I arrived in Port Harcourt on Tuesday, January 10th, 2023, for a 48-hour visit. The last time I visited, three years ago, was at the heart of the heavy, Southern Nigerian rainy session, and the plane’s landing had been quite scary. A few weeks earlier, we were also forced into the Port Harcourt Airport because our flight to Uyo couldn’t land amidst very heavy rainfall, and so it diverted to the Garden City. The traffic jams of Port Harcourt have always been legendary, and that’s one aspect of the city that makes life here, frankly, very tough!
The first thing that struck me was that the new terminal of the airport has been operational for a while. It was quite an improvement on what used to be. But a few panels had been knocked off the roof facial area, and it was also obvious that there’s no regime of maintenance in place; at least not on the body of the building; dirt was gradually accumulating and that’s a worrisome portent for the future. I also thought to myself that the airport ought to have been named after a notable Nigerian patriot from this part of the country. After all, closeby, there’s the Akanu Ibiam International at Enugu and Margaret Ekpo, in Calabar, so why not the Port Harcourt International Airport?
The taxi driver we chartered, Eric, knows the city, like the back of his hands, and has very interesting anecdotes about social and political life in this oil-rich state and city. It is clear that Port Harcourt continues to live up to its reputation as a city of highwire political intrigues, fueled by the oil-money that’s so readily available to the local bourgeoisie That’s why the politics of this state and neighbouring region resembles more clearly the duel between warlords than anything as ordered as a liberal contest between factions of a ruling class. Never far away from the politics, is the twin resource of violence. Port Harcourt is a captive space of money, intrigue, aspirations, and of a very fertile spiritual “fishing”, by Pentecostal men of God, given the number of billboards announcing all manner of religious events.
No visitor to this city can escape the larger-than-life persona of the Governor, Nyesom Wike. At least, he has been a major presence on the Nigerian political consciousness over the past two years. The man wanted to be president, and he went around the country to sell himself; in the process, he revealed an amazing ability as a political communicator. Who hasn’t been amazed about the political dexterity of the man and the regular short shrift that he doses out to his opponents and enemies? Nyesom Wike has added colour and drama to the, otherwise, colourless, politics of neoliberal Nigeria. Colour yes, but substance? That isn’t very much part of the content of Nigeria’s neocolonial, bourgeois politics.
Our arrival in Port Harcourt brought into sharp relief the boastfulness of Governor Wike about the flyovers that his administration has turned into an art in the city. They would be some of the most lasting tributes to his eight-year administration, and it’s interesting that a few weeks to the next elections, some of these are still being constructed. Yet, the traffic situation remains a challenge for the city. I can’t but wonder about the man hours wasted each day in logjam on Port Harcourt roads, as well as the strain on the health. Drivers on the streets here are quite aggressive, and road rage study can be easily done for greater accuracy in the Garden City. Port Harcourt drivers are simply incorrigible!
While it is fair to name this city, as a city of money, given the riches controlled by the elite, the obverse is the huge level of despair that resides side-by-side, in the mass of the poor. They eke out a precarious existence; but they’re as vibrant as all the poor people are, all over Nigeria. The difference in Port Harcourt is that people actually realise that the elites haven’t been as fair as the resources they have, could have been applied, to alleviate the despair of the mass. I was pleasantly surprised that a few radio stations reflect the underlying currents of despair, in their phone-in programs.
We have actually come to Port Harcourt for a pre-election workshop for the Nigerian Police, and the program is taking us around the six geopolitical zones of the country. The Port Harcourt leg is scheduled for officers from the South-South geopolitical zone of our country. The location of the training is the Police Counter-Terrorism Training School, located in Tai. To get there, we have to weave through traffic by Onne, the location of a major Nigerian port, Ebubu, and Eleme. The school is in a rural setting, and the facilities, simply put, are a scandal! It’s obvious that Nigeria either doesn’t understand the importance of it’s own police force or the authorities concerned simply cannot be bothered.
But far more poignant for me, is the huge disparity in the oil-money fueled, obscene opulence displayed by the Port Harcourt elite, and the near, premodernity that defines life in the settlements around the city. Village children around the Police Training School, for example, still carry firewood on their heads; there is an elaborate presence of electricity pylons and wiring but there’s no electricity, and the model schools that our driver informed us, were constructed by former Governor Rotimi Amaechi, looked abandoned, roofs have blown off in some places, while in others, cassava farms have become the most notable feature of what ordinarily should be schools playing fields for the children.
Clearly, there’s very little trickle down of the humongous funds that come into the hands of the governing elite. There’s a tragic irony to the situation as far as I saw and heard, using the output of broadcast stations. The elite here, as in most of the oil-producing communities never stop using the unfair situation of the communities, especially with the depredation associated with extraction of oil, to negotiate with the Nigerian State, and as a pivot of blackmail in intra-elite struggles, on the national scene. Unfortunately, they are more irresponsible in their husbandry of the resources they win from Nigeria, and have been even more unfair to their people. Port Harcourt, the “Garden City”, is clearly very much like a garden of Eden for it’s local bourgeoisie, while resembling a form of Hell, for its poor!
Yet, this is certainly an enchanting city in many other ways: friendly people; typically Nigerian hospitality; very boisterous market places; a huge population of young people; trendy dressers; generous spirits and they seem to always wear a smile, and are very welcoming of visitors from other parts of our country. In those qualities, you can see yourself reflected in the existence of the “average” Port Harcourt person. Their humanity reflects very much our own humanity, and as Nigerians from all walks of life, live, struggle and work together, in search of a better life, here in Port Harcourt, they similarly put a lie to the propaganda spewed by some circles, that Nigerians don’t have anything in common. At least by the evidence of my 48 hours here in Port Harcourt, there’s so much that unites us; our shared humanity, for one. And the collective need to struggle against the inhumane conditions that the Nigerian ruling class have foisted on our country. Port Harcourt in that sense, is as Nigerian as any of our other cities, North or South!
Modibbo Kawu, is a broadcaster, journalist and a Political Scientist