Tuesday, 17 December 2019 04:43

[OPINION] The Road to Awka - Reuben Abati 

Niger bridge onitsha

 

 

The first time I was in Awka, Anambra state, I had gone there to attend the Association of Nigerian Authors  (ANA)  Conference – that was many years ago. I had been to Anambra again since then, but as part of a Presidential delegation from Abuja led personally by President Goodluck Jonathan. Those visits as part of an official entourage took me to Ogidi, the home town of the literary legend, Chinua Achebe. This was on the occasion of his burial. Chinua Achebe’s death was a major loss for the whole of humanity because he was one of the finest spirits that ever lived, and he continues to live on through the immortality of his words, works, and thoughts. Achebe put Ogidi, Nigeria and Africa, on the global map. As we arrived, I kept wondering in my head whether indeed I was walking on the same soil that was once tilled by a famous fictional character called Okonkwo. Achebe was given a Christian burial and as the funeral service progressed, images from Things Fall Apart flashed through my mind: such is the power of literature -  a world of endless possibilities where fiction and reality often merge and collide in endless alterations and shaping.  I was back in Anambra, again as President Jonathan’s staff during the burial of Dim Odimegwu Ojukwu, the Biafran leader and revolutionary whose engagement with Nigeria and the sacrifice that he made for his people, the Igbos of Eastern Nigeria, will forever remain an un-eraseable chapter in the mapping of ethnic and identity politics in Africa. Ojukwu was extra-ordinary: one of those unusual occurrences in nature, a meteor, a piece of volcanic eruption, an avatar, a phenomenon whose very existence defines the meaning and nature of everything else around it, past, present and future. 

 

At other times, President Goodluck Jonathan was in Anambra – either to flag off a project, particularly the Second Niger Bridge, or to commission projects by the then Peter Obi-led Anambra state administration, or to campaign as was the case in 2015, for a second term in office. I was there with him. But the child-part of me always wanted to revisit Awka. Not even Onitsha, which I passed through in my younger days, on my way to and fro school in Calabar. For those who would remember, we had a successful ANA conference in Awka in those days. The local chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) not only received us well, they made very good arrangements. We were accommodated at Ikenga Hotel. In those days, ANA was a well managed association. It provided an opportunity for writers and thinkers, scholars and their students, to come together every year at a designated location to celebrate the Muse, exchange ideas, re-discover Nigeria, and honour literary achievement and originality. The old mixed with the young; the ANA annual conference was the best place to meet any major figure in Nigerian literature across the genres. There was even an annual publication; the ANA Review which promoted fine ideas and good writing. To appear in that annual publication was in itself an achievement. I served the Association for many years as a judge of annual entries for the ANA prizes. I have benefitted a lot reading the harvest of fertile seasons in Nigerian literature from ANA to the Nigerian NLG Prizes in Literature. 

Which is why it is sad and unfortunate that ANA Conferences have now lost meaning, sense and direction. I understand that this year’s ANA Conference ended up as a political war between writers loyal to the Peoples Democratic Party and loyalists of the All Progressives Congress (APC). The hijack of the community of thinkers and writers resulting in the abbreviation, manipulation and desecration of the role of writers in social thought and action is in every regard an exemplification, a very bad one, of the destruction of everything good, useful and noble in our country. So, they have taken partisan politics into ANA as a main issue?  Writers are people of ideas and action, leaders guiding the community with their thoughts. When they descend to the lowest depths, they take away every useful thing from their own moral compass. This year’s Conference, the 38th, of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) did not take place in Awka. It held in Enugu in October/November, with an interesting theme: “Literature, Nationalism and the Poetics of Integration”. But the feedback has been poor. I will comment no further, except to note that in its prime, the Association of Nigerian Authors used to be a strong civil society platform in Nigeria.  It is therefore not a flight of fancy that as I entered Anambra state, this past weekend, I remembered ANA and Awka. Chinua Achebe, a founding father of ANA, is from Anambra State. Anambra state is also the home of some of the brightest, most educated and most accomplished persons from Eastern Nigeria, and indeed the entire Igbo nation.

 

The road to Awka did not just invoke memories, the very encounter with the road itself was the main experience. We landed in Asaba airport, 45 minutes after take off from Murtala Muhammad Airport in Lagos. It would have been easier to go to Awka through Enugu or Akanu Ibiam International Airport in Enugu, but you’d recall that in May 2019, that airport had to be shut down, we were told, for “security reasons” – which had something to do with the fact that the runway was bad, there was a market too close to the airport and the mast of the state’s radio station had been wrongly located. This same airport has been under repairs and renovation since 2010 and it is supposed to be the international airport of the East but somehow, the authorities never got it right. After spending so much money on the same airport, it took nearly ten years to realize that the money spent between February and December 2010 yielded nothing. We have now been told that the rehabilitation of the airport will be completed in April 2020, Again, this tells the story of Nigeria from another dimension – the crisis of transportation and the absolute chaos of governance, manifest in the agony that average citizens suffer daily. It was quite an ordeal getting to Awka from Asaba.

 

In a short while after our setting out from the Asaba Airport in Delta State, we got to the Niger Bridge, the bridge over the Onitsha River that separates Anambra and Delta state, and Eastern Nigeria from the West. Travelling by air in Nigeria is an ordeal, going by road is painful, water transportation is virtually non-existent, rail travel which is a norm in other parts of the world is just now being introduced as an achievement. For a country of over 200 million people, not being able to move around without pain, is a tragedy! We spent hours just trying to cross the Niger Bridge. Every inch of it on both sides was truck-and-vehicle-filled. Across the bridge, to our left, in the distance, was the proposed Second Niger Bridge. It looked like an abandoned project. The old Niger Bridge had become too narrow. It was built over 30 years ago. It can no longer handle the volume of traffic and the weight that is placed on it daily. The plan to build a Second Niger Bridge made sense. But based on what I saw last Friday, it is safe to conclude that the Second Niger Bridge is an abandoned project contrary to what government tells us on the pages of newspapers. Again, another sad Nigerian story. I reflected on the madness and I was bewildered. 

 

Sitting beside me was Nduka Otiono, poet, essayist, polemicist, researcher, university teacher, an old and active denizen of miliki joints around town, ex-journalist, now Professor of Literature in a Canadian University.  We linked up at the Asaba airport on our way to Awka together. Otiono abandoned journalism in Nigeria.  After paying his dues in about five newspapers, working with some of the brightest journalists of the time, he relocated to the United States and later Canada, and within a period of 13 years, he moved from being a line editor and a big boy in miliki joints around Lagos to a Professor in one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Unlike many of our old colleagues, Otiono visits home regularly and when he does, he links up with the old crowd, and the amazing thing is that he sounds and behaves like he never left town. He knows all the local jokes and gossip; and he is completely without affectation. He is just the same Ikeja-axis boy of old but he has a good brain and a talent with words. As I agonized over the crisis on Nigeria’s Niger Brdige, it was Otiono, a man who had changed base and lived in better places telling me to relax and stop behaving like “a spoilt member of Nigeria’s privileged class.” We bought bottled water and I complained about drinking an unknown brand. Otiono turned the thing into laughter, reminding me of how I used to be happy with sachet water: “Drink the thing my friend, no be you dey drink pure water with us in those days? No worry, your body will remember in case you may have forgotten.”  

 

Talking about water, we both wondered why Nigeria has not been able to turn its water resources into a major asset.  Asaba and Onitsha are separated by a very short stretch of water. People live in Asaba, Delta State and work in Onitsha, Anambra State and vice versa. The people on both sides are linked by culture, geography and nature. But to commute from one side to the other is difficult. There has been so much talk about the Second Niger Bridge, whereas a water transport or rail link between Asaba and Onitsha could make all the difference. Otiono took a look at the water to our left and right, as our driver tried to avoid the threat of other vehicles, driving in Nigeria is like fencing, and offered an insight into how transportation is managed in Ottawa where he lives with his family. 

 

If the road had been good and smooth, we should have made it to Awka in less than one hour but we spent almost three hours. What I observed from Asaba to Awka was that while the roads within the states appeared good and motorable, even if the state governors still need to do more, and certainly need to be more innovative, the Trunk A roads which belong to the Federal Government are in a terrible state. Crossing over to Onitsha on a portion of road belonging to the Federal Government was painful.  Doing the same between Onitsha and Awka across Federal Government portions of the road was also stressful. Yet, the Federal Government continues to insist that state governments should not touch roads that have been classified as Federal Government Roads: If they do so, they will not be reimbursed by the Federal Government. Given the kind of delay and frustration that I experienced moving between Asaba and Awka last Friday, I conclude that there is a need for a new conversation about the ownership of roads across Nigeria. The present system is not working. It cannot work. In a Federal system, the Federal Government has no reason claiming ownership of roads outside the Federal Capital Territory. The states should be responsible for every piece of road within their territories. Moving from a good road to a bad road and having to figure out which of the portions belongs to either State or Federal Government is harmful to the mental health of Nigerians. 

 

…We finally made it to Awka, tired, hungry and disoriented. It was a different Awka. The village of those days has become a thriving cosmopolitan centre. Even the approach to the town was quite welcoming.  Excited, I asked for Ikenga Hotel. Everyone looked at me suspiciously. I sounded to them like the old woman who during the Yar’Adua years asked to know what Yakubu Gowon was doing about a particular problem. She was frozen in time. She didn’t know Gowon had since exited the corridors of power.  I was like that old woman as I listened to the story of how Ikenga Hotel, which used to be a symbol of cultural and identity affirmation across Eastern Nigeria, was sold off by greedy politicians. The only Ikenga Hotel that survived this rampage is in Nsukka. 

 

I was checked into one of the hotels of the new era, where Otiono and I soon had a reunion with Uzor Maxim Uzoatu (Boroja!), Chijioke Amu-Nnadi, and others - all in town for the public presentation of James Eze’s book of poetry titled “dispossessed”. Eze is Chief Press Secretary of Anambra State and one of our own in the literary community. I was in Awka to review his book. I also attended Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s event at the Golden Tulip Hotel, Agulu Lake, organized by the Purple Hibiscus Trust. Chimamanda is not just a gifted writer, she is a gift to humanity. Her event in Agulu was attended by young, aspiring writers from different parts of Africa and there she was, providing leadership and guidance, grooming the younger generation, giving back and building bridges. This is a writer beyond the ages, a beacon of hope, an authentic revelation.     

  

I ate correct Oha soup and I had fun at Santel World, an emergent cultural melting pot in Awka, in the company of key players in the Anambra State Government who stood by Eze and successfully showcased the Willie Obiano administration’s support for literature and the arts. The return journey to Lagos on Sunday was marred by the delay by Air Peace at the Asaba airport.

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