Nobody plans to travel to New York city without relishing the thoughts of having a peek on the stately Statue of Liberty on the harbour.
That’s quite how fixated I was about travelling to Owerri, the Imo State capital – a city that has come to be known for imposing statues, drawing both critics and admirers.
I was in the state to cover the Presidential and National Assembly elections scheduled for February 16 but which was later shifted to 23.
Election upshot in the state had appeared unpredictable due to the political bigwigs on several fronts.
Albeit, the outlandish theatrics observed during and after Imo elections even offset any anticipation.
I arrived Imo via Sam Mbakwe local Airport 3:45 p.m. Wednesday, February 14. From there, I picked a cab that took me to Owerri.
I was warmly received by a friend and nice Imo indigene, Nonye Chukwuemeka, who became my unofficial tour guide throughout my stay.
Mr Chukwuemeka took me to Felivin Hotel which became my home for those memorable two weeks in the state.
Kelvin Hotel is not top notch, but it is situated at a strategic spot which was perfect for my assignment in the state. The three-star hotel is by the street of the famous World bank road, near the old Secretariat layout.
It is at trekkable distance to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) headquarters at Port Harcourt road.
There are several other landmarks within that horizon, including the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and Immaculate Hotels.
I was supposed to spend only a week in the state but the postponement of the polls by a week by INEC extended my stay. An extra week to crisscross the “City of Statues”, I believed.
‘The city of statues’
Concorde Boulevard – a serene double-lane road, housing the Heroes’ Square (Ojukwu Centre) had become a cynosure of attraction.
Though the centre was embellished with humongous artworks, it was the gigantic statues of renowned African leaders erected by the state government that drew tourist attraction the most.
The centre was in the eye of the storm after the statue of Jacob Zuma, the erstwhile President of South Africa, surfaced in late 2017.
The unveiling of the Zuma statue sparked widespread reactions, especially on social media and other news platforms.
The outgoing governor, Rochas Okorocha, was severely criticised for honouring the South African president who was also admitted into the Imo Hall of Fame and conferred with the state merit award before a street was named after him.
Critics questioned the governor’s yardstick for conferring such honour to a man who was then facing corruption charges relating to arms deals back home in South Africa. Mr Zuma had also faced accusations of rape.
Mr Zuma’s statue, which was alleged to cost a whooping N520 million, was also condemned because while it stood tall in Owerri, many Nigerians were killed in South Africa under the watch of the president.
“Akpuola gi?”, (meaning have you been moulded?) became a common jargon used by many critics to satirise the trend.
Following Mr Zuma’s resignation February last year, amid the fraud allegations, many Nigerians asked the state government to destroy the statue.
But the governor who offered no apologies remained unmoved. He rather fired back at critics, saying the statue was erected when Mr Zuma was in power and the president “resigned honourably.”
The governor argued that erection of statues was part of his government’s bid ”to attract meaningful investors that will contribute to the growth of the state”.
When INEC announced the postponement of the elections by a week that Saturday, I hollered with excitement knowing the opportunity for me to make a stop at Hero Square and see for myself these much talked about statues had presented itself.
Two days after the announcement, I visited the square, and indeed my expectation was met. It was indeed a tourist centre.
My only disappointment was that the place appeared unkept.
The ticket man told me in Igbo, “give me anything from your mind after your tour of the place” and I kept to that agreement when I was leaving.
As a lover of artworks, I must say I was awe-struck upon seeing the 35 metres tall statues of various African leaders standing tall next to each other. They were coated with bronze.
From the left stood high, statues of Akanu Ibiam, the first governor of the eastern region during Nigeria’s First Republic; Sam Mbakwe, a former governor of the state; Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, the Biafran warlord; Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s former head of state.
Also, in the stand were Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, immediate past Liberian president; Nana Akufor-Addo, a former Ghanian President and of course Jacob Zuma among others. They are 15 in number.
Buhari enters circle
My attention was quickly drawn to the far end of the stand. The sculptors are working on a new statue.
Who could that be? I thought as I recalled Mr Okorocha’s description of Hero Square, “the future of tourist attraction in Nigeria”. With that, the governor had promised to build more statues at the centre.
In the making was a statue of a tall man. I must say the body physique looked familiar, but it was not easy to identify as the head was covered.
The sculptor urged me to look deeper. President Buhari (Muhammadu)? I exclaimed, and he chuckled affirmatively.
The sculptor said President Buhari is the next statue to be unveiled in the state.
“All the statue here was done by us, and it takes months to complete just one.
“We use a certain bronze chemical to coat the statues,” the sculptor said. He was reluctant in giving out his name or the cost of one of the statue.
Dotted with statues
Apart from Hero Square, I also observed that Owerri city is adorned with artworks, sculptures, and statues at almost every roundabout.
To be sure, I visited the Freedom Square located at the heart of the town where a giant statue of a man wielding a torch under a gigantic blue balloon was erected.
I also observed that all the major roads in the city have a signature structure. There are always two pillars of about twelve feet high, facing each other and crossed with iron longbows. They, at every short interval, form a kind of canopy over the roads.
My brief interaction with many residents exposed their repulsion of the government’s ‘tourist initiative’.
“He is building statues and pillars all over the roads when almost all the streetlights and traffic lights in Owerri are not working,” Emma Osondu, a taxi driver, said.
“Look at most of the roads he (Okorocha) built in Owerri, they keep spoiling, and they don’t have good gutters. Once rain falls, everywhere will look so dirty,” said John Ifeneme, a student of the Federal University of Technology Owerri.
Well, as a lover of arts, I would have argued otherwise, but I had an experience that made me decide I can never live in this city!
Once it starts raining in Owerri, the city takes a different form.
I was caught up in such a situation on a particular Wednesday evening at Douglas road. I noticed an unusual rush once the downpour started.
I waited for the rain to subside before I continued my journey, but that was a wrong move. As I stepped out of the eatery where I took shelter, the beautiful city of Owerri had turned into a swamp.
Most parts of the roads were filled with muddy water from the rain. The gutters are too tiny, and apparently, the water channels are blocked.
It was as if everything stood still. There were major gridlocks at every corner and junction. Many residents had trooped out, desperately looking for a means of transportation which had become very scarce at the time.
I had to hold my trousers so I could step into the muddy water. It was of no use.
Besides, for you to find a means of transportation, you had to join the queue of people fighting for a spot in the commercial cars.
I had no option than to trek halfway to my hotel room before I got a cab.
Traumatic Election Coverage
I was woken by a call from my cabman at about 5:35 a.m. on Saturday, February 23, the day of the election. We left the hotel at about 6:20 a.m.
I was feeling a bit nervous not just because it was my first time covering a presidential and national assembly election, but also due to incidents of violence that trailed the state in the past.
My direction to the cabman was instructive. “Take me straight to the governor’s polling unit in Ogboko village; we can observe other centres on our way.”
I had a key interest in observing how events will unfold in the governors’ strongholds. Mr Okorocha appeared to be facing a tough battle from all sides.
His run-ins with his party, the All Progressive Congress (APC) over his choice of successor birthed the divide in the state chapter of the party.
The governor would contest for a Senate seat of Imo West zone that election day in what was considered the first test of his political foray.
Apart from struggling to save his head, Mr Okorocha was hoping to deliver his district for President Buhari.
All these made Mr Okorocha’s Imo West, an interesting zone any observer would want to monitor.
We arrived at Mr Okorocha’s polling unit at Ogboko village, Ideato local government of Imo West at about around 8:30 a.m. But no personnel nor materials were present as was the case in many other centres visited earlier.
We then went to a nearby RAC centre only to discover that materials were still being moved to the polling units at 9:10 a.m.
We came back to the centre at 9:20 a.m. and officials had arrived but still setting up their tables.
One of the presiding officers said the delay was caused by the sorting of materials and accreditation of party agents.
I must say I was too busy to notice an unusual arrangement here until I was accosted by two men who were not wearing uniforms or election tags.
“Who are you, people? What are you doing here? Just come out of the vehicle”, the huge dark guy said from the drivers’ window. The other man was on my side of the vehicle.
Before I could say ‘Jack’, I was asked to hand over my working materials. At that point, it dawned on me that I had walked into a danger zone.
Before I knew what was happening, about 15 to 20 more thugs surrounded me. They demanded I identify myself. Even after showing them my accredited election monitoring tag and Press I.D card, they kept on harassing and interrogating my driver and I.
It was as if everything happening there was stage-managed. All the INEC officials whom I introduced myself to initially were busy with their works as I was waylaid by these men.
“Call who sent you here. Anybody can print this your tag,” one of the thugs said.
“You don’t know you are in Rochas Okorocha’s polling booth and you say you want to observe elections?”
There were only two female police officers stationed at the centre. They had no guns. Both of them watched as the thugs kept harassing me. They did not intervene.
I would later approach one of the policewomen and officially introduce myself, but she also demanded I place a call “to the person that sent you.”
The ensuing drama came to its peak when my driver was slapped and kicked by the thugs when he tried to complain.
Eventually, all my gadgets were returned by the thugs with a stern warning that I should never return to the centre.
I never did.