Why Port Harcourt’s improved livability still falls short of global standards

It used to be a nightmare to drive through the Port Harcourt /Aba Road due to its chaotic traffic situations. Depending on the time of the day or season, motorists spent from minutes to hours maneuvering through traffic before getting to their destinations. This was the same situation on other major roads in the city. Back then, it was difficult to honour physical appointments at the agreed time, causing some businesses or transactions to end even before they started.

The issue of punctuality, while heavily downplayed in the country, sometimes become the main yardstick people use in determining whether or not to go ahead with a deal or business.

The man choke points were Artillery, Air Force Junction, Rumuola, GRA Junction, Waterlines and Artillery. The Obigbo to Eleme Junctions of the road was more challenging as motorists struggled to overcome potholes, and the police checkpoint mounted near the old toll gate. Motorists and passengers returning to the Obigbo axis from Port Harcourt after the day’s work suffered more as they faced another obstacle at Obigbo Junction.

 It took the intervention of the Federal Government to make the Obigbo axis motorable again. Then, from the Artillery axis all the way to Garrison, Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike launched a flyover revolution that has eliminated the hassles that motorists faced.

The governor has also erected flyovers in other parts of the city, including Rumuokoro, Ikoku, Rumuokwuta. He wants to construct up to a dozen flyovers before leaving office on May, 29 next year in a bid to make the movement of traffic easier in Port Harcourt.

The city of Port Harcourt has come a long way as a “complex man-made entity” that has been providing shelter continuously to millions of people for centuries. It was named after  Lewis Vernon Harcourt, then Secretary of the Colonies in 1913 by Lord Frederick Lugard, the Governor-General of Nigeria a year after a port was established to transport coal from Enugu to the United Kingdom.

 In the preceding years, Port Harcourt has expanded into towns and communities that were not originally in the city that Lugard gave Harcourt. An estimated 3, 500,000.(three and half million) people live in Port Harcourt, which is one of the most congested cities in the country. Widely seen as an oil city that holds promising economic opportunities, people from rural Rivers and outside the state see Port Harcourt as home. That is as far as we see. The city accommodates people from all over the world.

The problem with the influx of people into the city is typical of challenges other major cities face in handling population explosion and urban planning and development.

The congested nature of Port Harcourt is why it is one of the most expensive places to rent an accommodation in the country. In Port Harcourt, the accommodations are there, but coughing out the amount for rent is a major problem.

Mega city, mega challenges

The uncoordinated transportation architecture of Port Harcourt, has for decades made movements difficult for its residents. This is despite the contributions of successive governments to make the city livable.

Since the country returned to democratic governance in 1999, the governments of Dr. Peter Odili, Rt. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi and now Wike have worked tirelessly to improve the status of Port Harcourt as a modern city that is conducive for businesses and investments to thrive and for quality living.

Whatever contributions they have made have not created world class infrastructure that attract the super wealthy and investors that can significantly influence the city’s economy. Some well planned Western cities even grant citizenship to outsiders who are willing to invest and create jobs. To get to that stage, they build infrastructure, improve on them and pay serious attention to both medium and long term development programmes.

The movement of people from other continents for life in places they feel they can live a better life proves that an investment in infrastructure is never a waste. That is why a country like Rwanda, which was almost grounded after the 1993 genocide is now a top tourism and investment destination.

It is difficult to visualize the physical structure of Port Harcourt due to the pace of it’s spread from it’s original master plan. In fact, there are several towns and communities in the city that born and lifelong residents have never been to. A resident who once travelled by train from the city to Aba, was surprised to see communities and extensions he never knew existed. In those places, there are thousands of people living and working there.

The current emphasis on infrastructure in Port Harcourt by the Wike administration is aimed at making it a livable city. Globally, urban planners are prioritizing smart solutions in developing sustainable livable cities. There is a limit to the scattered developmental carried out by developers for landowners, workers cooperatives and for communities. The biggest driver of urban development is the government be it at the state or local government level.

Wike has chosen roads and flyovers as the focal point of his government’s investment in infrastructure because they aid uninterrupted traffic and ease the movement of goods and persons. And residents are happy about it.

 The high population of Port Harcourt residents could be reduced by almost a quarter if the incoming government develop new cities.. The old cities like Degema, Bonny, Buguma, Bori, and Omoku are in tatters because the five of them combined have not gotten up to 10 per cent of the attention Port Harcourt has received.

In some riverine communities near  Port Harcourt, it is only a short stretch of water that prevent people from travelling directly to their communities. Also, there are some uninhabited islands near Port Harcourt that needs government action to become boom towns or cities in the near future.

Still outside the livability league

Each year, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the research and analysis division of the Economist magazine publishes the Urban Livability Index, which rates the world’s best and worst cities to live. It analyzes the daily challenges individuals face in a given city and their quality of life. It then uses stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure to arrive at winners and losers.

“Stability and good infrastructure are the city’s main charms for its inhabitants,” says the EIU. “This is supported by good healthcare and plenty of opportunities for culture and entertainment”.

Out of the 172 global cities EIU surveyed in 2022, Vienna, the capital of Austria emerged winner, while Lagos, the country’s business and financial capital was ranked the second worst city to live after Damascus. This is despite the fact that Lagos boasts of an economy that is worth $50.83 billion in GDP.  The weight of the ranking should force some politicians who see “the center of excellence” as a man-made paradise to have a rethink.

What are the lessons for Port Harcourt? The overall investment by government in improving the quality of life of residents no matter how impressive it looks is like a drop in the ocean. The coming government must invest more on security, healthcare, education and human capital development. The city has a huge refuse problem. Some Port Harcourt residents feel at ease dumping their refuse outside the designated areas. There is also the issue of open defecation, especially at night.

Writing in the European Journal of Sustainable Development, Voda etal listed   six characteristics that can define a city: Smart economy, smart mobility, smart environment, smart people, smart living and smart governance.

For Port Harcourt, it appears the journey has not yet started. From the work on ground, Port Harcourt is a work in progress. To rank among the world’s well-planned cities, Sir Siminalayi Fubara, who takes over from Wike on May 29 must come up with his own development blueprint and revisit some of the projects Wike commissioned that have not really benefited Port Harcourt residents as intended.

For example, the Rumuokoro Flyover and the one in Garrison can be improved upon. The problem with these two flyovers is that motorists still spend time in traffic when not driving on the bridge.

The worse is the Rumuokoro Flyover, where vehicles trying to leave or enter the city cannot bypass the traffic experienced by drivers on the ground. There should have been another bridge linking Ikwerre without obstructing the flow of traffic with the one that connects the East/West Road. Such provision would prevent the over concentration of motorists struggling to connect to either side of Ikwerre Road.

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