by Nwachukwu Egbunike
I invite you to imagine this panorama. It’s Christmas, and the Igbo’s as they are usually wont, are all in a hurry to get home. As usual, most of them have to cross the Niger Bridge to get to their villages. At the peak of this rush, the bridge which is over forty years old collapses. Since we are in Nigeria and the emergency services are non-existent, many casualties will occur, to say the unspeakable; most of the travelers will be embraced by the Niger and continue their journey to eternity.
A fall out of this would be an outpouring, the letting off of corked up anger by Ohaneze Ndigbo. It would ignite an endless flow of activities both local and foreign. Most likely, a national day of mourning would be declared by the authorities. The President would certainly address the nation and order that the flag be flown at half mast in all public institutions. He would probably appoint a retired or serving judge to head a Judicial Commission of Inquiry that would investigate the remote and immediate causes of the disaster. The Governor of Anambra State would be inundated with condolence messages, while various delegations would compete to commiserate with the Agbogidi, the Obi of Onitsha. One or two public officials would certainly ensure that they are caught by camera as they shed crocodile tears for the victims and our elected parliamentarians in the centre will shout hoarse about the marginalisation of the Igbo’s. Meanwhile, the bereaved would wilt in the pain by the loss of their loved ones. In a few years, the disaster would be forgotten and life continues.
Does this need to happen? Hank Eso in The Niger Bridge as a Metaphor (www.kwenu.com of 22 January 2006) stated that: “calamities are a natural part of life. But calamities arising from negligence are altogether a different matter. In Nigeria the lines that divide natural and negligence-induced calamities are irretrievably blurred.” The Guardian Editorial of Friday, July 11, 2008, Before the Niger Bridge Collapses, narrated the testimony of the Permanent Secretary in the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) and former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Works, Dr. Hakeem Baba Ahmed. “Dr. Ahmed was testifying before the Senate ad-hoc committee probing the utilisation of funds allocated to the transport sector under the Obasanjo administration when he bemoaned the virtual lack of maintenance of the bridge which has placed it at the brink of collapse.” The Punch in Reps Order Rehabilitation of Niger Bridge (Thursday, 10 Jul 2008 ) carried the story of the resolution of the House of Representatives mandating the government to begin work on the second Niger Bridge. “Its resolution followed a motion by Mr. Chidoka Obinna, representing Njikoka federal constituency of Anambra State and 68 others”.
In view of the above, I would dare to summarise that it is either that those concerned are deaf or bereft of any sense of urgency. Will it take a trumpet blast from heaven before they realise that the Niger Bridge is falling down? Or is this part of the politics of development? It looks like this government, as a matter of policy only reacts to issues when things have deteriorated. Oh, how can I forget due process? Since we are in the era of rule of law, perhaps the delay can be attributed to it’s non-inclusion in the budget. If that is the case, there is nothing the government can do about it. No one can then accuse her of being cheese sparing with funds for the second Niger Bridge.
In face of all these, the Federal Ministry of Works is yet to add an additional brick to the mockery of a last minute decision of Obasanjo’s administration to lay the foundation stone for a second Niger Bridge. It is obviously a humorous mimicry that five days to the expiration of his eight-year rule, President Olusegun Obasanjo suddenly remembered to keep a promise. Using the words of Buchy Enyinnaya and Nwabueze Okonkwo (Friday, May 25, 2007, Daily Sun), “at the Asaba end of the River Niger Bridge at Onitsha, Anambra State, (Obasanjo) fulfilled one of his promises to the citizenry when he flagged off the construction of the second bridge across the River Niger saying it was a “promise fulfilled” by his administration. The first of such bridges embarked upon by the administration is the one linking Kogi and Nasarawa States. The bridge which would take a whopping sum of N68 billion is expected to be completed in three and half year’s time.”
The peculiar nature of the way things are run in this country always baffles me. Even a new born baby knows the strategic importance of the Niger Bridge. The fact that it serves as the only gateway for the East to other parts of Nigeria, will be stating the obvious. However what I don’t seem to understand is the foot dragging by the government on this issue. This is one more manifestation of the failure of government. The East has already suffered enough repercussions for a people vanquished in war. The infrastructural development of that part of Nigeria has always been due to the exclusive self-help effort of the people. Similarly, our elected representatives in the centre cannot be absolved of blame. We were all spectators to the show of shame that characterised the office of the Senate President in the last democratic dispensation. Other political appointees from the East seem to have been more interested in themselves than in the common good of those they are supposed to represent.
Perhaps the Second Niger Bridge is not a priority because some people will think that it’s a project destined for the Easterners only. Chinasa Okorie in The Second Niger Bridge (The Guardian, July 21, 2008 ) answers thus: “In the unlikely event that this is the case, may I inform them that apart from the South East, parts of the South South, North Central and North East are major users of the Niger Bridge. In the event that the existing bridge collapses, the economy of the entire country would be affected, as the movement of goods and services will be severely disrupted.” Since human life is sacred, I need not add that it is not only a matter of economics but of souls. This death-knell can be avoided, it need not happen.
Republished in The Nigerian Village Square on August 01, 2008