By Desmond OVBIAGELE
From the moment its conception was publicised, I had looked forward to the realization of the Lekki-Ikoyi Bridge with eager anticipation. Not that I had heard anything about its architectural design (although I was of course familiar with the antecedents of the assigned contractor).
But the simple prospect of hurdling the lagoon and bypassing the perennially congested Ozumba Mbadiwe en route to or from Lekki was too tantalizing to be casual about. So I watched with impatience over the four long years it took for all the structural ‘i’s and ‘t’s to be dotted and crossed respectively.
Then at long last — the launch, the commissioning, the opening. Freedom! Unfortunately, at least a thousand other motorists were yelling the same thing in their minds. So after an initial honeymoon period when the bridge could absolutely do no wrong, I settled into (or more accurately, was reminded of) the grim reality that the true population of Lagos State indeed exceeds considerably the official census figures of 8 or 9 million.
For sure, there are certain moments of the day when user experience is maximized; when you can whip across to the mainland with a speed that is sometimes disorienting for an accustomed road-warrior.
But more often than not, the experience, after battling through to access the bridge, is to be confronted with dishearteningly long queues tailing back from the toll booths.
It could be argued that perhaps it was a tactical misstep not to have kicked off operations with an initial ‘e-tag only’ phase. This would have taken advantage of the early enthusiasm to ply the novel infrastructure and ensured that a critical mass of motorists subscribed to this cashless option which would have reduced throughput time at the toll booths where users frequently have to wait for their change before moving on.
But all that’s water under the bridge now (pardon the pun). The responsible authorities must somehow find a way to optimize the asset and improve the commuting experience across what is indisputably a landmark project.
However, for me, the true revelation of the Lekki-Ikoyi Bridge transcends merely the time presently taken to get from Point A to Point B. Instead, it lies in the explosion of fitness activity that pulsates across the length of the imposing structure on any given morning. Men and women, young and old, of all shapes and sizes, across all levels of the social spectrum, individually or in groups. Running. Walking. Jumping. Stretching. Cycling. All done with an infectious abandon.
Who knew Nigerians had it in them? As a people, I thought we prided ourselves on being too busy and practical for such ‘oyinbo’ frivolities. But somehow, the physical reality of the bridge seems to have fired the imagination of its host community and unleashed an apparently long-suppressed demand for health-enhancing self-expression.
Actually, this fitness phenomenon is reminiscent of a similarly repressed societal demand that found spectacular expression about 12 years ago. It was no secret during the dark days of NITEL’s monopoly that Nigerians desired to communicate with each other (and the rest of the world) a whole lot more than the institution’s archaic systems and dysfunctional customer service would permit. But the true scale of this demand only became evident when one of the operators declared an annual profit after tax of over 1 billion dollars after only its second year of operation in the country (which must have been a corporate performance record in Nigeria; even the much-envied oil producing companies endure losses in their infancy during the mandatory exploration and development phases that precede peak production). Apparently (unknown even to the seasoned industry experts whose customer usage projections were considerably more modest), we just couldn’t get enough of connecting to each other at the slightest justification — a forecast miscalculation that sent the grateful GSM operators smiling quietly all the way to the bank.
But without the political will to create the enabling environment for sectoral reform and new investment, the nation’s commercially lucrative appetite for telecommunicative self-expression would have remained an unproven hypothesis.
So, more power to the fitness fad colourfully playing out across the Lagos Lagoon. Who knows how many lives are being extended as a result of the physical re-awakening that the presence of the bridge has generated? Pity the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens in other parts of the State who are not privileged to reside proximate to a similarly inspirational infrastructural asset (or even on streets with basic pavements that offer a measure of protection from lawless okadas whilst jogging or walking), and must therefore content themselves with whatever spurts of fitness activity their reserves of self-discipline can carve out in the storm of a frequently hostile and potentially life-threatening urban lifestyle.
Yes, infrastructure is indeed, a strange key to the door of national self-discovery, as well as an expensive one (consider the hundreds of million dollars spent to build the bridge, not to mention the multiple of billions sunk into creating a telephony alternative to NITEL). But its benefits are as incalculable as they are unpredictable – from the practical and measurable, to the cerebral and spiritual. Our thoughts and attitudes are shaped by the environments we live in; our behaviour is regulated by the circumstances we have created for ourselves. It is no coincidence that comparatively cleaner cities in other countries abroad just happen to have dustbins strategically placed along the walkway and a system for ensuring they are emptied regularly. The presence of that simple infrastructure changes mindsets and regulates potentially unruly behaviour.
It remains to be seen just how differently we could live as a people, just how much the quality of our lives would be improved, just how great the entity called Nigeria could become, if we deliberately harnessed and exploited the transforming power of even basic infrastructural services.
Like the situation in the telecoms sector over a decade ago, it is no secret that Nigerians desire to enjoy access to constant electricity in peace and quiet, without the irritating drone of generators or the pervasive smell of diesel/petrol.
The recent implementation of the privatization programme in the sector suggests we have finally summoned the political will to embark on the long journey to freedom.
Only time will tell the true scale of this repressed demand, the creative and entrepreneurial energies it will unleash, and who will be smiling quietly all the way to the bank.