Lessons From the Second Niger Bridge
By KAYODE KOMOLAFE
At least two seemingly contradictory lessons could be learnt from the completion of the first phase of the Second Niger Bridge linking Anambra and Delta states.
On the one hand, the long story of the bridge is a lesson in how not prioritise a project of such a huge significance. On the other hand the completion of the project is a good example of governance as a continuum. It is negative on the path of progress to delay the execution of such a project with immense implications for so long while it is positive that the Buhari administration elected to end the delay in the building of the bridge.
The iconic bridge was released for public use six days ago; but there is still a yet-to- commence second phase comprising the construction of the four kilometre – link road on the Delta state end and the seven kilometre – road linking the bridge and Onitsha-Owerri interchange in Anambra state.
As a matter of fact, Works and Housing Minister Babatunde Fashola made this point very clear when he announced two month ago that the bridge would be ready for use before the end of the year. So it’s “a promise kept,” as political publicists would say.
First, the story of the Second Niger Bridge has become proverbial about the levity with which government takes the provision of very vital infrastructure. The 1.6 kilometre -bridge links the south-south and south east zones of the country. Yet it has been decades from the time the idea of the bridge was conceived to the completion of the of the first phase of the project at the cost of N336 billion to completion The Second Niger Bridge had almost become a metaphor for uncompleted projects in Nigeria. The idea of the bridge always came alive during elections. It was an item of campaign towards the 1979 presidential election by the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). The election was won by President Shehu Shagari. He could not fulfil the promise before the government was overthrown in a military coup after four years and three months in power. The military regime of General Muhammadu Buhari succeeded the administration of Shagari. Incidentally, it is the administration of Buhari as an elected President that is now completing the first phase of the project. By the way, this is also happening two months to another presidential election.
At a point, the military regime of President Ibrahim Babangida actually challenged Nigerian engineers to design another bridge on River Niger to link Asaba and Onitsha. A design was made available, but no bridge was built before the of the regime.
The subsequent military regime of General Sanni Abacha did not make the idea of the bridge a priority.
President Olusegun Obasanjo only remembered the Second Niger Bridge five days to the end of his eight years in office when he “flagged off” the construction of the bridge in Asaba. Meanwhile the bridge was a campaign issue in the 1999 presidential election won by Obasanjo.
The administration of President Umaru Yar’adua inherited the project with the aim of executing it with funds from a Public Private Partnership (PPP) . In 2007, the cost was estimated at N58.6 billion. A contractor, Gitto, was to provide 60% of the funds while the federal government was to provide 20 per cent while Anambra and Delta states were to be responsible for the rest. The dream was not realised before the death of Yar’Adua after three years in office.
Yar’Adua’s successor, President Goodluck Jonathan also promised to deliver the project in 2015. This was never done despite the fact that Jonathan reportedly told a Town Hall Meeting in Asaba in 2012 that he would “go on exile” if the bridge was not ready by 2015. Ironically, he left office that year.
Meanwhile the huge socio-economic costs of the delay in the completion of the project may never be accurately estimated. The enormous human cost of the pressure on the first bridge has also been immeasurable in the absence of an alternative.
Secondly, there is the positive lesson of seeing governance as a continuum. Three months after his election as president, Buhari cancelled the contracts awarded by the previous administration. A new contract was signed with Julius Berger. The project was managed by the National Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) and funded by the Presidential Infrastructural Development Fund. The other two projects being funded from the same source are the Abuja-Kaduna-Kano Road and the Lagos-Ibadan Express Road. These are truly remarkable projects. The idea of “landmark” projects has been bastardised in Nigeria with culverts, feeder roads and boreholes being “commissioned” with fanfare by some sub-national governments. The Second Niger Bridge is not in the class of such projects.
Doubtless, the Buhari administration will be leaving office in five months with many important roads dilapidated and several vital bridges not built. The socio-economic landscape is still defined by infrastructural decay. This is a central question in any serious discussion about Nigeria’s development.
Yet, to give the Buhari administration its well-earned credit for completing the Second Niger Bridge is certainly far from giving the devil his due. A number of other roads and bridges are being built. With an undeniable sense of modesty, Fashola draws attention to some of these roads across the country from time to time. A lot of progress has been made on the other projects being financed by the presidential infrastructural funding initiative.
What Buhari has done with the Second Niger Bridge is indisputably an exemplar of a continuum in governance. Abandonment of projects begun one administration by the subsequent governments has become plague in the realm of development at various tiers of government.
While reflecting on the chequered history of the Second Niger Bridge, the rigmarole of constructing the East-West Road which links the states of the Nigeria Delta naturally comes to mind. It is a development tragedy that 16 years after the contract for the rehabilitation and expansion of the East-West Road was awarded, the federal government is still the lamenting the poor funding of the project. The Obasanjo administration awarded the contract for the construction of the dual-carriage road with four lanes. The slow pace of work on the project is simply unacceptable.
It is hoped that the East-West Road will benefit from the new creative schemes that the federal government has designed to fund big projects so that this all-important road would be completed early enough for Buhari to “commission” before the end of his tenure.