July 3, 2017

Second Niger bridge, East-West road as metaphors for our political economy woes

Second Niger bridge, East-West road as metaphors  for our political economy woes

Babatunde Fashola

The Ministry of Finance has not yet released any cash for the Second Niger Bridge; so no money was returned
— Babatunde Fashola, SAN, Minister of Power, Works and Housing.

By Dele Sobowale

IN that short sentence,  Fashola summarized all that has been wrong with the political-economy of Nigeria. In 2016, while executing the first budget of the Buhari administration, no single kobo was spent on the Second Niger Bridge. The same can be said of the East-West road connecting Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Cross River — our five largest oil producing states. The East-West Road had received attention several times in the past, so it will be left untouched for now. Focus is the Bridge because it serves as a metaphor for the injustices to which agitators for the creation of Biafra point with justification. That the Bridge has not been built by now is an indictment of all the military governments since the 1970s and all the civilian Presidents without exception. History supports this conclusion.

Babatunde Fashola

When the only Niger Bridge was constructed in the 1970s linking the West and Mid-West with the Eastern States nobody envisaged the monumental increase in the number of vehicles crossing that bridge. Today, what started as an easy and problem-free crossing in the beginning can sometimes become a harrowing experience. From the early 1980s and after the first rush of petro-dollars which resulted in unprecedented increase in oil revenue, the number of vehicles crossing the bridge today had multiplied hundred-fold. Thereafter, those going home for the annual Yuletide celebrations had to brace up for the horrors associated with crossing the bridge. And each year, hundreds of thousands of people spend their Christmas still trying to get across.

Ostensibly responding to the cries of anguish of the people, every government, military and civilian had promised to build a Second Niger Bridge. All have failed – including Babangida and Obasanjo who were the longest serving two presidents. Jonathan, who served five years as substantive president came third. Between them IBB, OBJ and GEJ had twenty-one years to build that bridge and they failed to do it. So, if blames must be assigned, posterity must be aware that three Nigerians were mostly responsible for the pattern of deliberate neglect which repeated itself in 2016 when Buhari spent nothing on the bridge.

By comparison, projects that were conceived long after the bridge were completed before it. It is perhaps a coincidence that most of those projects are situated in the north. A few examples will illustrate the point. Abuja Airport was recently resurfaced at a cost several times that of the bridge when it was originally proposed in the early 1980s. To make the Kaduna Airport safe for large aircraft, several billion Naira were spent on it – all in a record time. That was not all. With Kaduna as the alternative airport, the Kaduna-Abuja rail line was hastily completed and the 150 kilometre road was also resurfaced – all in record time. Finally, the Lokoja-Abuja road expansion project was started and is nearing completion more than thirty years after the bridge was proposed.

Obviously, lack of funds could not be the reason because each of these projects costs more than the bridge. Lack of will should again not be an excuse; because the governments have demonstrated the will to deliver projects on time when they are determined to do so. Abuja airport was re-opened two days ahead of schedule because every kobo needed was made available as and when required. There are only two explanations left; deliberate wickedness on the part of all the governments and excessive docility coupled with selfish political leadership in the East. Let us examine these accusations one by one by drawing examples from two governments and Presidents.

Presidential candidate Obasanjo went to the East in 1998-9 to make campaign promises. Among these was the pledge to build the Second Niger Bridge. The people were ecstatic, as if they never heard that promise before. Yet, Presidential candidate and later President Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, made the same promises in 1979; spent four years and three months without laying a foundation. So, why did the people break into wild applause in 1998-9 when they were told the same thing by Obasanjo? Don’t blame OBJ.

Obasanjo finished his first term of four years without one single grain of sand being disturbed on both sides of the river preparatory to building a bridge. Ministers, Ambassadors and Special Advisers from the South East were appointed. Politicians and their close associates from Igboland received billions of naira worth of contracts. None was for the bridge. Nobody, not even people like Ekwueme, Ojukwu, Nwobodo and Orji Kalu complained about the breech of promise.

Obasanjo returned in 2003, after clinching his party’s nomination for the second term. Incredibly, among his list of promises was the construction of the Second Niger Bridge. At Enugu, Awka and Abia, the same promise was repeated and Igbos went wild in response to the same old and tired promise. This time the question is directed to Igbo people. Was it individual or collective amnesia or stupidity which made people to troop to the polling stations again in 2003 to vote for a man who had demonstrated that to him, “Promises, like [biscuits] are made to be broken”? Obasanjo never had an intention of constructing a Second Niger bridge and he did not. But, he was not through with the bridge yet. When he made his unethical bid for the third term and wanted the constitution amended, his bargaining chip to Igbo political leaders, to get their support, was the promise to build the Second Niger Bridge. They gave him the backing. Most of them are still alive today.