By Mwalimu George Ngwane
The only major highway in Buea is under mutation. Before it, were the Mile 17 car park and the Great Soppo market. The Great Soppo market that used to hold up traffic because of its proximity to the highway has been moved to a more convenient location pending its structural transformation into a Buea main market. The enthusiasm with which vendors rushed to beat the deadline and set up makeshift market stalls at this new site is testimony of how change can become everyone’s concern especially if all stakeholders are made to understand the short term inconveniences and the long term dividends.
Maybe triggered by the Great Soppo relocation success story or otherwise, Mayor Moki Mbella has embarked on purging the unique highway in Buea of dilapidated buildings especially those housing small and medium-size enterprises (even if some of the buildings serve both as business premises and household residences) and especially those eking a living by petty trade. The result is that the main highway has become more user-friendly and touristic-attractive. Since success is always contagious, Mayor Tita Fombon of Tiko has also signed an ultimatum giving two weeks to business owners whose premises do not match the eyes of urban dwellers along the Tiko highway to either pull them down or give the buildings a fresh coat of paint in the colours of the newly erected and magnificent Tiko Council Office.
So in the twinkle of an eye what has been over the years the places of abode and sources of livelihoods for some families has been, in the case of Buea, and shall be in the case of Tiko and before them, Yaounde, Douala, Kumba and Bamenda turned into rubble and ruin. Both the Buea and Tiko municipalities seem to peg this laudable town planning and urban facelift exercise on the commemoration of the Reunification Jubilee in tandem with the visit of the President of the Republic. No, such a laudable policy cannot be predicated on a one-off Jubilee event even if the Jubilee rationale carries with it a potent power of persuasion on the mindsets of the affected.
The present facelift in the Buea metropolis is in strict legality with the laws of town planning. Residents had decided to randomly place their homes and business premises along the highway without recourse to development roadmaps; pedestrian lanes had been invaded and encroached without public decency; makeshift structures even if they paid ‘thorough fare’ taxes had eclipsed strategic spaces for mega-corporate business. Indeed setting up shop along the main highway was motivated by commercial instincts rather than safe housing and business rules. The highway had become a jungle with the swiftest and strongest surviving. Street congestion had undermined efforts towards modernization and urban beauty. Therefore Reunification Jubilee or not, the Buea municipality had to step in to salvage what has been left of the best practices of town architecture.
The architecture of any town must be subjected periodically to reviewing and reconstruction. It is the kernel of a good administration and governance system which must be entrenched in the development goals and monitoring and evaluation instruments of any municipal blueprint. But it must often take into account two major factors. First, since Town Architecture Review (TAR) package is basically a set of structural and human development measures that seek to buy into urbanization without jeopardising human capital, the coffee of legality needs to be sweetened with the milk of humanity. In other words, basic infrastructural designs that do not factor pro-people policies into the mainstream vision often fall flat on their faces. Second, the Allocation Before Relocation (ABR) policy is popular and feasible when alternative relocation spaces preferably before the mass exodus of ambulant dwellers and displaced petty business persons are identified. In the Buea case, roads in the neighbourhoods need to be expanded and improved upon so that vendors can now find new safe havens for their wares and new consumer markets for their products.
There is a need for these roads (streets) to be named after local figures to map the town into zones of cultural governance and cultural patrimony. Otherwise the temptation to return to the business magnet centre along the highway shall take precedence over the ingenious and creative spirit to conquer new commercial grounds and unlock the potentials of expanding Buea development in spatial terms. The luster of clustered highway business cannot be blamed only on profit instincts, which is no crime at all, but also on lack of viable commercial spaces on fringe areas that can relatively compete and sometimes complement highway business. Business people make profit because they take their wares to where there is a concentration of consumers.
Consumers are the ordinary citizens who prefer proximity shopping. Proximity shopping occurs when both traders and buyers occupy the same space with adequate service providers and social amenities. With public taps, good entry and exit roads, garbage disposal units and electricity on the feeder highway zones, decongestion remains a permanent feature on the major highway.
With Relocation preceding Allocation, the Buea municipality would have the challenge of making minor feeder roads a concrete reality in the short term and rigorously and judiciously applying a physical planning programme in the long term. It is a huge challenge and no one should expect the incumbent Mayor even with his high level of administrative testosterone to transform Buea into the Marrakech of Cameroon overnight. The present predicament is an accumulation of decades of development deficits resulting from unplanned town practices. Yet residential eviction and space needs are Siamese twins whose parentage anchors from the maternity of broad-based policy formulation and implementation.
The present resident mobility is a painful necessity which may unfortunately result in poverty creation, slum congestion, joblessness, political apathy, increased crime wave, tax evasion and unfavourable sanitary conditions if the pressures of the eviction are not mitigated with social amenities. For every cloud, there is a silver lining and it is possible that this exercise may open vistas of concerns that have been latent or taken for granted by the Buea inhabitants. First, it was time traditional rulers who have been offered land by the agro-industrial corporation embarked on a strict physical planning in these new layouts to avoid haphazard building. Second, it was time, owners of these new lay outs transformed their land from subsistence agriculture land or forest reserves to permanent residential areas. Lastly it was time potential landlords around the University locality shifted their emphases from building student resident areas to building family or household residences.
For long Buea has been stigmatized for possessing a unique major highway. May be this emotional eviction exercise shall turn out to be a Cinderella’s dream of establishing a dialectical relationship between decongesting residential spaces from the major highway and devolving social services to the neighbourhood. For this to happen, the ‘town of legendary hospitality’ would have to dig deep into her internal resources and especially cause the war chest of the Reunification Jubilee to impact now on the development of the host town-Buea.