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Uli: The legend, the neglect

Anambra State map

Uli attained global recognition on account of the unfortunate fratricidal war that engulfed Nigeria between 1967 and 1970. It was the host of the famous or dreaded airstrip, depending on which side of the divide one was, that was the centre of much airlift activity.

Uli finally cemented her place in contemporary Nigerian legend as the scene of the famed last flight in January 1970, when the then leader of Biafra, the late Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu, famously announced that he was flying out in search of help. Alas, that was to precipitate the final acts of surrender by resilient and valiant people who had fought long and hard for their self-emancipation.

Today, an unmarked spot in one corner of the town bears the relics of what once served as a shelter for the commander-in-chief of the Biafran army and nation. What is left of the once formidable Ojukwu bunker are a few concrete steps leading to a pit.

All of the surroundings are bush and waste, signposting a people without a sense of history and the capacity to preserve our monuments and great legacies for present and future generations.  In some other climes, landmarks of such nature would be preserved for eternity for present and future generations and the lessons they teach.

So, it is no surprise that the once-famed town of Uli is a shadow of its famed status now. It is a tale of gross neglect and rot, signposted by a people known for their never-say-die spirit and irrepressible industry amid decrepit and decaying infrastructure.

Whether it is the roads that run through the communities, or the public schools and the primary health centres, it is a sad tale of neglect and decay. The roads that connect the town are particularly bad.

Uli, ordinarily, is made up of nine villages, which for administrative convenience, have been divided into four quarters: Eziama, Umuaku, Ihite, and Umuoma. Each quarter, headed by an Oluoha is run by a development union which in turn is headed by a president-general.

The four quarters come together to elect a president-general for the Uli Progressive Union. This is not strange for the Igbo known for their very republican nature.  The big idea is to guarantee the independence of thought and to ensure checks and balances.

But the shame is that this time-tested structure that served communities well in the past has been penetrated by the malaise of corruption and nepotism in recent times. ‘Big-men’ politicians and their acolytes have infiltrated the system of local administration and have made the present-day local authorities puppets and lame ducks.

Now, they either turn a blind eye to the poor jobs done or egregiously seek to participate in the sharing of the ‘cake’. Not one road, apart from the major highway that runs through the town to Owerri, the Imo State capital, is motorable. Particularly notorious in this respect are the Rebecca Ojiakor Road, and the Eziama to Akabauli Road leading to the Mgbachi market.

For a few of the roads that were previously tarred, most of the sections have peeled off, leaving wide craters and manholes, and making one wonder how the people do their daily commute on them. They are no better than very poor farm roads and indeed death traps.

The sad news is that most of the contracts for these roads were undertaken by indigenes of the town, which especially in the first civilian administration of C. C. Mbadinuju (himself a son of the soil) he tried to empower.

Commenting on this unfortunate development, an indigene, Obialeri Luke, had this to say: “The administrative structure (of the town) is impeccable, but the elites and rogue politicians hugely influence the choice of the Oluohas, quarter presidents, town union presidents, and even the Igwe, making it possible for these peddlers of influence to pocket them and reducing them to mere figureheads ready to serve their whims and caprices.”

Luke also took a swipe at the state of the general educational infrastructure in the town. From the public primary to the secondary schools, there is very little to cheer about. This reporter visited a number of the primary schools among which are the Ihite Primary School, Community Primary School, Ndiannugwu, Aliafe Community Primary School, and Saint Theresa Nursery and Primary School, owned by a Catholic church, the latter being an exception of the general rot and neglect, the others listed have suffered.

All of them are mostly served by a block of six or so classrooms, with a few of them boasting a block each of rehabilitated classrooms undertaken by the joint efforts of the state government and the Universal Basic Education scheme of the Federal Government. Although some of the public schools have football and play fields, they lack critical infrastructure like teaching staff and classrooms and support amenities like water, toilets, and fences.

There are a few secondary schools in the town. But nothing tells the story of neglect better than the Uli High School, founded in 1962. Part of the roofs of the school buildings were blown off by the elements and have remained so until now. Yet, this is the school that about 80 per cent of the town’s elite attended. But this is not to discount the famed Igbo community and self–help efforts.

 In Eziama for example, two of the four primary schools were provided boreholes by public-spirited individuals of the community. Concerned citizens also contribute to providing chairs and tables, as well as employing and paying PTA teachers. A member of the clergy has also roofed one of the dilapidated primary school buildings.

But Luke reserved his most acerbic criticism for the Anambra State University (now Odumegwu Ojukwu University) in the town which he described as a scandal.  According to him, “every Uli indigene who is a trader in the Oshodi market and other such concentrations knows the price of getting their child or ward a place in the school”.

“This sometimes involves getting a mercenary to take WAEC and JAMB exams in the state for candidates in Lagos and such other far away places,” he said.

Claiming that these atrocities are perpetuated by lecturers with questionable certificates, he fears that the school will soon earn the notoriety of producing the highest number of dumb graduates.

Perhaps the saddest outcome for the town is the state of public health infrastructure. There is no general hospital in the town. There are only primary health centres – four in total – and only in name. Apart from the one at Umuaku on the highway which has a recently refurbished building served with solar panels, the rest are non-descript and completely run down.

Whether the one at Umuoma or the other one in the inner city which had letterings on the wall one could not read because they have faded totally, it was one tale of woe to another. The only member of staff on duty said only a few nursing mothers visited on Wednesdays for the traditional immunisation of their children, leaving the centres idle and unsolicited on other days.

It couldn’t have been otherwise as the neglect of these centres is palpable. No basic infrastructure like seats and examination beds, not to mention medicines and workers on the ground. The atmosphere around these contraptions is so dire and one wonders how any care can ever be provided in them.

All of it is not sad news though. Amid the neglect, the ordinary folks are engaged in copious economic activities aimed at eking out a living. Every available space and field is planted with cassava, plantain, bananas, oil palms, and even bamboo trees. When these people make the harvests from their sweat, where are the roads to take them out of their farms and connect them to the markets?

Unfortunately, the local government which should have been the first line of defence, is complicit. It, therefore, devolves on the Anambra State Government under Prof Chukwuma Soludo to rise to the occasion and provide urgent succour for the long-suffering people of Uli.

*Owaiye is a Lagos-based journalist