Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner, SBM Intelligence

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  • Geopolitical Analysis
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Building second Niger Bridge with electoral promises 13 Dec 2018

On November 11, Festus Keyamo, Director of Strategic Communica-tions for the Buhari Campaign Organisation, posted a tweet, claiming that the current administration was working on the Second Niger Bridge. Keyamo, whose tweet contained pictures of the contract and ongoing work at the site, also inferred that the last administration did nothing on the Second Niger Bridge project.
Expectedly, the comment of the former human rights activist elicited diverse reactions from across the political spectrum. At that instant, one of the most important infrastructure projects to connect what is arguably the most economically-active regions of this country became political football during a heightened electoral season.
To understand why the Second Niger Bridge has become political, we need to examine its history. The first Niger Bridge (also known as the Onitsha Bridge) linking Onitsha, Anambra State, and Asaba, Delta State, was built during the First Republic, and commissioned by Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa on January 10, 1966. Unfortunately, that event turned out to be his last public function. He was assassinated a few days later in the January 15, 1966 coup.

Designed by Dutch engineering consultants and built by French construction giants, Dumez, the 1.4 km steel bridge was built at a cost of £5 million (£94 million or ₦43.72 billion when adjusted for inflation today). The bridge is a steel centre-truss, three-vehicular lane bridge with pedestrian walkways on both sides. Despite damages sustained during the Civil War, the bridge has been the only link between the Western and Eastern parts of Nigeria for over 50 years.

The Second Niger Bridge was first proposed during the 1978/79 political campaign season by then-candidate Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). But during his time in office as president, the focus of his government was to build Abuja, even as Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy plunged.

In 1987, after warning about the state of the existing Niger Bridge by his Minister for Works and Housing, Abubakar Umar, General Ibrahim Babangida challenged local engineers to design the Second Niger Bridge. Rising to the challenge, the Nigerian Society of Engineers incorporated a consulting firm, called NSE PREMS Limited, which subsequently delivered a master plan. The addition of the East-West railway line to the project, as well as the political turmoil that precipitated the end of the Babangida administration, put paid to the plan.

Under the subsequent military governments, the project received very little attention. Upon the return to civilian rule, President Olusegun Obasanjo promised to deliver a second Niger bridge. However, his administration did not carry out any major activity on the project until five days before he handed over to the then-incoming administration of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, when Obasanjo flagged off the project in Asaba.

The incoming administration effectively inherited the ₦58.6 billion proposed cost for a six lane, 1.8 km tolled bridge, which was to be completed in three-and-half years. The bridge was to be financed under a public private partnership (PPP) with 60 per cent of the funding coming from the contractor, Gitto Group; 20 per cent from the federal government; and 10 per cent each from the Anambra and Delta states.

Unfortunately, the politics surrounding the health, and subsequent death of President Yar’Adua did not allow for progress on the project. It wasn’t until August 2012, that the Federal Executive Council, under the Jonathan administration, approved a contract worth ₦325 million for the final planning and design of the bridge. During the 2011 general election campaign season, Jonathan had promised that if elected, he would deliver the project before the end of his term in 2015. At an Onitsha town hall meeting on the August 30, 2012, he promised to go on exile if he didn’t deliver on the project by 2015. However, the groundbreaking ceremony did not take place until March 10, 2014, a year before the 2015 general elections.

The politics and rigmarole over the Second Niger Bridge continued under the Buhari administration, which cancelled the earlier contract in August 2015. Aminu Diko, Director General of the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC), told the Senate that the government was probing the contract. Various officials of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) supported the action and justified it. For example, on August 28, 2015, Adams Oshiomhole, then-Governor of Edo State, claimed that the project had to be cancelled because "it had gulped ₦140 billion in consultancy fees."

Former Minister of Works, Mike Onolememen, who oversaw the initial part of the project under the Jonathan administration, challenged Oshiomhole to substantiate his claim. Till date, there has been no response. A contract worth N14.4 billion for early works on the bridge was awarded to Julius Berger in January 2017 by the Buhari administration. Under the new contract, work onsite was slated to start around November 2017.

During a campaign rally for the APC candidate in the 2017 Anambra State governorship election, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo declared that the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) had released ₦2 billion to the contractor as the political football over the bridge continued.

The Buhari Campaign Organisation has thought it necessary to bring up the Second Niger Bridge issue given the president’s dismal outing in the five eastern states in the 2015 election. In that election, Buhari didn’t reach the threshold of a quarter of the votes in any of the South-Eastern states. He took a dismal 7.3% of the total votes cast. With former Vice President Atiku Abubakar expected to give President Buhari a formidable challenge in the next election, it can be expected that the president’s campaign felt the need to shore up his support in a region that feels marginalised in his administration.

Some people have claimed that the foot-dragging over the Second Niger Bridge is a calculated attempt by certain sections of Nigeria to hobble the development of the region. This view, albeit debatable, might be validated by the fact that after every cancellation of the bridge project, nothing happens on site until the next election is close by. This has only strengthened the belief in the region that the bridge is being used as a political tool, or to pull wool over the eyes of the indigenes of the region.

From an economic standpoint, a second major crossing, linking the Western and Eastern parts of the country has a lot of strategic importance. While there is no reliable data on the number of vehicles that cross the bridge each day, it takes more than an hour these days to cross because of traffic at the Asaba end. That definitely has a cost. Movement from Edo, Delta, Lagos, Ondo, Ogun, Osun, and Oyo states must necessarily and optimally pass through the bridge to Anambra, Enugu, Imo, Ebonyi, Cross-River, Akwa-Ibom and River states.

The Niger Bridge at Patani, linking Delta and Bayelsa states, is of optimal use only for commuters to Bayelsa and some parts of Rivers State. Apart from that, the main economic routes of Edo/Delta and the South-West, all the way to the South-East go through Asaba and Onitsha.

It is important to note that every project ought to be championed by those who will enjoy the greatest benefit from it. However, it is saddening the manner in which an infrastructure of national importance, and one that links together the three most economically-active regions of Nigeria, has been politicised into a sectional venture. The failure of political officeholders from the two host states (governors, ministers, senators and representatives) to consistently stand up for, and ensure the proper execution of the project, has exposed the failure of the current set of politicians to act strategically and in the best interest of their people.

As another election season commences, I can only hope that regardless of the side that captures power at the centre come May 29, 2019, the Second Niger Bridge project will be completed for the benefit of the entire country.