The ridiculous fact that seven years after former President Olusegun Obasanjo laid the foundation stone for the Second Niger Bridge in grand style, President Goodluck Jonathan, the other day, performed another ground-breaking ceremony for the same bridge, should, but must not, dampen enthusiasm over the bridge. Even if that bridge is commissioned promptly this time around, it will still go down in history as a dream accomplished behind time. No thanks to inept leadership.
Also to call a critical infrastructure so deferred and still to be built “a promise kept” is taking public relations gimmickry too far.
President Jonathan deserves measured praise for re-starting it but the long delay in putting the bridge in place over the years made that fanfare unnecessary. The President’s presence ought not to have been turned into a celebration but a moment for reflection on the failure of government to deliver on a bridge project that has been on the drawing board for 49 years.
Nigerians, if the Presidency must be told, want more commissioning of completed projects instead of ground-breaking ceremonies that end up as mere ceremonies, and there are several projects in many parts of the country that were flagged off with great fanfare but later abandoned. Cynicism is high based on this experience. It is hoped that the Second Niger Bridge flagged off by Jonathan would not be abandoned once again while another foundation laying ceremony is in the waiting.
The President appropriately used the occasion to disclose details of the bridge project. The 1,590-metre bridge, which would form part of the 11-kilometre Onitsha by-pass, would be completed in four years at a total cost of over N117 billion and the project would be executed under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement for a period of 25 years.
The importance of the bridge to the economic and social development of the country cannot be over-emphasised. The bridge is a critical national infrastructure that would boost economic activities across the nation. There is a misconception, deliberately reinforced even, by many people with their words and actions, however, that the bridge would benefit Nigerians from the South-East zone. What is more, this is being wrongly celebrated for political reasons. Let it be told: That bridge is not more important to the East than the West, no more to the South than the North. People on all sides of the River Niger would have equal value and economic advantage from the bridge and it is, therefore, no favour to the South East. If the attempts at cheap gain by politicians over the bridge did not rankle the President as it appears, then the level of understanding of what service to the people means, even at the highest level, is lower than is feared.
Which raises some pertinent questions: Why is the foundation being laid now that the 2015 election is close by? Or is it truly politically motivated? What are the details of the Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) arrangement? What has been disclosed at the moment is a mere projection of N117 billion but is that all that is needed to complete the bridge? What about the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)? These are serious issues that should not be overlooked and the Ministry of Works should bring details to public knowledge.
Contemporary experience shows that the so-called PPP arrangement has not worked too well in Nigeria. For instance, the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway BOT arrangement with Messrs Bi-Courtney awarded in 2009 didn’t work too well for four years and government was forced to cancel and re-award it directly. And in Abuja, the road reconstruction project from the Abuja City Gate to the Airport Road junction awarded under same arrangement has been unimpressive.
So, a critical infrastructure such as the Second Niger Bridge being awarded under a PPP arrangement gives little cause for joy. With sincerity and commitment, the Federal Government has the where-withal to build the one and half kilometre Niger Bridge and there is no need for an arrangement that may never yield any result.
On that score, a review of this arrangement must be done immediately and government should fund the project directly. Having said that, it is also the hope that due diligence has been done on the engineering features of the bridge design and for the sake of cost and future needs, the design should include a rail link. Also, the design must include iconic details and features for aesthetic appeal to make it a tourist attraction like similar bridges in other countries. And the cost can only be brought under control with prompt execution