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The ground-breaking flag-off of the N117 billion Second Niger Bridge by President Goodluck Jonathan on March 10 may have raised fresh hope that the project which has remained on the drawing board would soon become a reality. But to most Nigerians, especially South-Easterners, it remains another political stunt and vote-poaching stratagem by the Presidency, writes Olisemeka Obeche.
“Today, I have come as your President to flag-off this vital Bridge project, in order to move that solemn pledge, from sincere promise to concrete reality”. That was the crux of a message delivered by President Goodluck Jonathan on March 10, 2014 as he officially flagged-off construction of the Second Niger Bridge at Krisoral ground-Atani, near Onitsha, Anambra State. However, the Federal Government is executing the N117 billion projects under a Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement for a concession period of 25 years, precisely, through a ‘Design, Build, Finance, Operate and Transfer (DBFOT)’ model with Messrs Julius Berger-NSIA Consortium as the concessionaire.
The kick-off sideshow of the project dubbed ‘ground-breaking’ ceremony by the president marked another milestone in the quest to ease the transportation problems across the River Niger and enhance commercial activities between the East and other parts of Nigeria as well as save the existing 48 year-old bridge from impending collapse. As President Jonathan observed, the 1.6 kilometer long bridge when completed “will massively improve road transportation in the South-east of Nigeria, and also reduce travel times substantially, in this part of the country”.
Although most frontline politicians in the South-east geo-political zone have publicly commended the presidency for kick-starting the multi-billion naira worth project, it has however generated controversies from many quarters. To critics, the ground-breaking flag off of the bridge was another political gimmick ostensibly staged by the People’s Democratic Party- led government to woo voters from the South-east for President Jonathan’s second term bid. Mr. Joe Igbokwe, interim publicity secretary of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Lagos State believes that the timing of the flagging off of the Second Niger Bridge shows clearly that it was a political gimmick. “When a man pays school fees, buys cloths and feeds his children, he does not need to beat his chest because he is doing what is expected of him. Jonathan is simply doing his job as President of Nigeria. My problem is the timing. Building a Second Niger Bridge almost 60 years after the first bridge is an indictment on all of us considering the volume of traffic on that corridor. This is politics of 2015 and we all know it,” Igbokwe said. He therefore cautioned the people of the South-east against being hoodwinked.
Mr Chinedu Akpa, a Lagos-based lawyer and former governorship aspirant shares a similar view. He argued that the present crop of political leaders in Nigeria hardly promote policies or projects for altruistic reasons, but rather as a political bait. “Going by the timing of the flag-off of the Second Niger Bridge project it is right for one to believe that the primary motivation for it at this time is simply to woo voters from the South-east. Otherwise, one would have expected President Jonathan to have given the project priority attention and not wait until the eve of another election before initiating action on it”, he argued.
For Atiku Abubakar, former Vice President, the project is belated because it “ought to have been completed before now,”
Indeed, the delay in commencement of the project under Jonathan’s administration is questionable. The fact that a similar project – the Loko-Oweto Bridge at River Benue which the government took up almost at the same time with the Second Niger Bridge – has almost reached 35 per cent completion as at the time of the flag-off at Onitsha, has further heightened suspicion that the project was kept by Jonathan as his second term bargain chip for votes in the zone.
Investigation by TheEconomy shows that while government is sure of completing the Loko-Oweto Bridge project well ahead of schedule, the same cannot be said of the Second Niger Bridge.
President Jonathan, it would be recalled, declared in 2012 in Onitsha that he would go into exile if he fails to complete the project at the expiration of his first term. “When the first Niger Bridge was built, it was during the presidency of Nnamdi Azikiwe; the Second Niger Bridge will be built under the presidency of Azikiwe Jonathan…If I fail to build the bridge in 2015, I will go into exile”, the president reportedly vowed.
However, going by the four-year gestation period requirement for the completion of the project, it will require much more than a miracle for President Jonathan to commission the bridge in 2015, even if he eventually secures the prized second term. “The (Jonathan’s) promise would be meaningless except the bridge is actually completed before the expiration of his first term, which is not practically possible. However, as a bait, it falls short as there is no guarantee that he will actually continue with the project if he manages to get re-elected”, Akpa said.
Unfair differential treatment
Beside the dust raised by the timing of the commencement of the project and its completion, critics have equally faulted its cost and the funding. Some have queried the N117 billion quoted as the cost of constructing the bridge, arguing that it was grossly inflated.
According to them, a similar bridge of 25 miles long commissioned in China last March cost 1 billion British Pounds, about N280 billion. “This amounts to N11.2 billion per mile of bridge. The Second Niger Bridge is less than one mile long and will cost N117 billion,” a critic who pleaded for anonymity said.
Also generating ripples are the difference in cost and funding plans for the Loko-Oweto Bridge and the Second Niger Bridge. While the 2,055m (about 2.6 km) Loko-Oweto Bridge project is being constructed at the cost of N36 billion funded directly by the government, that of the Second Niger Bridge is N117 billion with a PPP funding arrangement.
“There is more to this Second Niger Bridge project that meets an ordinary eye,” said Mr. Augustine Nwokolobia, a Benue State-based entrepreneur. “Where on earth can a bridge of less than two kilometer long costs up to N100 billion? What are the major cost components that make the Second Niger Bridge far more expensive than that of the River Benue (Loko-Owe to Bridge),” he queried.
Another critic, Mr. David Arinze interpreted the PPP funding arrangement for the project which specifies that the facility will be tolled for 25 years upon completion as a tell-tale sign of continued political subjugation of the people of South-east zone. “If the bridge is to be constructed in the North, South-west or South-south geopolitical zones, will they be asked to pay (toll) for it,” he asked.
Mr. Ikem Okuhu, a political analyst also argued that asking would-be users of the Second Niger Bridge to pay for such strategic infrastructure for 25 years is unfair to Ndigbo. According to him, the fact that other multi-billion naira worth projects being funded by the federal government across the country are not designated for tolling, except for the Second Niger Bridge project, shows that government is not committed to development of the region. “The Lagos-Ibadan expressway (South-west), East-west road (South-South), Abuja-Lokoja road (North) are being constructed by the federal government but not tolled. And someone thinks I should applaud a 25-year mortgage on a bridge being awarded in exchange for votes. To me, this is cheating,” he declared.
Peter Claver Opara, a public affairs analyst added: “There are over 20 bridges on the East-west Road that are being constructed and some of these bridges are as long as the Niger Bridge. Why is it only in Igboland that people must pay to cross a bridge,” he asked.
Litany of failed kick-offs
Although, President Jonathan’s cronies have dismissed allegations of premeditated political maltreatment in the handling of the Second Niger Bridge project so far, many are yet to reconcile the current efforts with the failed efforts of previous regimes. Those familiar with history of the Second Niger Bridge project will easily say that the people of the South-east have lost counts of the number of times the federal government had initiated plans to kick-start the project, since it became expedient that the existing bridge would not survive the heavy vehicular pressure for long, only to discard it in the end. “The story of construction of the Second Niger Bridge is no longer appealing to people like us because we have heard it several times, long time ago and fantasized its benefits to Ndigbo but it never come to reality. So, until it becomes a reality, there is nothing anybody can say that will gladden my heart,” declared Mazi Justus Onwuka, a 64-year-old trader in Onitsha Main-market.
According to him, it is saddening that President Jonathan who promised while campaigning as vice president to the late President Umaru Yar’Adua in 2007 that he would personally ensure that the bridge was constructed, came back in March 2014, seven years later, just to lay the foundation stone for the kick-off of the project and expect praises. “We don’t even need foundation laying ceremony or long speeches about the Second Niger Bridge project because we have seen enough. What we want now is to see the project done,” he added.
To critics, how the idea of a Second Niger Bridge that was first proposed under Shehu Shagari administration (1979-1983) had remained a dream after eight successive administrations without its realization is a big puzzle. Indeed, the history of the project is replete with tales of failed promises, amidst public outcry over the state of the existing bridge commissioned in 1965.
Although, the idea of a second bridge linking Onitsha in Anambra State and Asaba in Delta State was initiated by the Shagari administration, it was the General Ibrahim Babangida-led administration that actually made the first move towards making it a reality. Babangida had, following warnings from engineers over the state of the existing bridge, tasked the Nigerian Society of Engineers to produce a master plan for the construction of a Second Niger Bridge. However, Babangida’s regime failed to follow-up on the project, leaving behind the master-plan in the wake of the political cataclysm that forced him to relinquish power in 1993.
Though the General Sani Abacha administration did not consider the project worthwhile, the then Minister of Works, Alhaji Lateef Jakande reportedly blamed it on the inability of Nigerian engineers to produce the design. Thereafter, it became a political trump card in the wake of return to civil rule with former President Olusegun Obasanjo making the bridge his top promise to the people of South-east during the 1998/99 presidential campaign. Obasanjo did not remember the project until the twilight of his eight-year administration.
Performing a face-saving foundation laying ceremony on May 24, 2007, five days to his official hand-over to the late President Yar’Adua, Obasanjo had described the project as “a promise fulfilled’’, blaming the delay in its execution during his tenure on the inability of the National Assembly to pass a law that would enable federal government participate in the Public Private Partnership (PPP). Obasanjo’s administration, however, left behind a proposal for N58. 6 billion, 1,760 metre, six-lane bridge, with a toll plaza fitted with modern gadgets.
Expectations of most South-easterners that the succeeding Yar’Adua administration would expedite action on the project and possibly complete it were dashed when the then Minister of Works, Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Hassan Lawal disclosed that there was no design for the Second Niger Bridge project. Lawal’s claim was later corroborated by former Anambra State Governor, Peter Obi who informed the then Senate Committee Chairman on Works, Senator Julius Ucha that the flag-off done by Obasanjo was a scam as there was no budgetary allocation for the project by the federal government before it was flagged-off.
The ding-dong affair continued until Yar’Adua died and was succeeded by Jonathan. Contrary to public expectations, the project did not receive priority attention of the Jonathan administration until recently, thereby sparking allegations that he was also using it as a vote-catching gimmick.
However, President Jonathan has shrugged off the allegation of using the bridge as campaign trump card, blaming the delay on technicalities associated with such high-profile venture. “Many people may ask why are we coming now, or maybe we are doing this because of politics, but it is not true. We only had to wait and plan carefully because a project like this requires all avenues of funding to be made known. We are providing about 25 percent of the funding for take-off and that is coming from SURE-P,” Jonathan declared.