The mythical Second Niger Bridge is to be constructed, the federal government indicated last week in a wobbly, cagey statement delivered in every colour of deniability.
Building the bridge has been in discussion with every government for over 40 years, but none of them summoned the required political will for a project which carries massive political and economic significance for Nigeria.
And yet, when the moment finally seemed to arrive last Tuesday, it did so in a whisper. Recall that Transportation Minister Rotimi Amaechi conducted a tumultuous test-ride of the Abuja-Kaduna rail line in June 2016 and President Muhammadu Buhari a louder commissioning of the line the following month, but no major government figure seemed eager to deliver the good news about the Second Niger Bridge, even though the project is capable of determining who loses the 2019 elections, and who wins.
The news was not delivered by the presidency. Not by Power, Works and Housing Minister Raji Fashola, or by some other related Minister, such as Mr. Amaechi or Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information. Not by a Permanent Secretary from somewhere or another. Not even by the Director of Information in any of those Ministries.
Instead, it was to Mohammed Abdullahi, an Assistant Director of Information in the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing, that the honors fell.
Which is normally when a vigilant press would go to work, and the public, worry.
Nonetheless, a contract for “preliminary works” had been awarded to Julius Berger for N14.4 billion, the statement said.
That was it, unless you examined the fine print. The existing Niger Bridge has “severely been overstressed,” the spokesman said, and “its continued serviceability could not be assured.”
What the government was saying, in plain English, is: “Good luck to all who continue to use the bridge, which is now 50 years old, for it may soon collapse.”
Ominously, the statement contained no specifics about the new plan. Not what constitutes “preliminary works”. Not how long the contractor would take to complete them, or whether—particularly given the condition of the existing bridge—the project is being given priority. Precisely the kind of thing that leads to incomplete or abandoned projects.
The statement was also eerily quiet on the status of the same bridge the preceding government was building.
Since 2011, President Jonathan had used the Second Niger bridge as a major political pawn among the Igbo. Throughout his electoral campaigns in Aba, Awka, Enugu, Onitsha in February 2011, it was his main message: if elected, he would build the bridge before 2015.
"I want to be remembered for building of the second Niger Bridge and my administration's commitment to leaving our footprints on the bridge project," he said during a campaign stop in Onitsha on February 26.
It was at that same stop he made his most famous declaration: “I do not make empty promises in my campaign because whatever I promise to do, I had already carried out adequate study to make sure I can accomplish it in the next four years."
He was lying, of course, but the people of Onitsha rose to their feet, cheering and dancing.
There was more to come. Speaking at the Onitsha Town Hall in August 2012, one year after he was elected, 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.”
He even swore to proceed on exile if he failed to deliver the completed project by 2015.
President Jonathan did commence work on the bridge. Unlike Olusegun Obasanjo, the government of whom falsely announced in May 2007 it was commencing a 58.6 billion contract, Jonathan gathered a crowd to flag off the construction.
But that was not in 2011 or at any time that would have enabled him to complete, or almost complete, it. It was in March 2014 that he did his groundbreaking, claiming the bridge he had sworn to deliver in 2015 would now be completed in four years, that is, in 2018.
His Minister for Works, Mike Onolememen, explained that the project would cost N117 billion, and be concessioned to the builder for 25 years.
Mr. Jonathan announced his government would ensure speedy completion in four years by contributing N30 billion, which was 25% of the construction cost. Again, that was three years ago.
In January 2015, after nearly one year on it, President Jonathan confirmed the project to be on course. During an electoral campaign stop as he sought a new four-year term, he told the Obi of Onitsha he had inspected the project on his way to the palace and could assure him it would be ready in 2018.
The problem is that here we are in 2017 two years after that declaration, giving a contract for “preliminary works” to the same Julius Berger which has been working on it for three years, apparently for the purpose of a new contract for the same project to the same contractor.
It is of great concern that the Buhari government, which weeps daily about lack of funds and preaches hourly about transparency, does not see that its refusal to acknowledge history to be as dangerous as the corruption it claims to fight. In another article, I have pointed out how the Abuja light rail project, for instance, is being re-contracted as if there isn’t an existing contract. I don’t see how anything can encourage corruption more than parallel contracting.
By all means, let the government review the Second Niger Bridge project, but it is dangerous to pretend that a N117 billion project that ought to be three-quarters completed does not exist at all.
And if the government is reviewing the project, it must consult with stakeholders, particularly the Igbo. Let us be clear that not only has the world, and Nigeria, changed dramatically since the first bridge was built, but also since Jonathan’s version was designed.
The new bridge should be bigger, stronger and more ambitious. It should be aimed at Nigeria in the next 50 years, not of the present. To that end, the bridge should be at least four lanes on each side, and should preferably be built on two levels to accommodate growing traffic and economy. The bridge should provide for rail and pedestrian traffic as well, and modern technical appurtenances to ensure security.
Think big or think not at all. Build the bridge right, or don’t build it at all.