From Kemi Yesufu, Abuja The decision to retain health maintenance organisations (HMOs) as part of the country’s health insurance programme caused a major disagreement between the House of Representatives Committee on Health Services and the executive secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), Prof. Yusuf Usman. Usman, at the just concluded two-day investigative hearing…
By Cosmas Omegoh
The 11.8-kilometre Third Mainland Bridge, otherwise known as Ibrahim Babangida Boulevard, is an architectural masterpiece, one of the national monuments that define the metropolitan Lagos landscape.
The longest of the three bridges, including Eko and Carter bridges, the facility links Lagos Island with a good proportion of mainland Lagos.
Starting from Oworonshoki, the Third Mainland Bridge connects the Oworonshoki-Oshodi-Apapa and the Lagos-Ibadan expressways, running all the way down to Adeniji Adele Interchange on Lagos Island. Midway, the edifice has a link bridge that connects the Herbert Macaulay Way in Yaba.
From the Oworonshoki end, the facility sleekly slits through the still but deep-flowing Lagos Lagoon, seemingly cutting it into two unequal halves. It then snakes its way, thrusting through the expansive, murky lagoon waters, appearing in the distance like a major vein in the arm. It imposes itself as one of those must-see features that define Lagos as an emerging mega city.
With great speed, vehicles of all types roar past in both directions along the bridge’s four-lane dual carriageway whose two innermost, alternate lanes are now dedicated to the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT). Once on the bridge, there is no waiting and no stopping.
Up on the bridge, an unusual aquatic settlement builds up on the expanse of water on the right a few hundreds of metres away. The area’s group of uncommon houses are an array of wooden contraptions standing on planks and stilts driven deep into the water floor and raised few metres above the water level. They are the Makoko shanties, home to the Ilaje, a thriving community whose livelihood revolves around the water. The contraptions, spread out on the waters, form hamlets that crouch around the glittering edifices of the University of Lagos (UNILAG). Both contrasting communities share the lagoon front and belong to the larger Bariga community.
Further on the bridge, the popular Ebute Metta sawmills and plank market reveal themselves. Down on the water, there are columns of timber loosely fastened together to prevent tidal waves from washing them away. The logs take turns to be rolled into the mills overlooking the waterfront where they are sawn into planks.
Then, to the east side, the lagoon stretches out far into the distance, where settlements like Ikorodu, Lekki and Victoria Island loom large, veiled by grey mist to form a the beautiful skyline mosaic that adds to the splendour of Lagos.
History of the bridge
It is believed that the plan to build a third bridge to ease the traffic congestion in Lagos and to support the Eko and Carter bridges began in 1975. That means that various administrations might have given some cursory look at the idea, but it was the government of the then military president, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, that started, completed and inaugurated the Third Mainland Bridge. The inauguration took place in 1990 following the completion of work by Julius Berger Plc.
And, naturally, the first set of official vehicles to go on the bridge was the motorcade of Babangida on the day it was launched. He named the facility Ibrahim Babangida Boulevard, a nomenclature that lost its worth soon after.
The Third Mainland Bridge, it was believed, was the longest in Africa. It provided motorists and commuters coming from Ikorodu, Ketu, Ikeja, Gbagada as well as residents of parts of Ogun State going to the Island easy access. However, it lost its number one status in 1996 after the launch of the 6th October Bridge in Cairo, Egypt. But till this moment, it retains its pride of place in West Africa.
Misfortunes set in
Over the past few years, the Third Mainland Bridge has been suffered some setbacks as there has been no let up to the wave of stressors buffeting it. Consequently, the edifice has had cause to be in the news for the wrong reasons, with terrible things happening on it and around it.
Closed for repairs
In 2006, the Third Mainland Bridge was rumoured to be vibrating. Some motorists were said to have reported cracks on the bridge, too, fuelling fears of imminent disaster. Consequently, carrying out various repairs became imperative. This led to major and partial closures of the bridge at some point for work to be done on some portions. The last of such works was completed in January 2013.
According to an expert, such repairs came sooner than expected and signified that something was wrong.
“When a bridge starts having problems, when you are having railings and construction joints dropping or cracks emerging and the lanes are no longer comfortable for riding, when you see users complaining, when the faults start becoming too noticeable, then it means that the bridge is having problems,” said Dr. Olusegun Afolabi, a civil and structure engineer who teaches in the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering, UNILAG.
Afolabi is worried that the Third Mainland Bridge has undergone repairs sooner than expected.
According to him: “In engineering design, we don’t go to infinity lifespan. We don’t expect that a structure will last forever. So we usually start with 50 years. We believe that, with maintenance, a structure can last up to 100 years before a total re-evaluation and rehabilitation work would be carried out on it.
“But, unfortunately, the Third Mainland Bridge, at 20, has gone through a major rehabilitation. Structures differ, depending on their locations. In the case of bridges, we have a major deteriorating factor that affects them, which is water. Some water bodies can be salty and acidic. These have a lot of influence on the ability of a bridge to last. That is why we usually put the initial lifespan of the bridge at 50. But at 20 they had done major repair on the Third Mainland Bridge. The lagoon water could be a critical factor in this situation. Also recall that there was a time the bridge was closed for three months.”
Afolabi believes that the bridge is stressed, considering the volume of traffic it carries daily, probably because that was not factored in during its construction.
“If you ask me whether the bridge is stressed, my response is yes. When we are designing a bridge, every point is being taken care of to be a load bearer.
“Now, the effect of the environment can constitute a problem to the bridge. Every design is made based on some criteria of safety, that every part should be able to support some significant amount of load. For instance, during use, there is routine traffic. Every vehicle should be able to maintain some specific distance (that is a minimum of two metres) with the car ahead of it, provided there is motion. We call this headway.
“But if you have cars stationary on the bridge due to a gridlock, there is no way that can be controlled. Therefore, the continuous gridlock on the Third Mainland Bridge means lots of loads for the bridge. The authorities should know that piling up of vehicles is bad for the bridge,” he said.
Describing the Third Mainland Bridge as a monument that must be preserved and protected as much as possible, he regretted that the authorities had not done enough to ensure that it would last for long: “At every engineering conference we attend, we have been shouting that the bridge be properly taken care of. We talk about maintenance of national infrastructure.
“But our government is always nonchalant. The authorities always wait until there is damage so that they would be able to spend big sums of money on it.
“We have various ministries of works, FERMA, but what are they doing? In all, there is a department that is lacking, Department of Research, Planning and Statistics. This should supply data and statistics. If we have this department and it is effective, its operators should be able to go to the field, collect data and give advice. But if the advice is not leaving their tables, they have not done anything.”
Accidents on the bridge
The Third Mainland Bridge has earned the unenviable moniker as a theatre of accidents, with scores of fatal crashes recorded on it. Only recently, several people sustained various degrees of injury in an auto crash involving two vehicles heading to the mainland.
Vehicles had at some point, plunged from the bridge into the waters beneath, sometimes with some of the passengers on board. Some had somersaulted but were prevented from falling into the lagoon by the bridge’s concrete edge.
Secretary, National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), Obalende Unit, Kazeen Adekunle, aka Puncher, admitted that accidents involving commercial buses occur from time. He attributed this to the failure of the braking system of such vehicles and the drink-driving of somedrivers.
He said, “What I know that causes accidents on the Third Mainland Bridge is that some of our drivers usually drink and use some form of substance before they drive.
“Look at those Volkswagen LT buses you see around, they usually experience brake failures. Imagine a driver being under one form of influence or the other. Imagine him applying his brakes and there is failure? What will happen if not accident?”
But a commercial bus driver who identified himself as Olalekan said not all drivers plying the bridge drink or smoke.
“There are a lot of us who are level-headed, who neither drink nor smoke anything,” he argued, contending that an accident would occur when it would. He, however, cautioned against over-speeding, which he blamed for accidents that occasionally occurred on the bridge.
To forestall incidences of over-speeding, Afolabi recommended that every driver plying the bridge needed to observe a maximum speed of 60km per hour.
The engineer observed that, “A bridge such as the Third Mainland Bridge is not a place one should be on and say one is an expert. We have to be really cautious. That is why 60km per hour is the recommended maximum speed. Everyone has to be cautious because it is an elevated height. At such height, one doesn’t need to drive at one’s convenience but at the dictates of the bridge. And what does the bridge demand? Safety! If one is driving at 60km per hour, one can manage the wheels, but not at 100km per hour. That is why sometimes vehicles summersault on the bridge and plunge into the waters.”
While admitting the spate of accidents of the bridge, the Police Public Relations Officer, Lagos State police command, Famous Olarinde-Cole (Assistant Superintendent of Police) noted that: “We are working with the Lagos State Ambulance Services (LASAMBUS). They are stationed near the Adekunle exit to attend to victims in case of an accident. They have been there for a while and they are doing a nice job.”
In all, Adekunle, the NURTW scribe, advocated that all motorists using the bridge should be regularly enlightened: “The way out is education and enlightenment. Our drivers should know now that life is important. They need to be enlightened and told that safety is first, life is important. We need to regularly educate them to drive safely. They need to drink less. We have been saying that here.
“Some of our drivers have family challenges. When they are so engrossed in their challenges, accident occurs. We need to educate them. We have been insisting that whenever they are on the wheel they should cast their worries aside. Everybody needs to be reminded that they should not drink while driving.”
He also called for stiff penalties against violation of traffic rules on the bridge.
Suicide now rampant on the bridge
Now wait for this. Suicide and attempted suicide on the Third Mainland Bridge is on the rise. It is now a preferred place for people eager to end their lives unnoticed. They have been using the facility as a launching pad to the great beyond. They pick a spot and take a plunge. Pronto, they go down beneath the waters, dead.
Last March, for instance, a medical doctor, Allwell Orji, jumped from the bridge into the lagoon and drowned. His body was fished out days after, far from the point from where he plunged. The incident sparked a wave of shock and surprise across the land.
Sources say that if records were kept, the number of those who have either committed suicide or attempted to do so on the bridge might be frightening.
“Suicide is now rampant on the Third Mainland Bridge,” Oba Gbolahan Akanbi Timson, the Jagunmolu III of Somolu-Bariga, said on a regrettable note.
The traditional ruler, whose palace is a shouting distance from the bridge, told the correspondent: “The case of Allwell Orji was celebrated because he was a medical doctor. And the incident happened in the daytime. But so many other people have committed suicide on the same bridge without anybody knowing it. They simply plunged into the lagoon and died. You know that when that happens, their bodies will only be discovered in faraway places after a long time. That is why nobody is able to keep records. And we don’t have closed-circuit cameras on the bridge to monitor what goes on there.
“We ought to have passed that state as a nation. It is a shame that this country, as big as it is, cannot boast of such devices. And we cannot have sound data of our citizenry.”
To buttress the belief that many had been dying in the lagoon without anyone knowing it, the Lagos State emergency rescue team had fished out the body of a young man during the search for the missing doctor. But the family of the late doctor insisted that the body was not Orji’s.
At a recent forum focusing on depression, a housewife, Mrs. Antonia Abiola, relived how she almost committed suicide on the Third Mainland Bridge but was prevailed upon to drop the idea by a certain Dr. Kadiri Maymunah, an expert in stress and depression management. She spoke at the Pinnacle Speak Out Initiative International.
“I was sexually abused while growing up by a man living with us. Each time I saw him, now a preacher, I always felt terrible.
“So one day, I decided to end it all, and the Third Mainland Bridge was the preferred spot. When my husband left home for work, I took the children to school, came home and prepared myself for the worse.
“I had informed Dr. Maymunah of my intention, so she kept calling my line. It was she that picked me up and took me to her hospital,” she said.
Why people commit suicide on the bridge
Lagos residents have been expressing worry that many were committing suicide on the bridge, attributing the trend, more than anything else, to frustration.
“We are worried by this trend,” Adekunle said. “The other time, you recall that it was a medical doctor who plunged into the water. That couldn’t be a family problem. I wonder what kind of challenge a doctor would have that would make him want to plunge into the water from that height? He had the money, he had comfort, it was a huge surprise.
“But, if you ask me, I think that people are being driven to commit suicide because of the hardship in town; no witch or wizard is responsible for their actions, I tell you. If it has to do with any witch, we are the witches and wizards ourselves. This recession in the country right now is self-made. That is the problem government should be critically looking into. Tell me who is able to eat three square meals these days? We are all crying; let this government act now.”
Similarly, Oba Timson dismissed the presence of witches and wizards on the bridge, describing those linking their supposed presence to the accidents and suicide bids as illiterates.
“There are no witches and wizards operating there,” he quipped. “That is far from the truth. Only illiterates believe in that. To them, every little thing that happens at their door is caused by witches and wizards. It is lame thinking. I don’t believe in it; it is not true.”
However, he admitted that, from time to time, the community has appeased their ancestors and implored them to secure the bridge and keep the people out of harm’s way. “It is a yearly affair, but there is hardly any month that passes without us doing one. We do it through the Igunuko Festival, Egungun Festival, Obatala Festival and Obaluaye Festival.
“When Ogun, the god of iron, is annoyed, things might begin to happen on that bridge. Vehicles might veer off and plunge into the lagoon. Some might summersault, leave the road and crash into people trading by the roadside. At that point, it needs to be pacified.
“We do this regularly and when we don’t do it on time, you see the signs knocking on the door. Accidents on the sea. You see uncommon turbulence and rising tidal waves. Fishermen are declared missing.
“There are spirits living in the water. All we say to them is, ‘please, do not come up to cause us this trouble. These are your things; we have brought them.’ When they are due we will bring again.”
He contended that the rising suicide attempts on the Third Mainland Bridge now were largely due to hardship: “I think the problem is that things have gone out of hand. That is the bottom line. There is much pressure on everyone now. The government is not in control of things. That is just it. When the government is not in control of the economy, the citizens will suffer. People begin to scream ‘what is this? Let me ease this tension by taking my life.’
“Look at the case of the doctor who plunged into the lagoon. Just look at the reason adduced for his action, family problem! It is sad.”
A clinical psychologist, Dr. Charles Umeh, said one could not rule out a number of factors now driving people to suicide.
He contended that there could be, “Mental illness such as hallucination, in which case people hear voices that might be telling them ‘you are useless, just die.’ I tell you, people can act on those voices.
“Besides, some people may suffer disasters such as fraud. Perhaps they lose their life earnings. Sometimes, something drastic may happen to people and they feel they have lost integrity and cannot cope with it.
“Now, what they resolve to do is to escape from that reality. They conclude that the best way out is to run away from the situation by committing suicide.”
To Afolabi, stories of the presence of spirits in the water and their purported appeasement by engineers before bridges could be constructed had been around for long. But he said, while that could not be discountenanced, it had no scientific basis.
“I have been hearing that myself,” he said. “But in all the knowledge we have been taken through, it never happens. Maybe the white engineers can explain that better.
“For instance, I have been hearing about a bridge in Ikorodu, Lagos. People say that the white engineer who built it in those days of yore vowed that he should be buried at the foot of the bridge. They say that was the agreement he had with the water spirit before it could allow him do a bridge across the river. We leave that in the realm of stories. Such don’t add to our own scientific knowledge. It is knowledge that is not within the confines of man-science. If ever it exists, it is not within the confines of science, so it is beyond science.
“I, too, used to wonder how we make a bridge inside water and it stands. But I don’t have facilities to go beyond that.”
Asked whether there might be forces on the Third Mainland Bridge pulling people to do the unthinkable, he said: “The spirits, and the traditionalists might know. I don’t know and don’t support that. Anything spiritual is beyond man.
“Look at the man who jumped into the water the other time, could he be having spiritual challenge even as a medical doctor? What could be his problem? He was well-to-do and probably had no challenges. What could have prompted him? Perhaps the spirits looked at him and said this is the person to use. Again, this is a mystery.”
Vehicular traffic on the Third Mainland Bridge can be as traumatic as it can be agonising. When vehicles break down in far away Ojota or somewhere on the Oworonshoki-Oshodi Expressway, it can have painful, spill-over effects on the bridge. But worst of all the pains is caused by the commercial and private vehicle drivers’ bid to drop off their passengers at the Oworonshoki end of the bridge. As simple as that may seem, it has indescribable ripple effects in Obalende, Ikoyi and parts of Lagos Island.
On a very bad day, particularly a work day, as soon as one gets on the bridge, heading out of the Island, one is confronted with traffic build-up. A quick peep in the distance reveals a long stretch of vehicles occupying the entire four lanes and appearing like a thin line as it fades. This is made possible by the streetlight that now illuminates the edifice. Every vehicle is stretched and stressed out with their occupants sitting marooned and at the mercy of numbness. This is one hellish experience that sometimes takes an upward of two hours to clear.
Adekunle blamed the traffic situation on drivers’ penchant for switching lanes.
“Some people turning to Adeniji Adele are the problem. Even those going to Oworonskoki would divert from one lane to the other thereby slowing others down.
“People need to be told that if they are going to Oshodi for instance, they shouldn’t be on the fast lane. Their diversion always causes delay and sometimes accident. When a driver is on the fast lane and he’s attempting to divert, he could cause others big problem,” he said.
A computer analyst, David Olalekan, who works on Victoria Island, blamed passengers disembarking at the Oworonshoki end of the bridge for the excruciating gridlock on the facility. This, he said, usually happened during the rush hour when everyone was leaving the Island for home: “Those disembarking at Oworonshoki are always in large numbers. They are usually the ones that cause the problem. That might sound simple, but imagine 50 cars pulling over every 20 minutes for their passengers to alight at the same spot and how long it would take each driver to do so.”
Robbery, bestiality on the bridge
In Lagos, the moment there is traffic build-up, hawkers gather to take advantage of the ‘market’. Then as dusk gradually descends, traffic robbers displace the hawkers. Young men, some in their teens, emerge from the blues. They go from car to car, robbing motorists and commuters trapped in the gridlock. They call this operation “offering.” They are always armed with guns, real and imaginary. Usually, they operate with the guts of the gods, sometimes killing and maiming those who dare to resist them. Once they show up, people begin to shiver and to surrender all they have on them.
On the Third Mainland Bridge, traffic robbers hold sway. First are the dreaded “One Chance” robbers. They pick passengers, then at some point on the bridge, they bring out their guns and begin to dispossess the passengers of their valuables. Those who resist them risk death by being flung into the lagoon.
Then there are robbers who cash in on the gridlock to rob motorists and commuters. There are even “area boys.” The latter patrol the bridge, waiting to pounce on those whose vehicles break down. After generously administering slaps on them, they threaten them with machetes and other dangerous objects. The victims must part with everything they have, including their cell phones.
Many have suffered this brutality and bestiality. Even policemen and other security personnel have tasted the bitter pill in full measure.
An eyewitness, John Obaze, relived his experience to Daily Sun: “Some time ago, we were in a private vehicle headed for the Island one fateful afternoon. There was a crash, which caused a gridlock; every vehicle was stationary. Just like in a movie, I saw three boys going from vehicle to vehicle robbing their occupants; the one I saw clearly was wielding a shotgun.
“But no one knew that there were plain-clothes policemen occupying a vehicle not far from ours. One of them drew his gun and fired, killing one of the robbers instantly.”
Even the traditional ruler of Shomolu-Bariga, Oba Timson, has something bitter to share about the activities of the bridge robbers.
“Their activities are real,” he said, adding that they are not hoodlums, they are robbers. “A couple of years ago, my wife was held in traffic on that bridge. I was at home when I received her distress call. ‘We have been surrounded by robbers at the Oworonshoki end,’ she muttered and then switched off. When I heard the way she sounded, I clearly perceived that she was in grave danger. So, I quickly mobilised and we headed for the place with some policemen.
“When we got there, the robbers were operating with so much confidence. They were robbing as if nothing was wrong. If the police did not fire some shots in time, apparently to scare them away, we could have arrested many of them. But we succeeded in arresting two out of the lot. They knew their route. So, some jumped from the bridge and cross over to the other side.
“When we took the arrested robbers to Adeniji Adele Police Station on the Island, some of the policemen there told them: ‘yes, we have got you now.’ To my surprise, they told us that they too had been robbed in the past while on the bridge. They recalled how they were in their private car, going home in the evening and were robbed while in traffic.
“One of the robbers we arrested told us he lived in far away Mowe, Ogun State. He came all the way from there to rob on the bridge after which he went back home. The other one said he came all the way from Ikorodu.
“An officer who was serving with the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) told me that he too had also had the same nasty experience.
“So from then, some of the officers used that opportunity to move to the bridge with their pistols while in plain clothes. When they encounter them, they fire.”
One evening, a few months ago, the correspondent encountered some police marksmen on the bridge. Each one of them was about a kilometre or so apart from the other. They sat on the median, a finger on the trigger, keeping watch over traffic flowing out of the Island. They were on the lookout for the ‘bad boys’ who come out to harass commuters and people returning home after many hectic hours in their offices and shops. Even in the day, a police team is stationed close to the exit of Adekunle Bridge.
Lagos State police command spokesman, Famous-Cole, affirmed that in the past two years a police team had been regularly deployed on the bridge to ensure that people were safe.
“Incidences of robbery on the Third Mainland Bridge are now a thing of the past,” he said. “Over time, we have had men of the Rapid Response Squad (RRS) deployed there. They have been permanent on the facility. We have some identified hot spots and stationed our men there. They are there on 24 hours basis and I can tell you that in the past two years, we have not had any incident.
“Besides, we now conduct aerial patrols to augment the effort of the response team. So security on the bridge at the moment is 100 per cent. I can testify to that. But we encourage any member of the public who has any complaints to contact us as quickly as possible.
“We are also working with LASAMBUS. They have their ambulances on the ready to pick up any victim in case there is any accident. I’m sure that they too are doing well,” he said.
Lagos State goveernment intervention
Meanwhile, the Lagos State government has scaled up efforts to reduce the pain of residents by constructing a pedestrian bridge at the Oworonshoki end of the bridge to prevent people running across the road, thereby causing accident or slowing down traffic.
The state government has also constructed two lay-bys on both sides of the pedestrian bridge for drivers. The one receiving vehicles returning from the Island is bigger and contains lanes for different categories of vehicles. When passengers alight from the vehicles, their drivers pay a token, depending on the type of vehicle they are driving.
The lay-by on the alternate side of the road is smaller and understandably so. The area experiences less pressure.
Public Relations Officer, Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA), Mr. Hassan Mahmud, said the agency was able to do something revolutionary to make things better because it was worried by the loss of travel time on the bridge.
He said: “First, we had to engage professionals to carry out a critical study of the traffic flow inward and outward the Island; we wanted them to determine at what times of the day traffic in the area was heaviest. Based on their findings, we drafted a special LASTMA squad, which resumes work at the Oworonshoki end of the bridge at 5am and closes at 10pm every day. Their job is to ensure smooth traffic flow inward and outward the Island.
“The squad is there with sophisticated tools, including towing vans to remove broken down vehicles.
“Actually, we have been at that spot over the years but we upgraded with the coming of the current governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode. We were able to change our approach and throw more men into the beat.”
On the result of the effort, Mahmud declared that: “We have been able to reduce travel time in and out of the Island to 10 minutes or less. We want people to go to and return from the Island with less hassle. And we can do more.”
A motorist, Adeola Oyedeji, told the correspondent that efforts of the state government had helped in easing traffic both in the area and on the bridge.
“Before now, the gridlock this spot used to cause was enormous. People returning from the Island in the evening used to suffer gravely. That situation has not been completely erased now, but it is a lot better. We still experience terrible situations sometimes, but it is never as bad as it used to be before,” he said.
As a way of curtailing incessant robberies on the bridge, the Lagos State government has also constructed a strong metal mesh to fence off random access to the bridge from the Bariga end. Now, robbers from the area can no longer climb or jump from the bridge, unlike before. The opposite side is part of the lagoon; robbers will find it difficult to access the bridge from there.
“Efforts to fight the robbers informed the erection of those metal barriers you see on the concrete railings of the bridge,” Oba Timson disclosed.
“This is to prevent them from jumping from there. Anyone who jumps from that height now must be on a suicide mission and that is better for them. If they run from police bullets, let them jump to their death,” he said.