By Ochereome Nnanna
Few companies can boast of playing the partnership role that construction giant, Julius Berger Nigeria PLC, has played in the infrastructural development of Nigeria. The advent of this company of German origin (which was originally a specialist in bridge building, and hence the moniker of its disbanded football team as “the Bridge Boys”) reads like a Cinderella story.
In August 1965, the Federal Government, the government of the Federal Republic of Germany and officials of Julius Berger Tiefbau AG, Germany, signed an agreement, which enabled German banks to loan Nigeria the funds to build the SecondMainlandBridge, which later came to be popularly known as EkoBridge. The Bridge connects Surulere at Alaka Bus-stop with Apongbon in LagosIsland. It was a major architectural marvel then (and even now) as it stretches about four kilometres over the mighty Lagos Lagoon.
Julius Berger became an instant hit. As soon as the Biafra – Nigeria war ended, Berger was also saddled with the task of rebuilding the RiverNigerBridge blown to bits by Biafra’s daredevil warrior, Col Joe Achuzia (Air Raid) to slow down the federal forces invading Onitsha from the Mid West. It took Julius Berger only seven weeks to repair the Bridge. The company thus warmed itself into fond embraces of Nigerians, both the high and low.
It was during the oil boom years that Julius Berger started reaping bountifully from its extension of goodwill that led to the birth of EkoBridge. By then, the company had diversified to virtually every section of construction activities. The oil boom led to the rapid increase in the population in Lagos, then the capital of Nigeria. The traffic nightmares began, especially after the Udoji Award, when a lot of people acquired their own cars.
The Federal Military Government under General Yakubu Gowon had to figure out how to ease the traffic gridlock. The lot fell on Julius Berger to construct the Lagos Inland Ring Road networks. These included the Lagos – Ikorodu Road, Apapa – Oshodi – Oworonsoki Express, Lagos – Badagry Express, and the Agege Motor Road that branched off into Agege with the left leg moving on to Ota in OgunState. All the beautiful flyover bridges in Lagos were built by JB nearly 40 years ago and funded by the Federal Government. It was the recognition that Lagos was simply no longer viable as a permanent capital that the idea of Abuja as the new capital (an original idea of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe) was approved in 1976. The then military Head of State, General Murtala Mohammed, on February 5, 1976, signed the FederalCapitalTerritory (Abuja) Decree No 5.For Julius Berger, there was no stopping.
From that moment on, it became the construction company of choice, so prized that top members of the ruling class became interested in it personally. In the early 1990s it became a Nigerian company and was later floated on the Nigerian Stock Exchange. In fact, today, a Nigerian is the single largest stockholder of the company though the Germans still have a commanding presence on its board. Julius Berger’s reputation spread nationwide.
In 1987, I had just started my working life in a newspaper in Minna, Niger State. Julius Berger came to town, apparently to prepare Minna for the eventual homecoming of the then military President, General Ibrahim Babangida. Berger completed the ChanchagaBridge leading into Minna within three weeks.
They simply piped away the river, brought the pre-cast bridge parts and assembled them over the river bed. They worked day and night. It took the company less than a year to transform Minna from a sleepy rural railway town to an infrastructurally sufficient city where two former presidents and other retired generals now feel truly at home. Anywhere Nigerians saw the big “B” of Julius Berger on a project site, it was automatically concluded that government was serious not only in ensuring high quality job but also speedy execution of the contract.
However, in recent years, it would seem as though the magic of Berger is beginning to leave it. The company seems to have slowed down. The horrendous experiences of users of the Apapa – Oshodi – Oworonsoki Express, which the company is reconstructing, are simply unspeakable.
The reconstruction, which started over two years ago from Berger Yard Bus-stop, is just getting to Cele Bus-stop, barely six kilometres away, and that is only one side of the express. At this pace, it may take Julius Berger up to 15 years to complete a road that leads into the nation’s highest source of non-oil revenue; a road that services more than six industrial estates, two seaports, and numerous security and military installations and zones.
In fact, the former headquarters of the company (before it was moved to Abuja) is on this road. I do not know if this company has a functional media or public relations unit because efforts to find out why the work on this all-important Express by newsmen either hits the brick wall or produces little effect. All we know is that a company known to work day and night in its heydays now works only during the day, at the height of economic bustle. It does not turn up for work on this site during weekends and public holidays.
Sometimes the express is totally sealed for hours and nothing moves. And all complaints by the members of the suffering public and the many media houses on this stretch simply fall on deaf ears. Julius Berger is beginning to exhibit streaks of impunity as if it is now entitled to do whatever it likes without explaining to anyone why it is putting members of the public to such dehumanising ordeals on its worksites.
The Federal Ministry of Works must wake up and remind Julius Berger that the public is their main customer. And customer is still the king.