Monday, November 23, 2015

South East Roads And The 2nd Niger Bridge

In the past few weeks that I have traversed several communities in the South East geo-political zone, I have been brought to tears on sev­eral occasions by the near collapse of major road networks in the geo-political zone.

The South East is a zone that has experienced, perhaps, the worst federal road infrastructure in the entire country; but to say that a complete collapse is imminent is to put it mildly. Apart from the general dilapidation of public infrastructure, reports that the construction of the second Niger Bridge might be threat­ened by federal government's policy changes to be encapsulated in the 2016 budget, adds to the worry.

From Obollo Afor, as you enter the Eastern heartland from Abuja/North East axis, you are challenged to crawl at snail-speed in the same car you have been cruising at top speed from Abuja, as potholes litter the roads. In several areas as you drive to ENUGU through the 9th Mile axis, the roads are totally washed off leaving you to wonder why the major road that leads to that zone from the North has been so criminally neglected. Even the salutary efforts of the Federal Road Maintenance Agency (FERMA), to make that busy road passable, have not been forthcoming.

The ENUGU-Onitsha 'express­way' is anything but the name. The road which was a showpiece of the Shagari government of the eighties, has become a sad reminder of gov­ernment's continued neglect, so much that much of it has been reduced to a single lane. The Enugu-Aba-Port Harcourt 'expressway is even in far worse shape. A journey from the Riv­ers state capital to Enugu that should ordinarily take an hour and half now stretches to over five hours. Five long and tortuous hours, that is if you are lucky to arrive with your vehicle in one piece. Needless to add that the celebrated train services between both cities that came as a relieving alternative earlier in the year, have since been halted.

Those who have read politics into the plight of the zone, say President Goodluck Jonathan really sold the people a dummy, not just on the train services. The fact is, there was indeed a heavy dose of expectation in their decision to vote for Jonathan's Peo­ples Democratic Party (PDP) and that was no wrong judgement for a people whose decades-old demand for an international airport and a second bridge across the Niger, have been met in various proportions. Af­ter formally flagging off the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu as the nation's fifth international airport, Jonathan had also broken the jinx that has bedeviled the NB2, otherwise called the Second Niger Bridge.

Politics aside, it would indeed be a wrong-headed policy for President Muhammadu Buhari to reverse the second Niger bridge which is the crystallization of the hope and aspi­rations of the people on both sides of the Niger, coming after several failed promises by successive federal ad­ministrations in Nigeria. One hopes that reports that the Buhari admin­istration has been less than enthu­siastic in going ahead with its con­struction and that work has greatly slowed down there are false.

The case has severally been made for a second bridge at Onitsha to ease the perennial traffic congestion in that famous city that has become a nightmare for travelers. The exist­ing Niger Bridge which was com­missioned in 1965 has dilapidated so much, raising concerns about the safety of those who use it. It has also become too small for the volume of traffic it handles almost on a 24-hour basis, a clear departure from its origi­nal design. The experiences of com­muters who use the bridge are better imagined, with the infamous traffic gridlocks on either side of the bridge or its approaches. Those traumatic ex­periences get worse each time an acci­dent occurs on or near the bridge, and for a nation in a hurry for economic development, nothing can be more retarding.

All seemed to agree that it was as much an economic imperative as it was politically expedient. The snag was that successive administrations at the federal level were not as con­vinced as their assurances sounded. President Goodluck Jonathan efforts therefore can better be appreciated not just as a fulfillment of his 2011 campaign promise but on the premise that previous administrations made similar promises without fulfilling them. Former Presidents –from Ibra­him Babangida to Olusegun Obasan­jo and his successor, late President Umaru Yar 'Adua, the project had always been touted as national prior­ity with little done in concrete terms to actualize it. Obasanjo even went a step further in the last days of his administration by performing the foundation stone laying ceremony in May 2007, but it was a ceremony that was full of symbolism but lacking in substance.

So far, the N117 billion project has brought a big sigh of relief for people of the South East who have over time cited the government's unwillingness to commence the bridge as a clear case of marginalization of that part of the country as well as insensitivity by successive governments to the provi­sion of critical infrastructure in the zone. Over the years, the much that was done was to award contracts for the re-strengthening of the existing bridge which was on two occasions at the point of total collapse, with the dire threat of the East being cut off from the rest of the country.

The zone which has been crying marginalization, should not be vic­timized by the Buhari administra­tion's continuing effort to discredit the past administration of President Goodluck Jonathan. President Buhari might not have performed well, elec­torally, in the zone during the 2015 elections that brought him to power, but bad roads cannot be used as po­litical punishment. We expect the government to quickly address the sad story of SE roads and ensure that the priority status accorded the Sec­ond Niger bridge is not diminished in any way.

•Ozoene, journalist and Public Af­fairs analyst, lives in Abuja

AbleMoJah® Nigeria.

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