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Port Harcourt Road, Aba: Old Boys’ tortuous ride to dying alma mater

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Port Harcourt Road, Aba: Old Boys’ tortuous ride to dying alma mater
A section of Port Harcourt Road, Aba, Abia State, as at Thursday, August 5 2021

 

BY CHINEDU DURU Esq & NNAMDI ELEKWACHI


“This flood is nothing compared to the one of yesterday when it rained. In fact, you both are lucky it hadn’t rained today as the flood is now ebbing,” said the tricycle operator who identified himself simply as Remy, as we struggled to manoeuvre through the stretch of flooded swampy grove that was once a dual carriage road.

We were on Port Harcourt Road, Aba, Abia State. The date was Thursday, August 5, 2021. We were on our way to visit our alma mater, National High School, Aba (famously known as Ibo National). For us to get to our destination, we must pass through Port Harcourt Road. Ordinarily, this journey, starting from the beginning, Ngwa Road by Asa Road, should not take us more than five minutes. But this was no normal time and had not been, at least in the last six years.

Port Harcourt Road, Aba, as the name goes, was a major artery to Port Harcourt, capital of the oil-rich Rivers State. In the years before the current democratic dispensation, especially the administration of Governor Okezie Ikpeazu, a journey to Port Harcourt from Aba, through this road, was a fleeting 45 minutes or at most one-hour drive. Commuters and transporters did not have difficulty shuttling between Aba and Port Harcourt, whether for visits, airport shuttle or delivery of containers and other goods from the sea port. In fact, the then newly constructed Aba-Port Harcourt by-pass, part of the Enugu-Umuahia-Aba-Port Harcourt federal Highway, made little or no difference as the inner-city Port Harcourt Road in Aba remained a route of choice.

However, years into the current civilian dispensation, the once viable road which attracted numerous developments – residential and commercial alike, including the popular Crystal Park Hotel – along its stretch, deteriorated and gradually became what it is today, a mangrove swamp, largely inaccessible by whatever means of transportation, even by foot!

Remy, our pilot-cum-driver insisted on being paid ₦500, per head, from Asa Road to Crystal Park Avenue, opposite National High School. Throughout the duration of the journey, our tricycle came close to submerging in the craters that have ravaged the road, at least on three occasions. With dirty turbid water slapping our feet in the tricycle from the waterlogged road, Remy would give us a knowing smile at each experience like one initiating us into some unknown world with a look of, “you see what I mean?” on his face.

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A section of Port Harcourt Road, Aba, Abia State, as at Thursday, August 5, 2021

”We (tricycle operators) pay ₦200 as daily levy, plus another ₦100 which goes to the union daily, but you see, after the day’s work one feels like one had been clobbered with two-by-four timber (a pre-cut wood for construction), or as if one fought with five hefty men alone,” Remy offered, pressing home the hardship he and others who dare to ply the route go through just to make ends meet and put food on the table for their families.

“But, you see, after paying these daily levies for years now, we are still waiting for government people to come and fix the road as they promised during campaign. We hope they remember us soon because we spend a sizable chunk of our money on tricycle repairs due to bad road,” Remy whose alma mater, Umuagbai Boys Secondary School, lies a stone throw to our alma mater, added, not sure whether he was praying or expressing a wish.

We got to Crystal Park Avenue junction by Port Harcourt Road exactly by 11:29am and disengaged Remy, having been stuck for almost an hour in gridlock for which we snaked through the adjourning bumpy roads trying to avoid, since the school was not now directly accessible through the collapsed Port Harcourt Road. We eventually concluded the remaining part of our journey by foot meandering, jumping and wading through the murky water were bearable.

Welcome to National High School, Aba

Entrance into National High School itself does not happen through the main gate which has been overtaken by heaps of refuse that formed a sort of mountain range. So, we had to trek up to Ukwu Achara (Bamboo tree) where a track leads to the fenceless school premises. This was unlike the early eighties when we were students in the school. The school’s entire perimeter fencing spanning over 50,000 square metres was fortified with high quality wire gauze.

Chinonso, a JSS 2 student, was the first student we encountered. Asked how he manages to come to school daily, Chinonso who dreams to become a surgeon said he walks a long distance to the school daily. There were of course other students like him, who come from far flung areas and have to do a major part of the journey to school by foot. Students who were observing Thursday ‘manual labour’ (cutting of grasses) were glad to learn we were products of the school. They would lead us to the staff rooms where we were shown the senior secondary school principal.

Port Harcourt Road, Aba: Old Boys’ tortuous ride to dying alma mater

A stretch of Port Harcourt Road, Aba, opposite National High School main entrance gate now a dumpsite, as at Thursday, August 5, 2021

The dereliction which the one-time “model school for boys” had suffered, the remembrance of its lost glory left us with a sense of nostalgia like the biblical Jewish exiles who upon their return to Jerusalem only saw broken down walls and ruins. We took time touring the school and to our dismay the refectory, certain houses (hostels, if you like), teacher’s quarters were all gone like they were never there for once. Also gone were the lawn tennis, volley ball and basketball courts – all which were close to “Mammy Market”, where students snacked during break and dismissal.

Path way into National High School as school’s main entrance becomes dumpsite

“This is not the National High School we were proud students of,” we said to the physics teacher, the first teacher we met at the school. To our surprise, the teacher, a Federal University of Technology Mina-trained physicist, told us he developed cold feet when he came to National High School for the first time, after his posting. “I almost rejected the posting when for the first time I came here, and that would have meant losing my job because it was not the kind of placement I’d wished for. But I told myself I would be brave, today here I am.”

Teachers were glad to learn that a delegation from the Old Boys Association of the school was around. Their litany of complaints would pour in torrentially.

“Hmm… the other day,” said one of them, “I was pursued by a black snake on this track, it was the second time this term.” Another teacher said reptiles like snakes and rodents have taken over the entire school premises creating a need for fumigation.

The principal of senior secondary who was inspecting the manual labour when we met her was receptive and warm as we exchanged pleasantries. She took us to her office where we had further discussion with her. She told us that vandals invaded the school, broke into the classrooms, looted desks, books, and even vandalized the windows and carted away one of the goal posts in the football field. The number of registrants, she said, had sharply declined due largely to poor road network which has made the school inaccessible. We learnt that students leave in droves for other schools, usually private schools, and that for the most part, some of those who stayed hardly pay their tuition. Some are owing tuition of first term (while in third term). According to her, it became advisable to inspect the manual labour herself since the school was nearing vacation during which time the bushes usually grow thicker leaving the school compound unsanitary and unkempt.

“We no longer have manual labour room where we keep farming or labour implements, teachers brought some of these ones you’re seeing here,” the principal said as one of the teachers confirmed her claim. She told us how she couldn’t find a single labourer to cut the overgrown grass in the premises during the last vacation, a situation which she further said had made mower a necessity. “We used to have one (mower), but it is faulty now. We need at least two new ones to keep our environment clean, the students alone cannot do it. How many are they even to clear this vast premises?”

A dilapidated school structure

When we met her, the principal of junior secondary college barred her heart. She corroborated the former principal’s account. In fact, she told us that for the current session (2020/21) only a total number of five students enrolled in JSS 1! Whereas in the mid ’90s, for example, the school – then a model school – had instruction from government not to admit more than 35 students in a class during which time a set may have classes in a block from, say, JSS 1 A to JSS 1 H with similar arrangement for other sets barring senior secondary grade which was usually divided into two: arts and science classes.

National High School is no longer a model school as it was once famed, we are told. “Last year, government built three new model schools and we were told our school was no longer a model school”, the junior secondary principal told us. The school was once a boys’ model school for which entrance examination a student was expected to first score upwards of 24 points (out of 36 points) in state common entrance examination! In fact, one of the teachers at the senior secondary principal’s office recalled how he ended up at Sacred Heart College, Aba, having missed out on National High School admission then because he did not make the mark. Today, the story is much different. Another thing that hurts so much is the fact that a primary school has been erected inside school against the school’s original plan. The Old Boys’ Association did everything they could, including writing to the state governor, Okezie Ikpeazu and yet nothing was done at the end of day.

National High School, Aba, was built in 1948 by the old Ibo State Union (ISU), for Ndigbo whose educational need the school was supposed to serve. The foundation laying ceremony of the school was performed by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. In those days, before being admitted, students were taught the school anthem, “Hail My Alma Mater”, as part of the light orientation programme, but all this is no more part of the norm in a school that had known better days.

Tales of woes as businesses suffer along Port Harcourt Road

Leaving our alma mater, we took the trouble to ask few business owners questions about how they, at least, manage to break even or to keep afloat. Neither these nor the residents showed a scintilla of satisfaction with past or the present administration of the day. One business owner who gave us only his first name as Obinna told us he had lost a lot in his business as a result of the road made worse by rain. He was not alone, some of his clients talked to us also.

“As you are seeing me now, I’m going to Port Harcourt in Rivers State but then I have to go through Aba Park because this road (Port Harcourt Road) which takes only 45 minutes to reach there is deplorable. Is that not a needlessly prolonged journey?” asked one of Obinna’s clients. Another business owner, a lubricants (lubricating oil) dealer who would rather remain anonymous, said he had been having it both rough and tough as one of his shops had remained locked for over a year since customers no longer come as they hitherto did. Business thrives when good roads and communication are made available but Port Harcourt Road seemed almost like an abandoned project with hardly any promise and prospect for business.

Shekinah Glory Ministries, a Christian religious outfit opposite National High School was having an activity when we went in to have a word with worshippers there. A member who pleaded anonymity told us that due to the poor state of the road most members no longer make it to the ministry’s programmes. She said they now pray for God’s intervention as the problem had remained protracted and intractable due to government’s negligence.

Partially demolished buildings to make way for reconstruction of Port Harcourt Road

“We pray for the state often, that God touches government’s heart to do this road. Many of our members no longer make it to service, God is our last hope,” she concluded.

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Landlords too are having a fair share of the ordeal. One of them, a middle-aged man, who preferred to remain anonymous told us that since government demolished part of his house in the name of road construction, some of his tenants packed out and nobody had moved in now for over a year now. In fact, the demolition of buildings (homes and shops) which came without compensation to property owners made the entire place an eyesore, blemishing a once-beautiful road. There are some unoccupied and/abandoned properties at the road following the planless demolitions by government.

Residents too are in a mess, Umuagharanya native compound in Aba-Ukwu appeared like Oliver Goldsmith’s “deserted village” with no sign of human habitation!

A little distance from Crystal Park Avenue is situated a cluster of tailors who complained about not getting customers. According to a plainspoken young man who gave us his full name as Mr. Onyedikachi Ngozi, an indigene of Obingwa LGA, “Government is not serious. They are deceiving us and are lying to themselves. We pay store licence, business premises, ASEPA or sanitation fees here as owners of business but you can see the sanitary condition of this place. Where is ASEPA? Where is government?”

Another tailor showed us all the bills, notices, even threats of litigation from government offices including the most recent which read “Abia State Building Enumeration Exercise: World Bank (SFTAS) Initiative for Planning and Social Amenities.”

“We are a forgotten people”, another tailor snapped at us, “take a look at the road, before your alma mater there, you will see that bushes and pawpaw tree are growing at the middle of the road they said belongs to the federal government, and they are telling us about coronavirus whereas what we have here is much a bigger threat.”

The politics of Port Harcourt Road and the World Bank loan

Recently, at the floor of the Abia State House of Assembly, Hon. Obinna Ichita (APGA), member representing Aba South State Constituency moved a motion (HAM/16) on July 14, 2021 for “urgent intervention and construction of some roads in Aba South State Constituency” whereupon the House through a general resolution ordered ASEPA to evacuate forthwith the refuse at Crystal Park Avenue and other places. That motion has recently heated up the polity with releases coming from both government and opposition.

There are allegations of how government had diverted the sum of ₦27.4 billion World Bank loan (mistaken by some for a grant) for construction of Port Harcourt, Obohia, Uratta and Ohanku roads. Reacting, the Commissioner for Information, John Okiyi Kalu, through a detailed press release debunked all of that. The state, he said, cannot draw from the World Bank loan without a “no objection certificate” from the Bank as its new accounting system allows for Abia, according to the commissioner, passed all the World Bank tests using NEWMAP project management unit (PMU) to get $56 million from the Bank in 2017 which was lodged in the NEWMAP account audited by World Bank. Part of the reason for work delay, the release said, was due to the need to synchronise the state’s part of the construction with that of World Bank and also due to Covid-19, EndSARS protest, all which, according to him, delayed the importation of Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM), a cutting-edge technology that would have aided the Aba Flood Mitigation Project.

As explanatory as the government release is, fact remains that Port Harcourt Road construction had had snail’s pace with no significant facelift.

What happened to evacuation of the dirt posing hazardous threat to public health along the road which is no business of the World Bank?

We left National High School by 1:06pm without problem only that we were not fortunate to meet another “Remy” while returning and so had to pay a higher fare, having swum the muddy lake that is Port Harcourt Road, the major link to our glorious but dying alma mater.

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