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Houston dispatch

Published by The Nation on Fri, 21 Feb 2020


By Olukorede YishauThe first time I flew into Houston, a city in Texas (which is a state in the United States of America), I felt like I was back home in Lagos. Even on this trip and despite the end of summer, I still have the same feeling. From time to time, the sun becomes pre-eminent like it usually is back home, but the difference here is that seeing a blazing sun in the horizon does not mean cold is far away. Cold can descend on you without warning. So, the maxim around here, especially out of the summer period is the Boy Scout motto: be prepared! The way the sun looks here makes one feel closer to the heavenly bodies. I cannot really describe it, but there is something special about the lunar position.Texas, which has Houston as one of its cities, is bigger than the whole of Nigeria. This city is the most populous city in Texas; it is the fourth most populous city in the United States; and it is the most populous city in North America. By a 2018 estimate, its population is 2,325,502. Our dear small Lagos, which is both a state and a city, has some 20 million people by some estimates. You can begin to understand why infrastructure is overstretched and why Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu has a lot to do for his drive towards a greater Lagos.With a total area of 637.4 square miles (1,651 km2), this home of the Bush family is the eighth most roomy city in the United States. By total area, (I am told), Houston is the largest city in the U.S. Texas used to be part of Mexico until General Sam Houston won its independence. Houston was named after him after it was founded by land investors in 1836. Gen. Houston was president of the Republic of Texas before it became part of the U.S.Like Lagos, Houston is diverse; more diverse. It has people from almost every part of the world: Indians, Mexicans, Nigerians, Chinese, Japanese and all. Its status as a port city helps it attract people from far and near. Its rail system, I observe, serves only the ports, from which goods are moved to warehouses and elsewhere. I have not seen containers being moved on the road here and I expect to see this in Lagos when the rail project to the Apapa ports is completed. This will not only bring sanity on our roads, it will help prevent avoidable deaths from fallen container-laden articulated vehicles.Unlike cities such as New York and Chicago, Houston has no underground train system and its bus services are not city-wide. Most people who live in Houston own cars because moving round without your own vehicle is difficult.Schools in Houston are graded and the more expensive the area you live the better the schools available to children. That is my reading of the situation of things in this great city renowned for hosting the National Space Agency (NASA) and other institutions critical to global advancement.Houston does not have the New York or Chicago feel, but it is still miles apart from Lagos, Abuja or Port Harcourt. Nigerians will praise their leaders to high heavens if just one city can have the infrastructure in Houston. Its bridges and flyovers are deliberate attempts to shorten distance and make people get to their destinations on time. There are tall flyovers here and there, which are engineered towards making the people have smooth ride to and fro. When there is traffic, it is because it is rush hour, not because of lack of planning. The roads have clear signs to warn people in case of snow or heavy rain. You are properly advised about what to do and if you follow them, you will likely not come to any harm.With its Downtown skyscrapers and well-laid out road network, Houston cuts the image of a commercial capital of a great state of diverse people. Abuja, our best, is nowhere near Houston in any regard. Wuse, Maitama, Asokoro and other highbrow areas of Abuja give the illusion of grandeur, but not so far away from them are the Ushafa and other ghettos, which blur their beauty. Government can lift Ushafa and other neighbourhoods where the poor reside.Like Abuja, Lagos also suffers this illusion of grandeur. Banana Island, which is perhaps the most expensive estate in Nigeria, is good, really good. Lekki Phase 1 and other estates such as Osborne Foreshore and Park View suffer some infrastructural deficit, which is why the Island is described as the most expensive slum in the world. Oil-rich Port Harcourt is another disappointment. Its case and those of Abuja and Lagos are more like heaven and hell side by side. Nice estates and residential areas are almost shouting distances from complete slums. Even the nice estates suffer infrastructural deficits.In almost all of Nigerian cities, drainage system is a major challenge. This is one of the things Houston has gotten right. Let us not talk about electricity supply. Since I got here, and since I have been coming here, I have not witnessed power cut. Back home, power cut is no news. What is news is having 24-hour uninterrupted power supply. No wonder a comedian did a skit calling the office of an electricity distribution company to call its attention to the fact that there was rain and his power supply was not severed. Please take the light. Thank you, he pleaded.Dont get me wrong, Houston is not heaven. Far from it. I have noticed that unlike New York and Chicago, it has many roads that are not lit at dark hours. I also do not understand why a global city like this does not have a mass transit train service. Its bus service, I am disappointed, is not as robust as London and even Liverpool, where you do not have to own a car and you will move around easily and at next-to-nothing cost-wise.My final take: Nigeria needs to get electricity and infrastructure right. A city like Lagos and Abuja should be models. We should be flaunting them like New York, Chicago, Pretoria, Shanghai and Dubai.
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