By NBF News
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THE Federal Government in 2006 awarded contracts for the construction of the 337-kilometre East-West Road. The job, worth N211 billion, according to the original agreement, is supposed to be completed by August 2010. KELECHI OKORONKWO of our Abuja Bureau, who participated in the inspection of the project last week writes that unless government consistently exerts pressure on the contractors, the road project, which is at the heart of development of the Niger Delta region, might not be completed on schedule.

AUGUST 2010 would have been the time limit for the completion of the N211 billion East-West Road in the Niger Delta but that calculation is no longer realistic. Going by the work progress of the project at the weekend, even the renewed promises of the contractors to deliver the project by 2012 can only be achieved by government's adequate attention and consistent pressure on the contractors.

Although the contractors complained neither of funding constraints nor persisting militants' activities in the region, which could have hindered speedy execution of the project, satisfactory job is yet to be done at the several sections of the road especially at the Section 4 which is Eket-Oron Road being handled by Italian firm, Gitto Construzuoli Generali, and Section 2 (Kiama-Port Harcourt) being handled by SETRACO. Work progress in Section 3 (Eleme junction in Port Harcourt to Eket in Bayelsa) being handled by Reynolds Construction Company (RCC) is more encouraging.

However, the last week's inspection of the road project by the minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godsday Peter Orubebe on his first outing as the substantive Minister, has elicited another round of promises of devotion to the project by the government as well as the contracting firms.

The minister after inspecting the extent of work done on the sites has reconvened the three contractors for a meeting in Abuja. Orubube said the timely completion of the road, which he said is the priority of the government for the Niger Delta people, was his primary concern. It is expected that the contractors would be in Abuja this week to provide answers to some questions on the progress on the road could be enhanced.

Orubebe said by mounting pressure on the contractors, he was confident that they would do a good job on the sites.

He said: “We were here last time and we saw the extent of work done. So, there is an improvement now but we will have a meeting in Abuja on Thursday”.

The East-West Road is a major inheritance of the oil producing areas from the Federal Government in the 1970s. The road runs for 337km from Efurun, in Delta State to Oron, which is by the borders of Cross-River and Akwa Ibom states. But the road has further deteriorated in the recent times. Travellers who find themselves on the road in the recent times wish they never plied the road again.

The road network, which runs through Delta-Rivers-Bayelsa-Akwa Ibom states, terminating at Oron, is the artery into the Niger Delta region and development of the region would be fast tracked if the road were speedily completed.

In 2006, the Federal Government under the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo awarded contracts, worth about N211 billion to four construction firms: Julius Berger, SETRACTO, RCC and Gitto Construzuoli Generali (GCG), to handle the dualism of the road which is divided into sections 1, 2, 3 and 4 among the four firms in that order. But no sooner had work started at the sites than impediments: The Niger Delta crisis – youth restiveness, demands for resource control by the people of the oil-rich region, militancy and criminality helped a great deal to halt progress of work at the site, so much that three years after, work is yet to begin at several sections. Julius Berger Plc, which was to handle Warri-Kiama section, obviously, the most difficult terrain of the road, could not continue with the contract worth about N65 billion as a result of cases of attacks by youths. Berger left the terrain in 2006 not doing up to five per cent of the road. When it left, work on the remaining three sections stagnated as the firms also complained of attacks by the youths and militants of the region.

For instance, by November last year, the contractors, during an inspection tour of the project by the former Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Ufot Ekaette, said they had only resumed work on the sites after President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua had granted general amnesty to militants in August and peace had returned to the region, adding that work at the sites had intensified.

The contractors promised that action would be expedited on the project to achieve a maximum result by January 2010 when Ekaette proposed another round of inspection of the project.

At the present inspection by Orubebe and the Minister of State, Sam Ode, the contractors gave the same promises of “working day-and-night on the sites from now”, which were not different from what they said last November.

The government had warned that given the importance of the road to the development of the region, any contractors who failed to put up appreciable effort by the beginning of the New Year (2010) would be sacked.

The threat might have paid off a bit on the Eket Oron section worth N26 billion because the government demanded that GCG should asphalt at least 10km of the 50km Eket Oron Road and as at last week, GCG, although did not achieve the promised 10km, had put up an effort compared to the situation of the site last year.

At the November inspection, SETRACO, now combining Section 1 with 2, said it has done 41 per cent of the job. Out of the 18 bridges it needed to build along the road, it had built 12 and of 87km road, SETRACTO had completed 16km.

However, there was no substantial difference from what SETRACTO achieved after the November inspection till last week. The defences of all the contractors were not different from what they said last year.

This can be substantiated by the complaints of some villagers along the route who claimed that the contractor had only come to the sites because they learnt of the inspection of the road by the government. The villagers said the presence of the contractors on the road at the weekend was the first of its kind since the last inspection.

One of the villagers at Oron said: “They (contractors) have not been here…they came because you people are coming…”

SETRACTO's Managing Director, Ellie Tannus, in November had promised that the company would move faster.

He said: “Work situation has greatly improved following the success of the Federal Government amnesty programme. Two expatriates were abducted from the site in Agbarho, Delta State on Friday, March 23, 2007. This was quickly followed by the kidnapping of two other expatriate staff in Bayelsa State. The company was then forced to suspend work temporarily until August 2007. Progress of work was disrupted again as the contractor had to reduce tempo of site activities from May 15, 2009 due to the deteriorating security situation in the project area following threats of abduction of contractor's staff”, he said in a brief.

Managing Director of GCG, Mr. Gitto Dominico said: “This contact was awarded October 2006, but as explained to the Minister, we really started this project January 2009 and the last payment we got from the former project supervisor – Ministry of Works – was given in December 2008. Apart from that there were a lot of issues on the project, problems like compensation, though this has been solved by the Ministry of Niger Delta. From January 2009 we are happy now that many of those problems are behind us; the rain issue is also behind us. We are going to make this project to fly…like other projects we are handling in other parts, nothing has changed, we are the same company, it is just because of the numbers of problems we were faced with here but the new administration has been addressing them but what I can promise as Gitto and MD is that our commitment to this project is very high”, he said.

Yet, by the last inspection, much of the promises by GCG had not been fulfilled.

Berger was to provide a new 87km asphaltic concrete carriageway and the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the existing one from Warri in Delta State to Kiama in Bayelsa State. The work involves scarification of existing pavement, removal of unsuitable materials where necessary, replacement with suitable material mostly dredged sand which will be stabilised to sub-grade strength, provision of 250mm sub-base and 250mm crushed stone base.

Berger had the commission to provide a road surface of about 60mm and 40mm asphaltic concrete binder and wearing courses. The company was to build about 18 bridges along the road but the company left the sites, leaving the job undone until June 2009 when the then new Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs re-awarded the Warri-Kaiama Road to SETRACO. SETRACO, therefore is now to handle two Sections: 1, from Warri to Kaiama worth N74 billion and 2, from Port-Harcourt (Eleme Junction)-Ahaoda Rivers State and Ahaoda to Kaiama worth N75 billion, totalling N149 billion.

GCG, according to the terms of the contract is to increase the existing single carriageway to dual carriageway of 2×7.3m road pavement, 2.75m outer shoulders and 1.0m inner shoulders with 4m wide median. The work also includes rehabilitation and improvement of the existing single carriageway by strengthening the existing embankment and pavement layers and provision of new asphaltic concrete courses where necessary plus construction of additional lane, running parallel to the existing alignment by provision of compact natural and excavated lateritic material as sub-grade and sub-base. At the site, GCG is also to build six bridges including 398m major Eket bridge over the Qua River.

For the RCC, which is handling the 99km road from Port-Harcourt (Eleme Junction) to Eket in Bayelsa State, worth N35.6 billion, the minister applauded it most for putting up the most impressive performance out of the three contractors.

Signing the re-awarded contract agreement between SETRACO and the government in June 2009, in Abuja, the government reiterated its interest in the timely completion of the road. It implored the Niger Delta people to allow the construction companies a chance to do their job, which without impediments could take about 48 months to complete.

The former minister said: “This road is a priority to the Federal Government. We believe that its completion would open up the region to international investors. So we were worried when the former contractor had to abandon the project due to harassment from militants”.

Ekaette said the importance of the road necessitated its transfer from the Ministry of Works to the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs. This project was handed over to us in April this year (2009) from another Federal ministry and since we took over the work, the pace of work has increased substantially, and we have made sure that once the IPC comes up, we pay contractors promptly.

“We do not delay payment on any job done. To my mind that is the only way to encourage them to work and we will continue to make sure that these IPC are paid in time. We have also come to make sure that the IPC we are paying are real, to see that it is commensurate with the work done”, he said.

Orubebe said last week: “We have talked with them frankly. We told them our expectations and the expectations of the Niger Delta people on this road”.

However, how candid the contractors are with their promises to “fast-track, fly the job” and to “bring in expatriate workers and light to the site so as to work day and night to ensure that the project is completed at the stipulated time”, on the one hand, and government's will to enforce compliance with the new “terms of agreement”, will be a matter to be determine by time.