Nov. 17, 2003

From Lagos to the East by road

Acting Features Editor, COLLINS OBIBI who recently visited some states in the South East recounts his experience driving through the Onitsha - Owerri road. He notes that the road is, indeed, the death trap as described by the users, thus requiring a much more decisive action plan than the politics in which its rehabilitation is shrouded

AT LAST, the Federal Government has invited construction giant, Julius Berger to visit the Onitsha-Owerri road. Considering that the actual reconstruction of the road was awarded to never-heard of and never-tested construction company - Consolidated Construction Company - at the cost of over N24 billion and that more reputable companies bided almost double the amount, it is easy to understand the scope of work Julius Berger is mandated to do at the cost of N600 million.

The spokesman of the Federal Government, Chief Chukwuemeka Chikelu was categorical on this. Julius Berger is expected to rehabilitate very bad portions of the road and make it passable for the expected large number of people that would use the road this Christmas. What happens after Yuletide? Just guess.

What is in this Onitsha-Owerri road that makes some people talk about it with passion? The about 90-kilometre road, but for the Lagos-Ibadan expressway is easily the busiest road in the country. It is the major link from either the North or West to parts of Anambra, Imo, Akwa Ibom and Cross River states. It is also the shortest and preferred road to Rivers and Bayelsa states and parts of Enugu and Ebonyi states.

What is the condition of the road? Just close your eyes and imagine any terrible journey, which you would never wish to experience in life. Relate it to travelling on a road you must pass to get to your father's house or ancestral home. Then open your eyes and say 'Tufiakwa, never in my life.' But it not a myth for the people of South East and parts of South South who go through a near-valley of death to reach their fathers' houses and ancestral homes.

And it shall be that unless Julius Berger goes into the area immediately and a few weeks later announce that it has redeemed the road to a tolerable level, people should be wary of it. The most strategic of the roads in the East and those in the most terrible condition are federal roads.

Given the nature of one's job, one should have known better the condition of infrastructure including the roads across the country, particularly in the East. That was the height of folly as a lot has changed in the past one and a half years. The recent trip from Lagos by road to the East in a private car two weeks ago presented a pathetic story, indeed.

The easiest conclusion to make is that the powers that be in Abuja whose responsibility it is to maintain the roads are detached from the people they govern. It is much easier to understand why President Olusegun Obasanjo has not given the required attention to the rehabilitation of roads in the East. He does not have the bitter experience of passing through the roads, at least in the recent past. He does not own any of the trucks and tankers nor the goods they carry which end up into gullies on the highways, neither does it matter to him that such losses are being recorded in the present economy that everyone is supposed to be working hard to improve.

Again, President Obasanjo is not from the South East and probably does not have relations among the people whose lives are daily sniffed out, mostly in the prime of their youth. His psyche is not bruised in any way like the millions of people of the area who pass through these roads and who know that though it is not Eldorado on the state of roads in other parts of the country, theirs is incomparable. Yet, Obasanjo is the president of the whole country. And on matters concerning administration or lack of it at the centre, the buck stops on his table.

It is for this same problem of dilapidated roads that members of the Abia State House of Assembly went on hunger strike and some of them experienced health complication therefrom.

For this same reason, the Governor of Imo State, Chief Achike Udenwa has visited the newly appointed Minister of Works, Senator Adeseye Ogunleye in Abuja, on more than six occasions. Senate President, Adolphus Wagbara may be publicity shy, but it is not in the area of releasing to the media copies of his letter to President Obasanjo on the need to give more attention to road repairs in the South East.

The journey from Lagos to Ijebu Ode, baring traffic bottlenecks and Police checks was quite smooth. The very bad portions between Ijebu Ode and Ore, Ondo State have been patched, though shoddily.

But from a few kilometres after Ore to Benin, the capital of Edo State where the former Minister of Works, Anthony Anenih hails from, the motorist was on his own. At various spots on both sides of the road were potholes, the size of gullies. At various points the dual carriage highway converged to a single lane as motorists tried to beat the failed portions. Little wonder there was a record increase in the number of accidents and wastage on that portion of the Benin - Sagamu road.

At Okada junction, traffic abruptly got to a halt. Motorists began to make a detour to the right. What other major town would these flashy cars be heading to except Benin City or beyond?

The road, though narrow, long and winding, is very smooth; a state road no doubt, terminated in Benin City.

At an interjection where people needed to either go straight damning the pull of water on the road, turn right to a bumpy but safer connection to the major road, or take a longer but smoother to the left, the motorists driving bumper to bumper as in Lagos traffic, did not know which side to follow. It was an indication that they were probably passing through the place for the first time. The right track would have been to drive straight down close to Benin town and take the by-pass to connect the Benin - Asaba road.

The Benin by-pass is travellers' delight. New, it saves commuters the terrible traffic in the city.

But the by-pass covers a short distance, connecting the Ore-Benin road with the Benin-Asaba end of it. One can cruise non-stop on the Benin-Asaba dual-carriage way at 140 kilometre per hour.

Contract for the reconstruction of the road was awarded exactly 10 years ago. Both the administrations of Chief Ernest Shonekan and late Gen. Sani Abacha could take credit for the commencement of the project. Though arrangements had been concluded to begin the project during Shonekan's three-month old administration, it was the administration of Abacha that really started it.

The way the job was going with the contractors playing games, it required the serious posture of the President Obasanjo administration in the first and only year of its coming to take a decisive step to complete the road. Consequently, RCC the construction firm that executed Benin-Agbor end of the road was mandated to complete the entire project up to Asaba tollgate where the dualisation stopped.

The Onitsha Bridge is as it has been since it was rehabilitated after the civil war in 1970. At least, vehicles still pass freely through it. The much talked-about building of a substitute or complimentary bridge is still at the pipeline stage.

Entering Onitsha, the gateway to the East from the Head Bridge presents the picture of an entirely different country. In Onitsha, filth combines with lawlessness to create an unsavoury image for the commercial capital of the East. Robbery is at its height here. Little wonder it required an additional force like the Bakassi Boys for the past Chinwoke Mbadinuju administration to achieve some level of sanity. Combine these with the mud occasioned by dilapidated roads that have taken over the major federal road linking the Head Bridge with Upper Iweka, the vehicular and human traffic in the area, the picture of sour grape quickly registers in your mind.

Upper Iweka is ever offensive. The unnecessary traffic hold up there has always defiled solution. On the Head Bridge at 3.30pm, crossing to the Owerri road end of the town, a distance of less than three kilometres took about three hours. At the end, the silencer had cut into two, with a half completely off the car. The roadside panel beater quickly collected N600 to fix it.

From that point to Obosi junction, up to where the CCC - the supposed redeemer of the road has an office - to Oba Junction, the gullies on both sides of the single-lane old road, are as deep as 20 feet. On the barely three-kilometre road, there were no less than ten police checkpoints. Unlike the checkpoints on the Lagos-Sagamu-Benin road, the mission of these ones in the East was easily presumed. They stopped only the commercial buses and do their usual thing.

If you have been driving on any bad road in the country like the Owo-Okira portion of the Ondo-Ekiti-Okene road, or the Gombe-Potiskum-Damaturu or Dutse road or, indeed, any highway in the country and you are tempted to complain of bad roads, hold your breadth.

The moment ignorance makes you drive through Onitsha-Owerri road, passing through Oraifite to Okija and Ihiala, you would begin to ask questions on alternative routes. When you follow the same road down to the Imo State end of the road, that is up to Mgbidi, Awo-Omama, passing through Njaba River to Ukwu-Oji, then to the notorious Ogbaku junction, well you would begin to reappraise your membership of corporate Nigeria.

If you must get to Owerri, then you must pass through Irete. At Irete, if you succeed in driving pass the portion of the road near the old Teachers' Training College, it means that you are divinely led. The number of lorries and other vehicles buried in the mud that has taken over the road and people's homes are, okay lets say, many. The loss in goods and investment in vehicles cannot be easily quantified.

In these days of scarcity and high cost of fuel, trucks empty their containers on this section of the road. Luxury bus drivers, who have not started taking alternative routes, have all remove their bumpers and some expensive headlamps because of the damage by this road.

If you survive this, then you would survive the remaining little bad portion of the road to Owerri town. That portion itself, particularly close to the Arugo and famous Assumpta Cathedral Church would give you the last clincher that would make you swear never to pass through the road again until the powers-that-be in Abuja finish with their politics of the road's repair.

In those days, Chief Sam Onunaka Mbakwe was chided for weeping at the neglect to which the East particularly Imo State was subjected.

Today, 20 years after, Udenwa is expected to possibly behave in similar manner to obtain the people's legitimate entitlement from the federal government. But the leaders of the South East have decided that no governor should weep again for Igbos. The era of weeping is over. Imo people, for instance, built their own airport. They built their own university when the pressure of admission became too much before the federal government remembered to site one there.

The states covered by this road might as well take it over. This is their fate in the corporate Nigeria.