Sometimes, one may be reluctant to blame the Federal government authorities over their low attitude in handling progressively the problems of our State or the Zone. Typical examples are the fate that has befallen the old Niger Bridge and the construction of a second bridge across the River Niger. Many a time, one believes that our people should carry a higher percentage of the blame. Look at what flood, soil and gully erosion and landslides environmental disasters are doing to our lands and our people of the Southeast Zone and yet many who ought to make cases to tackle them keep a graveyard silence
Prof Boniface Egboka
One is sadly-amazed that serious efforts are yet to be made by the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) in the construction of the second bridge across the River Niger between Asaba in Delta State and Onitsha in Anambra State. One is quite saddened by the fact that both the States and Federal government officials as well as the politicians across boundaries and all the affected peoples of this great country, Nigeria, do not seem to be concerned over the fate of what would happen if the overused old Onitsha-Asaba bridge across the River Niger suddenly collapses as can possibly-happen any time.
Why wouldn’t that ancient overused bridge not collapse? We must thank God for His kindness so far. It is not being alarmist if one says it would be a matter of time before the collapse may happen. Why not, when it is known that the bridge was constructed before the Nigeria-Biafra war by the Alhaji Tafawa Balewa Federal administration. According to Wikipedia Encyclopedia, “between 1964 and 1965, French construction giant, Dumez, constructed the Niger Bridge, to link Onitsha and Asaba in present-day Anambra and Delta States respectively. It cost £5 million to build. Construction of the bridge was completed in December 1965. ]During the Nigerian Civil War of 1967 – 1970, in an attempt to halt the Nigerian advance, retreating Biafran soldiers destroyed the River Niger Bridge at Onitsha, trapping the Nigerians on the other side of the river. After the war, the bridge was rehabilitated.
The President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan administration has started works to reinforce the bridge, due to its economic relevance to Nigeria”. That old bridge was not designed and structured for the type of human and vehicular traffic and loads it has been exposed to over the years to the present day. And as stated above, the Biafrans interfered with the bridge by unhinging and dislocating it thereby rendering it unusable for three years of the Nigeria-Biafra war in order to stop the Federal forces from making inroads into the Biafra heartland. Even though the old bridge was repaired after the war in 1970, it cannot be accepted that it would be as strong as it had been when it was earlier constructed.
When a wound or an injury heals the scars leave the tell-tale painful stories. What really amazes me is that almost everybody seems not to care of what will happen to the people if this old bridge does collapse one day. People think that the bridge would live and bear its over-burdened loads forever without bridge-complaint. Any critical or concerned observer can sincerely tell that the bridge is suffering and showing tell-tale structural-signs of potential failure. People just drive across it without any concern whatsoever, either due to crass ignorance/naivety or wanton idiocy. People do not believe that the bridge may collapse calamitously, one day, without any warning. It may not be the first bridge that may just collapse like that. There have been such failure-cases in parts of the world including in the United States. But potential collapses can be averted where warnings signs are hearkened to.
The old Niger Bridge can never be the same anymore; it has decayed over time and space. As at now, the entire structure does not seem to be reliable. Sometime ago, there were series of complaints from people that included packing of huge buses, tankers, other vehicles and standing for hours on the bridge particularly during the Christmas period; people such as vulcanizers and mechanics who use the bridge as their work shades; missing or loss of many bolts and materials that were holding and carrying the bridge; undesirable road checkpoints mounted by security agents (army, police, customs, FRSC, Local government officials etc.) at both the Asaba and Onitsha ends of the bridge causing deadlocks of go-slows for hours on end and stopping ease and quick movements of vehicles across the bridge; massive human population that use the bridge on daily basis for markets at Onitsha and Asaba. People complained and complained to no avail. Fortunately after a scandalous period of delay, officials from the Federal Ministry of Works came and investigated the situation of the ancient bridge. They found horrors indeed! Over thirty-nine (39) bolts holding the bridge were reported to have been removed from the bridge structure by unknown persons. You can imagine the implications.
It was reported that the officials came back later and replaced/refastened the bolts. This is commendable but must be regarded as a palliative measure that must be checked and rechecked from time to time. We must sincerely-admit that it might have been some crazy individuals who might have removed the screws/bolts to use the precious metal to mould some objects of their fancies possibly for quick sales; and if these bolts were removed by some people, nothing would stop them from going to remove them again after their then replacement. There is no doubt that the old bridge requires more than a regular maintenance programme; it requires the support of a second bridge across the Niger River.
Since the Ahaji Tafawa Balewa administration that wisely devoted five million British pounds to build the all-important and famous old Niger Bridge, there have been many civilian and military governments of Nigeria that are yet to compare with the government of Alhaji Balewa (May his gentle soul continue to rest in peace. Amen). The military and para-military Federal government authorities of Nigeria over the years have not thought it wise to borrow a leaf from Balewa’s wisdom to construct another bridge to support the earlier one he built. Rather, when the idea of a second bridge was developed, one innocently-believes that the politics of Igbo marginalization crept into it. Some people wrongly-believe and myopically-thinks that the Niger Bridge is built or will be built for Ndigbo alone and hence ought to be abandoned or be handled haphazardly. But whoever thinks this way must be wrong.
The way the River Niger traverses the country, north-south, in unity is the way the Niger Bridge connects the country in unity, east-west and north-south. Onitsha continues to carry the greatest international market and commercial centre in West Africa such that many people and materials cross the Niger Bridge for commercial-cum-social access. If you visit the extensive Onitsha market, you see all kinds of humanities from almost all parts of this country and beyond. In any day, within the week or the weekend, if you visit and stand and observe at the Niger Bridge, you will always see a stream of vehicles of various categories and troops of human beings criss-crossing the edifice. This means of communication is a very special one that must not be ignored by both Federal and State governments as they are presently doing. There is a great need for a change of attitudes by these governments.
It has been a just-like-that movement at a spot all the time since the idea of the construction of a second bridge across the River Niger was initiated. There was the issue of the dredging of the River Niger just-like-that; until today, there are sandbars and islands all over the River; may be dredging is still in progress. There was the idea of building of a River Port at Onitsha just-like-that; Presidents of Nigeria visited and commissioned something just-like-that. Then, the idea of construction of a second bridge across the Niger just-like-that. We are told the bridge has been designed and construction started; some pile-foundation work has been done; that compensation has to be fully-negotiated and paid to belligerents; Ministers and former President has visited and made hope-rising statements etc. But if one goes to the Asaba end of the proposed second bridge, efforts on the construction of the bridge have been diminished; the foundation structures are being covered by water and are possibly-decaying. We are told that the project would be a joint venture project that would involve the Federal government, Anambra and Delta State governments and a funding agency that would recover its contribution through toll-funding. The scenario seems complicated as one finds it difficult on who to believe or hold as being fully responsible; any goat being fed by many people usually suffers abject neglect such that it may die from hunger and want. As at now there is diminished progress at work on the second Niger Bridge and yet we have been told and assured that the Federal government budgeted for it in the 2016 Budget; but nothing is presently seen to be happening there.
Sometimes, one may be reluctant to blame the Federal government authorities over their low attitude in handling progressively the problems of our State or the Zone. Typical examples are the fate that has befallen the old Niger Bridge and the construction of a second bridge across the River Niger. Many a time, one believes that our people should carry a higher percentage of the blame. Look at what flood, soil and gully erosion and landslides environmental disasters are doing to our lands and our people of the Southeast Zone and yet many who ought to make cases to tackle them keep a graveyard silence. Even when ecological funds are released to control erosion, one hardly-see the effect on the ground. Imagine that the worst happens and the old Niger Bridge collapses, what shall we do? What will our people coming back from Lagos, the west and parts of the north do? What will our business men and women at Onitsha, Nnewi, Asaba etc. do? Just conjecture and visualize such a calamity happening, what shall we do?
The old adage insists that prevention is better than cure; even in such a happenstance, we may be unable to cure anything. You can see the annual flood disasters that happen in Nigeria every rainy season regularly these years. People and State governments concerned are warned as the hazardous period approaches. What happens? The State governments glibly-warn the people to move away just-like-that and nothing more. Then the rain-deluge comes and flood disasters ensue and people are caught pants-down; flood calamities occur; people die, houses and property are washed away. Why won’t similar havoc occur if we continue to leave the old Niger Bridge to continue to bear the reckless over-burdening that is prevalent? The old bridge unfortunately bears the burden without proper structural maintenance; and major relief from a completed and commissioned second Niger Bridge are essential at the soonest time.
There is a great need to carry out a high-level maintenance works on the old bridge and a quick start-up and resumption of work with a genuine speed on the new bridge. His Excellences, the Governors of Anambra and Delta State, the Senators and Members of House of Representatives as well as members of the House of Assembly of the two States must come out with a clear and unequivocal strong voice to state to their colleagues at home and National Assembly, the President and his Presidency, the Nigerian public and our people in diaspora the present dangers posed by the non-completion of the second Niger Bridge to the nation’s Socioeconomy. Our political representatives in the Southeast Zone must be told frankly that as at the moment, many of them tend to be sitting on the fence quite unconcerned; many of them are also keeping an unholy and scandalous silence over these heart-rending and potentially-damaging issues that require obvious national discourse and urgent remedial actions.
God forbid such a bad thing to happen but if the Niger Bridge were to collapse, Nigerians shall suffer irretrievable damages and unquantifiable socioeconomic losses. Imagine if the collapse of the bridge suddenly occurs, people and vehicles may be on top of the bridge, and so then? Land travels between the east and parts of the north and the west of our country shall be severed such that the bond between the commercial centres of Nnewi, Onitsha and Lagos and some northern parts shall be demolished. We may also note that many business containers arriving from overseas countries that are carrying goods from the Lagos ports to Onitsha and Nnewi are opened at their landing sites and warehouses at Onitsha or Nnewi. The retail goods are then sold and repacked into huge vehicles and transported back to other parts of the country including Lagos, Abuja, Kano etc. across the River Niger Bridge. Where this ancient bridge fails or collapses, the bond of unity between us in the east and those of the west and parts of the north will be severed, again, just-like-that during the Nigeria-Biafra war. A stich in time saves nine; a word is enough for the wise. Let’s now wake up and answer to the call of God!
- Prof Egboka PhD, UNIZIK, Awka, Anambra State; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org