Niger Bridge: Another Christmas; Another Story
Nkeiruka Chijoke (names unreal) is a 65 years old single parent with a small family of three made up of children in their teenage years who are all schooling in a public college in the Commercial capital of Lagos.
She moved into Lagos about three years ago from the hot bed of Islamic insurgency-Maiduguri, Borno state where she was staying with her husband-a petty trader who was killed by the armed Islamic terrorists in the wake of the massive anti-government bombing campaign in the North Eastern Nigerian states.
Nkeiruka and her children practically ran for their dear lives and managed to resettle in Lagos even after they lost virtually their entire life savings to the violence in Maiduguri, Borno state. As a trained professional pharmacist, she secured a job with a pharmaceutical factory in Lagos state and also one other drug dispensing job at her spare times to make ends meet and supplement her monthly income.
For four decades, she has always traditionally travelled to Onitsha, Anambra state, her home town for the yuletide celebration which are usually periods of massive reunion once in a year.
As she prepared to travel home last year's Christmas season, she read in the popular press that the Niger Bridge which is the only passage into Igbo heart land from other parts of Nigeria, was at the brink of collapse due to over-use and poor maintenance since it was constructed in the early 1970's. she took her fate In her hands and decided to travel and her 'leap of faith' paid off since they went home and back without major incidence except for the several hours she spent on transit due to heavy vehicular traffic.
But Nkeiruka's doubts regarding the viability of the only bridge across the River Niger are not sufficiently cleared since experts are of the opinion that a second bridge ought to be constructed across the River Niger as a matter of scientific urgency.
The existential experiences of the struggling single mother aforementioned is virtually what hundreds-of-thousands of families of South East extraction scattered all across Nigeria who are planning to return enmasse for the coming yuletide festivities which is around the corner as I write.
Early this year, the National Assembly was so disturbed by the adverse expert opinion that reached it regarding the imminent collapse of the only Niger bridge that a save- our -souls message was sent to President Goodluck Jonathan urging him to immediately take concrete, far-reaching and science-based action to save River Niger bridge from collapse. President Jonathan had earlier charged the newly inaugurated Senator Ken Nnamani-led board of Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission [ICRC] to take the construction of the second Niger Bridge as a major priority.
The senate specifically directed the ministry of works to immediately commence what it calls reinforcement, repairs and rehabilitation of the River Niger bridge to avoid the dire consequences of its possible collapse.
Also worried about the undue delay in the take off of actual construction work on the long proposed second Niger bridge, the senate also gave the federal ministry of work June 2013 deadline to begin activities toward that direction.
Hope Uzodinma, representing Imo West Senatorial zone who moved the motion in February 2013, had argued that the River Niger bridge which serves as a link between the South-East, South-South and South-West and some Northern states is now in a horrifying state of decay with threats of imminent collapse.
His words: “Because of the aforesaid state of the River Niger bridge, commuters have since the Christmas season, been subjected to excruciating ordeals wherein only single lanes are allowed to ply the bridge at a time for fear that the normal double lane carriage could lead to an instant collapse of the bridge. Consequently, endless traffic jams now build up at the bridge, keeping travelers on the road for eight or more hours”.
The senator who was quoted by the local press also submitted that it was in a bid to find lasting solution to the fear of possible collapse of the only bridge across River Niger, that relevant agencies of federal government brought up the concept of building the second Niger bridge as a form of permanent solution.
Several months after, the idea of the second Niger bridge still lingers in the memory of most people as only a political gambit used by the presidency to woo South East voters and at the end of every general election since the year 2003, the idea of second Niger bridge fades away and can only be revived as another general election campaign item.
In an effort to douse the persistent doubts regarding the actual construction of second Niger bridge, the Federal ministry of works organized a media show in June 2013 to show case to the World that construction works on the second Niger bridge have commenced. The Federal government was so bent on convincing the skeptical public that it went as far as hiring the nation's best respected construction firm-Julius Berger to handle works at the site of the second Niger bridge and predictably, the Federal government was applauded by the largely gullible members of the public in the South East.
On June 25th 2013, the media quoted the managing Director of Julius Berger Mr. Wolfgang Goetsch as saying that works at the second Niger Bridge sites have started.
The company executive told the Nigerian media that the federal government had issued letter of intent to Julius Berger construction company to handle the construction of the second Niger bridge which is widely known to be handled through public/private partnership agreement involving the tripartite parties such as the federal government, the Anambra/Delta state governments and the private fund providers.
Hear him: “A consortium that included a company from South Africa participated in the bidding for the project. In January 2013, our group became the preferred bidder. We are excited because it will be the first of its kind in Nigeria”.
The Julius Berger Chief executive also said mobilization to the site of the Second Niger bridge will begin in ten days from the date of his disclosure which ironically took place at an air conditioned annual general meeting venue in Abuja rather than at the actual site of the second Niger bridge around the River Niger.
Predictably, four months after this disclosure, no one seems to know the exact location of the second Niger Bridge because real construction works have yet to transparently commence in practical sense.
Prior to the latest public disclosure of signing of Julius Berger to handle the building of the much sought after second bridge across the River Niger, reports have it that another company was involved in the maintenance works of the only River Niger bridge.
Emeka Osondu who reports the South East for one of Nigeria's print media had on September 4th 2012 written a detailed investigative story which also raises national alarm at the deteriorating state of the only Niger Bridge.
Asking the pertinent question of when actual works of the second Niger Bridge would commence, the reporter said it was urgent that the Nigerian government acts on the second Niger Bridge.
“Though Setraco Construction Company had carried out maintenance work on the bridge last two years, the situation at the bridge has worsened. Recently following sustained pressure on the bridge, which experts fear may not survive the pressure of these ember months.”
“Again, much as the Niger Bridge, which serves as a major gateway to the states of the South-east and South-south zones, is yet to collapse, there has been warning from experts, and if nothing is done and the bridge collapses at last, the only option to people would be limited to the use of canoes and boats to ferry people across to and fro Onitsha, as is the case with some riverine areas,” Emeka Osondu, had reported.
Osondu also interviewed some persons who ought to be in the know about the Niger Bridge and one of those people raised the alarm that practical measures must be adopted by the Nigerian government to commence the construction of a second Bridge across the River Niger.
According to Hon Obinna Chidoka, who represented Idemili North/Idemili South federal constituency in the House of Representatives until July 11, 2008, “first and foremost the Niger Bridge has become a contentious issue being that the bridge was constructed in 1965. But forty-five years later, the traffic has increased tremendously. The former Permanent Secretary in the (Federal) Ministry of Works, Baba Akin Ahmed, who raised the issue at the Senate Committee hearing had said that if nothing was done urgently that the bridge will collapse.”
Chidoka, who had earlier moved a motion on the Niger Bridge project on the floor of the House, nevertheless explained that “all we are doing is to draw the attention of the Federal Government to that bridge, which is a major gateway between the South-east and other parts of the country.
“Curiously, the second Niger Bridge was awarded on a private public partnership (PPP) basis, wherein the contractor was to raise 60 per cent of the contract sum, while Anambra and Delta State governments contribute twenty percent of the contract sum and the federal government pays up the remaining twenty percent”.
“The Federal Government ought to come in fully and construct the bridge. Part of my plan was to follow through on the motion in the House of Representatives and consistently monitor the progress on the bridge and bring it to national burner,” he maintained.
Chidoka Made his intentions known since September 2012 but nearly two years after, there is no significant pragmatic measure adopted and transparently made known to the general public about the second Niger bridge. Incidentally another Yuletide festive period has come and expectedly, the gullible public will surely get another story on it from government's bottomless pit of propaganda.
Penultimate week, I travelled to Onitsha, Anambra state in search of the second Niger bridge but sadly all those that I met could not pinpoint exactly where the second Niger bridge is even when the outgoing Anambra state governor Peter Obi and chairman of South East governors' forum told the South East people that President Jonathan will keep to his promise to deliver the second Niger bridge before 2014.
How long will the sufferings of hundreds-of-thousands of commuters along the Niger bridge come to an end? For how long will government continues to manufacture reasons why the second Niger bridge only exists at the realm of idea?
Emmanuel Onwubiko; Head, HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA; [email protected]; www.huriwa.org.