by Pelu Awofeso

Ibom e-Library, Uyo

After what seems like eternity, the expansive Ibom Plaza is now being renovated. Indiscriminate access by pedestrians is restricted by a team of mobile policemen, while a van of the anti-robbery squad branded ‘Operation Thunder’ is parked strategically, facing Oron Road.

An army of workmen—painters, bricklayers, sweepers—get busy so early in the morning to restore one of the city’s central attractions to its old glory. Across the road, two middle-aged men clean off posters from the brick fencing of Qua Iboe church (Abak Road) with splashes of water, amidst the early morning rush of residents and countless ‘keke’ going up and down the Ikot Ekpene Road and surrounding driveways; the glittering AKTC taxis have disappeared from the spot near the roundabout, where they were in their dozens the last time I came to Uyo in 2009.

The renovation project is financed by the Ministry of Lands and Housing. Standing on the Plaza’s periphery and peeping beyond the maze of walkways, it’s easy to imagine how attractive it must have been in its heyday; decorative plants weave across well defined green areas. Few years after it was open to the public and its management transferred to a private concern, a horde of artisans and retailers set up shop there; it wasn’t long before commercial sex workers joined in, stripping the Plaza of its allure as a recreation centre.

While the workmen busy themselves outside the Plaza, a young man dressed in bright, checked shirt and green baggy trousers, waters the surrounding gardens with a hose, fed by a sturdy, lemon green 40,000-litre capacity water tanker.

“I do this every other day, because we’ve just planted new flowers,” he says without stopping the water flow. “The rainy season is here and ordinarily that is enough to keep the plants alive. If we have to water them all, then the water in this tanker will be finished in less than two hours.”

The Photographers’ Perch

A few feet away from him freelance photographers, displaced from their perch inside the Plaza, try to win patrons as usual. “Passport, passport,” they call out. Most have their cameras (and portable instant printers) inside backpacks; others, unfazed by the presence of the police, hang theirs on their necks.

One of them is Windsor Brown, who like many of his mates, carries a Nikkon camera. “I have a small Kodak as well but that is not working for now,” he says, just after he’s attended to a young lady who wanted her passport taken. A skilled video and photo editor, Brown took up photography (and his place at the Plaza) in 2008 to support his education. His dream is to be a graduate and veer into journalism after earning a degree. “Twice I filled Law on the forms but I didn’t make the cut-off marks,” he recalls, not a tinge of bitterness in his voice. “But the last one I decided to go for English Education and when the results were released I scored 232; all I am waiting for now is to write the post-UME Aptitude test.”

Just looking at him in his low punk haircut, pair of blue jeans and orange t-shirt, he cuts the image of an aspiring hip-hop artiste. At the end of each day’s hustle, he makes something around N 5,000 or less. “There are good days and there are bad days, one just has to understand how to adjust” he says.

The passport photography gig is not all there is to Brown’s work, though it rakes in most of the daily earnings. As brown let known, it is an easier way to win patronage that could yield other commissions. A day earlier, he was approached by a group of local journalists who were scheduled to interview Pat Akpabio, one of the city’s famous gospel artistes.

“I took the shots for them and I was well paid,” he says.

Planting Infrastructure, looking beyond oil

Uyo is fast shedding its bland look for something more befitting of the capital of an oil-producing state. In the past five years, the current government has initiated and executed multiple infrastructural projects, including constructing flyovers and new roads, expanding old ones and designing impressive fountains at strategic traffic circles.

A breathtaking e-Library is already completed, awaiting commissioning, while the ‘Ibom Tropicana’, a multi-purpose recreation centre, is already drawing residents to its six-screen Cineplex; when completed, the Tropicana will include a water park, an amusement park, a five-star hotel and a convention centre.

“…come to Akwa Ibom and you will see real development,” Governor Godswill Akpabio confidently announced to a capacity crowd at the 2012 South-South Economic Summit in Delta State. “It starts from the airport as you land [and reaches] the remotest village.”

The south-south region is a huge construction site at the moment, and Akwa Ibom is pushing furiously to cover lost grounds after many years of slow development. “Because of the infrastructure that this administration is putting in place, a new Akwa Ibom is emerging which is attracting taxable investors,” says Commissioner for Finance, Bassey Albert Akpan, talking to Community Pulse. “We are looking at Akwa Ibom beyond oil. We are trying to tailor Akwa Ibom towards the likes of Dubai, because we believe that oil is not a permanent resource.”