Benin-Okene Road: The pain, agony and wrong palliatives
At the height of the rainy season, the Benin-Okene highway had completely broken down or (collapsed). At Ekpoma end, trucks ‘sneezed,’ as they crawled on the slimy mud. I knew the mud would completely swallow my car, so I did not think twice before reversing to connect Ihumudumu-Market Square Road to avoid the completely abandoned Ambrose Alli University-Irua Expressway.
But sooner than I expected, I had reconnected with the expressway, cruising to Agbende with relatively less tortuous mental exercise. But for a few spots, my psychological state between Irua and Aviele, where Yahya and Dawo (my two co-travellers) alighted to board a ‘night bus’ to Jos, was the sanest. The road could have been much better, but the fact that one did not need to navigate through an unknown community before reuniting with the major road was something to appreciate.
I was welcomed a few minutes past midnight at Auchi Polytechnic gate by Timothy, my sibling who had kept vigil to receive me. Again, I contemplated taking a nap in Auchi for a few hours. “But why should I, when my town is just 27 kilometres away,” a thought queried. Traffic check was the least I would be bothered with. So, I headed straight to Sabo, where my sibling stays, pulled over in front of his hostel and bent over on the car seat to rest for a few minutes, while he went into his room to pick a few things.
At 12:30am, we hit the Auchi-Okpella-Okene highway. Tim (as he is fondly called) scorned and dismissed an enquiry on whether Auchi-Okene-Okpella road, three times farther than Auchi-Iyamho-Okpella Road, was not a better choice. Apparently, he had equally lost touch with the unfortunate reality. “In the worst case scenario, I can bet we will spend 35 minutes before we arrive home,” he said. I had no reason to doubt him, as he is more informed about home affairs than me.
It was less stressful than I expected to skirt the gully in front of the headquarters of Omega Fire Ministries at Auchi, and in less than 10 minutes, I was at Iyamho, Adams Oshiomhiole’s home. The Iyamho experience was a breather. The sparkling streetlights, neat drainages, spotless streets, the serene Edo University on the left side of the road, the former governor’s lavish mansion sprawling opposite the school and the chilly weather reminds of a week in Cape Town, South Africa. I had been to the comrade’s home several times after its transformation. This time, however, I saw a different Iyamho. I had suffered so much to learn to appreciate any moment of comfort. And Iyamho was a symbol of that moment.
Oshiomhole might have stamped his will on the Edo polity through the force of strong personality and unbridled thirst for power. He sure understands the ‘advantage’ of using common resources to enhance the lots of a few kinsmen, and has used the knowledge to the fullest. The snag, however, is his inability to extend the beautiful façade of his small community beyond his doorstep. The crawling Benin-Okene Road dualisation project starts and ends in the ex-governor’s town, with both lanes well constructed to support the well-tarred streets that crisscross the sleepy community.
No sooner had I started relating the sad tale of Benin Ekpoma Road than I met my waterloo. I had driven between trucks that could be sighted from the last house in the ex-Labour leader’s village for five minutes before I realised it headed nowhere. Every available square metre was occupied by trucks, of which some had spent days on the spot. If there was an ‘obito’ (to use a local slang) in my town that night. One could hear the music clearly. Yet, I could not access my home. Frustrated, devastated and utterly confused, I returned to Uluoke, a neighbouring community with Iyamho, where the lines of trucks ended.
Though exhausted and worn-out, I managed to assume the role of an emergency traffic officer. Having seen the ‘end of the road,’ I took the responsibility of telling others how stupid I would have been to sleep inside a car along a highway, when my family house was about 15 kilometres away. From around 2am to 6am, a quiet Uluoke had transformed into a melting pot of cultures of sort. Travellers in their dozens trooped out of their buses to share tales, concerns and vent their frustrations. This continued till 6am.
I realised as the buses were making arrangements to reboot their journey (even though they had no idea how to manoeuver the blockage) the folly of not heeding the counsel of those who had better information. And as if I was compensating my earlier indiscretion, I drove straight to an in-law’s residence in a nearby community, where I swapped my car for a motorcycle.
Getting through the logjam with a motorcycle was like a journey to hell. I arrived home at 8am, only to realise that my town, the gateway to southern Nigeria, had been cut off from Okene and Auchi. I thought I had witnessed the worst situation that weekend, until I melt Victor Momoh, an Abuja-based lawyer friend, who also visited to attend the same meeting. Momoh had to charter a motorcycle from Lokoja, Kogi State capital, to ramble through the Okpella-Okene-Lokoja part of the jam. Okpellla, the economic livewire of Edo North, had been isolated from the socio-economic life of the outer society, as vehicles could not access it from any other part of the country. With filling stations running out of supply, black marketers hijacked the PMS business, selling a litre for as much as N350.
The few hours I spent with my family were more torturing than the awful experience I had on my trip. The thought of meandering through the garage of trucks on Okpella-Auchi Road haunted me like a ghost. Before cockcrow, I was on my way with Tim (Rachael joined this time). Before long, I got another motorcycle and abandoned Tim and Rachael to plot their course. For the entire 45 minutes we struggled to pull through the tankers between my town and Iyamho, my heart was literally in my mouth. The road degenerated into a horror and looks more dreadful. On eight occasions, I alighted to help lift the motorbike across. When I eventually reunited with Tim and Rachael, they had sustained injuries resulting from an accident.
Ebuka, a middle-aged haulage operator from Eboyi State, was among the hundreds caught in the jam. As at Saturday morning, he had spent four days between Bayelsa and Uluoke, two on a spot in the latter. “I am travelling to Itobe, Kogi State, to deliver these goods. If I have spent six days and I am not yet close to Okene, what hope do I have that I will get to my destination in 10 days,” he lamented to me, as if I were an oracle.
Ironically, a few kilometres away from the highway of frustration was a network of top quality roads that lead to tiny villages around Iyamho. While the villagers can only dream of going as far as Okene for want of access roads, the ones in their neighbourhoods have been converted to play fields by rodents.
The Auchi-Benin road was not better, when I was returning to Lagos. The heavy rain had made it more slippery and muddy in some cases. The only difference was that it was daytime. When I eventually got to Benin at 11am, the car drove as if it was overloaded. The underneath was caked with so much mud that the sedan car felt like a truck. The four-cylinder engine could move the car plus the accumulated weight. I not only washed the car, but also checked into a hotel for a thorough bath before I could continue my trip back to Lagos.
As dry season returns, there are palliative works ongoing on the highway, but such remediations don’t last. It was the same thing last year and the years before. After devastations following heavy downpour, government will come in just to make the highway motorable for Christmas season, after that, the highway goes bad again. Nothing serious!