For Travellers, End to 9th Mile Anxieties is Nigh this Yuletide

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Laurence Ani

As a child the name 9th Mile was seared into my consciousness by the
tale of a traveler eaten up whole by a python as he went to relieve
himself in the surrounding thicket away from other travellers’ view.
Worried at how long he had tarried in the bush, went this grisly tale,
the bus conductor and a few passengers launched a search party to seek
him out. What they found rather was a large python rendered immobile
by its human meal. Their scream drew a crowd and soon locals produced
machetes, cut up the python from whose entrails emerged the lifeless
body of the unfortunate passenger.

I’ve never ceased pondering that man’s cruel fate, coupled with the
latter day fixation of trying to figure out the town from which the
location 9th Mile is actually deemed to be nine miles, each time my
journey took me through this popular transit point on the
Enugu-Onitsha highway which is also a corridor for north-bound traffic
via Nsukka. Those memories have more or less dimmed for some years now
having not traversed the area after its roads fell into a deplorable
state that gave motorists a torrid time traversing.

The roads in that axis are classed as federal but like many other such
roads, the brunt of the public’s outrage over their poor condition is
wrongly borne by the governors through whose states they cut a swathe
– not the federal government that owns them.
Few things typify the unwholesome state of federal presence in the
South-East as does the Enugu-Onitsha highway. This 105-odd-kilometre
road, easily 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. One such nightmare spot
for travellers especially at this time of the year is the 9th Mile
Corner.

Happily, the sordid tale is on the cusp of a turnaround with the Enugu
State government’s mobilization of contractors to fix the many failed
sections of this axis. Rehabilitation is also ongoing at the the Oji
River-Ugwuoba stretch down to the Anambra State border, a lengthy
section of the old highway where motorists were routinely stuck for
hours – and even spent the night – in their bid to avoid the more
horrifying experience on the Enugu-Onitsha highway. But the attention
such pleasant tale is receiving has been largely disproportionate to
the ample time spent railing against the governor when the situation
was grim.

Such muted response is typical of the cynical times we live in. It’s a
telling reminder of how the public mindset works: they want to see
their leaders fix problems and not hear them offer excuses why a
problem can’t be fixed just yet. 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 road is
located.

Such sentiments are understandable; but like most angst-fueled public
outbursts the collapse of federal roads is hardly ever seen in its
right context. To the public, it doesn’t matter 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 36 states and 774 local
government areas. And hardly does the public ever reckon with the fact
that their governors may have earlier deployed funds to fix federal
roads without receiving the requisite reimbursement from the federal
government.

This has been the case in Enugu State where the government has yet to
be reimbursed for the over N25bn spent fixing federal roads despite
several reminders to the federal government. Of course, the current
rehabilitation has undoubtedly swelled the federal government’s
indebtedness to Enugu State. Yet, it’s gratifying that Governor
Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi’s resolve to give public infrastructure in the state
a constant makeover has not waned. For him, such obligations are the
reasons that states exist. It’s a similar philosophy that shapes the
diligent payment of public workers’ salaries in Enugu State in the
face of dwindling resources and embarrassingly rising inability to do
so across the federation.

Today, a substantial part of 9th Mile now wears a fresh coat of
asphalt, a sight last glimpsed many years ago. Its current agreeable
state did not seem conceivable about two months ago when the governor
visited the gridlocked intersection with a pledge for a turnaround
before Christmas. 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 step 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 Enugu State House of Assembly legislators wrote a
letter to the federal government seeking a refund, none has been made.
The pressure on states to take on additional responsibilities of the
federal government intensifies, nonetheless. This is despite the sharp
decline in allocation to states from the federal purse.

A logical path out of this dilemma is timely refund of funds so spent
by state governments. This could be achieved if the federal government
removes the red tape that frustrates a swift verification of claims
and subsequent settlement acceptable to the parties. 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. Only then would the frequent
criticisms which governors endure on account of barely accessible
federal roads in their states be truly deserved.

But for now, nothing other than plaudits is what anyone who has
transformed the 9th Mile Corner and flagged off 35 major
infrastructural projects simultaneously across Enugu’s 17 local
government areas should get from the public. There’s no doubt,
however, that his self-effacing nature will baulk at the likely buzz
such might create. Yet, it’s worth saying as the Catholic Bishop of
Enugu Diocese, Most Reverend Calistus Onaga, told Governor Ugwuanyi
recently, “we are not taking any of these things for granted. Keep it
up and don’t relent.”

––Ani is the Senior Special Assistant on Research and Communication to
Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi