By Adekunle Adekoya
WEDNESDAY morning, residents of Lagos, and the rest of the world woke to the news of a fire outbreak under the bridge at Apongbon, on Lagos Island. The Apongbon bridge, actually the landward extension of Eko Bridge flies over the intersection of Broad Street and Apongbon Street, and is a beehive of commercial activities.
Anybody who observes what goes on under that bridge must have sensed that sooner or later, a disaster was bound to happen. One can only thank God that no life has been reported lost in the fire, which was said to have broken out around 2.00am last Wednesday morning. Goings-on under the Apongbon Bridge and under virtually all bridges in Lagos and many other parts of the country leaves one wondering why we have governments in this country in the first place.
Those of us who travel outside the country surely must have seen bridges and flyovers in other cities of the world, and thus brought the idea here, but left out the maintenance and regulatory aspect which make those bridges attractive in other countries. Apart from the horde of traders and commercial vehicles that populate either side of the bridge’s underpass, tables, benches, and kiosks made of wood or metal abound, on which traders display their wares.
Wares ranging from cooked food to choice and exotic liquor are available for sale under the bridge, and government officials must have been seeing them. In addition, some fellow citizens quartered sections of the underpass to themselves for the purpose of carrying activities that can only be described as unspeakable. If in doubt, ask the LAWMA cleaners the type garbage they clear from there every morning.
In Lagos, space under the bridges immediately become the exclusive property of some people as soon as construction is finished and the project commissioned. Overnight, food sellers, drinks sellers, hairdressers, cobblers, barbers and just about any other revenue-generating venture sprout and dominate the space.
Under some other bridges, like the Toyota Bridge linking Apapa-Oshodi Expressway with the Airport Road, block-making is the major commercial activity there. Down from Mile 2 inward Apapa, the road shoulders under the bridge that flies traffic to Kirikiri has been taken over by car dealers. Under the bridge at Iyana-Isolo, transporters have colonised the space and converted it to a truck park.
The Anthony Bridge is a bit sane; one side is dominated by a florist, while the other side is milder as goings-on there seem tolerable. At various points under the Third Mainland Bridge, those that dive under the water and scoop out sand for sale seem to dominate the ecosystem, and each time I saw them, I kept wandering whether their unregulated activities do not and cannot threaten the foundations of the bridges.
Away from Mile 2 towards Festac Gate, another bridge flies traffic across the Kirikiri Canal. I challenge both federal and state officials to go under that bridge, perhaps incognito, and see for themselves what is going on there. I am sure they’ll be shocked to see fellow Nigerians scooping sand from around the bridge foundations while tippers come to load them away for sale. By that bridge is a sewage facility where scavenging trucks come to deposit their filthy garbage. There are foods and drinks sellers there! What do the public health officials do?
Everywhere, the space between the loop ramps at interchanges have been taken over by all kinds of people doing any kind of business they like, from open hearth cooking by food-sellers to mechanics using them as workshops, or block-making enterprises. If you dig deeper, somebody, somewhere collects rents from these people, and I can bet no government receives that money.
Another dangerous dimension of not controlling activities under bridges and interchange loops is in the area of public health. Usually there are no toilets, and no pipe-borne water. If open hearth cooking and open defecation goes on unchecked, where are the health officials? If anybody can cut space for himself under a bridge and runs brothel-like operations there, why is something not being done?
Who are the people collecting rent from the illegal occupants under the bridges and on loops? Where are officials of the environment protection agency? Why would the Transport Ministry look on while union officials let out public space and make money to the detriment of all of us?
Why do market women and agberos appropriate public living space for themselves, perniciously, and government turns blind eyes? Who is in charge of the city? Has governance broken down? Little wonder things seem to be falling apart. Since we can’t take care of small things like these, how can we tackle, bigger, deeper problems?
Politicians who form governments after each election cycle must ensure that the engine of government — the civil service — runs well, as efficiently as possible, and delivers premium service for the taxes we pay.
Anything short of that is yahoo-yahoo governance. Lagos State Government must use the Apongbon bridge fire to clean the metropolis and actualize the semblance of a working mega city. The first step is to extricate public space from the vice-grips of market and transport unions, as well as neighbourhood and junction kingpins. We all belong!!!