The standard criteria for decisions on infrastructural deployment include need, available resources, competing demands for finite resources, alignment with related infrastructure, incubatory foundation for progressive deployment, social benefits, political patronage, economic benefits, minimization of stress and hardship for the citizens, potentials for stimulating overall economic development, balancing considerations, replacement of obsolete infrastructure, need to embrace emerging and efficient technology, etc, etc. When viewed from an objective prism and against the backdrop of the itemized criteria above, it is long overdue to replace the Niger Bridge at Onitsha, which has verifiably and universally been identified as a deathtrap.
This bridge was constructed in 1963, and is the ONLY link between the South-East of Nigeria and the rest of the country (towards the West). This bridge serves as the ONLY access point to Anambra, Imo, Abia, Ebonyi, Enugu, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Benue, and Plateau States, when you approach from Lagos, and, indeed, all the states that formerly constituted the Western and mid-Western Regions, as well as from Abuja and segments of the North.
It is trite to mention that this bridge handles the highest concentration of vehicular traffic in the country, and has served this purpose progressively and exhaustively for fifty years! The exponential growth in population and number of vehicles in the country in the past five decades have added to the pressure on the bridge, with the result that it is nearly collapsing, with the attendant risks for human lives, economic activities, mass psychology, and national development. Citizens from the Eastern parts of the country are the most itinerant in the country, with the evident implication that tens of millions of individuals make frequent trips to their homeland, relying on a safe passage through this same bridge. This assumption of basic safety has been denied them perennially for several years, and is currently being toyed with even further. The significance of this bridge is emphasized during the festive period at the end of each year, when millions of people are trapped and delayed at the bridge for several hours in what should, otherwise, be pleasurable commutes back home. As a country, we have witnessed this for several decades and have failed to do anything about it. When any attention has been paid to the need to replace and expand this bridge, it has been suffused with empty promises, vacuous platitudes, cheap politics, and exploration of the underlying potentials for corruption. The Obasanjo civilian administration played games with the need to replace this bridge for eight years, ensuring that new promises were recycled as elections approached. And, yet, nothing was done.
While the South East, as a Region, contributes very significantly to the development of Nigeria, especially outside Igboland, there is NO single Federal Government institution or semblance of infrastructure in the entire Region. Even though Igbos and their brothers from the South-South are among the most widely-traveled people in the world, there is NO worthy international airport in the larger Region, thereby forcing residents of the Region/s to travel to Lagos or Abuja, before they can travel overseas. Professor Chinua Achebe was involved in a ghastly motor accident near Awka, Anambra State, because he had to travel overseas from Lagos, even though he then resided at Nsukka in Enugu State. This accident cost him his limbs, paralyzed him for life, and hastened his relocation to the United States, where he died many years later.
There are thousands of others who have lost their lives in a similar manner; the additional cost and inconvenience involved in these unnecessary local travels are best imagined, as such travelers must stay in hotels, eat, utilize local transportation, and incur sundry expenses in (mostly) Lagos and Abuja, purely on account of a deliberate State policy to punish Igbo people for whatever reason, While Igbos easily dominate the trading and commercial sectors of Nigeria and West Africa, there is no discernible effort to dredge the River Niger at Onitsha, to enable port activities. The only federal “investment” on River Niger has been the deliberate channeling of the water to the Northern parts of the country, for irrigation activities, while the Onitsha end of the River has been drying up in the past 20 years, thereby impeding fishing, subsistence farming, and overall economic growth. While Abuja, the North, and other Regions of the country, continue to attract comparatively-significant infrastructural investments and upgrades (for example, the hundreds of billions of Naira being spent to expand the access road from the Abuja airport into the City, as well as the scandalous budget of over N55 billion for the erection of a mere City Gate in Abuja), it is clear that holding the South East down is a Directive Principle of State Policy in Nigeria. No other conclusion is possible from the continued neglect of the Niger Bridge, and the criminal disrespect with which the belated redemptive measures are being packaged. It is noteworthy that the Federal Government funds projects in Abuja and elsewhere directly and does not charge tolls on those roads.
In a society like ours, ethnic agitation for legitimate attention is entirely understandable, hence the tone and tenor of this submission. When our statecraft develops to the stage of objectivity, justice, and fairness, then, possibly our micro-national identities may become muted. The Jonathan Administration has failed both the South-South and South-East by its singular failure to provide basic infrastructure in the two pivotal Regions. The fact that the so-called East-West Road remains uncompleted after all these years, while humongous budgetary allocations have officially been designated to its conclusion, should remain a source of embarrassment for Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, well after his stay in office. Pray, how did a treasonous impostor like Mr. Ibrahim Babangida manage to utilize both federal funds (from oil sales!) and oil futures to build a new federal capital city in Abuja, when the man who literally owns the oil cannot construct the road leading to his hometown, even with a democratic mandate? Shame has only one definition.
As it pertains to the need to construct the second Niger Bridge, a categorical imperative, the same Jonathan Administration is being clever by half, by concessioning the bridge to that veritable purveyor impunity and corruption in Nigeria, Julius Berger Construction. This initiator and exemplar of corruption in Nigeria has since announced that the 1.8 kilometer bridge will cost them N100 billion to construct, as a justification for the sweetheart deal extended to them by Jonathan and his Administration, whereby Julius Berger will install three toll gates on that bridge in perpetuity, ostensibly to recover their “investment”. Knowing Julius Berger and Nigeria, this project will eventually cost N200 billion on paper, when completed. Julius Berger did not bring any foreign investment whatsoever when it left its decrepit office in Wiesbaden, Germany, to emerge on Nigeria’s shores 40 years ago, on the private invitation of the late Major General Shehu Musa Yar Adua, number two man in the erstwhile dictatorship of the perennial fumbler and dissembler, Mr. Olusegun Obasanjo, which lapsed in 1979.
Let it be made clear that a bridge is a road with its foundation in water. Nigerians need to be aware that the same Julius Berger has just paid penalties to the United States Government totaling tens of millions of dollars for specific cases of corruption it perpetrated in Nigeria. The United States Government, which was not victimized, benefited by way of this penalty payment by Julius Berger, while this construction company that has been at the forefront of corrupting public officials in Nigeria for the past 40 years, neither paid any penalty or compensation to the real victim, Nigeria, nor is it being blacklisted or censured in any way.
Rather, successive Nigerian Governments continue to reward Julius Berger with heavily-inflated contracts, responsibility for maintaining strategic locations like the Aso Rock Presidential Complex and the National Assembly. The same company is constructing the new residences for the Vice-President, Senate President, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, projects that have already gulped close to N60 billion on paper even before completion. To deepen the culture of impunity and complete the psychological humiliation of the illustrious Igbos of Nigeria, the Jonathan Administration, which owes the South-East a second Niger Bridge as well as tangible federal presence, has mortgaged the entire East to Julius Berger by criminally acquiescing in the perpetual exploitation of the teeming people under a most suspicious and fraudulent Concession Arrangement. Where else in the country is a whole Region held prostate and captive in this manner? Where else is the ONLY bridge leading into a Region casually assigned to a criminal enterprise for the exploitation of citizens who have no alternatives?
In this, it must be stated that Jonathan and his Administration are playing a script already tested and fine-tuned by Mr. Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Governor Fashola of Lagos State, wherein residents of the Lekki axis have effectively been hemmed in and subjected to unnecessary and usurious toll charges each time they either access or exit their homes, despite the very significant contribution these residents make to the much-vaunted Internally-Generated Revenue of Lagos State. It is significant that the same Julius Berger is the partner to Messrs Tinubu and Fashola on the bridge toll exploitation project linking Ikoyi and Lekki Phase One. Yet another toll gate ensures that you also cannot get to Lekki from Victoria Island without feeding Bola Ahmed Tinubu and his crony, Fashola’s, insatiable greed and appetite.
It is very clear from this single example that both the PDP and the APC (seeking leprous and blind navigators) are the same in philosophy, orientation, and content; both are fraudulent and self-serving devices.
If our dealers must feel entitled to collecting both public revenue and IGR, and yet charge the citizens for token infrastructure provided in their areas of jurisdiction, all in an environment of opaqueness, arrogance, impunity, and absence of citizen input, it might well be better to sack all governments and share the revenue of the country among the citizens, who are perpetually burdened with the direct provision of basic services, for which Governments exist in the first place. In all of this, these dealers feel perfectly justified in magisterially cornering significant chunks of State resources under various guises, notably the poorly-christened Security Votes.
Regarding the second Niger Bridge, there is NO WAY that a 1.8 km bridge of the best quality, together with immediate access roads, will cost up to N10 billion, yet, we are told that the initial assessment for the bridge is N100 billion. Why must Julius Berger be the only company handling all these projects? What process leads to these awards and appointments? Why are competent and established construction companies all over the world being frustrated from accessing the Nigerian market by Government Officials protecting this small German company, with a small office in their home country? Are they not aware that the unrivaled access given Julius Berger’s engineers and staff is a grave national security risk? What is the role of the National Security Adviser and the DG-SSS, in guiding the government appropriately? Are people now so incompetent or corrupt that they neither know nor care that sophisticated Intelligence Collection devices are installed in all these sensitive locations, with the downloading and processing taking place at the Julius Berger Operational Headquarters at Life Camp, Abuja, under the able supervision of German Intelligence Officials – all of this intrusive and aggressive collection against Nigeria paid for Nigeria. What a country!
Given the identified urgency of the need to construct the second Niger Bridge, you would think that, in the absence of common sense in high places, senior government officials of Igbo origin would be easy and strident advocates of the Federal Government swiftly constructing the bridge as its duty to the people, with an apology to the citizens for the delayed implementation. Some of the referenced officials are the Coordinating, Supervising, and Overseeing Secretary to the Federal Government, His Massive Excellency Mr. Anyim Pius Anyim; the so-called Coordinating Minister of the Economy (in hubris-free English, the Minister of Finance), Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mrs. Viola Onwuliri; the Deputy Senate President, Mr. Ike Ekweremadu; the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Emeka Ihedioha; the Chairmen of the Works Committees in both the Senate and the House of Representatives; the crisis-ridden and inflated Supervising and Coordinating Minister of Aviation and its Parastatals, Ms Stella Oduah; the immediate past Army Chief, Lt. General Azubuike Ihejirika; the recently-relieved Chief of Naval Staff; Vice-Admiral Dele Ezeoba; the Director-General of the so-called Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP), Mr. Emeka Eze – whose village roads have all been tarred by contractors executing Federal Government contracts; 15 undistinguished Senators from the South East; several dishonorable Members of the House of Representatives; the five state governors of the South-East; ex-this and ex-that, etc, etc.
Even if the objective case fails to penetrate thick skulls, surely the selfish and symbolic motive of garnering solid Igbo votes should impel the urgent construction of that overdue bridge. I say this because expectations have been grossly lowered in Nigeria, to the extent that a 1.8 km bridge could guarantee you bloc Regional votes. Mr. Jonathan could even extend the tokenism by naming the new bridge after Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, in a symbolic gesture of connecting the erstwhile Biafran heartland with the rest of the country. The identified officials are rather satisfied with having Julius Berger construct private homes for them in Abuja and their remote villages, in a well-oiled program of corruption, collusion, and compromise. The definition of shame has still not changed.
If all of this fails, what stops the Governors of the South-East from reducing their greed quotient by utilizing their so-called Security Votes (since kidnappers have taken over the Region anyway!) to construct this vital bridge for their people, and then heap the necessary propaganda guilt on the Federal Government that has been permanently negligent and wicked towards Igbos? The failure to do the right thing, and at the right time, is the bane of the Nigerian society. The complacency of the Nigerian society is yet a latent contributing factor to the charade that is called governance in Nigeria.
Let it be clear, though, that Julius Berger, or any other company so-called, should not be allowed to exploit the people under whatever Concession Arrangement involving a critical piece of infrastructure like the second Niger Bridge. Their so-called investment should and will come to nothing. A bridge built on a fraudulent foundation MUST fall. Citizens must begin to demand their due dessert from pretenders to the throne. A life of surrender, conditioned by endless prayers and exploitation by clerical purveyors of hope, will not suffice in this case.
Mr. Jonathan, his handlers, and cronies from the South-East and South-South still have very limited time to reverse themselves, as well as their deeply-offensive and odious ineptitude and policies, by directly and quickly completing the East-West Road and the second Niger Bridge, without further ado and delay. They could, as always, collect multiples of the real contract value as bribe; someday, the United States Government will extract penalties from the complicit Construction Company. In other countries where non-strategic infrastructure have been concessioned out, the Government acts as the protector of the citizens, setting standards, aggregating public interest, achieving optimal costs, minimizing waste, setting the tariff, and defining the time-frame for toll collection. In Nigeria’s case, both the Government and the so-called Concessionaires are a united usurious entity, exposing the citizens unduly to endemic exploitation. In any case, competing and several alternatives are provided before roads are tolled. Not in Nigeria. Our dealers will do well to study the Latin American model, to understand how this program works.
I have discussed with a wide range of Igbo professionals in Nigeria and overseas, and they are in unison regarding the egregious insult involved in the structure being proposed by Mr. Jonathan, his Minister of Works, and their Administration. They affirm that, rather than accept the so-called concessioning of the Niger Bridge, Igbos should be allowed to float a Municipal Bond or contribute among themselves, to construct the bridge. The implication of this would be a final severance of whatever psychological link Igbos have with Nigeria. It is common knowledge that Igbo people have typically taxed themselves to provide electricity, water, roads, schools, etc., in their communities, through a well-honed self-effort system. They can also construct this short bridge that will save their lives, without the involvement of their politicians and their mentors in Abuja. In the case of the second Niger Bridge, let it be made very clear that the Igbos will not forget or forgive the perpetuation of marginalization, exploitation, and insult under any arrangement that involves the erection of toll gates on that bridge. Indeed, that bridge shall not stand, under the Jonathan paradigm, and Mr. Jonathan will do well not to delude himself that he is guaranteed of Igbo votes in 2015.