By Dons Eze
FOR decades, the 100 kilometres Enugu-Onitsha Expressway has been in deplorable and dilapidated state, causing discomfort and dislocations to thousands of its users, such as constant breakdown of vehicles, accidents that resulted to several deaths, destruction of valuable goods and property, including foodstuff and other commodities.
Many people have been bandying different stories as to the reason why that road has been abandoned. While some people attribute it to the usual neglect of roads in the South East by the Federal Government, such as the Onitsha-Owerri road, Owerri-Okigwe road, Enugu-Port Harcourt road, etc.; others claim that contract for the repair of Enugu-Onitsha road was actually awarded, but that the money was embezzled by some South East politicians.
But if, indeed, the Federal Government had actually awarded contract for the reconstruction of that road and somebody “ate” the money, what is the EFCC doing to arrest the man and recover the money? That is why we are having a double mind about the story. Some other people also accuse those who represent the South East at the federal level, those who held and still hold key positions in government, like Senate President, Deputy Senate President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Deputy Speaker, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, ministers, etc., but failed to do what they were supposed to do.
Because these men and women of timber and calibre fly in and out of the South East each time they want to travel, they would not remember the fate of the ordinary citizens who travel by road. When the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu, was closed, everybody was shouting, and it did not take long before the Federal Government rose to the occasion and got the airport fixed. But these representatives of the South East in government hardly raise any voice about the deplorable state of Enugu-Onitsha. That’s the type of representatives we have in government.
The Enugu-Onitsha expressway which was started by the Obasanjo military administration in the mid-1970s, and was significantly improved upon by the Shagari civilian government between 1979 and 1983, was never fully completed and officially commissioned before the military struck again in December 1983. But because of the importance of the road to the economy of the South East, and indeed all Nigerians, people started using it.
The Enugu-Onitsha road is not just one small road tucked away somewhere in the South East. It is a major federal highway connecting the South West through the River Niger to the South East, South-South and Northern Nigeria, through Benue and Kogi states. The road is an important artery of commerce, culture and race. Even as important as the road to the economic viability, cultural integration and national planning of Nigeria, the highway has since virtually ceased to exist.
It is encumbered by deep gullies, pot-holes, thorn-bushes, thistles and craters which have now rendered the expressway impassable. Over the years, we usually see some road construction equipment, such as bulldozers, caterpillars, etc., mounted on the expressway to give the impression that reconstruction work was going on, whereas there would be nothing to that effect.
From the Enugu axis, starting from the 82 Division, Nigerian Army Headquarters, to the Ninth Mile Corner, linking the Southern and Northern parts of the country, the Enugu-Onitsha Expressway, is a big embarrassment to many of its users. The road has worn out dangerously to the extent of being abandoned only to articulated vehicles and tankers, apart from the ubiquitous herders and their cows.
Very often, one or two of these articulated vehicles would fall and cover the entire stretch of the road, and every movement would be halted. The matter is not helped by soldiers who mount checkpoints, collecting money before allowing any vehicle to cross, thus increasing the agony of the commuters.
If not for the excellent work done by the Enugu State government led by Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, in rehabilitating the Milliken Hill, many people would have been trapped inside Enugu Coal City, since no small vehicle would attempt plying that death trap through Ugwu Onyeama.
Just some few days ago, there appeared to be a ray of hope, when we heard over the news that the Federal Government had approved N8.6 billion for the completion of work on the Enugu-Onitsha highway. According to the story, Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, who was said to have made the announcement at the end of the Federal Exevutive Council meeting in Abuja, said: “The Ministry of Works and Housing presented one memorandum to council, which was for the revised estimated total cost for our project on the Enugu-Onitsha highway, it was to add the sum of N8.649 billion for a 22-kilometre section of the 100-kilometre road so that we can expedite conclusion of work there.
“The variation is to cater for change of the pavement surface, binder cost and the wiring cost, to increase the thickness and also to utilise the modified bitumen as well as strengthen the shoulders and some bridge work. So, the Council approved this variation of N8.649 billion.”
While this may be cheery news to many users of the road we, however, have our reservation, because as we have often been told: “approval is not release”. We have had many approvals that only ended in the sheet of papers on which they were written, with no cash backing. In the end, everything will come to naught. In other words, we will not rejoice, nor sing alleluia until we see appreciable work done on the road. Even at that, we will still hold our breadth, until the entire stretch of the road is completed, since we have never been comfortable with the haphazard way the project was being executed.
The Enugu-Onitsha Expressway is one of the busiest roads in the country, yet it remains the least to receive Federal Government attention in terms of making it motorable. Of all the three former regional capitals, Enugu is the only one people find it most difficult to access by road.
•Dr. Eze, a journalist and public affairs analyst, wrote from Enugu