Easing the Niger Bridge traffic agony at Christmas

Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola’s recent announcement that works on the Second Niger Bridge have been completed made cheery news, especially, for motorists and other travelers who use the Niger Bridge at Onitsha at Christmas. The route is usually bedlam, indeed, hell on earth during Christmas and New Year festivities.

There is the hysteria that the suffering and pain experienced at the Onitsha-Asaba Bridge head would, henceforth, be a thing of the past once the Second Niger Bridge is commissioned and opened. Fashola’s announcement came on the heels of the ministry’s acting Federal Controller of Works in Anambra State, Seyi Martins, who announced earlier that the bridge would be ready for use in December 2022.

And true to expectation, the Federal Government has announced that the Second Niger Bridge will open to traffic on December 15, 2022. Jimoh Olawale, the Federal Controller of Works in Delta State, made this known during a recent interview with NAN on Wednesday. However, said that the bridge would be open for only 30 days.
According to him, the Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, ordered the opening of the bridge, which is 95 percent completed, to ease traffic during the Christmas and New Year celebrations.

“As we know, during the Christmas celebration, commuters suffer hardship accessing the old Niger Bridge due to traffic jams but with this arrangement, traffic congestion on Asaba-Benin Expressway will ease,” Olawale said.
“We have notified the state government of this arrangement and we are working with the Federal Roads Safety Corps to ensure a hitch-free vehicular movement. Motorists going towards Owerri direction would divert through the access road near the old Niger Bridge to the new bridge.”

At Christmas, millions of people will travel home to join their kits and kin to celebrate the occasion. The mass movement of people from the North and South-West to the South-East is a common feature of this season. Heavy vehicular traffic of goods and people is the norm. There is heightened fear and apprehension by millions of travelers to the South-East in particular, who must cross the now infamous Niger Bridge at Onitsha to reach their destination.

Harrowing tales of suffering, pain, and anguish by travelers heading eastwards from the West at the bridge are commonplace. As a matter of fact, the Niger Bridge experience is like a nightmare at Christmas. While it may take a traveler about eight hours from Lagos to Asaba, at the height of the chaos, the same traveler may spend between five to eight hours before crossing the Niger Bridge from Asaba to Onitsha and vice versa. As Christmas draws nearer, some travelers from Lagos going to the South-East would sleep over at Onitsha due to the killer traffic jam at the head-bridge.

From around December 15 to New Year, the volume of traffic that piles up at the 54-year-old bridge is overwhelming. It is as if the entire region is on the move. Suddenly, everyone finds him or herself at the Asaba bridgehead where every vehicle is compelled to queue behind stagnant traffic passing through the only bridge way to Onitsha! This may take hours or days depending on a particular day. The worst days are December 22, 23, 24, and 25. Crossing the Niger Bridge on these days is akin to committing psychological suicide. The trauma is unbearable. Women, children and the elderly suffer untold distress. The scorching heat that characterizes the season aggravates the pain and anguish.

The Onitsha end of the bridge, which is in perpetual chaos compounds the problem. Its poor and unplanned infrastructure where buying and selling are done on the roads is nerve-wracking. Amid the bedlam on the Niger Bridge are miscreants of all sorts preying on weary travelers, especially, at night. It is not unusual that sometimes, thousands of people who could not pass through the bridge spend their Christmas there in their vehicles. It is an agonizing experience that is better imagined. But despite the ugly experience, every year at this time, people still troop out to go home. The people from the South-East who go through this torture every Christmas seem to be unwavering.

A lot has been written and said over the years about the suffering of Easterners at the bridge during Christmas but without respite. Already, the annual chaos on the Niger Bridge is unfolding. The fear has been expressed that the more than five-decade-old bridge built with prefabricated steel parts could collapse from the severe pressure mounted on it daily. That exposes the lives of thousands of people passing through the bridge to danger. In this system, the authorities don’t take action on any problem until a disaster occurs and then a fire brigade action is embarked upon.

Since the bridge was completed in December 1965 (57 years ago), to facilitate the transportation of agricultural produce between the Eastern and Western regions, it is long overdue to have a second bridge to decongest the old warhorse. Good enough that action is ongoing on the second bridge but how soon the bridge will be completed is dicey. For a long, the bridge turned into a political issue used by politicians to woo the people of the South-East and South-South who must pass through it. The people are at the receiving end.

Going back to memory, the need to build a Second Niger Bridge was on the drawing board for a long time. It was during the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida in the 80s that it first came into the public domain but nothing was done in practical terms.
During General Abacha’s regime, the Federal Government tried to present a weak explanation as to why work could not commence on the bridge. That followed the charge by the former Lagos State Governor, Alhaji Lateef Jakande, then Minister of Works, that Nigerian engineers could not produce a design for the bridge project.

After Abacha’s regime ended in 1998, nothing was heard about the bridge again until the Olusegun Obasanjo administration took over in May 1999. Obasanjo was in power for eight years. But rather than take concrete action towards commencing work on the second bridge, he instead awarded billions of naira worth of contracts for the refurbishing of the old bridge. The bridge was virtually left unmaintained over the decades. The government argued that it wanted to secure the old bridge before building a new one. It was Obasanjo’s Minister of Works, Chief Cornelius Adebayo, who in 2006 announced that the Federal Government had approved the construction of the Second Niger Bridge. But work did not commence as expected.

On May 24, 2007, just five days before his exit from office, President Obasanjo, in a show of sarcasm, went to Onitsha in Anambra State to lay the foundation stone for the Second Niger Bridge. It was obvious from the timing that the event was a sheer mockery. The reported N60 billion contract for the bridge under a Private Partnership Programme (PPP) between the Federal, Anambra, and Delta State governments never saw the light of the day. Nothing came out of that presidential fanfare.

Umaru Yar’Adua’s administration was short-lived. But President Goodluck Jonathan had in his 2011 presidential campaign promised to “revitalize critical infrastructure” in the South-East, including the Second Niger Bridge. Jonathan’s Minister of Works, Mike Onolemomen, had several months earlier, announced at a stakeholder meeting at the palace of the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Alfred Achebe, that the “time has come for action on the bridge.” According to him, the project design to cover Asaba, Ozubulu, and Oghara areas will be completed before the expiration of Jonathan’s administration in 2015.

From the foregoing, it is obvious that different administrations paid lip service to the Second Niger Bridge. It is disheartening that a major landmark like the Niger Bridge was left to the vagaries of politics while people suffer in traffic. What would happen if the existing bridge suddenly caves in with huge human and material losses? That would be a national disaster. When that happens, can the Federal Government reconstruct the bridge overnight? Or, will Nigerians revert to the pre-1965 era, when people crossed the River Niger at Onitsha using ferries? How many people would that option serve in today’s bustling economic environment? And, what quantity of goods could be ferried across Niger in this era using that means?

Infrastructural maintenance and development are part and parcel of governance, which should not attract unnecessary hype. The welfare of the people is always the priority. But sadly enough, building something as crucial as a Second Niger Bridge is sacrificed on the altar of our unedifying politics. Thank God, the bridge is no longer an issue of another political campaigning in the forthcoming 2023 general elections even if it is not completed by 2022 as earlier promised by the Federal Government. To manage the traffic crisis between Onitsha and Asaba this Christmas will require the concerted effort of the Federal Roads Safety Commission (FRSC), the police, and other law enforcement agencies to make the traffic flow in order to reduce people’s suffering.

Source: The Guardian

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