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Cross River: Kidnappings, bad roads threaten travels for Christmas festivities

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This year’s Carnival Calabar, the famed largest street party in Africa, which holds yearly in Cross River State is under serious threat. No thanks to the unaddressed security challenges in Calabar, the state capital and its environs.

Also, with only a few airlines plying that route due to low passenger traffic, the deplorable state of the Calabar-Itu Road and the Calabar-Ikom Highway (the two major access roads into the state) has raised serious concerns for the carnival, even as it has brought about a boom in marine transportation within the state, and between it and neighbouring Akwa Ibom State.

Until recently, marine transportation in the state was neither here nor there, but now, it is enjoying rising patronage, while commercial motorcyclists, who are now plying stretches of the dilapidated road, especially the Odukpani axis are also having a swell time.

Traders at Marian Market and their counterparts at Watt Market- the two major markets in Calabar Municipal and Calabar South local councils are also feeling the impact of the bad state of these access roads, as the cost of transporting goods and farm produce have escalated by over 150 per cent.

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Also affected by the bad state of the road are tanker, truck, and trailer drivers, who have threatened to block the Calabar-Itu Highway, and the Calabar-Ikom Highway with their trucks until governments come to their rescue, instead of looking the other way while motorists get trapped in bad portions, where they are also extorted by security agents.

Last September, the state governor, Senator Ben Ayade, while on a visit to the site of the Odukpani end of the Tinapa road dualisation project, as well as the site of the Spaghetti Flyover, assured that despite the slow pace of work, the Spaghetti Flyover and other flyover bridges at Odukpani Junction would soon be completed.

He said the Spaghetti Flyover, “the first of its kind in this part of the world, looks like something impossible because of the three floors of bridges crossing each other. Ordinarily, that doesn’t look like something Cross River could handle. But trust me, with intellectual money everything is possible. So, the civil works are going on perfectly well, the structural works, and mechanical works going on also with the same rapidity.”

However, when The Guardian visited Odukpani Junction and site of the Tinapa dualisation, as well as the Spaghetti Flyover and bridge, there were no signs that the projects were ongoing, except for a few trips of chippings, minor structural works, and a few equipment left on the ground.

The bulk of work that has been done since the project commenced over two years ago, is pilling and construction of culverts. This development has caused untold hardship to motorists meandering through the narrow portion that is free.

The theme of this year’s carnival is “humanity,” but many have criticised Ayade for hypocrisy and insensitivity.

The governor, who was represented by his deputy, Prof. Ivara Esu, at the second dry run of the carnival, called on residents of the state to show kindness to one another in order to promote humanity.

According to him, the theme became necessary so as to make people see the need to be humane and to live in peace with one another as “peaceful co-existence, unity and tolerance should rule the minds of people around the world…for us, the theme is about humanity and kindness to people. We should be tolerant of one another.”

For almost 10 years, the Calabar-Itu Highway has been deteriorating steadily, but no serious efforts from the Federal Government to fix it apart from palliative measures when a part of it gets cut off from the other. Even when contracts are awarded for its repairs, not much is done to save the over 30-year-old road.

However, the situation this year appears to be the worst, as motorists that ply the route, especially commercial transporters spend heavily on the maintenance of their vehicles. Those whose vehicles do not have the capacity to surmount the craters resort to transferring passengers halfway into the trip to vehicles at the other end. It is commercial motorcyclists that serve as the nexus between the two ends either the Akwa Ibom State, or Cross River State of the divide.

This procedure is very helpful to commercial operators as they usually make a detour once they have offloaded their passengers, but private car owners/drivers have no such luxury, as they have to wait in long queues, for hours, while efforts to clear the blockage (usually fallen vehicles) yield fruits.

Ordinarily, a trip to Uyo from Calabar should last about an hour, or 75 minutes maximum. But that trip now lasts between six to eight hours, and much longer when an articulated vehicle is trapped.

Currently, granite is being spread across very bad portions to remedy the situation, as Julius Berger Plc., gradually moves into site.

What irks road users the most is the fact that it is on these bad portions that officials of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), Vehicle Inspection Officers (VIOs), Nigeria Custom Services, Nigeria Immigration Service, and other security agencies cluster to extort motorists in the name of checking vehicles for one thing or the other.

Commenting on the poor state of the Calabar-Itu Highway, the Coordinator Peace Point Development Foundation (PPDF) formerly Peace Point Action, Mr. Umo Isuaiko said: “We appreciate the remedial efforts made by the Akwa Ibom State government on the road so far, especially in areas within the state’s jurisdiction. While waiting for the Federal Government to ensure that serious action is kick-started by Julius Berger, we also call on the Cross River State government to also intervene in the Odukpani axis, especially from Odukpani Junction to Mkpara Community, where people are now spending several hours in one spot.”

Guests and tourists from neighbouring states are expected to come into Cross River State through Calabar-Itu Highway, and the Calabar-Ikom Highway for the month-long Christmas festivities, which climaxes with the Carnival Calabar, but from the look of things, those that are fully aware of the true state of the route would definitely perish the idea of making such trip for now.

A resident of Calabar, Mr. John Ovie said: “We just hope that something would be done about the road urgently, otherwise I will advise my guests to stay back because Calabar is not the Calabar we used to know.”

Other than the bad access road, the sustained activities of kidnappers have also made the once quiet city a troubled spot, the reason why a group of concerned traders, Igbo Traders Amalgamated (ITA), recently threatened to close shops.

The aggrieved traders said that more than 30 persons have been kidnapped in the state capital between April and November this year, with a ransom for their release ranging between N1m and N2.5m, depending on the personality involved.

Recently, two persons, including a United States-based professor of Fine Arts, Prof. Onoyom Ukpong were kidnapped. Ukpong was abducted at his residence along Mbukpa Street, in Calabar South Local Council, and a few days later, letters were dropped in his compound demanding the immediate payment of ransom. He was later released after the ransom had been paid.

In another incident, a member of ITA was kidnapped at the Bakoko area of Calabar Municipal Council, where he went to buy a cow for the end of year ceremony of a group he belongs to.

Others have been kidnapped quietly without the alarm being raised. Till now, the fate of a veteran broadcast journalist, Mr. Peter Etim otherwise known as Petertex Etim is still unknown almost a year after he was kidnapped.

The spokesperson of ITA, Nnayelugo Okwuoma said: “We thought that kidnapping in the state had stopped, but we are surprised that it is still on the rise as we approach the Yuletide. We call on governments to please act fast else we shall be forced to close shops. Already a lot of our people are relocating to Uyo, in Akwa Ibom State.”

The Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in a communiqué issued at the end of its last monthly congress, which took place at the Ernest Etim Bassey Press Centre, Calabar, frowned at the security situation in the state, especially the spate of kidnappings, demanding that security agencies should live up to expectation.”

In the communiqué, which was jointly signed by the Chairman of the Communiqué Drafting Committee, Mr. Ashie Osor; Secretary, Clement James, and Joseph Ashibekong, the union also viewed with serious concern, “the dilapidated state of internal roads and called on His Excellency, the Executive Governor of Cross River State to swing into action, especially as the Yuletide draws close.”

The congress was presided over by the state Chairman of NUJ, Mr. Victor Udu.

Commenting on the state of roads in the state, and the rising patronage of water transportation, the Chairman Boat Owners Association (Creek Town – Calabar Section), Chief Nyong Edet Nyong, in an interview with The Guardian, said many are resorting to water transportation instead of wasting precious time on the road.

Nyong who has been into marine transport for over 20 years said: “We have about 20 boats plying the Creek Town to Calabar route. Because the Calabar – Itu Highway is in a pathetic state right now, commuters going to Creek Town, Okurikang, Oron and Uyo from Calabar, and vice versa are now resorting to water transport. Because of the high rate of passengers, each of the boats in this section can make two trips daily, that is, a total of 40 trips daily, which is a novel development.

“Before now, business was very dull except on Thursdays and Fridays when market women usually bring their produce to sell here at the beach. Those were the two days that passenger traffic is usually high,” Nyong said.

Many are beginning to complain that with the surge in passenger traffic, some errant boat operators are throwing caution to the wind and ferrying passengers on the Creek Town route without life jackets, but Nyong denied the claims saying; “we strongly kick against any boat operating without life jackets, and almost all the boats have theirs in place. Any boat operator that fails to comply we duly sanction.”

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On his part, the Chairman, Boat Owners Association (Calabar-Oron Section), Mr. Moses Bassey, corroborated the boom in business claim saying; “as you can see, business is going on and has been very successful, especially now that the Calabar – Itu Highway and other major roads are in bad shape. Here, we also place a lot of importance on the use of life jackets and failure to do so is seriously sanctioned. We, however, are commending the government for making the waterways safe unlike in the past when sea pirates were attacking us frequently.

Kidnappings and the bad state of the two major access roads into the state notwithstanding, the Chairman of the Carnival Calabar Commission Mr. Gabe Onah has assured that all is well as far as the carnival is concerned, noting that delegates from 35 countries, including Vietnam, Bangladesh, Italy, Brazil, Malawi, Kenya, among others, as well as contingents from 20 states in the country, would be at the carnival.

Onah assured both local and international tourists of safety of life and property, as adequate security systems have been put in place to check any unforeseen development.

Also commenting, the Police Public Relations Officer, Miss Irene Ugbo, told The Guardian that the Police was fully prepared to ensure the safety of merrymakers throughout the Xmas and carnival period.

She said: “As usual it is what we do yearly and we are very well prepared. The much-talked-about rampant kidnapping is not true. Of course, we have had one or two kidnappings in the past and when that happened, we saw it as a wake-up call for us to put more effort into our policing, which we have done. For anybody coming into town for the celebration, we are assuring the person of safety, no matter where they are coming from.”

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