Owerri, the capital of Imo State, is renowned for its hospitality. The people are warm and the business of entertainment is robust. In fact, it used to be said that “enjoyment is second nature to Owerri” residents. And it is doubtful if much has changed.
However, going to Owerri nowadays is not a piece of cake. For both man and machine, it could have disastrous consequences. It is a perilous engagement.
The roads are riddled with gullies and craters. If, as a driver, you are not conversant with the route, you may not end well or get to your destination. In short, going to Owerri from anywhere could be likened to a journey through the valley of the shadow of death. The federal and state roads are wretched and forsaken.
Apart from the pathetic state of the roads, robbers and kidnappers are another aspect of the nightmare travellers contend with. Someone has sardonically called the area a robbers’ and herdsmen’s paradise.
Daily, commuters are robbed and/ or kidnapped on that route. An Enugu monarch and his wife were kidnapped on the route the other day, while a former Abia State commissioner escaped death by the whiskers the same day as herdsmen riddled his car with bullets in a desperate attempt to demobilise his vehicle and abduct him.
It was gathered that herdsmen on that route are violent, heavily armed and remain the major security threat to travellers. Villages there are oftentimes sacked by rampaging bandits.
Ironically, there are checkpoints on the route, where operatives harass, intimidate and extort money from innocent drivers and commuters with alacrity. Some of them subject commuters to dehumanising treatment for no justifiable reason.
Getting to Okigwe from Enugu, the deplorability of the environment is heart-rending. From there, you cannot see a few kilometres of smooth road. Large portions are broken. Some are swallowed by erosion, making the traveller on edge throughout the trip. There, countless Nigerians are mangled and snuffed out in automobile mishaps almost daily.
But the world ends at Akabo, so to say. The scourge of flood and forsaken roads makes the area appear to belong to another world and another age. There, drivers and passengers pray for their vehicles not to be trapped in the in the middle of ‘Akabo River.’
The other day, the reporter had the misfortune of passing through the so-called road after a downpour and experienced the torture of travelling on that route. Some vehicles were literally swimming, while some were swallowed, forcing passengers to wade through the flood. There was heavy traffic snarl, stretching several kilometres.
But whether it rains or not, when a truck tumbles or a car packs up in the middle of the road, commuters get stuck on a spot for several agonising hours. However, broken-down vehicles provide a form of employment for local boys who push them out at a fee.
Gallery of dilapidation
Most of the roads in Owerri are terribly bad. The situation is such that former Governor Rochas Okorocha lamented that acidic rains could be the cause of the deplorable state of roads in the state capital and elsewhere.
In the beginning, Owerri was a place to behold, a place to be proud of. The original master plan of the city was futuristic, providing robust flood control channels, among other components.
However, Okorocha’s urban renewal project distorted the master plan gravely, to the extent that residents are now gnashing their teeth in agony. Moving from one end of the city to the other is now a herculean task.
A resident, Amanze, said: “Before you move from one end of the city to the other, you have to sit down and calculate how to move. You cannot just jump into your car and drive to your destination without serious calculation. The reason is that almost all the roads in the city have gone bad. So, you have to put the state of the road into your plan of movement.
“Sometimes, you can miscalculate because a portion that was good this evening can collapse tomorrow morning because the roads had no designs and were poorly constructed. Under the last government, wheel barrow and shovels were used in road construction.”
The terrible roads are just a small part of the multitudes of problems facing the city in need of reconstruction. When it rains, residents are sacked. Some of the areas usually worst hit include World Bank, MCC, Chukwuma Nwoha, Douglas and Whetheral axis. It was gathered that the drainage built by the Sam Mbakwe administration decades ago were damaged during the execution of the Okorocha urban renewal project.
If there were infrastructure challenges before now, residents maintain that the immediate past government only exacerbated it. While the roads built by previous administrations were uprooted, they were replaced with the ‘Dubai’ versions that failed within months, turning to death traps.
Some of the places that would make your heart bleed include the Port Harcourt road, Yar’Adua Drive, Rapour Road going towards Amakohia and Works Layout, roads around Aguiyi Ironsi Tunnel, Control-World Bank- Umuguma road, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf road, MCC to Ekemmegbuoha road, Toronto junction, Federal Polytechnic, Nekede, to Federal University of Technology (FUTO) – Obinze road, Ihechiuwa Street and Mgbidi section of the Owerri – Onitsha road. The end of Dick Tiger Street (Transegbu) has been renamed “Owelle Fish Pond” because it is perennially flooded. It was gathered that fishing takes place there even as many of the residents of the area have packed out of their houses.
The Ikemba Ojukwu Tunnel is a disservice to the People’s General. It is a no-go area as motorists entertain the fear that it might crumble anytime.
But, as they say, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. When the reporter passed the area, lunatics were observed taking shelter inside the tunnel.
Abandoned vehicles were some of the features of the state secretariat. Some of the structures were dilapidated, with the roofs falling off, even as overgrowth and weeds defaced the surroundings.
It was alleged that the old secretariat of the state has been converted to a private enterprise by a former governor.
But reprieve seems to be on the way. According to Mr. Chibuike Onyeukwu, the chief press secretary (CPS) to Governor Emeka Ihedioha, the new administration has started remedial work on some of the dilapidated roads but the effort has been slowed by rains, washing off the materials. He disclosed that contracts for the rehabilitation/reconstruction of 12 roads have been awarded.
There is a joke that there are more hotels than houses in Owerri. But the reality is that the city is brimming with all shades of hotels, pubs and entertainment centres, and new ones are springing up all the time, particularly at New Owerri. Because of the concentration of some of the most beautiful hotels in eastern Nigeria in Owerri, the city wears the admirable robe of a holiday destination. And the dividends are rolling down because, around the upscale joints, you find make-shift food stalls selling noodles and rice, among other local delicacies, at night.
Hotels and nightclubs in Owerri are in stiff competition, all trying to outdo the other to get a fair share of the market. The highbrow hotels include Concorde Hotel, Full Moon, Rock View, Villa Garden, Protea, Immaculate Royal, Immaculate Golden, Top Rank, Kelvic, All Seasons, Vienna, Titanic, Arizona, Legend and Links.
While some of the facilities restrict themselves to conventional services, some take their act to the next level. To watch strippers and nude dancers, you pay little or nothing extra. In fact, some hotels/lounges have made their mark as home of strip dancers. Ofe Owerri is the statement meal of the people. If you do not taste it, your trip to Owerri is not complete. But it doesn’t come cheap.
In Owerri, commercial sex workers are found in their numbers, particularly at New Owerri, the heartbeat of the city. As soon as night begins to fall, they begin to converge like vultures waiting for carcasses. Like vultures, the flesh hawkers, who prefer to be called “hospitality girls,” wait patiently for hours for customers, even when the weather is not friendly.
Owerri’s hospitality girls are very serious about their business. Inclement weather does not deter them. They go to work with umbrellas, standing at street corners and wooing customers, even when it rains. No matter how the cold bites, business must go on. So, they turn out in skimpy dresses, showing their curves and contours.
From the Concorde area to World Bank, the hospitality girls hold sway. Some of them boldly walk up to men and offer their services. It is aggressive marketing all the way.
The other day, one of them, Sandra, approached the reporter and said: “Bros, let me keep you company tonight. You will enjoy me o. My breasts are still strong and pointed; you can touch them and see for yourself. I will do any style you want. I can do doggie style. I’m a blow job specialist, you can ask my friends. I may not be big but I know how to take care of men.”
The Owerri flesh market is vast and booming. Some of the practitioners are young, some are not so young. Many of them are really hot and adventurous.
For the hospitality girls, it is a matter of cash. Once you can meet their demands, they give you whatever you want. They can render their service in the car or even street corners. For them, “it is money for hand, back for ground,” as they say in local parlance.
Investigation revealed that the high number of tertiary institution in Owerri is the reason for the boom in the sex market. Indeed, sex is not a big deal to the girls, some of who are barely out of diapers. You can hear girls discussing freely about sex in a commercial vehicle.
A civil servant in Owerri, Ambrose Dike, said: “There are so many girls on the streets because there are many higher institutions in Owerri. There is the Federal Polytechnic, Nekede, FUTO, Imo State University (IMSU) and Imo Polytechnic, among others. All these institutions are located in Owerri, which is not very big.
“So, there are girls everywhere. Some of the girls come out of the school environment to catch some fun. Apart from those who go to pubs and nightclubs to look for companions, there are those who go to highbrow hotels to hustle even in the afternoon. Some of the girls pay to have access to the swimming pool but it is only a marketing strategy. You know, Owerri residents are fun-loving, so it is a proper mix. In Owerri, girls are there for the picking.”
Another resident, Kelvin, added: “If you want to see some of the students who went to work in the night, go to Wetheral Road junction, along the Owerri–Aba highway, between 6.30am and 7am. There, you see them returning to school. It’s no longer a big deal among the students. While going out for work, they dress scantily but when returning in the morning they appear somewhat respectable. Girls who spend the night in their hostel are called ‘native chickens.’
“The girls do networking; they link their friends to men, as the need arises. For example, if my friend comes visiting, my girlfriend will simply invite her friend to come and keep my friend company. So, Owerri residents are having fun. Sex is always available and cheap.”
Investigation also showed that some of those involved in the sex trade come from outside Imo. Some come from Rivers, Cross River, Ebonyi, Anambra, Delta and Edo states. All the hospitality girls in Owerri are not students. Some are professionals: old spinsters, divorcees and widows.
Cynthia, a mother of three, who came from Akpabuyo in Cross River, said: “I came to Owerri to look for money to feed my children. I had issues with my husband and he abandoned the family for the past three years. I normally come to Owerri on Friday and go back on Monday. I share a room with a friend and we pay N4,000 per night; that is N2,000 each. I charge anything from N3,500 per night. Things are not easy but we are coping.”
Price for sex is not fixed in Owerri. Price is determined by time, desperation of the hawker and the bargaining ability/pocket of the customer.
If you take a girl home from a pub or club between 2am and 3am, you could pay N3,000 or less. Between 9pm and 11pm is the prime time, when you could be charged N5,000 or more. For N1,000, you could manage a round of sex or two after 4am. For a quickie by the roadside or inside the car, N1,000 or N2,000 could be a good bargain. However, there are treasure hunters, who tell you to give them whatever you have at the end of the session. But this could be dangerous because you could be accused of cheating or underpayment because you did not bargain. Those who are stranded might accept N500 for sex, at least to enable them go home.
Consider what Tony said: “When we go to clubs to unwind, we take our time and do our thing. We can dance and drink with girls but negotiation starts in the morning when we want to go home. At the point, some of them are already drunk and just looking for a place to lay their heads. When it is late, they are vulnerable; they can accept anything. If it is a weekend, and your apartment is cool, and you have food and drinks, they may spend days with you. It is a win-win situation. When my organisation wanted to transfer me out of Owerri, I resisted it with all my strength.”
Some of the girls are not strictly for business. “I just come out to have fun. I sit at pubs or bars and if I see any guy I like and he is willing to take care of me, I will go with him. The school system is not the best. I don’t negotiate for amount to be paid because I am not a harlot. One of my friends got married recently to a guy she met at a joint. Perhaps, if she talked about money, they wouldn’t be married today. You could also meet a guy who would romp with you and give you good money or tell you stories at the end of the day. I normally shine my eyes very well before accompanying a man home. I always look out for a man who can give me a good time; that’s all,” Nelly said.
You need to visit the place of statues when in Owerri. There, you see statues of various people erected by the Okorocha government.
“At a time workers and pensioners were being owed for months, government erected statues worth millions on naira. That’s the way it is,” said Mary Ibekwe.
– The Sun