From the early religious centers of Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and China; through the imperial centers of the Classical era, the emergence of the Islamic city, and the European commercial capitals; down to the trading posts created by European capitalism in Asia, Latin America, and Africa – the universality of the urban experience is real. And cities have come to be regarded as the most powerful expression of the human species, in terms of creativity, beliefs, and ideals.
In contemporary times, a city like a river that is constantly flowing is never quite the same the moment one steps into it. Apart from responding to the effects of a dynamic global environment, the city also acts upon the same globalised setting. And there is quite a range of them, depending on the location on the planet where one is found. Some commentators have noted that irrespective of their countless variety, all cities essentially serve three purposes: spiritual, political, and economic.
Along this line, the acclaimed urbanist Joel Kotkin in his book The City – A Global History, also maintains that whatever their form, cities can only thrive if they remain sacred, safe, and busy. But a fundamental question lingers: what really makes a great city?
For over a hundred years, Port Harcourt, the port city along the Bonny River in southern Nigeria (65Km upstream from the Gulf of Guinea), despite assuming several roles, has shown tremendous strength as an irrepressible place.
Founded in 1912 by the British Colonial Administration in an area traditionally inhabited by Diobu (Ikwerre) and Okrika (Ijaw) people, and named after the then British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lewis Vernon Harcourt; the city started life as a sea port and an important industrial centre .
Up until 1967 when the Nigerian civil war broke out, this place brimming with commercial activities was also a ‘melting pot’ of cultures. And ‘highlife music’, a fusion of traditional melodic rhythms of West Africa with Western instruments reigned supreme.
The escapades of Joe Nez with ladies in the city and narrated in his song still makes the airwaves on radio. However, it was the legendary Rex Jim Lawson, who until his death in 1971, was the standard bearer of the Nigerian highlife scene and whose tunes achieved popularity across Africa and beyond.
Rising from the ashes of destruction of the civil war, the city re-emerged as the capital of the newly created Rivers State. Along with the exploration of petroleum in the eastern Niger Delta since 1958, the city also grew to become the main centre of oil and gas activities in West Africa – playing host to major global oil industry players.
Paradoxically, this attraction as an emerging global metropolis was also the source of its problems. With so many stakeholders contesting for its heart and soul, the city experienced a period of turbulence soon after democratic rule was re-introduced in 1999.
Other than being the natural location from which the people of the Niger Delta gathered to agitate for a greater share of the oil resources coming from their land; like nomadic invaders, many external interests in the guise of national politics also made the place conflict ridden.
However, determined to reclaim the city for current and future generations, there were concerted efforts by ‘Port Harcourt People’ (residents from different ‘tongues and tribes’, conscious of this shared identity) to secure a sacred place and retain political control.
Nonetheless, Port Harcourt’s best prospects have come from the relentless pursuit of commerce in relation to the oil and gas activities of the Niger Delta region and the diverse population that has gravitated to the place.
As the singer Duncan Mighty also asserts in Port Harcourt Boy: “It is a very beautiful city…all around the world they like Port Harcourt” – enjoy it when you see it.