By Luke Onyekakeyah
As the Christmas and New Year festivities draw near, millions of people will travel home to join their kits and kin. Mass movement of people from the North and South-West to the South-East is a common feature of this season. Heavy vehicular traffic of goods and people is the norm. There is heightened fear and apprehension by millions of travellers to the South-East in particular, who must cross the now infamous Niger Bridge at Onitsha to reach their destination.
Harrowing tales of suffering, pain and anguish by travelers heading eastwards from the West at the bridge are commonplace. As a matter of fact, the Niger Bridge experience is like a nightmare at Christmas. While it may take a traveller about eight hours from Lagos to Asaba, at the height of the chaos, the same traveller may spend between five to eight hours before crossing the Niger Bridge from Asaba to Onitsha and vice versa.
From around December 10, to New Year, the volume of traffic that piles up at the decrepit 48-year old bridge is overwhelming. It is as if the entire region is on the move. Suddenly, everyone finds him or herself at the Asaba bridge head where every vehicle is compelled to queue behind a stagnant traffic passing through the only passage way to Onitsha! This may take hours or days depending on the particular day. The worst days are December 22, 23, 24 and 25. Crossing the Niger Bridge on these days is akin to committing psychological suicide. The trauma is unbearable. Women, children and the elderly suffer untold distress. The scorching heat that characterises this season aggravates the pain.
The Onitsha end of the bridge which is in perpetual chaos compounds the problem. Its poor and unplanned infrastructure where buying and selling are done on the roads is nerve wrecking. Amid the bedlam on the Niger Bridge are miscreants of all sorts preying on weary travellers, especially at night. It is not unusual that sometimes, thousands of people who could not pass through the bridge spend their Christmas there. It is an agonising experience that is better imagined. But despite the ugly experience, every year at this time, people still troop out to go home. The people from the South-East who go through this torture every Christmas seem to be unwavering.
Since the bridge was completed in December 1965 (55 years ago), to facilitate transportation of agricultural produce between the Eastern and Western regions, it is long overdue to have a second bridge to decongest the old war horse? Good enough that action is on-going on the second bridge but how soon the bridge will be completed is dicey. For long, the bridge turned into a political issue used by politicians to woo the people of the South-East and South-South who must pass through it. The people are at the receiving end.
Going back to memory, the need to build a Second Niger Bridge was on the drawing board for a long time. It was during the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida in the 80s that it first came into public domain but nothing was done in practical terms.
During the General Abacha regime, the Federal Government tried to present a weak explanation as to why work could not commence on the bridge. That followed the charge by the former Lagos State Governor, Alhaji Lateef Jakande, then Minister of Works, that Nigerian engineers could not produce a design for the bridge project.
After Abacha’s regime ended in 1998, nothing was heard about the bridge again until the Olusegun Obasanjo administration took over in May 1999. Obasanjo was in power for eight years. But rather than take concrete action towards commencing work on the second bridge, he instead awarded billions of naira worth of contracts for the re-furbishing of the old bridge. The bridge was virtually left unmaintained over the decades. Government argued that it wanted to secure the old bridge before building a new one. It was Obasanjo’s Minister of Works, Chief Cornelius Adebayo, who in 2006 announced that the Federal Government had approved the construction of the Second Niger Bridge. But work did not commence as expected.
On May 24, 2007, just five days to his exit from office, President Obasanjo, in a show of sarcasm, went to Onitsha in Anambra State to lay the foundation stone for the Second Niger Bridge. It was obvious from the timing that the event was sheer mockery. The reported N60 billion contract for the bridge under a Private Partnership Programme (PPP) between the Federal, Anambra and Delta State governments never saw the light of the day. Nothing came out of that presidential fanfare.
The Umaru Yar’Adua’s administration was short-lived. But President Goodluck Jonathan had in his 2011 presidential campaign promised to “revitalise critical infrastructure” in the South-East, including the Second Niger Bridge. Jonathan’s Minister of Works, Mike Onolemomen, had several months earlier, announced at a stakeholders meeting at the palace of the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Alfred Achebe, that the “time has come for action on the bridge”. According to him, the project design to cover Asaba, Ozubulu and Oghara areas will be completed before the expiration of President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration in 2015.
Here we are in 2020, construction activities is on-going on the bridge by Julius Berger. Onolemomen gave the impression that government had completed action towards constructing the bridge – the drawing has been produced and the bidding process completed and won by Julius Berger. Mr. Wolfgang Goetsch, the Managing Director of Julius Berger Construction Company had also pledged to carry on the project successfully according to specifications and on time. And, on his part, Igwe Nnaemeka Achebe expressed delight that the project was fast becoming a reality. Despite all these promises and assurances, the Second Niger Bridge is merely in the making. What again is delaying the work one may ask?
From the foregoing, it is obvious that different administrations paid lip service to the Second Niger Bridge. It is disheartening that a major landmark like the Niger Bridge is left to the vagaries of time. What would happen if the existing bridge suddenly caves in with huge human and material loses? That would be a national disaster. When that happens, can the Federal Government reconstruct the bridge overnight? Or, will Nigerians revert to the pre-1965 era, when people crossed the River Niger at Onitsha using ferries? How many people would that option serve in today’s bustling economic environment? And, what quantity of goods could be ferried across the Niger in this era using that means?
Without doubt, the amount of suffering people have gone through on the bridge over the years and the man-hour lost, among others, far outweigh whatever cost the Federal Government may spend on the second bridge. In sane societies, building such a bridge after 55 years, given the tremendous economic and social reality would have been done without noise.
Infrastructural maintenance and development is part and parcel of governance, which should not attract unnecessary attention. The welfare of the people is always the priority. But sadly enough, building something as crucial as a Second Niger Bridge is sacrificed on the altar of our unedifying politics. As it stands, the bridge is going to be an issue of another political campaigning in the forthcoming 2023 general elections if it is not completed by 2022 as earlier promised by the Federal Government. That could be the reason why there is foot dragging on it including fear that the funds needed to complete the bridge may not be readily available.
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