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East-West Road: Drawing FG’s attention to Eleme-Onne axis

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Part of the collapsed Aleto bridge


The protest started on Monday July 26, with hundreds of youths from the four Ogoni Councils in Rivers State; Eleme, Khana, Gokana and Tai including different activists groups, who all gathered at the deplorable Eleme-Onne road by Aleto junction at about 7:00am with various placards and totally barricaded the road.

The Ogoni Peoples Assembly (OPA) the Ogoni Youths Federation (OYF) and Chairman of Eleme Council, Obarilomate Ollor, also led various groups as they occupied the road, vowing to remain on it until the Federal Government fixes it.

It was a mixed feeling of fun and anguish as the protesters slaughtered goats, cooked, sang and ate under some erected canopies. Their local masquerades paid solidarity visit, elders, women; traditional rulers and even some clerics were all in solidarity with them.  

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Stakeholders from the communities, who are piqued by the horrible state of the road checked on the youths progressively to ensure they were peaceful and non-violent.
 
The protesters occupied the road for seven days. Their action crippled the nation’s oil and gas activities as no vehicle was allowed to access the Onne Oil and gas free zone, the Eleme Petro Chemical, the Port Harcourt refineries, among several other multinational companies in the area.

The journey of the East-West Road
The contract for the dualisation of the East-West Road, which is a 338km road covering Warri to Oron through Kaima and Ahoada, Port Harcourt to Ogoni and Eket township was awarded in 2006 in four sections to four different contractors under the Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration.

Findings show that section I and II, covering Warri to Kaima and Onne Port junction to Eket have been completed but Section IIIA covering Port Harcourt/Eleme junction to Onne Port junction was abandoned.
 
The Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, in a memo sighted by The Guardian claimed that the Onne section was not part of the initial contract awarded in 2006 because the section was in good condition having been dualised earlier.

But a reliable source told The Guardian that the said section was part of the sections awarded in 2006 and had already gulped over N40 billion. The section progressively deteriorated as a result of heavy axle loading, flooding and was no longer serviceable for current traffic volumes along the axis.

The contract for upgrading of the section IIIA was re-awarded on December 1, 2014 to Messrs RCC (Nig) Limited with reference No MNDA/PROC/CAP/14/89/23 under the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, to upgrade and expand the road from two lane dual carriage to three lane dual carriageway.

Other scope of works was to increase in the thickness of the asphalt layer, construction of interchange bridges at Refinery junction and Onne Port junction to smoothen the traffic flow.

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Sadly, the contractors waited to be mobilised to site but regrettably, after Jonathan lost election in early 2015, his government was unable to pay for the mobilisation and the abandonment continued.

While the project lingered, the road further deteriorated following the huge task on it on daily bases. A lot of circumstances however, took place including encroachment on the right – of –way initially delineated for the road and thus, necessitated a fresh review of the project with additional flyovers and bridges.

While the protest garnered momentum on Monday July 26, The Guardian gathered that the Minister of Niger Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, called and promised affected communities that he would come personally to have a roundtable with them but with a caveat that if he was going to come, there should be no protest. But when the people declined, he failed to come and instead, sent the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry, Babayo Ardo, who read his address to community leaders on the said date.

Akpabio’s failure to attend the meeting further grieved stakeholders, who felt the Minister, has no regard for them. Even after their complaints to the Permanent Secretary, the minister as at the time this story was filed, still failed to reach out to the people, an action, they widely condemned.

Reading the Minister’s address, Ardo, admitted that the work on Eleme-Onne road failed to commence due to poor yearly budgetary provisions over the years until the Ministry paid the contractor the full mobilisation advance in 2020. The Guardian reliably gathered that over N6 billion was paid for the mobilisation last year.

Part of the Minister’s speech read: “The Ministry has succeeded in providing N10 billion and N25 billion in the 2020 and 2021 annual budgets of the Niger Delta Development commission, which will impact positively on the rate of progress of works.

“The review process is in underway to secure relevant statutory approvals, it is my candid expectation that the approvals would be obtained and thereafter, the contractor will not encounter further delays in completing the project in 2022,” said Akpabio.
 
But the people have insisted that the project must improve significantly this year because according to them, 2022 is a political year where everyone will be busy campaigning for 2023. Otherwise, they will return to the road with fresh variation.

The peoples’ grouse against Akpabio
FINDINGS show that due to the funding challenges on infrastructures, the President Muhammadu administration got the sovereign wealth investment fund and created the Presidential Infrastructural Development Fund (PIDF) with the task to fund, execute and complete the Abuja-Kano road, the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, second Niger Bridge and the East-West road. 

People say the three other projects under the PIDF are moving on smoothly. A source close to the Presidency revealed that they are getting money monthly to fund the projects.

Akpabio, who hails from the Niger Delta, is said not to be pleased about the planned introduction of the toll gate on the East-West road as part of strategies to recover the proposed money from SWF.

The Guardian gathered that, sequel to this, the Minister had requested that his Ministry be allowed to source for fund to do the East-West road project.

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Stakeholders have however, condemned Akpabio’s proposal, stating that the Ministry of Niger Delta is not adequately funded and that the idea would deprive the region the opportunity for a speedy completion of the road.

The President of KAGOTE, Emmanuel Deeyah, said, “we are worried because other projects are moving on in other parts of the country, why should our own be different?  Why shouldn’t someone from the region who is heading the Ministry look passionately on the plight of the people, what is toll gate for crying out loud?”
  
“The people from Akwa Ibom are enjoying their own section of the road. Why should this opportunity be allowed to slip away? Why worry about the toll gate? He bemoaned that the reason the Ministry of Niger Delta is seeking to fund the Onne axis of the East West road has no bases at all.

Deyaah reasoned that the road should be done first and later, issue of toll gate can be sorted out.

“Please don’t deny us this opportunity,” he pleaded with Akpabio, stressing that the road is the link to the bulk of the nation’s resources, noting that what the Minister is pushing is unreasonable and annoying.

Similarly, a Pan-ethnic social Rights group, the Ogoni People’s Assembly (OPA), had on July 7 when it issued a 14-day ultimatum to Akpabio to commence work on the deplorable Eleme-Onne section of the East-West road or be faced with irresistible none violent mass civil action, urged him (Akpabio) to return the Eleme-Onne section of the East-West road to the PIDF.
 
The group cited a memo from State House, Abuja, dated 24th September 2018 (SH/COS/03/14/11/002), which revealed that Akpabio decided to take back the East-West road to his Ministry when fund on it was about to be released to contractors.

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The leaders of the group, Probel Williams and Celestine Akpobari, described the action by the Minister as unfortunate.
 
Williams said: “In the Wisdom of President Muhammad Buhari, after a visit by some Ogoni sons, he directed that this road be included in projects being funded by the Presidential Infrastructure Development Fund to accelerate work pace and ensure timely completion.
 
“In a Memo from the State House, Abuja, dated 24th September 2018 with reference SH/COS/03/14/11/002, by the late Chief of Staff to the President, Abba Kyari, conveyed Mr. President’s directive on 1 to iv of the East-West road to the Honourable Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Federal Ministry of Finance and the Managing Director, Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority.
 
“From the information available to us, PIDF was about releasing funds to the contractors when Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, decided to take back the job to his Ministry.
 
“We demand that Akpabio immediately return the deplorable Eleme-Onne section of the East-West road to the PIDF,” the group insisted.

Stakeholders’ stance on Eleme-Onne road
The Eleme-Onne road leads to the two sea ports, refineries, Petro chemical, NAFCON, Onne oil and gas free zone that houses over 200 oil and gas companies, among several others operating within the axis.

This absolutely reveals that the section is a very busy road with categories of heavy-duty trucks plying it on daily basis, and it is where the bulk of the nation’s resources come from.  

The people have in the past suffered serious nightmares on the road. Several lives have also been lost on the road; residents and road users often sleep along the road due to its impassability. Worst is that, there is no alternative route.

The Guardian recalled that two years ago, Senators and members of House of Representatives from the region staged a protest and raised motions and included it in the budget of the federation but nothing was done.

About three years ago, the State Governor, Nyesom Wike, had also mobilised some companies operating within the axis and over N5billion was raised among them for remedial works, but in less than a year, the road collapsed again, entailing that it deserves total and solid reconstruction.

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MEANTIME, investigations by The Guardian revealed that the project is still awaiting approval of its latest redesign to accommodate additional flyovers and bridges. The Minister has disclosed that the road is expected to gulp N100 billion

On Sunday, August 1, which marked the seventh day of the protest, the Ministry released N2.5 billion for payment of compensation to pave way for the construction works.

Leaders of the affected communities gathered together despite political party and religious differences, held a thanksgiving service at the site of the protest.

They informed the youths that they are solidly behind them and appealed to them to open up the road but warned that in 14 days, if no tangible work were seen, they would resurface at the protest site.

Some of the top shots sighted at the protest thanksgiving scene included, the KAGOTE President, Emma Deeyah; Senator Bari Mpigi, Senator Olaka Nwaogu, former Secretary to the State Government, Kenneth Kobani; Member of House of Representative, Kingsley Chinda, former APC Chairman, Davies Ikanya, former President for Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Legborsi Pygbara; foremost Ogoni Human Rights Activist, Celestine Akpobari, Chairmen of the Local Councils, former and current members of  State House of Assembly including Linda Stelwart, among others.
 
Speaking, Senator Mpigi commended the youths for being focused on their demand, resisting every form of distraction and provocation. He said, it was regrettable that the people had to go “this far” to attract the Federal Government’s attention to their plight.

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Similarly, Chinda described the protest as a national struggle, stressing that it is for the survival of all Nigerians, because the road leads to the nation’s heart of the nation’s economy.
 
Chinda said, “What this shows is that when peaceful and gentle changes are impossible, then, government should be ready for forceful changes, We are fighting for the nation, we however, pray that in their way, this will not turn to Ogoni clean up.”
 
“The Federal Government should note that all Nigerians are behind this struggle. It is shameful that the people have to protest for one week to fix a road that feeds the nation, we shouldn’t beg government to fix this road but they are busy fixing road to Niger Republic, what is the economic importance of that road to Nigerians? he queried.

On his part, Kobani said, the presence of all, despite political variances shows strong unity and determination. He said, nobody can intimidate us because God is with the people of the region, hence victory is assured.

“This has united us, people from different ethnic nationalities are all here and have just one course; that is, this road should be done, non-violent struggle always achieve the desired result,” he noted.

Deeyah urged the protesters to carry the peaceful messages back to their communities and commended their resilience, assuring that the leaders stand solidly with them.

“We don’t want remedial work, all we want is real construction of this road. In 14 days, if they fail to meet our demand, we will resurface,” Deeyah warned.

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Ikanya pointed out that government was busy spending billions of dollars on the rehabilitation of the Port Harcourt Refinery while abandoning the only road that leads to the refinery. He described it as misplaced priority, saying it makes no sense.

“Do the people have to protest before government fixes a very significant road? They are only interested in collecting our revenue”
 
Further speaking, Pygbara said, the people could change the narrative through non-violent movements like what happened in 1993.
 
Eleme Council Chairman, Ollor said: “A lot of persons have died. Business owners have lost goods and resources, containers and trucks have collapsed. Those who have businesses in the Onne oil and gas zone, the refinery lose so much man-hour, on the road. Investment is threatened in this local government, which is supposed to be an investment destination.
 
“So, the action pleased all those who are investors in our area. We have been here for the past seven days. The federal Government sent the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Niger Delta, who came on Monday to address our leaders. But our leaders were not satisfied with the presentation he made.” 

President-General, Ogoni Youth Federation, Legborsi Yamaabana, said the youths are still determined. Nonetheless, the major challenge to tackle is the issues of decisiveness in returning the project to PIDF, transparency in the payment of compensation and swift approval of the latest redesign of the project   to accommodate the proposed additional flyovers and bridges. The Guardian learnt that the project could be achieved in 16 months if these challenges are promptly addressed.

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