By VINCENT KALU
There is danger on the Niger Bridge, which links Onitsha, the commercial nerve centre of Anambra State and Asaba, the Delta State capital. Owing to wears and tears, the bridge is on the verge of collapse.
Indeed, if Niger Bridge were human, her uncontrollable cries, wailing and weeping could have reached the high heaven. This is because, at 48, the bridge has been constantly over-used and stretched beyond its limit and capacity without properly taken care of. Each time a vehicle, especially heavy duty truck, passes the bridge, figuratively, cringes and makes a cranky noise to demonstrate its anguish, pains and sorrow.
The evidence of the bad state of the Niger Bridge manifested during the last Christmas, as South easterners and South southerners travelled home. Commuters, from both ends of the bridge, spent more time crossing over than before. Most of them spent about six hours on the queue, waiting to cross the bridge. To cross the bridge, only one-way traffic, instead of two ways, was allowed.
Saturday Sun checks revealed that road safety personnel decided to allow only one-way traffic at a time to avoid the collapse of the bridge, as they said the Niger bridge would not survive if vehicles queue on it, in the event of traffic jam.
Although, there’s a two-way traffic at present, when a trailer or any other heavy duty truck is accessing the bridge, a heavy cranky noise and vibration are experienced. As a result, there’s a warning to motorists, on the bridge, not to stop but move at the speed of 80 kilometres per hour.
A Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) official, Roseline Anogo, told Saturday Sun that operatives of the corps now ensure that there is free flow of traffic on the bridge. She revealed that they do not allow vehicles to stop on the bridge, which informed the one-way traffic policy being implemented during the festive period.
She said: “All manner of vehicles, including trailers carrying cements, trucks, heavy-duty vehicles, trucks and other haulage vehicles with heavy loads use the bridge. Such vehicles should not stop on the bridge, for whatever purpose.
“The one-way traffic on the bridge during the Christmas journey did make motorists spend hours at Asaba or Onistha before crossing over. Those times were very tedious for us trying to control the surging traffic. When you are on top of the bridge, when a heavy duty trucks passes, it seems as if you are bouncing; there is no doubt that the bridge is no more strong.”
Saturday Sun’s recent visit to the Niger Bridge revealed its true state. Checks on the bridge revealed that it is actually dilapidating, as the bolts, nuts and some of the steel bars are at different stages of rusting or corrosion. Also, the concrete base or pillar at the Onitsha end of the bridge shows signs of cracks.
Assessing the situation, a lecturer at the Civil Engineering Department of the University of Lagos, Engr Ndubuisi Obaji, who is a specialist in foundation engineering, said that bridges have a 50-year lifespan. According to him, since the Niger Bridge is almost 50 years, it has come to the end of its life. He said that at such age, there is bound to be rust of the steel bars, as the “structural members” of the bridge will begin to give way.
When Saturday Sun visited Niger Bridge for assessment, a man, in his 70s, who saw our reporter taking photographs of the bridge from under, came closer and after exchange of pleasantries, said: “This bridge is going. We are living with this danger. The Niger Bridge, which you are seeing and taking photographs today is a tragedy in waiting, a disaster in unquantifiable dimension waiting to happen and one day, it would be a major story headlines in the media that Niger Bridge finally collapses and then you come back to take photographs.
“My prayer is that since we want it to collapse, let it be when motorists and others are not on top of it, if there would ever be such time. The bridge is aged, shaking and sinking; yet no serious attention has been given to it. Originally, I learnt it was not designed for the heavy loads it is carrying today.
“We have been hearing of another one bridge for a long time and it is not forthcoming. Maybe the government is waiting when this one will collapse and kill people and then they would hurriedly build another one that may not stand the test of time. When it finally collapses, it is like the country has divided itself and it is not anybody’s making, as only those who could afford air fares could make it from Lagos and other states in the South West to Igbo land. Maybe it is part of the government’s game plan.”
He lamented that past governments made promise of building another bridge to support the Niger Bridge, but never fulfilled the promises. “They think that if the bridge falls, only the Igbo would suffer. Well, every part of the country would pay the price of the present neglect,” he declared.
Speaking in the same vein, some young men who construct metal boats for sand mining from River Niger, told Saturday Sun that sometimes, when a heavy duty truck is passing, the bridge shakes. According to them, if the Niger Bridge falls, it will spell disaster for travellers. They said, however, that this would bring a boom to their business of boat building.
“If the bridge collapses, as being speculated, boats business would begin to boom; people would be coming for it because it will still be the cheapest means of crossing to Onitsha or Asaba instead of going through the Patani Road in Delta to Port Harcourt and then you start coming back to the South East or you go by air. Boat was the major means of ferrying people across the river before the bridge was built; so if anything happens to the bridge, we go back to old school,” one of them said.
A commercial driver, whose Toyota Hiace Bus is inscribed, Onye Fe Eze and shuttles between Onitsha and Asaba, also expressed fears that the bridge may collapse anytime.
According to him, he drives through the bridge more than 10 times a day and at each trip, there is always the fear of what happens if the bridge collapses when he is on top of it. “When a heavy duty truck from the opposite direction passes you at the centre of the bridge, you know all is not well with the bridge,” he said.
The driver bemoaned the failure of the government to build another bridge so that the present one will only take vehicles going out or coming in.
Another commercial driver, popularly called Ibu Chim, who was picking passngers at the Onitsha head bridge and plies Onitsha-Agbor route, said the high volume of vehicular traffic during festive periods affected their operations, as the FRSC personnel allowed only one-way traffic, which made it hard for transporters to meet up with their daily targets.
Ibu Chim lamented that the Niger Bridge, which is older than him, is not maintained regularly. He appealed to President Jonathan to build another bridge, as he has promised.
A man, who should be in his late 50s walking on the pedestrian lane of the bridge from Asaba to Onitsha, also commented on the state of the bridge. He had asked our reporter: “Here we are standing, don’t you feel the vibration when ever a heavy duty vehicle passes?”
He said he lives in Asaba and works in Onitsha because of high cost of accommodation in Onitsha, adding that he’s always afraid when trekking across the bridge daily.
Asked what he would do if the bridge collapses while he’s on it, he said: “God forbid; it is not my portion.”
Pointing at the canoes and boats on the river, he said: “If the bridge collapses, that will be the mode of transportation for me till when it would be repaired.”
Commenting on the issue of Niger Bridge, an aide of the Minister of Works, who preferred anonymity, told Saturday Sun that the Second Niger Bridge is uppermost in the mind of the minister. According to him, the construction of the bridge is the minister’s preoccupation, adding that the minister is working on its technicalities.
He disclosed that before the end of the first quarter, progress made would be seen, stressing: “That second Niger Bridge is a project that is very close to his heart. You know the bridge was built in the 60s and since then there has been so much increase in vehicular movement across the bridge and that is why we have the problem.”
Alternative routes in the event of its collapse
As anxiety and fear heighten in the event of collapse of the bridge, going to South East from South West and vice versa could take two days or more, depending on the route chosen. The East-West road that links the states of South South geo-political zone is there. Travellers to Anambra, Enugu and Ebonyi would need to get to Port Harcourt, en route Owerri, to their destination or get to Port Harcourt and follow Port Harcourt-Enugu expressway to their respective states or communities. It would be a longer journey to them than those from Abia and Imo.
Another route is joining a ferry at Onitsha and crossing over to Asaba or vice versa, if coming from the South West. Boat across the River Niger was the mode of transportation until when the bridge was built in 1965.
The next route is for travellers from the western states finding their way to Ajaokuta, in Kogi State, then Benue and Enugu, which also takes days.
The most convenient means would be by air.
Maintenance profile of Niger Bridge
The maintenance of the bridge has been irregular, in spite of the warning on its imminent collapse. During the war, when the federal soldiers advanced from Asaba to Onitsha, the Biafran soldiers blew up the bridge at the Onitsha end. It was a decisive military tactics meant to impede the federal soldiers’ advancement into the Biafran enclave.
After the war, Dumez Construction reconstructed the bridge at an estimated cost of 1.5 million pounds.
Since then there has not been any major overhaul or maintenance until the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005, when, under the Minister of Works, Senator Adeseye Ogunlewe, contract was awarded to Setraco Nig Ltd to repair the bridge. The contract was valued about N2 billion.
The metal contract signpost for the repairs, which is still visible at the Asaba end of the bridge, reads: Federal Republic of Nigeria: Total rehabilitation/strengthening the existing Niger Bridge with contract No. 5798. The client was Federal Ministry of Works, Mabushi, Abuja, while the contractor was Setraco Nig Ltd, Plot 192, Makeni Street, Wuse Zone 6, Abuja.
History of Niger Bridge
Tracing the history of Niger Bridge, Daniel Iweze of History Department, Bayero University, said the Niger Bridge was built in 1965 based on the Second National Development Plan of 1962-1968. According to him, the building of the bridge was the outcome of mutual political bargaining between the leaders of National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), the dominant political party in the eastern and midwestern regions and Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), which controlled the Northern Region and its construction had the official support of NPC and NCNC that controlled the Federal Government.
He also noted that the inclusion of the projects in the 1962-1968 National Development Plan was the logical strategic policy of the two coalition parties, because the Midwest Region was considered as the periphery of the Eastern Region, which was a NCNC stronghold, as the creation of the Midwest Region in 1963 out of the Western Region gave a fillip to its construction two years later in 1965
The primary aim of building the bridge, Iweze noted, was as a result of the Federal Government’s policy of expansion and upgrading of transport facilities in the country, in order to provide the necessary level of transport infrastructure to support the nation’s development programmes and also meant to integrate the economic fortunes of the Eastern, Midwestern, Western and Northern Regions.
This, he said, was also predicated on the nature of Nigeria’s economic demands to meet the changing needs of the time and also a response to the rapid growth of all sectors of the economy precipitated by the tremendous increase in the volume of domestic trade that took place in the country. Thus, there was a need to move heavy freight of agricultural inputs and outputs, merchandise as well as large numbers of traders, workers and commuters.
The Niger Bridge was designed by the Netherlands Engineering Consultants of The Hague, Holland (NEDECO), which carried out an investigation on the practicability of constructing a bridge across the River Niger from Asaba to Onitsha in the 1950s. Dumez Construction Company built the bridge in 1965, at the estimated cost of £6.75 million.
The bridge, at its completion, comprised eight by four hundred and twenty feet (8×420 ft.) with a designed carriageway of 36 feet centre-truss and consisted of pedestrian at both sides of the carriageway. It was completed, commissioned and opened for traffic in December 1965 by the then Prime Minister, the late Alhaji Tafawa Balewa in January 1966. The commissioning of the bridge was one of last public functions before his assassination on January 15, 1966.
The economic activities stimulated by the building of the bridge were not sustained for more than three years, as the bridge was destroyed during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970.
On August 9, 1967, Biafran soldiers successfully over-ran the Midwestern Region and made an inroad into the Western Region and attempted to take Lagos, the then Nigerian capital.
In October 1967, the federal troops recaptured the Midwestern Region and attempted to capture Onitsha, but it met stiff resistance from the Biafran forces while trying to cross the Niger Bridge. The federal soldiers’ continued advance from Asaba to Onitsha led to the blowing up of the bridge, at the Onitsha end, by the Biafran forces. This was meant to stop the federal troops from advancing into the Biafran territory. The destruction of the bridge constituted a major setback to the federal troops’ incursion into the Biafran territory until Biafra surrendered in January 1970.
The two spans on the Onitsha end of the Niger Bridge damaged during the civil war were replaced with a fourteen-foot wide bailey, at an estimated cost of 1.5million pounds.
Politics of Second Niger Bridge
Even in the face of the bridge facing threats of collapse, successive administrations, from former Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida, to the present, have always used the issue of Second Niger Bridge as bait to hoodwink or curry political favour or support from the South East region and at the end none has done anything concrete in this direction.
The reason for the second bridge is to reduce the pressure and stress from the existing one.
When ever any of the leaders makes a promise of the second bridge the mood in the South East region is usually electrifying as the people are thrown in to ecstasy because they know how adversely they would be affected in every realm of life if anything untoward happens to the one in use.
Long before he left office, when the agitation was much for the bridge, in 1992, Babangida challenged the Nigerian Society of Engineers to come up with the design of the bridge. As that was being done, he left office in August 1993.
Although former President Obasanjo included the building of the bridge in his administration’s economic agenda, this never came to fruition until at the twilight of his administration in 2007, when he urged Anambra and Delta state governments to contribute funds towards the construction of the project under the public private partnership scheme, where the Federal Government would contribute some of the funds and the two state governments and private investors would contribute the remaining funds for the execution of the project.
On May 24, he rolled out red carpet to celebrate the foundation laying ceremony for a bridge that was yet to be designed a few days to the end of his tenure. At the flagging off ceremony, Chief Obasanjo declared that it was a ‘promise fulfilled’ by his administration.
Under Obasanjo, the bridge was estimated to cost N60 billion, whereby both Anambra and Delta would contribute N10 billion each, while the Federal Government would bring in N20 billion and the remaining would come through public private partnership (PPP). The entire arrangement is now history.
Then entered President Goodluck Jonathan, who, on his part, affirmed to deliver the bridge before 2015, during his presidential campaigns in 2011 in the South East. He keeps on repeating the same promise at any South East forum he is present or represented by one of his aides.
On March 26, last year, Minister of Works, Mr. Mike Onolememen, declared that the construction of the bridge would take off last September. He had said: “In the next three weeks (that is from March 26, 2012), we would announce the concessionaires to handle the Second Niger Bridge project; and by the last quarter of 2012 to 2013, they will move to site to start ground breaking.”
The works minister, who assured Nigerians that there would be no funding gaps because of the prime importance attached to the project, said the total outlay was N100 billion out of which the Federal Government would provide N30 billion and N70 billion would be secured by a foreign concessionaire company.
Last August, Secretary to the Federal Government, Senator Pius Anyim; Anambra State governor, Mr. Peter Obi and Senator Ben Obi, one of President Jonathan’s Special Advisers, met Igbo in Lagos. They said they were there on behalf of President Jonathan to thank Igbo for not participating in the fuel subsidy riot of January 2012.
At that forum, the issue of Second Niger Bridge was raised and Senator Anyim said: “How I wish the Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, were here. She would have answered the question appropriately.”
According to Anyim, the minister is making progress to source foreign firm that would take up the project under PPP and said that the design would be ready soon.
Last September, when Jonathan went to commission Onitsha river port, initiated by then Shehu Shagari administration in 1980 and other projects in Anambra State, he vowed that the bridge would be ready before he leaves office in 2015. He threatened to go on exile if he fails to do so. He said: “When the first bridge was built, it was during the presidency of Nnamdi Azikiwe; the Second Niger Bridge will be built under the presidency of Azikiwe Jonathan. If I fail to build the bridge in 2015, I will go into exile.”
Perhaps, as a demonstration of Jonathan’s commitment, N12 billion was voted for the construction of bridge in the 2013 budget.