos circulated then.
I observed that except the Ihiala-Mgbidi stretch on the Onitsha-Owerri road where my taxi had to make a deteur into the village roads to avoid the almost immovable traffic snarl created by some soldiers, nothing else left a sour taste in the mouth from the Asaba Airport to Owerri. Surprisingly, the other side – Enugu-Owerri along the Port Harcourt presented a different picture of pleasant and refreshing journey.
Talking about Owerri, whoever plotted that assault against the tourism capital of Nigeria – that is if it is not an accident, but a design - truly hit the bull’s eyes. They hit the town at its soft underbelly where it hurts the most.
Attempts at destroying the major bragging rights – tourism and hospitality is like taking away the insignia of the warrior and make him lose his identity or taking away the paraphernalia of a woman’s beauty and diminishing her splendour. Owerri bu oke mba was on the verge of losing its meaning by the bombardment it experienced.
But the Owerri I met during my four-day stay, seemed to have recovered fully and rediscovered itself.
In fact, when my host invited me to Owerri for our meeting, I had the intuition of something terrible. He had flown in from Abuja, not being resident in the city himself. I could have said no, if I had the choice. I practically held my heart in my hands as we drove back to our hotel well beyond 2am on the first night of my arrival. On the second day, we were able to eat, what I believe is the best barbecue fish there is in the world in one of the bubbling joints, well beyond 11pm. But my confirmation about the status quo came on the Friday preceding my departure.
At another popular joint where we converged, the usual revellers were already on ground as early as 4pm and before dawn the arena as large as a football field was already filled to its stretch. My conclusion again – Owerri is back! Exhilarating!
How this came about would definitely remain a subject of future discussion. But the central feature that would continue to turn up also is Hope Uzodimma, the governor of the state.
Somehow, the animosity doesn’t seem as high as IPOB and other traducers seem to habour against him, just yet. If anything, there seems a certain agreement within the Owerri environment to give him a chance.
Perhaps, this might be from the perspective of what cannot be changed must be endured.
A journalist, who enthused to me that if nothing, the governor has been able to stop the bleeding the state experienced
with the Rochas Okorocha government, explained how the governor adopted some of the ideas in the initial frameworks of Emeka Ihedioha, his immediate predecessor, such as working with the results of the commissions of inquiry that were set up upon arrival, instead of disbanding them. Through this, he is said to have reset the structure of the government, particularly the civil service that had been in disarray hitherto.
If this assessment is true, it means that the governor is using his head rather than his heart, which in itself presents a veneer of plausible expectations. There is also the suggestion of his government running on emotional intelligence in recognising and tackling of youth unemployment. One of such is his recent advancement of N250,000 to about 15,000 youths as start-up capitals.
Again, such a move is not only sure to win him more converts if it is true, but suggests the positive trajectory of his government, if he keeps his eyes on the ball.
Uzodimma has got his own baptism of fire given the recent events. There may be more in future as his traducers may have returned to restrategise. Yet, like Chris Ngige, former Governor Anambra State who survived a similar cataclysm including being kidnapped from office, he could reverse the odious story of the Imo people, which they have been bemoaning since after the time of De Sam Mbakwe. The return of normalcy in the state offers him the opportunity.
Meanwhile, you must have heard of Ofe Owerri, the popular delicacy that has got different people crossing seven seas and seven deserts to taste! There is an improvement. It is called Ofe Eju (Snail soup). Travel to Owerri and taste it and thank me later! That’s where I’m coming from.
On South East and Owerri, I permit myself a drink as I await the party.