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Now that the budget is passed


Construction work at the second Niger Bridge

Construction work at the second Niger Bridge

Though, the five states that make up the Southeast geo-political zone have their individual challenges, but the Second Niger Bridge remains a common concern for all. Almost everybody from the zone has a sad tale to tell as a result of the gridlock on the first Niger Bridge, which links Delta and Anambra states.

For anybody travelling to Southeast from Lagos, especially during festive season, crossing the Niger Bridge is usually a nightmare. It takes hours to get across the Niger Bridge into Onitsha, a movement that would not have lasted more than 20 minutes.

Normally, the traffic starts to build from Nnebisi Road Junction in Asaba and stretches towards the bridge into Onitsha. On a day you have a lot of articulated vehicles on the road, it’s usually tough. When there’s a major breakdown, the situation could be bad and if you are unlucky to be on that route when Road Safety officials are off duty, it gets worst; drivers go reckless.

On a major traffic day, the Bridge Head corridors boom with economic activities, as street hawkers often make brisk income selling all sorts of edibles to stranded commuters. For those traveling beyond Onitsha, they may be forced to sleep over in the commercial city and continue the following day. But if you are traveling light, your best bet is okada; the boys are ever ready to ferry you across the bridge, though at very exorbitant price. You dare not bargain, especially, when it’s getting dark; the next passenger is on standby to take a chance. In most cases, the God Is Good Park in Asaba bears the brunt; every other person ends up there for fear of ‘gentlemen of the road.’

To take pressure off the bridge, after construction-engineering experts raised alarm over the state of the First Niger Bridge, with report putting the lifespan at less than 15 years, the Obasanjo administration, on May 4, 2007, laid the foundation for the construction of a second bridge at a cost of N58.6 billion under a Public Private Partnership.

During the ceremony, Obasanjo explained that the delay in constructing the proposed second bridge was due to the huge amount needed to carry out the project and the difficulty in putting together the necessary legal backing.

The late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua even made the construction of second bridge a major part of his campaign promise to the Southeastern zone. Unfortunately, Yar’Adua died in office two and a half years later, without taking any concrete steps to set the project in motion.

It took the warning of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC), in a report released in February 2012, to get the attention of the Federal Government on the project.

In the report, the agency re-echoed the warnings by experts in 2007, stating that the First Niger Bridge vibrates and shakes regularly, especially when articulated vehicles are using it. The report urged government to, as matter of urgency, commence work on the second bridge.

Eventually, on March 10, 2014, Jonathan flagged off the construction of the bridge. The new contract was awarded to Julius Berger Plc. at the cost of N117,860,700,741.82. The construction company was mobilised and work finally commenced on site, starting with the construction of the link road to the bridge, as well as the laying of the ground pillars to carry the bridge.

The then Minister of Works, Mike Onolememem, informed that the sum of N100 Billion would now be the concurrent cost of the project, out of which the Federal Government will provide N30 billion, while the remaining N70 Billion will be sourced from foreign concessionaire company. To underscore the priority of the project, the budget had a provision of N12 billion specifically earmarked for the takeoff of the project.

The project, which is divided into three phases, will bypass Onitsha and Asaba to connect the Owerri-Onitsha Expressway at Nkwerre-Ezunaka, and then cross Atani to the Asaba-Benin Expressway at Okpanam with a total length of 44 kilometres.

A Consortium JB-NSIA is already working on the project on the basis of Design, Build, Finance, Operate and Transfer (DBFOT) at a cost of N108 billion. The Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) reviewed the concessionaire’s cost down from N138 billion to N108 billion. The project phases will be constructed under Engineering, Procurement and Construction contracts awarded by the Federal Ministry of Works (FMW). Out of government’s N30b, N10.4b has been disbursed.

During the 2015 electioneering campaign in Onitsha, the former President promised that the second Niger Bridge would be delivered within 40 months. He said, “I’m quite impressed by the level of work going on. Of course, the total value of that project is N130 billion and being done through the Public Private Partnership (PPP) and managed by our Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF).”

Work was still ongoing at the site until August 26, 2015, when the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration gave orders for stoppage of work. The Director General of the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission, ICRC, Malam Aminu Diko, said so during a visit to the President at the villa.

The reasons given for the stoppage of the project by the Federal Government include, discrepancy in the actual cost of constructing, non-issuance of certificates of compliance to the contractors handling the construction, irregularities in the compensation of host communities, and non-adherence to due process in the award of the contract.

SPEAKING to The Guardian, a Port Harcourt-based civil engineer, Chris Nwufo, said the economic benefit of the bridge couldn’t be estimated. According to him, “it’s not something you can sit down and give figures. From a layman’s point of view, that bridge is going to, first of all, ease the volume of traffic in the existing bridge. Secondly, it’s going to boost economic activities, especially, as it concerns the movement of goods from the market areas of Southeast to South-South or vice versa. It’s gong to open up so many towns and create a lot of business opportunities. But when it comes to the technical aspect, one needs to take a closer look at the project to know what has been done and what needs to be done.”

For Dr. Chinedu Mbalisi, a lecture at Pauls University, Awka, and the absence of a second bridge has put burden on Southeast economy.

“Transportation is one key factor that develops a state and because southeast appears landlocked, the distribution of goods and services, usually comes from Lagos. As a result of that, the gateway into Southeast puts pressure on the bridge. The gridlock is something you don’t want to experience. But if we have the Second Niger Bridge, definitely, it will assist the existing one and then open other routes so that goods and services can move towards Niger Delta, more importantly, into places like Port Harcourt. But when we depend on one entrance, it’s very difficult; it affects the economy of the region,” he said.

Mbalisi pointed at politics as one of the major hindrances to the completion. “Definitely, the issue of politics is part of it; everybody who wants to win Southeast must use Second Niger Bridge to lure Igbo voters. If truly they want to construct the bridge, it won’t take them more than four years. But from Obasanjo’s eight years to Yar’Adua and Jonathan and Buhari, we are still talking about this bridge. When a new government comes, they tell you, ‘oh, the award of contract did not follow due process, they did not follow procedures, this and that,’ all these things are politics. If you want to be real about Nigeria, remove ethnicity, remove nepotism.”

Though, the project is captured in the 2016 budget, which has been passed by the National Assembly, Chika Onwukwe, a civil servant, said, “Jonathan administration equally did the same. The major issue is to kick start the project and get it to conclusion. You can sit down in Abuja and capture the whole of Nigeria in the budget and build mansion everywhere using your computer, the issue is about implementation and that’s where I’m interested. I’m not concerned with somebody sitting down in Abuja and making beautiful designs of Second Niger Bridge.”

While raising concern about the first bridge, Onwukwe said, “one problem with a typical Igbo man is self-centeredness. We’ve had prominent people in the corridors of power; right from Obasanjo’s to the current government. We’ve had seasoned individuals in different areas as ministers. During Jonathan’s tenure, a good number of them were appointed into positions, high positions for that mater. The issue is, do they have Igbo interest at heart? Do they think collectively about Igbo race?”

In his budget defence, Minister for Works, Power and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, whose total budget for the year is N422b, came up with a three-year frame work to utilise the proposed budget, out of which N268bn representing 62 per cent was allotted to Works, N99bn, an equivalent of 23 per cent to Power and N66bn, representing 15 per cent to Housing.

Breaking down the budget, Fashola noted that government is willing to complete the over 200 uncompleted road projects across the country, rather than embark on new ones, adding that the completion of the projects will be beneficial to the masses and the nation’s economy. He said that some of these projects were left uncompleted because government owed the contractors and if the money is paid, some of them are willing to return to sites.

Among the projects hinted by Fashola is the second Niger Bridge. Now that the budget has been passed, Nigerians who frequently use the only bridge and are familiar with its challenges are waiting anxiously.

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