The Rivers State government, property owners and residents of Abonnema Wharf Water-front recently met in Port Harcourt to fashion out modalities for the commencement of payment of compensation to house owners in the slum.
Abonnema Wharf is one of over 44 waterfronts scattered across Port Harcourt, the state capital and its environs that have been marked for demolition by the state government. The Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi-led administration is of the belief that the demolition of the slums, where over 80% of Port Harcourt residents stay, was not only part of the administration's urban renewal policy, but a move to check activities of criminally-minded persons who use the water-fronts as operational bases.
Addressing a stakeholders meeting at the government house, Port Harcourt, Governor Amaechi described water-fronts as the "depots for arms and ammunition" that must not be allowed to continue to exist, saying that military and police personnel would be used during the demolition exercises to prevent resistance.
He said; "Arms and ammunition are stock-piled at the waterfronts. When crimes are committed there, they will not be reported to the police and other security agencies. There are observatory points there to monitor security agents. With the volume of arms and ammunition at the waterfronts, we are sitting on time bombs.
"When we want to demolish, the Airforce will deploy helicopters, the navy will move to the areas with gunboats, while the army will have its officers and men on the land, to ensure the demolition is effected and to prevent resistance."
In 2009, the state government demolished the Njemanze Waterfront, known for its notoriety in cultism and later moved in to demolish Bundu-Ama community, another water-front dominated by the Okrika-Ijaw speaking community. However, the demolition could not continue as the Ijaws went to court to challenge the action and the Federal High Court sitting in Port Harcourt, in 2010 upheld the action of the state government, hence giving strength to the demolition exercise.
Having cleared all the hurdles preventing it from embarking on its urban renewal programme, the state government began negotiations with owners of houses and tenants at the Abonnema Wharf Water-front in order to ascertain the number of persons to receive compensation. Speaking during the meeting with stakeholders of Abonnema Wharf, the state commissioner for urban development and physical planning, Dr. Tammy Wenike Danagogo said no fewer than 800 landlords would receive N2.1 billion as compensation from the state government. Pledging fairness and transparency in the process of paying the compensation, Danagogo said, "We are here today to commence the process of paying compensation to Abonnema Wharf landlords as part of the demolition programme. We made a promise to Rivers people that whatever we want to do at Abonnema Wharf, we will be open and transparent."
He stated that two committees had been set up to ensure that all the beneficiaries were carried along and called on the landlords to be patient and work with the committees to ensure the success of the exercise.
To the commissioner for information and communication, Mrs. Ibim Semenitari, the emphasis on the programme was the sort of demeaning life the waterfront communities offer Rivers people, adding that the state government had decided to take its people away from such living. However, residents and property owners in the waterfront seem not to be speaking with one voice as some of them have insisted that the payment of compensation and subsequent demolition of the waterfront should be put on hold pending the determination of a fresh suit filed by some landlords in the area against the state government.
For Jim Tom-George executive member of the property owners association at the waterfront community, the exercise was a 'nullity' as the proper process, which ought to have preceded payment like dialogue and allowing the cases in court over the matter exhausted, had been ignored.
To Reverend Soari Amachree, a property owner in the waterfront, it would amount to illegality for the state government to commence payment of compensation to individuals when the matter in question is still before a court of competent jurisdiction.
But, to George Anyanate, another property owner in Abonnema Wharf Waterfront, the slum was no longer safe and healthy for humans to live in due to the activities of hoodlums, whose involvement in illegal oil bunkering activities had degraded the environment.
Anyanate said; "Tell Governor Amaechi that we are fed up with Abonnema Wharf, we are now find it difficult to live in that environment. Here in the waterfront, lives and properties are no longer safe. Tell him to come and demolish the place."
For Chukwudi Nnokam, a commercial bus driver and tenant in the waterfront, the property owners in the community should abide by the directive of the state government to allow the tenants up to one year to enable them look for alternative accommodation
Nnokam said; "I was there at the meeting when the commissioner said government had directed the landlords to give their tenants up to one year so that we can look for another accommodation. I am saying this because I don't have money to pay for another accommodation now. So, let them help us."
The question on every lip in Rivers State and Nigeria seems to be, "What will happen to the close to 20,000 tenants living in those houses that have been handed over to government for demolition?"