By Chima Nwafo
The eventual emergence of Dr. Alex Otti of Labour Party as Governor of Abia State is a good example of Victor Hugo’s idea whose time has come. And his elevation of Aba to a mayoralty – 67 years after the emergence of the first two mayors in Eastern Nigeria – is equally matched by the choice of a Harvard-trained industrialist boasting over four decades of residence in the town as mayor. These, alongside his other positive policies, seem to confirm the electorate’s adulation that a messiah has come to deliver Abia from inept and corrupt administrations of the past 24 years. Such a displacement will naturally attract hostile opposition.
Aba’s cosmopolitan status is not in question. Although the original indigenes are now scattered, they are within their ancestral lands. And when the colonists were said to have visited Aba from Akwete in 1896, they met with the elders of the land, notably, from Eziukwu, Umungasi, Obuda, among others, with whom representatives of Queen Victoria of England later signed a pact. Venue of the meeting is honoured as location of The Museum of Colonial History on Ogborhill, Aba (EN Akwaranwa).
However, the settlement that formed the nucleus of Aba Township was around Eke-Oha Market (destroyed by fire in 1976) and Motor Park area opposite Aba Town Hall. So, trading activities and physical development began from this axis. As a result, Aba urban had pipe-borne water by 1927. But Colonial officers chose suitable locations in the wide expanse given the friendliness of the natives and conducive physical environment.
For administrative convenience, and partially influenced by stranger elements including the Yoruba and Hausa, the “Township Ordinance of 1923 aimed to carve out Ngwa communities from Aba Urban; it intended that the town be separate and headed by a Colonial Administrative Officer with the advice of a Board whose membership was selected by the Resident.” (Ibid).
Consequently, when the Eastern Protectorate created local councils in 1954, most of the Aba communities like Eziukwu, Osusu, Obuda and Aba na Ohazu area, among others, were in the defunct Southern Ngwa County Council (current Osisioma LGA).
In the developed world most municipalities are administered by mayors with democratically-elected or selected councils. In The Mayors’ Role in Municipal Government, Michael Roberts posited: “In a mayoral form, the Mayor is the elected chief executive of the city and is in charge of running the government. There is usually also an elected city council, which is in charge of laws, budget, etc. City managers, sometimes known as city administrators, are generally appointed by mayors or councils, based on their education and experience in local government administration. Mayors are elected by their constituents or selected from among members of the council through an election or rotation.”(Details in my soon to be published book, Nigeria In The Grip of Floods, Flames & Fumes).
If Aba was a mayoralty, its status and global rating would have improved. Besides, milestone events like the 1896 pact, 1923 ordinance, 1912 rail connection and 1929 Aba Women’s Riot would have enjoyed centennial commemoration and visual landmarks.
Ide John C Udeagbala, 5Chairman/Chief Executive Officer, Udeagbala Holdings (Nigeria) Limited, Aba, Abia State, is a Harvard University-trained Economist and immediate past President of National Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA), after completing his term as First Deputy President, and earlier presiding over ACCIMA, he currently serves as an ex-officio member of the over a 100-nation International Federation of Chambers of Commerce and World Chambers of Commerce (IFCC-WCC) from January, 2023. This qualifies him as a global advocate of Medium and Small scale Enterprises (MSMEs) as major driver of industrial growth. Udeagbala was honoured in 1996 with the National Productivity Merit Award and later appointed member, Board of Nigerian Customs, among others. Before elevation as mayor he was the Chairman of Abia State Environmental and Sanitation Committee.
Udeagbala by virtue of his membership of the IFCC-WCC will be working with Chamber executives globally in supporting MSMEs in collaboration with ICC; contributing to the development strategy to reinforce the chamber community. Above all, he will be representing Nigeria and Africa at the international level to promote growth and spread of MSMEs. Therefore, Aba mayoralty now has its CEO discussing MSME development, among other issues on behalf of Nigeria at the global level.
Against the foregoing backdrop, both the decision to elevate Aba to a mayoralty and choice of candidate are well-informed and beyond reproach. But the consequent bickering is partly political and also attributable to the unprofessional headlines announcing the offer: “Otti appoints Anambra billionaire Mayor of Aba….” as reported in various online platforms, giving it a clannish perspective. Being an “Anambra billionaire” did not earn Udeagbala that noble office. Under Zik’s government as Premier of Eastern Region, when Enugu and Port Harcourt attained municipal status in 1956, Umaru Altine and Okwuosha Nzimiro emerged first mayors of Enugu and Port Harcourt respectively. While Altine hailed from Sokoto Nzimiro came from Oguta just as his successor, Francis Ihekwoaba, also hails from today’s Imo State. None was an indigene. No print media would report or identify Mike Adenuga and his ilk in Lagos as Ogun State billionaire in matters of appointment or representation. Such clannish identification diminishes the individual. On the contrary, the Ide is a billionaire because he has spent the last 40 years or more working hard at Aba, and succeeded in building a business empire that has earned him national and global prominence.
Nonetheless, this is part of the challenges of Udeagbala’s new office as Mayor of Aba. The Aba business community still lags in modern approach to entrepreneurship. Aba Club/Golf Course dates back to mid-20s, but no news of events in such upper class relaxation centres, including Aba hotels, filters into the national news landscape. Enyimba business men/women need lessons in Branding, Advertising, Public Relations, Corporate Governance, Urban beautification and Corporate Social Responsibility. Sport and social commitment seem to be missing in their business lexicon. In collaboration with relevant state ministry, the Mayor can set the pace. He should also take advantage of3 international exposure to embrace inclusive city development and diverse environmental demands of urban planning.
Aba is strategically located as a centre of commerce. It has played that key role in retail and bulk purchases of palm produce for export and imported commodities for distribution to neighbouring Niger Delta communities right from the era of Oil Rivers Protectorate to the coming of the Royal Niger Company, which morphed to United African Company (UAC). From Aba the merchants easily moved their produce by road to Abonnema Wharf, Port Harcourt or Egwanga-Opobo (now Ikot Abasi in Akwa Ibom State) for shipment by sea to Europe and Americas. The extension of the rail line to Aba in 1912 became additional boost to trade, which attracted merchants like UAC, John Holt, Patterson Zochonis (PZ), Indian traders, etc. Later, manufacturing outfits like Nigerian Breweries, Lever Brothers, Nicholas, Pfizer (1962), Aba Textile Mills (1963), etc.
The central location to the northern and southern ends of the Region earned it siting of the Eastern Nigerian Television Service (later NTA, Aba), which facilitated reception in the riverine areas of present Rivers, Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom as well as neighbouring towns of Abia and Imo states; ditto head office of the defunct Cooperative Bank of Eastern Nigeria, commercial banks and insurance companies.
Birth of Dr K O Mbadiwe (1912) and one-time Minister of National Planning, Dr Chu Okongwu, in 1934 at Aba, among others, confirms the early presence of non-indigene settlers. An encounter with one urbane Dr Balogun in 1983 as Features Sub-editor in The Guardian also merits mention. After introduction during which he asked where I came from; I said Osisioma, Aba; he softly responded: I was born at Aba; my father was a magistrate there. Instantly, his mood altered, and rather than the initial anger over an editing error on his Art piece, he began to counsel me like an older colleague, attributing the mistake to inexperience.
Alafia Tayo was the business name of a Yoruba man that introduced and transformed the Ajo daily contribution into an organised daily savings syndicate at Aba. He engaged young men whom he gave branded bicycles and assigned routes across the city. His reputation might have been so impeccable, because after the war some of his experienced staff who started a similar business was inundated with enquiries as to when their boss would return.
Ace NTA Newscaster, Sienne Allwell-Brown of Rivers extraction, is an “Aba girl” because her father owned an emporium, Allwell Brown Stores just as another Kalabari man, Solomon Simbi, a former Assistant Editor, Eastern Nigerian Guardian, Port Harcourt, relocated to Aba where he published The Statesman.
In 1934, when Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe returned from the USA, the committee that received him at Aba was chaired by one Sigismund Macaulay, a lawyer, supported by Montacute Thompson, “whose ability as a lawyer and an advocate was renowned in this part of the world,” wrote Zik who also named some notable Ngwa men present at the reception. When the first Ibibio lawyer, renowned Justice Egbert Udo-Udoma, returned from United Kingdom in 1945, he set up his legal practice at Aba even as K O Mbadiwe chose 111/113 Azikiwe Road as Headquarters of his short-lived Democratic Party of Nigerians and Cameroons.
Ochi-Agha Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu (Ikemba Nnewi) penned Aba among a few places his body lied-in-state. Part of his reasons could be seen from 3rd Senate president (1964-66), Dr Abyssinia Akweke Nwafor-Orizu’s presentation during his 1946 visit to Aba. His words: “Aba was famous as a centre of palm produce trade. Situated on the railway line between Enugu and Port Harcourt, it was a political hot-bed of the East. It did not boast of high schools or newspapers, but it certainly had men and women of Enlightenment, Culture and Patriotism. Aba is in Ngwa land and the Ngwas are a great and virile people. It was, therefore, no wonder that Aba became one of the most prominent centres of revolutionary ideologies and activities in the nation… Being near Ibibios and overwhelmingly populated by Arondizuogus, Ohafians, and Nnewians of the Ibo, the cycle was complete.”
Fire brand activist, Chief Margaret Ekpo (OFR); born in Creek Town, Calabar, was Proprietor, Windsor Domestic Science/Sewing Institute, Aba. Her legendary mobilisation of Aba Market Women earned her recognition as spokesperson for women/NCNC delegate during the various constitutional conferences. She was elected Member of Parliament from Aba to the Eastern House of Assembly (1954-66). Mr F I Okoronkwo (from Mbieri, Owerri) succeeded her in 1966. In 1999, Mr Silas Wanganga represented Aba urban in the House of Representatives while Aba South and Aba North State Constituencies were won by non-indigenes, Gideon Atulomah and J N Nwobbi respectively. Not much changed from 1999 to date as-stranger elements continue to share elective positions with indigenes.
On October 2nd and 3rd there was a gathering of mayors from Europe and beyond in Switzerland – The Third UNECE Forum of Mayors 2023 with the theme “Urban Regeneration Towards 2030” – was organised by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNICE). It attracted mayors from across Europe and other parts of the world, including Africa where mayors from six countries attended. They discussed projects to achieve more inclusive, resilient and sustainable urban development.
On November 9, Marrakech, Morocco, hosted “Africa Investment Forum 2023” described as “high level mayoral event leveraging cities and municipalities on national development.” But, Nigeria’s only presence was Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State. Ironically, because Lagos has no mayor to represent the mega city in such an important international concourse.
As Aba joins world family of mayors, it is also important to draw the attention of both Abia State Government and the mayoralty to global events already marked for 2024. For example, the United States which boasts the largest number of cities with high profile mayors has several events designed to equip and empower mayors next year.
World Conference of Mayors is slated for January 26-28 in Eastonville/Orlando, Orange County, State of Florida, USA, with the invitational appeal: Let us face 2024, and the Future, as Family; We are one; We are Together.
And from Russia comes the invite to International Conference of Mayors, Moscow, September16-17, 2024. According to the planners, mayors of more than 100 cities of the world and heads of international organisations are expected at the Russian capital. In Athens, 2022 confab, “functions of the chairman of the conference were handed over to the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov,” as host of the 2024 version. Such events help to unite the world.
Finally, it is important to note that much as constructive criticism and opposition is healthy for democracy, but for efficiency and good governance, merit must be given preference in the choice of candidates for core public institutions. As auto advert says, “Good product, good thinking.” Otti should be commended for his choice of a good product for the office of first Mayor of Aba City. On his part, Udeagbala is challenged to exceed the expectations of right thinking members of the public who appreciate his candidature. All parties must unite to move Aba forward as a growing 21st Century industrial hub.