By Chris Anyokwu
President Muhammadu Buhari is on his homewards stretch, whichever way you look at it. Both as president and as a person. He has entered a twilight zone which necessitates and compels an attitude of stock-taking, of sober reflection on his presidential stewardship as well as on the ways and manner in which he has used or misused his existential allotment of his God-given talents. This autumnal introspectiveness or the settling of accounts varies fundamentally from individual to individual depending in the main on a welter of variables ranging from age, sex, class, education, religion and so forth. Whilst many Heads of States and Presidents across the ages tend to desire a tidy, scrupulously factual record of their days, months and years in power, it would seem our own PMB cannot be said to be a great fan of history or its verdict. If he does, he has so far demonstrated it in an idiosyncratically strange way, to the extent that he has given the world to believe otherwise. If, indeed, he does reckon with the gavel of history, it is not apparent to the rest of us since he has so far shown lofty, if not feudalistic, disdain for public opinion regarding most of his decisions and choices which bear significantly on our corporate survival as a political entity. For instance, there is universal consensus over his appointments, policies and programmes which observers and analysts have long described as parochial, provincial, ethno-religiously biased and nepotistic. People can point, without fear of contradiction, to, for example, his appointments to key security agencies, or the Armed Forces, the paramilitary agencies, the NNPC, the NIMASA, the NPA, and other MDAs of government. For now the universal brouhaha over the alleged Fulanisation of Nigeria has quietened, almost completely swallowed up by the louder noises about far more life-threatening issues, not least the on-going slow-burning urban guerrilla warfare being waged by a deadly cocktail of the so-called “Unknown Gunmen”, terrorists, money ritualists and criminals of every stripe.
Even so, this foregoing excursus is not really the focus of our ruminations today. But we are rather concerned with the politics of the Second Niger Bridge. As we all are aware, PMB’s associates, political appointees and aides have lately been saying that Buhari will go down in history as the president who constructed the Second Niger Bridge. In the same breath, these pro-Buhari cheerleaders and songbirds denigrate and deride his predecessors such as Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, saying that they had promised to construct the Bridge but failed to do so. They quote “facts” and “figures” to ostensibly back their claims. They even go as far as implying that, while southern presidents have failed to construct it, it has taken the selfless and exemplary intervention of a Northerner (a FULANI!) to get the Bridge constructed, mainly for the benefit of the Ndigbo!
As always, truth in Nigeria’s public affairs is a will-o-the-wisp. You may as well dissipate your energy searching for a needle in a haystack. To be sure, truth is never fiercely neutral, constant and ethnically blind. It is never easily verifiable, scientifically measurable and accessible to all-comers. Never, not on your life. Instead, truth is a function of socio-political and ethnic over-determination; it’s a child of power and perspective, among other considerations. This is why the cacophonous caterwauling over the construction of the Second Niger Bridge has reached the level of ear-deafening decibels. However, sometime ago, Doyin Okupe, former aide to ex-president Goodluck Jonathan, shared what were then termed “15 Revelations about the Second Niger Bridge”. Okupe was quoted as saying that, among other things, the Bridge was NOT being constructed by the FGN, that it’s a PPP project to which the FGN contributes a tiny fraction; that the Second Niger Bridge would cost about ₦117 billion; that 38% of the work has been done as at January 2015; and that, in summary, Jonathan government had paid 71% of FGN share of the cost, while Buhari’s government has paid 6.1%. Again, we live in a country where most public functionaries are wont to deny comments attributed to them, arguing glibly that they were quoted “out of context”. Whilst we are not by this suggesting that Dr Okupe might recant, he might yet choose to fall on his own sword if push comes to shove.
Be that as it may, it is heart-warming to know that the Second Niger Bridge, when completed, will join other world’s iconic Bridges such as the Great Belt Bridge in Denmark, Chapel Bridge in Switzerland, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, Alcantara Bridge in Spain, the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia and the world’s longest Bridge, the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge in China.
How was the idea of the Bridge conceived? By whom? What year and under whose administration? The Second Niger Bridge is a Nigerian Federal Government project that is 1.6 kilometre long and furnished with other ancillary infrastructure including a 10.3km highway – Owerri interchange and a toll station all at Obosi City, expected to be completed and commissioned in the year 2022 (Wikipedia.com). The Bridge was conceived under the administration of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo but was embarked upon by President Muhammadu Buhari. It will span from Asaba, capital of Delta State, to Ozubulu and Ogbaru areas of Anambra State. It is being developed through a public private partnership (PPP) involving Julius Berger. According to an online source, the Bridge’s length is approximately 1.630km; construction started on September 1, 2018 and the construction cost is put at N336 billion. So far, it is believed that it is 93% completed. Contrariwise, however, Buhari’s Chief of Staff, Professor Ibrahim Gambari has declared that the Second Niger Bridge, now rechristened President Muhammadu Buhari Bridge, will be completed in October, 2022. He described claims that Jonathan’s administration committed huge funds to the project as untrue. He was quoted as saying that: “It was only N10 billion that was made available by the previous administration. And if you know how much is the total cost of this project, we are talking N400 billion.” He said that the initial fund committed to it by the past administration was used for architectural drawing of the project and payment of compensations to residents whose properties were destroyed in the course of the project. Highlighting the aims of the Bridge, Gambari enthused that the Federal Government under Buhari’s leadership, is constructing the Bridge in order “to address safety and environmental concerns”; it “will last for decades”; and “boost the economy” and “reduce pressure on the First Niger Bridge.”
Given the fact that Buhari’s Chief of Staff has had to come out to clear the air on the whys and wherefores of the Second Niger Bridge and, as they say, put the record straight, we are constrained to ask: is governance and all it pertains not supposed to be continuous, regardless of party affiliation? Are we as a nation not paying a stiff and heavy price for this rancorous and venal politics of attribution? Why can’t we, for a change, suppress this “egolatry” in the interest of the common good?
Be that as it may, it is heart-warming to know that the Second Niger Bridge, when completed, will join other world’s iconic Bridges such as the Great Belt Bridge in Denmark, Chapel Bridge in Switzerland, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, Alcantara Bridge in Spain, the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia and the world’s longest Bridge, the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge in China. As a matter of fact, this Bridge also known as the Qingdao Gulf Bridge, in Qingdao City, east China’s Shandong Province, is a 26-mile bridge which took four years to build at the cost of more than $1.5 billion. What’s more, since we love to compare Nigeria with the UK or Lagos with London, we should be reminded that the River Thames alone has over thirty bridges that cross it. In London alone, you can cross the sad-looking placid River on the Tower Bridge, the London Bridge, the Westminster Bridge, the Millennium Bridge and the Waterloo Bridge, among others. Thus, whilst it is okay to drool over our modest achievement in the provision of physical infrastructure, we should go about it humbly, knowing that in the matter of infrastructure development, we are still in the foetal stage.
Like a road, a bridge functions as a connection between villages, towns, cities and even countries. It links peoples and places; it also melds consciousnesses, ideologies and world views, suturing pasts, presents and futures. But, pray, what about the First Niger Bridge? When was it constructed and by whom? The First Niger Bridge linking Onitsha and Asaba was completed in 1965 and was built by the French construction company Dumez. During the infamous Nigeria-Biafra Civil War of 1967 – 70, it played a very crucial role as the federal forces joined battle with their Biafran counterparts around the bridgehead and its outlying vicinities. Thank goodness, the First Niger Bridge still stands or, more literally, lies as testament to the idea of “one Nigeria”. We could compose an oriki (panegyric poetry) to this single bridge as the main artery linking the Southeast with the larger Nigerian federation. This crossing, in recent times, has witnessed ageing, congestion, traffic snarl-ups, insecurity, economic strangulation of the Southeast, inter alia. The countervailing narrative is that the First Niger Bridge has equally remained a visible symbol of Eastern marginalisation and underdevelopment. A sad commentary on the continuing retributive (or punitive?) miscarriage of justice on account of Biafra. On the flipside, it can be asserted that PMB has clearly gone beyond the tokenist rapprochement indicated by his commissioning of federal projects in the Southeast. He has gone beyond his chummy Igboizing semiotized by his being clad in the Igbo Isiagụ complete with a red cap and a walking-stick to boot. Now, his regime’s effort to complete the construction of the Second Niger Bridge is praiseworthy. To all intents and purposes, this singular gesture on his part puts the lie to all the insinuations about his anti-Igbo mindset. In this regard, the Bridge seems a symbolic concretion of Buhari’s (read: Northern/Nigerian) handshake across the Niger. Although some assets completed or executed during PMB’s reign have been touted as his biggest legacies yet. But most of his staunchest supporters are convinced that the Second Niger Bridge will stand (or lie) for all time as his greatest legacy, his swansong as his denouement dawns.
Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos