Once an Ikwokrikwo center, now a theatre of violence: Owerri must not perish. Slow-paced, warm, and welcoming: Owerri was striding to its niche. The center of tourism in West Africa. Owerri had found its purpose. With a bit of innovation in policy-making, the gush of private investments in hotels and recreation would have crowned little Owerri. But now, the devil has arrived. And the gods are in hiding.
Tourists and fun-seekers, ever so fickle. They shiver at the first appearance of danger. When violence takes a seat, they flee. But who would blame them? Portharcourt was once the destination. Then kidnapping came and perched, and people staggered and then fled. Those who later chose Owerri rather than Porharcourt, Umuahia, Awka, Aba, and Onitsha had their reasons. A tourist destination must always justify itself in feeding rest to the mind.
It’s not difficult to imagine that nobody would choose Owerri for any new investment now. That is how towns die. Something happens. Crimes fester. Investments stagnate. People stop coming. Investments reverse, flow out. Hundreds of Owerri hotels that had been on the full-throttle are now idling and accumulating losses. Hospitality is the heart of the town. They will survive for a bit while shrinking and shedding redundant staff. But soon, the blood of the shocked and traumatized municipality will stop flowing. And the dying will start in earnest.
When a town slips into seizures and wars, other competing towns grow in its stead. That’s the problem. There is no camaraderie amongst cities. Soon some of those who might have chosen Owerri for the summer or Christmas would opt for Uyo or Calabar or Asaba. The head that picks up the wasp would be stung.
When town planning chaos handcuffed Onitsha and Aba, many Igbo young businessmen ditched the traditions and dilapidation and preferred Lagos. They fled. Gradually, Onitsha and Aba, which were once the headquarters of the big businesses, became the branches. Warri used to be a wonderful destination. But when Warri became the synonym of violence and trouble, it stagnated. Today, Warri is a stunted local champion.
Owerri had begun to sideline Port Harcourt. Now the devil has poured sand into the eyes of Owerri. Hundreds of new hotels used to spring up every year. At weekends, they were mostly fully booked. They never seemed enough because Owerri drew in and serviced people. Owerri was confounding bookmakers. It had tranquility and understood merriment. Side businesses in restaurants blossomed. The once sleepy civil service town had developed its dance steps, and all it needed was space and the right vibes in innovative governance.
But the devil, forever footloose, has arrived Owerri. First, they broke the prisons. Then they raped the police headquarters. Then a slow liquidation of the criminal justice system began in earnest. After Gulak fell to assassins bullets last week, Owerri slumped. It was a cruel blow to a quiet town.
Jos was once the town. Europeans loved it, freezing temperatures, hailstones, and all. Hill Station Hotel, Hillcrest School, Mountain school, and Mighty Jets. Tourists came to hike and climb. Foreigners settled and raised families. Vom supplied yogurt. NASCO filled the atmosphere with the smell of biscuits. University of Jos Open Air Theatre provided evening drama and dance. Then violence came and sat on the plateau. And Jos lost its innocence. Tourists fled. Hill Station Hotel rotted. Abuja soaked up many good things that would have come to Jos after Jos developed epilepsy. Now, Jos is a shadow of what it could have been.
Owerri must not die. It’s not good for an organism to die in its prime. Owerri was just beginning to shed rurality and bringing in the surrounding villages like Orodo into the scheme of good things, into the light. Owerri had ripened to be showcased to West Africa.
I had started dreaming of new libraries, bookshops, zoos, and theatres for poetry readings and dance dramas. So that the town can cater to the appetites of Igbos in diaspora, other Nigerians, Africans, Europeans after capturing the imagination of traders. I had envisioned a mini las vegas around the Concorde hotel area with more than spaces for nkwobi and hackneyed comedy. Igbo Diaspora had chosen Owerri. But now, things are falling apart. Owerri has become where sporadic madness now lives.
Chukwuokikeabiama, I beseech thee. Owerri is the heart of Igbo land. Take away from Satan its powers. You gave every man and town their talents. You gave Owerri jollity. Olisa bi n’igwe, do not allow children to pour sand into Owerri’s garri. Owerri is on its knees.