A Pleasant Surprise on Enugu-Onitsha Highway from Ugwua

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By Uchenna Nwuzo

Few things typify the unwholesome state of federal presence in the South-East as does the Enugu-Onitsha highway. This 105-odd-kilometre road, arguably the most important highway into the region, has lately been a nightmare experience for travellers. So agonizing, in fact, that some recall spending hours at just a spot, leaving one to cringe at the mere thought of how grim the situation will be with the usual surge in traffic during the Christmas season.

The reaction from anyone who had had such horrid experience has been anything but complimentary as evident in frequent outburst on social media. The brunt, typically, has been borne by the governors of Anambra and Enugu in whose states the highway cuts a swathe. 

I had no illusions about the experience that lay ahead as I departed Enugu for Onitsha early this month on a Friday morning, a usually busy day along that corridor. I had left quite early to make ample provision for the likely delay particularly at the Ugwuoba axis given that I hoped to visit a few friends and conclude my transactions before the next day’s return trip. It turned out my anxieties had been unfounded because Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi had weeks earlier signed the contract for the repair of the roads. The once deplorable roads were suddenly becoming well paved, thus halving the time it took travellers to arrive at their destinations during that dark, frustrating period.

So with ample time on my hand having arrived Onitsha much earlier than the horribly past condition of the road usually permitted and rounded off all I needed to do, I was able to make the return trip to Enugu that same day. Apart from the delays that once characterized such trips, there was also a telling absence of vitriol from passengers railing against the governors for the poor state of the roads. In place of unsavoury comments, the voices have become unanimously laudatory. 

But even as plaudits mount for Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi as the various earth-movers even out the potholed sections along the 9th Mile axis and the Ugwuoba – Oji River stretch, the fact the rehabilitation has yet to find the sort of traction which reports of travellers’ painful experiences on that route had gained in the media still speaks to the need to consider a review of the federal-state roads dichotomy. 

The muted response seen in both the traditional and new media is typical of the cynical times we live in. It offers a glimpse into the public mindset; how the people would rather always see their leaders fix problems and not the impediments to the fixing of such problems. This mindset brings out clearly the absurd details of the country’s state-federal roads dichotomy. When federal roads collapse, the federal government is usually spared the ire of the masses. Not so for any governor in whose state such roads are located. 

Of course, it hardly ever matters whether the highway is designated a “federal road”. It’s immaterial too that the statutory obligation to fix the many so-called federal roads across Nigeria is among the reason the federal government gets 56 percent of national earnings as against 44 percent for the entire states and local government areas.

The current rehabilitation has undoubtedly swelled the federal government’s obligation to Enugu State because it had earlier spent over N25bn fixing federal roads without receiving the requisite reimbursement despite several notifications to the federal government.

Early this year, the Enugu State House of Assembly passed a motion imploring the federal government to refund the sum of N25.9bn said to have been spent by the state on federal roads.

“We are constrained to make this appeal after waiting for about two years in which the roads were rehabilitated without any reimbursement from the federal government despite series of efforts and appeals,” the motion sponsored by Hon. Chinedu Nwamba, read. 

The pace of work so far suggests those traveling to their country home to spend this Christmas holiday with Kith and kin will certainly have a smooth journey, thanks to the bold resolve by Governor Ugwuanyi to take on a clearly stated federal responsibility at this austere time. But such gestures do not seem sustainable especially given that more than two years after the Enugu State legislators’ letter to the federal government, no refund has been made. Despite this, the pressure on states to on additional responsibilities of the federal government intensifies. 

A logical path out of this dilemma is timely refund of funds so spent by state governments. Even more sensibly, the ludicrous classification of roads could be stopped outright so a more realistic revenue allocation formula to our three-tiered government will emerge. While we await that, I think it’s fitting to say kudos to Governor Ugwuanyi like the middle-aged man who kept voicing those words repeatedly as our bus cruised along the Ugwuoba axis which now wears a fresh coat of asphalt, a sight last glimpsed many years ago.