Niger Delta: Building a new city alongside the old

In Nigeria’s colonial era, the city of Port Harcourt was favoured by the British rulers as a place to live because of its balmy weather, extensive gardens, sound infrastructure and access to the Atlantic Ocean.

By 2010, the city, one of the fastest growing in Africa and the second biggest in southern Nigeria after Lagos, has become the epitome of unchecked urbanisation that has swamped the neat colonial planning and spilled over the edges onto outlying villages.

Named after former British secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Lewis Harcourt, the city was built to accommodate 5,000 people when it was founded in 1913 as a port to export coal.

Today, the capital of Rivers State in the Niger Delta and the de facto capital of Nigeria’s oil producing region area, houses an estimated two million people.

Nigerian lawyer, Dame Aleruchi Cookey-Gam, has taken on the tough job of driving an initiative to build a new city in Port Harcourt alongside the old as a legacy project for the future. She gave up a career in law to help the governor of Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi, realise his dream of building a world-class city from the urban sprawl he inherited.

Cookey-Gam, the former state Attorney General, says although the project to build a new city is ambitious, it is necessary if Port Harcourt is to have a decent future.

She is the administrator of the Greater Port Harcourt City Development Authority (GPHCDA), inaugurated last year as a legal entity to provide the legal and regulatory framework for the development, reducing the risk of any policy reversal by future administrations.

The planned new city, a multibillion dollar, 50-year initiative, will adjoin the old city, which is slowly being restructured, to form one large urban entity.

The Rivers State government is funding Greater Port Harcourt to the tune of $2.5bn and the remainder of the financing is being sought from foreign investors and international funding institutions. The state is home to a large chunk of Nigeria’s oil wealth and 60% of the country’s foreign direct investment is concentrated there.

Phase one of the project includes development of a university of science and technology, a 1,000 bed hospital, a sports village, a central business district, 3,000 residential units, a light commercial and industrial area and a golf course.

A lawyer by profession, Cookey-Gam qualified at the University of Ife in Nigeria in 1980 and did a Masters degree at the London School of Economics, entering legal practice in 1982. She took on the somewhat daunting job of Attorney General of Rivers State and Commissioner of Justice for four years from 1999.

Her stint in government began as Nigeria moved out of the shadow of military rule and into a democratic era under the leadership of then president, Olusegun Obasanjo.

After another stint in private practice, she was called back to the public service, this time by the new governor, Amaechi, who is often described as “a man in a hurry”. Amaechi has been driving many large legacy projects in the state, effectively using oil money to build non-oil assets. The Greater Port Harcourt city is one of them.

Cookey-Gam says an estimated 10% to 20% of the city is actually planned, with the rest developing through unchecked urbanisation over the past few decades.

According to land records, in the mid-1970s – the beginning of the oil boom in Nigeria – the built up area of the city covered 17.4km². Twenty years later the urban area covered nearly 90km².

She describes Port Harcourt as the “jewel in Nigeria’s crown”, saying the old garden city, as it used to be known, needs to be reawakened. “We are an economic hub for the region and the numbers of people migrating here continue to grow so we need to take control of the city.

“Even though we have oil and high levels of foreign investment here, we need to look beyond oil and focus on the long-term future of the state.”

The near collapse of the national electricity grid means many non-oil industries have closed down and the state has been forced to spend heavily on providing power in the Port Harcourt area to attract business.

The security situation has also been tackled head on, not just by Rivers State but by all the states in the Niger Delta, which have recognised the impediment rebel activity and crime present for future growth.

“We need to create a modern business node that will accelerate economic growth and development, supported by the appropriate economic policies and good governance. In turn these objectives will attract private sector interest, involvement and investment in infrastructure, housing, retail, offices and other commercial facilities.”

The key anchors in the new city will be the old city, the Port Harcourt International Airport and the Onne Harbour, which is an oil and gas free zone.

Although Cookey-Gam believes, like most Nigerians, much still needs to be done in her country in terms of governance, she says the democratic system is settling down and the politicians are recognising the need to bring on board private expertise.

Addressing the issue of security that surrounds any mention of the Niger Delta, Cookey Gam says, “Security is being addressed aggressively at a national and at a state level and the states are working together to improve security across the region.”

She also emphasised that corruption was being tackled. “Transparency and accountability are key to the Port Harcourt project. The governor himself is driving the adherence to sound corporate governance principles to give investors comfort.”

Governor Amaechi is a strong proponent of public-private partnerships to realise his vision for the state, which is focused on the big picture rather than simply on day-to-day concerns. “He is planning for the needs of tomorrow,” she says.

She says co-operation between the public and private sectors is key to development. “The government must regulate the economy and the system to ensure things work well and create the economic environment for the private sector to thrive. It is a symbiotic relationship that must be cultivated and nurtured at all times.”

“If government is a problem, the private sector feels the brunt of that. If government is good, the private sector benefits.”

Dianna Games is executive director of Africa @ Work.