By Johnson Ogome
It is easily one of the star projects executed by the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC. It took all of 10 years to complete. Yet, when it was ready for commissioning in 2013, the NDDC management had different ideas. That is the story of the 600-metre Ibeno Bridge across the Qua Iboe River in Akwa Ibom State, which cost a princely N10.4billion.
Why did the NDDC hesitate to roll out the drums to celebrate a major milestone in the development of the Niger Delta? The NDDC Managing Director, Sir Bassey Dan-Abia, has the answer. He said: “When I first visited the bridge in February 2014, shortly after the fourth governing board was inaugurated, we were asked to commission the bridge which had then been completed. I did not buy the idea of commissioning the bridge because I wanted to see that the road connected all the intended inland communities. Thus, the contract for the second phase was the first to be awarded by the commission under my leadership.”
So, the Baasey Dan-Abia-led NDDC refused to grab the opportunity to inaugurate the mega-bridge and the 6.87-kilometre Iko-Atabrikang-Opolom-IwuoAchang Road in Ibeno Local Government Area. It may have been surprising to many, given that the Ibeno Bridge is one of the longest built by the NDDC in Niger Delta.
However, recent events have justified the suspension of the commissioning. Just last week, the NDDC flagged off the construction of the second phase of the major link road. The phase 2, which is 5 kilometres will continue from the 600-metre Ibeno bridge to link up with another 36-kilometre Ikoro-Ntafra-Opolom Road, also being constructed by the NDDC.
Ceremonies for the official commencement of the new phase were performed by the NDDC Managing Director, Sir Bassey Dan-Abia, on October 2 at Ibeno. He declared that change had come to Ibeno, because apart from the road project the commission was going to build a desalination plant in the oil-rich local government to ensure that their drinking water was safe.
Sir Dan-Abia, who had earlier paid a courtesy visit to the Paramount Ruler of Ibeno Local Government Area, Dr. Effiong Bassey Achianga, before the flag off ceremony, blamed the delays in the completion of NDDC projects in the area on funding challenges. He, however, assured the royal father that the new NDDC would give them the special attention that they deserved as a major contributor to the oil wealth of the nation. “Ibeno is a special area for the NDDC and as such, the commission will do everything within its powers, subject to the availability of funds, to complete all the projects started in the area and other parts of the Niger Delta,” he said.
Dr. Achianga, who is also the Chairman of Akwa Ibom State Council of Chiefs, thanked the Federal Government and the management of the NDDC for their efforts in executing some people-oriented projects in his domain. He recalled that the NDDC board and management had visited him in February, 2014, “on the instruction of the former President Goodluck Jonathan to ascertain whether Ibeno Local Government Area was being marginalized.”
The monarch said it was unfortunate that some NDDC projects that would have helped in transforming the lives of the people of the area were being delayed on account of poor funding. He listed some of the projects that had suffered delays. It included the Ibeno Civic Centre, the Okoroutip shore protection, Upenekang water project and the Itak Abasi/Okoroitak shore protection project.
The Chairman of Ibeno Transition Committee, Hon. Henry EkpeNko, said that people in the area were delighted that the second phase of the Iko-Atabrikang-Opolom-IwuoAchang Road was now underway. He said that the ultimate aim would be to connect communities in two Local Government Areas of Akwa Ibom State that had all this while been separated by the Qua Iboe River. “Our hope is that the road and the bridge would connect Iko, Rikang, Akata, Opolom, Ikot-Enwang, Okoroutip and Iwochang communities with about 24 others. If that happens, it would have linked all the communities to modernity, while enhancing our economic fortunes,” he said.
The NDDC Executive Director Projects, Engr. Tuoyo Omatsuli, who spoke on the benefits of the second phase of the Ibeno road project, said that it would take off a lot of load from the Eket-Ikot-Abasi Road, adding that work was progressing at the 36-kilometre Ikoro-Ntafra-Opolom Road, which would take travelers to the East-West Road through Eastern Obolo LGA. According to him, the road would shorten the distance for those travelling from Ibeno to Port Harcourt, as they would no longer need to pass through Eket.
He said that the NDDC recognized the importance of Eket and Ibeno local governments to the Federal Government, especially with the operational presence of the second largest producer of oil in the country, the ExxonMobil within the communities.
Engr. Omatsuli said their success in building the bridge was a testimony to the ability of indigenous engineers to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their expatriate counterparts. According to him, local engineers and contractors have all it takes to assist the NDDC in fulfilling its mandate of rapidly developing the oil-producing region of the country, adding that the project did not only bring physical development but was also used to train the youths in the surrounding communities in metal works, carpentry and other technical skills.
The supervising engineer for the project, Mr. Etim Eyoette, said that work was progressing satisfactorily at the 36-kilometre Ikoro-Ntafra-Opolom road with 8 bridges to link up the Ibeno bridge. He noted that about 70 per cent of the road would pass through swampy terrain, adding, however, that the contractor and the engineers were prepared to tackle the challenges. He observed that the rains start early and end late in the area, leaving them with a very little window to effectively carry out earth work.
The site engineer, AnnieteUmoh, said that they have so far cleared and filled about one kilometre and have started pilling for the first of the 8 bridges on the road. He appealed to the NDDC to deal with the issue of compensation so that the communities on the road alignment would not have cause to delay the project.
Community leaders in the area were all excited by the positive developments which the NDDC had brought to them. For the village head of Agada community, Chief Alex Ebitu,” the NDDC has made it possible for us to interact with our kith and kin in the adjoining communities. This was not possible in the past because the river stood between us.”
He added: “In those days, we had to rely on boats to connect from one community to another and led to many avoidable deaths through boat accidents. Besides, we had difficulty sending our sick people and pregnant women to access better medical facilities elsewhere. Thank God, all that has now come to an end.”
Indeed, the opening of Ibeno and the surrounding communities had been long in coming, considering that it is main oil-producing area of Akwa Ibom State. Members of the Senate Committee on the Niger Delta recognized this fact when they inspected the Ibeno Bridge in 2013. The Senators were unanimous in giving thumbs up for the project. Senator James Manager, the then chairman of the committee said it was one project which he would want the Nigerian President to commission as soon as possible. He said: “We, the Senators are happy and we have seen that the communities around here are happy too. This is a landmark project and it is very unique.”
The conclusions of the Senators were also affirmed by the former Akwa Ibom State governor, Chief Godswill Akpabio. He said: “I am satisfied with what the NDDC has done for Ibeno people. I am particularly impressed by the fact that the bridge was built by an indigenous contractor.”
Another road being constructed by the NDDC to add value to the Ibeno Bridge and connect the Qua Iboe Terminal is the Eket-Ibeno Road. Unfortunately, the contractor engaged by the NDDC to build the road did not live up to expectations after several years. This led to the termination of the contract at the request of the Akwa Ibom State Government. Since the road is a major artery to operational sites of Mobil in Eket, the NDDC is now partnering with the state government and the oil company to ensure that the road was completed.
Admittedly, work on the Eket-Ibeno Road is still moving at a snail pace. This has of course raised concerns among the people of Ibeno who feel that they were being shortchanged. The 20-kilometre road awarded to Chinese Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC) Nigeria Limited has four bridges and provides easy access to Qua Iboe Terminal and other Mobil facilities in the area.
Both the Eket-Ibeno Road and the Ibeno Bridge are strategic projects considering that Ibeno is the operational base of ExxonMobil which is the second largest producer of crude oil in Nigeria after Shell. Again, the Ibeno side of the bridge gives easy access to creeks and natural habitats in the area, as well as opening the Ibeno Beach for tourists.