Bridges And The Cost Of Democracy - by Eric Teniola

On January 4, 1966, the then Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (1912-1966) commissioned the Onitsha/AsabaBridge popularly called the Niger Bridge. It was his last engagement outside Lagos.

The bridge which was built by the British, cost £5million at that time. The then Prime Minister was accompanied to the commissioning ceremony by the then Federal Minister of Works and SurveyAlhajiShehu Usman AliyuShagari (90) and the then Premier of Mid-Western Region, Chief Dennis Chukwudi Osadebeh (1911-1994), a poet and journalist, who was also from Asaba.

The then Premier of Eastern Nigeria, Dr. Michael Iheonkura Okpara (1920-1984) who was from Umuahia in the present Abia State and who at 39 was the youngest premier at that time, boycotted the ceremony.

The ceremonial governor of Eastern Nigeria at that time, Dr.Akanu Ibiam(1906-1995) from Uwanna, Afikpo, in the present day Ebonyi State also boycotted the ceremony. There was a political crisis at that time between NPC and UPGA. The three men, Sir Tafawa Balewa, AlhajiShehu Shagari, Chief Osadebe and other officials paid toll on the bridge. Eleven days later, Sir TafawaBalewa was murdered.

Now 48 years after the ceremony, the President, Dr.GoodluckEbele Jonathan has flagged off the construction of another second bridge to link Asaba with Onitsha. The second bridge is to cost N200 billion and would be constructed by Julius Berger AIMS Consortium under the Design, Finance, Build, Operate and Transfer Model. The design alone cost N325 million under the Public Private Partnership Policy.

The Niger Bridge has obviously become old with frequent complaints by motorists and experts who believe that regular vehicular traffics and heavy duty trucks, amongst others and indeed old age, now causes the bridge to become a trap. Most of the nuts and bolts used by the British colonial government cannot be found anywhere in the world because they have become obsolete.

That another second bridge is being constructed 48 years after, speaks volumes about our national planning. Asaba and Onitsha are not just ordinary cities. Onitsha became an important trading port for the Royal Niger Company in the mid-1850s following the abolition of slavery and with the development of the steam engine when Europeans were able to move into the hinterland.

Trade in palm kernels and palm oil which was going on the coast of Bight of Biafra since 12the century was now moved upwards and other cash crops also boomed around this river port in the 19th century.

Onitsha has become, today, a big commercial, educational and religious centre. It ranks with Lagos, Port Harcourt and Kano as commercial nerve centres of Nigeria. Regrettably Onitsha is a textbook example of the perils of urbanisation without planning or public services.

It can boast of a brewery valued at $110 million, a Catholic Cathedral as large as the one in the Vatican in Rome and an Anglican Church as beautiful as that of my church, Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina, Lagos. There is a reason for that. The Anglican was the first missionary in Onitsha in 1857. Later came the Catholics in 1884. As of today there is a competition for audience between the Catholics and the Anglican in Onitsha.

When General Ibrahim Babangida (73) created Delta State-the BIG HEART- on August 27, 1991 and named Asaba the capital there was demonstrations in some parts of Delta State.He was alleged to be partisan because his wife Maryam Babangida(1948-2009) was from Asaba. Only General Babangida can defend himself on that. But if a wife cannot influence certain decisions of her husband, not all decisions, then that wife is not fit to be a partner in a marriage.

Of all the powers in the world none is more powerful than PILLOW TALK; that is, night talk between a wife and a husband. The power of a woman is unlimited. That is the way it has been, and that is the way it will continue to be. And as we all know, General Babangida was a loving husband until his wife died in a Los Angeles hospital, California on December 27, 2009.

As for Asaba it is not just a city. The city has been important long before Maryam Babangida was born. As a matter of fact the naming of Asaba as Delta State capital has today become a big burden to the good and highly industrialised people of Anioma with nine local governments out of 25, in their quest to have their child as governor of Delta State. It is to be hoped that one day Asaba will be accepted by all and sundry in Delta State as their own state capital.

Asaba is strategically located on a hill at the Western edge of the River Niger. The historic River Niger is a trans-African link beginning from Western, Eastern and Northern Nigeria through the River Niger from the north and via the Asaba Niger Bridge, an east west link and a Nigeria landmark.

Asaba lies approximately 6 degrees north of the equator and about the same distance east of the meridian; about 100 miles north of where the River Niger flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Asaba occupies an area of about 300 square kilometres. It maintains an average tropical temperature of 90 degrees during the dry season and an average fertile rainfall of six inches during the rainy season.

Asaba was once the colonial capital of the Southern Nigeria Protectorate. It was founded in 1884. It hosted the Royal Niger Company, which the British authorities set up to stimulate trade and the exportation of goods to England. That company has grown today into the UAC Nigeria PLC. Its traditional ruler is the Asagba, Dr. Joseph Chike Edozien of American education background.

Be that as it is, we have not given special favours to the people of Asaba and Onitsha or indeed the whole of South East and SouthSouth. Even if we today construct a second bridge to link Onitsha and Asaba. By now there should have been three bridges on that river.

Also by now we should have started the construction of a standard bridge to link Agenebode in Edo State to Idah in Kogi State, two towns overlooking each other. Vis-à-vis there should have been four bridges across Lokoja and same to Jebba. If anything happens to the Jebba and Lokoja bridges, the North will be cut off from the South. We can build bridges, construct roads, hospitals and many more if we want to and that is if we reduce the cost of governance.

Our own democracy must rank one of the most extravagant and exorbitant democracy in the world. Our economy cannot sustain it any longer. If we are to uphold and endure this democracy then we have to sacrifice the execution of capital projects inclusive of construction of bridges.

Our prodigal and spendthrift attitude is killing the economy and hurting our chance of survival. Imagine how much we are spending on the National Assembly, National Conference, Presidential fleet, seminars, oil subsidies, presidential and gubernatorial aides, etc.

Apart from insurgency which we can’t find solution to in spite of external help, the greatest danger to our democracy is the high cost of governance. We can’t continue this way any longer.

CHARLES LOIUS SECONDANT, the Baron de Montesquieu wrote that “the deterioration of every government begins with the decay of the principles on which it was founded”, while CONFUCIUS wrote” In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of”.