Enugu PHC distressway
Emmanuel Ugwu, in Umuahia, looks at how the Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway is exposing the feelings of mild anger and impatience raging against President Jonathan in the South-east
From a frustrating nightmare, the condition of Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway has further deteriorated to a hot political issue in Abia State. At the town hall meeting held in Umuahia on October 1, as part of activities to mark Nigeria’s 52nd independence anniversary, the near impassable condition of the expressway popped up as a major issue of concern. Sir Vincent Ogbulafor, who chaired the meeting, drew deep sighs of resignation from the audience when he opened the discussions, calling on the federal government to urgently rehabilitate the expressway.
Along with creation of additional states in the South-east geopolitical zone, the need to make the Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway smooth again topped the demand of the stakeholders at the meeting, who were drawn from all the 17 local governments of Abia State.
Aside asking the state governor, Chief Theodore Orji, to convey the urgent demand to President Goodluck Jonathan, the stakeholders also called on the members of the National Assembly from Abia State to lend their legislative backing to the demands of their people. Ogbulafor, who was once the national chairman of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, told Orji that the people of Abia responded to his call and backed Jonathan for the presidency hence the need for Mr. President to reciprocate.
“Abia has shown enough magnanimity to vote for Jonathan when you asked us to do so,” he said, alluding to the near 100 per cent votes Abians gave Mr. President in last year’s presidential poll.
The passion generated by the call on the federal government to tackle the expressway was further underlined by the Secretary to the State Government, Professor Mkpa Agu Mkpa, when he included the road issue in the toast he proposed for the independent celebration. “We toast that very soon all the federal roads in Abia and those passing though Abia will be rehabilitated so that we can have a sense of belonging,” he said. It was accompanied with a spirited affirmation.
Even before the Independence Day town hall meeting, the Abia State House of Assembly and the Aba branch of the Nigeria Bar Association had over the past three weeks stoked up the issue of the expressway. On September 10, the state lawmakers, just back from their six weeks recess, adopted a unanimous resolution calling on the federal government to rehabilitate the road. The lawmakers followed their resolution with summons to the Federal Controller of Works in Abia, Mr. Nasiru Bello, and the state director of the Federal Road Maintenance Agency (FERMA), Mr. Eugene Baror. They appeared before the executive session of the Assembly on September 24 to explain what the federal authorities were doing on the all important expressway.
At the end of the encounter the Abia lawmakers were left with more disappointment as Bello maintained that “for any meaningful work to take place on the Enugu-Port Harcourt road there must be adequate budgetary provision and such is beyond the Federal Ministry of Works.”
Baror on his part told the Abia legislators that the condition of the expressway was beyond what FERMA could handle as the agency lacked the capacity to repair or rehabilitate roads that have suffered massive deterioration. The non-assuring responses from the two federal officials made the Abia State Commissioner for Works, Mr. Kingsley Mgbeahuru, to conclude regrettably that the end of the bad road was not yet in sight. “It is clear from the responses of these two federal officials that nothing tangible is being done to address the poor state of the Abia end of the Port Harcourt-Enugu expressway,” he said.
The latest agitation of the Abia House of Assembly for the rehabilitation of the expressway was not the first time they would speak out on the issue. In August last year, the lawmakers passed a similar resolution calling on the federal government to rehabilitate the expressway and urged the National Assembly members from Abia to reach out to the federal authorities and draw their attention to the deplorable condition of the road.
When on September 5 last year Senator Nkechi Nwaogu went on constituency tour of her Abia Central Senatorial district she concluded that the road had gone beyond the usual patching that FERMA was noted for and called for a reconstruction of the road. She said that apart from the members of the state legislature other citizens of Abia had been expressing displeasure over the poor state of the expressway. “While in Abuja we receive mails, text messages, telephone calls and letters from the people we represent expressing concern over the total collapse of federal roads and how it is adversely affecting their economic and social activities,” she said.
Lawyers in Aba embarked on a protest march on September 18 to register their frustration with the authorities for not heeding to the strident cries of the people over the collapse of the expressway. Chairman of Aba NBA, Mr. Charles Eduzor, said the condition of the road was eroding the commercial life of Aba as vehicles laden with goods find it extremely difficult to drive into the city. Besides, he said, the travellers making use of the expressway are usually griped with great apprehension once they are within the Abia portion of the road.
“We are using this opportunity to tell President Goodluck Jonathan that those who are not suffering the menace of Boko Haram are entitled to be alive and drive on good roads,” Eduzor said.
There were, indeed, very high expectations in Abia immediately Jonathan was elected into office. Prominent among the expectations was the rehabilitation of all federal roads in the state, including the Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway, which was expected to be accorded priority attention. It was not a misplaced expectation given that Abia is a full-blooded PDP state as Abians had voted PDP all through.
A former member of the state legislature, who preferred not to be named, said that she never imagined that the federal road at the heart of commercial activities in Abia would remain neglected longer than six months after Jonathan was sworn into office on May 29. Her hope along with those of her fellow Abia citizens have stretched beyond 14 months and still counting. There is no end in sight for their frustration as no contract has been awarded for the road.
“The most annoying thing is that at the end of the meeting of the federal executive council each week they will announce to us the number of contracts awarded for roads and other projects but they will never mention Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway,” the former lawmaker said.
The frustrations of Abians over the deplorable condition of federal roads in the state is already giving rise to people asking if they actually used their votes well in the 2011 presidential elections. “Those of us in the South-east gave him (President Jonathan) votes on sentiment but I don’t know whether we miscalculated along the line,” said the Aba NBA chairman.
Price of Confrontation
Given that the portion of the expressway that fall within Abia happens to be the worst as Enugu and Rivers ends are still relatively smooth, many in Abia State readily attribute the situation to the brand of politics played by Orji’s predecessor. Publicity secretary of Abia state chapter of PDP, Chief Uchechi Egbuka, said that the rehabilitation of the Abia portion of the Enugu-Port Harcourt was sacrificed at the altar of confrontational politics of former Abia governor, Dr Orji Uzor Kalu.
“The problem between Orji Uzor Kalu and President Obasanjo affected the Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway,” Egbuka said.
According to him, there is no way a governor would be antagonising the presidency and hope to get things done in his state by the federal government.
The strained relations between Kalu and Obasanjo seemed to lend credence to the belief that the abandonment of the Abia portion of the expressway was politically motivated. The contract for the rehabilitation of the road was actually awarded by the Obasanjo administration but no sooner had the contractor finished the Enugu portion than he stopped work. But Abia people are not the only ones affected by the terrible condition of the road. Citizens of other states, who come to Umuahia or Aba or pass through the state on their way to Enugu or Port Harcourt, are also suffering the distress.
A Governor’s Political Burden
The strident complaints over the federal roads have created a political predicament for Orji, as not a few Abians believe that he has not leveraged on his cordial relationship with the presidency to get the roads fixed. But the governor would not agree with that line of thinking. While he acknowledged during a press briefing on September 3 that “Abia’s portion of the Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway ‘is the worst,’” he said he had been mounting pressure on the federal authorities to change the condition of the road. According to him, even though the road belongs to the federal government “it does not mean we should fold our arms.”
The governor regretted that the state lacked the financial resources to reconstruct the road but believed that the federal government would eventually fix the road, just as it assisted in saving Abia State from the free reign of kidnappers and other criminal elements as well as the improved power supply by building the 132/33 KVA substation at Ohia.
“We’ve been in constant touch with the federal government. They assured us that they will do it and we believe they will do it,” Orji assured the anxious citizens. Based on the assurances he got from the federal authorities Orji said, “We have to be patient.” He explained that if the state had gotten the resources to reconstruct the road he would have done it without waiting for the federal government since the primary beneficiaries are Abians.
At the Independence Day town hall meeting the governor reiterated his assurance that Mr. President would see to it that the Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway was put in good condition.
For now patience is the name of the game. May be when the 2013 budget is unveiled Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway would be captured among the projects for the next fiscal year. Before then, the agitation and grumbling would go on as the distress of road users mount on the expressway each passing day.