Aloysius Attah, Onitsha
In Onitsha, the commercial nerve centre of Anambra State, high-rise buildings are a dominant feature. The city is synonymous with storey buildings, and it is rare to find bungalows and small buildings.
While builders in parts of Woliwo, Odoakpu and Omagba areas started with three-storey buildings, Awada and Fegge areas upped the ante and increased the floors to four. Latter-day builders have increased the trend to five-storey buildings.
The trend would have continued, but the state’s urban development board now scrutinzes such development and has not been giving approvals for high-rise buildings above four floors.
Although no one could say exactly who began the trend, the reporter gathered that 80 per cent of the high-rise buildings were owned by non-indigenes of the town.
Onitsha indigenes that occupied mainly the Inland Town areas, some parts of Woliwo, Old Market Road and others built mostly single-storey buildings for family use from the colonial period up to Nigeria’s independence and the start of the Civil War in 1967. But residents and settlers who came to Onitsha for business started the commercial three-storey buildings after the war from the 1970s.
A businessman, Chukwudi Okeke, said at the root of the trend of constructing storey buildings in Onitsha is the enterprising spirit of the Igboman. He stated that most of the landlords who had such buildings in different parts of the city started with practically nothing after the civil war.
“The now thickly-populated areas of Fegge, Awada, Woliwo, Odoakpu and the rest today were thick bush before development started. You know the story of giving the Igboman £20 after the civil war, no matter how many millions the person might have stashed in the bank before the war. That was what many people started with after the war and look at what we have today. The enterprising spirit of the Igboman was at work and there is no competition in destiny. Within a few years of doing business, many raised money and started buying land, and, before you knew it, storey buildings sprang up everywhere,” he said.
Further findings by the reporter revealed that another reason for erecting high-rise buildings was to maximise space.
Onitsha, the commercial heartbeat of Anambra State and the melting pot of the South East, is hampered by inadequate landmass. Because of the River Niger and the Nkisi River, Onitsha city seems to be restricted, and many people are left with little space to build and live in.
A building engineer, Augustine Okafor, told Daily Sun that because of this phenomenon, many people in Onitsha and the neighbouring Obosi were engaged in many years of struggle over land. He said Obosi people used raw power to grab most tracts of land earlier surveyed as Onitsha land. Such land was then sold to residents and settlers who did not hesitate in erecting storey buildings on the portions of lands, since getting another plot to develop was not easy to come by.
“While many Onitsha indigenes in those days were lawyers and got involved in several litigations over land, Obosi people lacked enough legal practitioners so that they had to rely on engaging the services of lawyers from other parts of the country. But what the Obosi people lacked in human resources in terms of indigenous legal representatives, they made up for it up in physical struggle. They annexed many plots of land in Awada area, which originally belonged to Onitsha people.
“They quickly sold the land to various businessmen from other parts of Igboland living in Onitsha, and the buyers proceeded immediately to build on the land. Because getting another parcel of land was not easy, the developers reasoned that it was better to use one plot to build skyscrapers that could contain about 16 flats/apartments, which were rented to tenants, instead of looking for four or five different plots and building bungalows there.
“Onitsha is a small city, and, with a bike, it is easy to connect the entire city in about 25 minutes. But the building of storey buildings did the magic in containing the large population of residents. If not for this trend, there is no way the city could accommodate its large population,” he said.
Observations by the reporter showed that other neighbouring communities have also copied the trend. Today, communities like Nkpor, Ogidi, Obosi, Nkwele Ezunaka and Ogbunike, among others, also have mostly storey buildings, mainly for commercial purposes. Rich people also build high-rise buildings in Onitsha as a status symbol.
The reporter observed, however, that most of the commercial buildings with between three and five floors do not have any water system. Rather, tenants source for water by carrying plastic containers, fetching water from commercial boreholes and climbing the staircase up to their respective floors for their daily water use.
A landlord, Jude Chukwudi, while reflecting on the situation, urged government to address the problem, noting that landlords spend a lot in erecting buildings and they have to recoup their investment too.
“It takes several millions of naira to build a four-storey structure today, considering the high cost of building materials. The builder also sees it is an investment with the intention of making profit. Tenants also complain of high rent, and by the time the landlord fixes everything in the house and also sinks borehole with running taps flowing into the various apartments, not many people can afford the rent. That is why they mostly leave out the water aspect so that the tenants can afford to pay and also source for water on their own.
“This is one reason why people are clamouring for the return of the good old days, when the Anambra State Water Corporation was functional. That time, after building, you just went and paid the corporation and they would extend the pipe to your home and you enjoyed public water supply, just like electricity. When this is done, life will be a lot easier for the residents in Onitsha.
“Erection of storey buildings has come to stay. It is already a lifestyle. Property owners are even willing to buy off any remaining bungalows, knock them down and erect five-storey buildings. The funny thing there is that, before the finishing touches are done, prospective tenants have already paid for the flats. That is Onitsha for you,” he said.