Ife n’eme n’ Upper Iweka. Remember that hit by Apama about Pericoma Okoye and the illegal tax collectors at Upper Iweka. The song told a story of how the tax collectors waylaid him, demanding for tax receipts, oblivious of his status as a powerful dibia from Arondizuogu. In their usual crude tactics, they lifted him up when he demanded that they return his money that they collected forcefully and took him to their office. He never uttered a word. They realized the precariousness of their position and their folly when they got to their office. They could neither lift him up nor bring him down. Pericoma defied the law of gravity. He became too heavy for their shoulders and they resorted to begging profusely. They were only relieved from their misery after they met his stiff conditions. A child is at liberty to play with his mother’s breast but not his father’s testicles. According to the song, after that incident, anybody who hails from Arondizuogu is feared by the tax collectors because the person might as well be another Pericoma and Pericoma is too heavy.
The song recorded massive commercial success because it spoke to the reality of everyday people. It wasn’t just a song. It was a grim warning, a dire prediction, often correct, of the status of Upper Iweka. It painted a gloomy picture of lawlessness and the blanket of insecurity that pervades the area. The notoriety of Upper Iweka rubs off on the city of Onitsha and most times becomes its definition. For a traveler passing through the city, the narrative about Upper Iweka and that of Onitsha are easily interchangeable.
This city has not always been this rowdy, unplanned, chaotic space. Beyond commerce, this city led the charge for adult education and literacy in the entire eastern Nigerian. Market men and women had a culture of reading. Book was a thing. Successful traders registered for night classes so they can read, write and communicate effectively with their business associates and customers from across the Niger. You can’t discuss the development of Nigerian literature without making a copious mention of the Onitsha Market Literature which came in pamphlets and novellas. It was a potpourri of life experiences and was consumed, according to Emmanuel Obiechina, by “grammar and elementary school boys and girls, lower level office workers and joournalists, primary school teachers, traders, mechanics, taxi drivers, farmers and the new literates”. People deliberately sought to remove what Okey Ndibe called “the cobwebs of the mind”.
Onitsha played host to elite schools- Dennis Memorial Grammar School and Christ the King College, both occupying large expanse of land along Oguta road. They attracted students from far and near. Their healthy rivalry led to their excellence in learning and in all round character formation. Today, so many great men in both public and private life endeavours are proud products of these two institutions. Both of them have very strong alumni associations.
Onitsha had a vibrant and rich entertainment sector. It was the home of highlife. Osita Osadebe, Celestine Ukwu, Rex Lawson, Eddie Okonta etc were the highlife ambassadors and they made Onitsha their sanctuary. Ghanaian musicians thronged the city and released countless albums most of which were in Ghanaian languages but all of which were hits. Their teeming Igbo fans simply converted the Ghanaian languages into the nearest Igbo words and sang along. One of the songs by J.A. Adofo and his City Boys Band was simply converted to “A minute oo k’ eji eyipu babe akwa”. Kofi Sammy of the Okukuseku International Band fame relocated from Lagos to Onitsha just so he can record with Rogers All Stars headquartered in Onitsha. The all time hit song “Sweet Mother” was first performed at Plaza Hotel in Fegge by Nico Mbarga and his Rockofil Jazz band before it was released under the banner of Rogers All Stars and it went on to sell millions of copies. Most of the artists perform at sold out shows and joints.
Onitsha was the commercial, educational and cultural headquarters of the Eastern region. There was an air of arrogance exhibited by both the indigenes and the inhabitants of this city hence the saying –ife eji abu Onicha erika. I was little when water from Nkisi Waterworks still flowed from the taps little. The Public Works Department was still functional and sanitary inspectors still conduct inspections. It was a well-run, bustling commercial city. Then things began to go south. The population started increasing without a corresponding investment in modern infrastructure to plan and accommodate same. The city centre became choked, and then started expanding and absorbing neighboring communities from Nkpor to Obosi, Nkwelle and Nsugbe. The once neat roads lost their innocence. Filth and dirt occupied roadsides and street corners. Slums and ghettoes became breeding grounds for miscreants. Incidences of crime assumed an alarming proportion, becoming a popular dent on the narratives of this city, a feather on its bleak cap. The exodus began. Popular businesses closed shops, worsening the unemployment situation. The city shriveled in significance. Nightfall came with trepidation. A city that used to have a vibrant night life became a ghost town once it is dusk. Entertainment became reduced to the obituary announcements from the government owned ABS.
I was here when Derico Nwamama (Okwudili Ndiwe) and Chiejina ruled the crime world. Those were the outlaws with identities and verifiable addresses, not the later day faceless cowardly goons that go with the sobriquet Unknown Gun Men. Whatever that means. Things got so bad that the inhabitants happily welcomed the dreaded Bakassi boys to sanitize the streets. Their public execution became a festival of blood and gore. Kids with impressionable young minds cheered and watched with glee while they cut off heads from the necks of human beings and set them on fire.
I come back to this city of my birth and I see those same challenges it city faced in my teenage years. Despite the litany of markets in and around Onitsha and repeated incidences of fire, there is no single fire station in the entire city. Organized means of transportation is completely absent. This city with affluence yields little in quality of life, ease and trappings of a modern space. This city used to attract and retain talents from all over the country, lending wings to their dreams. Now it is in a chokehold, with young people eager to leave for other places at the slightest opportunity. We continue to stand as witnesses to the continued drain of the best brains from the city into other parts of the country.
In the days of yore, people were eager to learn and reinvent themselves. Today, the times demand that ahia oma adighi ere onwe ya (Good product does not sell itself). The game requires heavy, intentional marketing and PR. Unfortunately, there are many businesses in and around the city that are worth hundreds of millions of Naira but neither possess an online presence nor have a marketing budget. No. 51 Iweka road used to be the most famous address in the marketing and distribution of movies. Not anymore. The Lagos boys have since taken over the movie industry, reinvented it and sold it to Netflix, while Onitsha plays catch up. This is a key reason Okeke and Sons business model does not scale.
I get downcast because of the stagnation of this city that I love, the developmental stillbirth. It keeps on giving without taking. It cries for inspiring and directional leadership. It seeks a reinvention, leveraged on technology. The dampened fire wants to be fanned into flame again. Intentional, collective progress cannot happen with the haphazard, individual approach to development. Like Lady Catherine once said, “Nothing ever built rose to touch the sky unless some men dreamt that it should, some men believed that it would and some men willed that it must”.