Written by Dr Okenwa Nwosu
2nd January 2014
The Federal Government has been making public pronouncements, since the heydays of military rule, about the decision to build a second Niger Bridge near Onitsha, the commercial river town where the fist Niger Bridge is situated. The first bridge straddling the lower Niger River was built by a French engineering consortium, Dumez and opened for traffic in 1964.
The first Niger Bridge, as one would expect, was built to meet the requirements of the time when there was minimal east-west traffic in this part of the country. In the First Republic, major commercial traffic flowed mostly in the north-south direction and utilized the railroads, waterways and the scanty road network of the era. Before the bridge at Onitsha, ferries and pontoons where relied upon for crossing the Niger River between Onitsha and its sister city, Asaba, on the western bank. The eastern end of the bridge was damaged during the Civil War and was restored shortly after the end of hostilities. Since the Civil War, the Niger Bridge gradually was made to function in the manner for which it was neither conceived, designed nor built. For all practical purposes, this half century-old 4-lane bridge has been subjected to handling the traffic load which used to be shared between the railways, river crafts and roadways connecting the country’s hinterland to the sea terminals along the eastern coastline. For reasons best known to the powers that were and still are, all importation into the import-dependent Nigeria has been confined to the seaport of Lagos while the erstwhile buoyant and active sea lanes servicing the eastern coastline have remained shuttered despite the fact that the Civil War ended nearly 44 years ago.
For a combination of reasons, fellow compatriots inhabiting even the coastal states in the former East still import their goods through the congested Lagos wharves and then truck them overland by road for distances of several hundreds of miles due to the non-functionality of local ports in the region. Seaports of the former East have since been adapted for the sole export of crude petroleum and liquefied natural gas while all imports into the country are practically restricted to the Lagos harbor which is situated at the southwestern border with neighboring Benin Republic. This curious policy to aggregate all importation in Lagos resulted in massive migration of businessmen and women from all parts of the country, particularly the former East, into the ex-national capital within the space of 4 decades. Some estimate Lagos’ population to be in excess of 15 million; a quantum leap from a head count of only a few millions during the First Republic. East-west traffic, mostly commercial in nature, grew at same pace with the population of Lagos. Overuse and congestion at the Niger Bridge has become the inevitable fallout from this post-war development. Since the preponderance of Lagosians of Eastern origin travel home often and certainly so during major holidays, “go slow” on the narrow and aging Niger Bridge during the Christmas season, for example, is always a sight to behold.
Those who have been clamoring for a second Niger Bridge, therefore, have a powerful point behind their quest. But, from my perspective, the underlying impetus for their quest is totally flawed. The end game for seeking a second bridge as Onitsha is to facilitate the ever-expanding east-west road traffic between the former East and the sole importation hob in Nigeria, Lagos. The core business elite from the Southeast and Southsouth geopolitical zones have come to regard the Niger Bridge and the Asaba-Shagamu highway as their lifeblood. It is no wonder, therefore, that tremendous political pressure has been brought to bear on the Federal Government to solve the traffic bottleneck across the lower Niger River by building a second bridge at Onitsha. On the surface, it is hard to argue that a second Niger Bridge is not a good idea. One must, however, not fail to ask whether there are better ways of solving the problem of east-west traffic congestion in the Niger than just bridge building. How about evolving an imaginative national policy to decongest the Lagos harbor by directing all container ships with goods destined for the eastern half of the country to the equally deep seaports of Warri, Port Harcourt and Calabar as was the case before the Civil War? This singular policy, once faithfully implemented, shall radically reduce the central significance of the nightmarish east-west road traffic as well as the hue and cry over a 2nd Niger Bridge?
What no one needs at this juncture is the mad rush into building a crappy second Niger Bridge without a careful plan on how to better optimize its use by local inhabitants of the region. The proposed 2nd Niger Bridge should not just be all about facilitating land access to Lagos seaport which is several hundred miles to the west of River Niger. It should, first and foremost, be about enhancement of the local economy of the lower Niger River basin. Certainly, the 2nd Niger Bridge cannot be built without any care, whatsoever, about how such an undertaking shall impact the local economy and the natural ecosystems of the lower Niger River basin.
One myth that needs to be debunked is that the 2nd Niger Bridge extremely critical for sustenance of the Southeast economic buoyancy. In strategic terms, however, land transport across the lower Niger is of greater necessity to the Southsouth geopolitical zone than the Southeast. Whoever doubts this should take another close look at the map of the Southeast and Southsouth zones above. One must not forget that Ikom and Ugep in Cross River state, near to the Benue border and Auchi in Edo state, near the Kogi border, belong to the same geopolitical zone. Unless one prefers to travel by air, the shortest and most direct road connection between Ikom and Auchi, for example, must pass through the Niger Bridge. In fact, the Southsouth geopolitical zone cannot be a coherent functional entity without a free flow of traffic across the lower Niger River. The corollary to this fact is that the 2nd Niger Bridge, when properly designed and built shall go a long way to facilitate regional economic integration between the contiguous Southeast and Southsouth geopolitical zones.
Furthermore, development of a robust river transport infrastructure in the lower Niger is, by far, of more strategic import to the future economic health of this area, in particular and the entire country, in general. Simply throwing a low flat bridge at Onitsha, as the Federal Minister of Works has announced, is destined to forestall all future plans to develop the Niger-Benue River axis to accommodate seagoing vessels. This is akin to deliberately shooting oneself in the foot for no justifiable reason.
In following discourse, we shall look at the rationale or lack of it in hurrying to locate a flat bridge south of Onitsha without first completing the dredging of this heavily silted segment of the mighty Niger River and stabilizing the river bed over which the proposed structure shall span. What has happened to our commonsense, one must now begin to ask?
By Uche Egboluche
16th September 2013
The clock ticks to the collapse of Niger Bridge even as President Goodluck Jonathan and his cohorts are totally engrossed in who becomes the dictator of political tune in Nigeria. Each political intrigue that breaks with the day does the unfortunate by shifting attention from serious issues to hooliganism that best defines the characters of Nigerian ‘leaders.’ Among these serious issues that escape people’s attention is the River Niger Bridge, which may collapse before the president or his fellow power mongers decide to refrain from playing the Nero, who posterity said fiddled while Rome burnt.
Just get it! It would be a catastrophe of apocalyptic dimension, when that entire length of the bridge shatters and collapses in bits into the River Niger at Onitsha, Anambra State. It might unfortunately be during evening or early morning bumper-to-bumper traffic, with vehicles, concrete and twisted metal crashing into the river. Several vehicles and pedestrians will be left stranded on a wrecked island of debris that would become of the fallen bridge. Dozens of vehicles and humans will be scattered, and the ensuing stampede will send people stacked on top of each other amid the rubble; with dusts and smoke blurring the vision of those with enough strength to have made an escape. Some people would be further trapped inside their vehicles deep in the belly of the river with no readily trained divers to their rescue. And before the ill-equipped and barely trained rescue team would arrive, many heads would have rolled with blood covering a huge part of the river. Before you read through this article, there is a probability that thousands of lives with properties worth several billions of naira could be lost to the collapse River Niger Bridge. There is no guarantee it would not collapse the next minute, to the harm of estimated 100,000-persons that are transported across the bridge every day. That is to say at least more than 70 persons are on top of the bridge every minute. If one of the 65-seater luxurious buses, which daily cross the bridge, is caught in the mishap, especially at the rush hours in the morning and evening, it would make rubbish our statistics. No one needs to ask where such numbers of people are going to. This bridge connects the old Eastern Region to other parts of the country. However, outside human lives, properties that include goods in transit and houses around the area will be lost when this bridge collapses. It is just a matter of time, perhaps before the government observes the glaring difference between politics and life protection. There is also another group of people that ply their trade under the bridge. They do not just excavate sand but engage in petty trading at the area covered by the bridge but not immediately part of the river. These will all become victims who will either sustain life-threatening injuries, be crushed by falling steels, vehicles, goods and concretes, or be drowned in the River Niger. Thousands will be trapped and stranded at the both ends of the bridge in an ensuing confusion that would be compounded by the vibration that usually herald such incidents. The long steels that stand along the bridges could fall on the awkwardly connected electric cables, causing electrocution and even generating dangerous currents through the vast river. Don’t say God forbid, it could come to that. There will surely be chattered and mangled bodies at the both ends of the bridge at Onitsha and Asaba, with many survivors becoming hopeless and distressed. And for months, if not years before the traditionally lackadaisical Nigerian government wakes from its slumber to remedy the already dreadful situation; small rickety boats that would be merely sailing coffins would take over the transportation of desperate and stranded passengers across the river. Life will be characterized by misery with the already precarious economic trend in the east being further bullish. And outside southeast, the equally poorly maintained Lokoja Bridge at Ajaokuta in North Central will face unprecedented pressure that may equally cut its life short. The bridge is yet to recover from recurrent flooding that yearly test its strength. In addition, the total economic life of the nation will feel the shock with the easterners providentially cut off from the country they were whipped into via a civil war waged with genocidal propensity. Age and poor maintenance underline the need for a new bridge to replace the current one, built over 40 years ago, which looks every inch a Bailey bridge built from pre-engineered system of ready-to-assemble components for temporal use after the Civil War. Unlike bridges in sane worlds, there is no obedience to load capacity for Niger Bridge. As for its life span, it had elapsed. It is a standing coffin merely bearing the destructive vertical stress imposed by uncontrolled traffic of persons and goods, coupled with alterations its physical structure underwent when Biafran engineers needed to stop Posterity will record on that infamous day when this bridge finally caves in, a worst mass-killing by any known democratic government. Yes, it will be a government-mediated massacre and not an accident as the Federal Government of Nigeria would quickly call it, when it happens. Accident, as we all know, is an unplanned and unexpected occurrence, but massacre is a callous and unwarranted mass deletion of many lives. Safety, they say, doesn’t just happen by accident. No. It is planned just as absence of planning is invariably a plan for accident. And since federal government has continued to pay lip service to this need especially with regards to River Niger Bridge, it has as a consequence planned mass massacre of its citizens. It is too bad that even if the government wakes from its slumber today, and resumes work, a new bridge might not be completed before the present one caves in to age and overuse. And when it happens, of course, the federal government will set up probe panel and make speeches. The minister of works and others will shed crocodile tears just as President Goodluck Jonathan did when Dana Air crashed into residential buildings in Lagos, killing hundreds of innocent victims. Yes, crocodile tears because that will be an afterthought as the incident will further confirm the imbecilic orientation of those we leaders in this part of the world. In 2001, the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, in his usual deceptive manner, ceremoniously laid the ‘foundation’ for a second bridge he never even awarded a contract for nor paid for its preliminary works like the technical drawings. What later followed was the announcement that over thirty-nine knots-and-bolts that had been missing or were lost were re-fixed on parts of the wobbling bridge, although this could not be confirmed. Today, Jonathan administration through his minister of works, Mike Onolememen, has continued the promise blues. At worst, it has been taken to that path of concession experiment, which might give it a permanent seat in the unsavory group tagged abandoned projects. Recently, they announced the concession of the second bridge, the same process rejected by former Minister of Works, Senator Sanusi Mohammed Daggash, few years ago, who then claimed he was searching for new financing options for the bridge. He had ruled out the annual budgetary regime, which he said could not consistently command N10 billion yearly for three consecutive years running. As for concession financing, he rightly ruled it out as an efficient option to immediately raise the required N30 billion for urgent construction of the bridge. Instead, he opted to rather borrow money through the Debt Management Office, DMO or the Pension Commission in order to complete the bridge in three years. Unfortunately, he left office before any of these could materialize. It is expected that the new minister should have studied these claims of his predecessor before jumping into the current concession agreement with Julius Berger AIMS Consortium, which will keep the bridge’s completion till 2017. Chief Mike Onolememen might need to be reminded as many have done already, that serious concession agreement is yet to work in Nigeria. The Lagos Ibadan Expressway under concession is a clear indication to where the new bridge might be heading to. It is unfortunate that despite calls from eminent Nigerians and groups on the federal government, it has reduced the new bridge project to an object of campaign and political doublespeak. Obviously, the president and his acolytes are waiting for that ominous end of the bridge and mass murder of people. Anyway, it is trite for Onolememen and his boss to note that idle talks about the bridge ignore the possibilities of its collapse and the consequences of a bridgeless River Niger at the point of its most important commercial and social use. There is hence every need to fix the ailing bridge while a new one is put in place immediately.