Death On The East-West Road: If only we had been fair to ourselves… (OPINION)


By Fred Edoreh

Somehow, death chose our 63rd Independence Day anniversary to remind us of the bad state of federal roads in the Niger Delta, perhaps across the nation. As President Bola Tinubu was performing the anniversary ritual in Abuja, a petrol tanker was struggling through the cracks, ditches, and gullies around Koko Junction on the East-West highway. It failed, eventually fell, exploded its inflammable content, charred nearby vehicles, and roasted the passengers in them.

While the President’s men tried to amplify his speech from the arcade of power, the airwaves were heavied by the ashes, tears, and sorrow from the carnage in Koko.

The incident only left one statement: that the pomp and pageantry in the corridors of power do not represent the reality of our existence.

Sadly, those who died had no hand in the cause, they were just victims of their nation, in how they lived and how they died.

We agonize, but the development challenges us to the unending charade and needless politicization of the management of our federal roads.

Just recently, between August and September, a Senate Ad-Hoc Committee toured the South-South states, ostensibly to investigate why the East-West road has remained uncompleted and to trace the monies that had been thrown on it over the years.

I had thought that the answers should have been sought in Abuja, but the tour was followed by another visit by the current Minister of Works, HE David Umahi, who said Mr. President asked him “to come and inspect the roads and see the immediate relief we can give the people while major construction will start soon.”

Gov Sheriff Oborevwori of Delta State charitably tried to accept that the visits were not the usual jamboree but emphasized the need for speedy action, especially on the bad spots.

“My appeal to you is that you fast-track whatever investigation and inspection you are to carry out…,” Oborevwori told them.

Earlier in July, the member representing Isoko Federal Constituency in the Green Chamber of the National Assembly, Hon Jonathan Ukodhiko, also raised a motion of urgent national importance calling for expedited action to rehabilitate the Warri-Benin section of the strategic highway.

In an August 23, 2023, commentary in the Vanguard newspaper titled “East-West Road And The Shame Of A Nation,” one Jeremi Utome wrote: “It is baffling that successive administrations in Nigeria had allowed the road to degenerate to such state of disrepair. Looking at the present condition of the road, it will not be out of place if the Federal Government tenders unreserved apologies to the people of the region as well as takes practical steps to have the road permanently repaired.”

Let me just say that what was needed was not an apology, just the repair of the bad spots and completion of the road, but the response had all been sound and fury with no practical attention.

While the legislators were quick to tour the states, there was no urgency in follow-up, and neither did we see any sense of the said “immediate relief” by the Minister.

So, the people continued to suffer discomfort on the road, longer travel time, damage to business and property, and now, loss of lives that was long avoidable.

There can be no argument on whose responsibility it is to maintain our federal, and inter-state, roads. The Nigerian constitution is clear on it. As explicitly stated in Item 11 of the Exclusive Legislative List in Part 1 of the Second Schedule, the “construction, alteration and maintenance of such roads as may be declared by the National Assembly as Federal Trunk roads” are exclusive to the Federal Government, while the states take care of intra-state roads and the local government councils take care of intra-rural roads.

Accordingly, this goes into consideration in the determination of revenue allocation to the three tiers of government, with the FG taking the larger portion.

More so, there is a dedicated Federal Roads Maintenance Agency, FERMA, an arm of the ministry, staffed, budgeted, and funded for the maintenance of federal roads.

The question is why the responsible agencies of government have abandoned their duty and left the roads in disrepair. The problem is that the Federal Government has been indulged to recline prettily away from its task with the apparent success of its strong propaganda against the state governments, cashing on the understanding that the people find the state governments closer to them and tend therefore to hold them responsible for every need.

Indeed, for the benefit of the people, the state governments have had to take over the challenge of constructing and maintaining rural roads, knowing that the very poor allocations to the local government councils have incapacitated them from undertaking major projects.

Also seeing the poor response and attention of the FG on federal roads, various state governments have had to intervene with state resources in the hope of getting refunds from the FG.

The interventions had provided some succour until the President Muhammadu Buhari administration declared around June 2020, as announced by Lai Mohammed, then Minister of Information, that “henceforth, if any state takes on federal government road, it will not be paid, they will not get any refund. Even if you want to pay from your pocket, you will still need the permission of the federal government and it will be supervised by the federal Ministry of Works and Housing.”

According to Lai Mohammed, the FG decided after examining requests for refunds on the repair of federal roads from 36 states of the federation.

He said while 31 claims were found to be genuine in cost, the roads were truly done to standards and about N500b refunded to them collectively, claims by five of the states (Cross River, Rivers, Bayelsa, Osun, and Ondo), were initially found questionable, but upon further examination they proved to be correct and the FG also later paid them a cumulative sum of about N148b.

Notwithstanding its investigation, findings, and admission of the veracity of the claims, the FG proceeded on the policy of “no refund.”

Having verified the claims, what could have been the basis of the propaganda of inflation of costs against the states and the declaration of no refund which, to a large extent, has discouraged their intervention and brought us to where we now are?

Of what benefit is it to the nation for the FG to continuously misinform the public and create misperceptions and disaffection against the state governors for intervening even in areas that are of exclusive responsibility to it?

While there is nothing wrong with the states having to obtain the permission of the FG to repair federal roads, and perhaps even in having the federal ministries supervise the works, how justiciable is it for the FG to have declared that the states “will not be paid, will not get any refund” for spending their resources to discharge such responsibilities as clearly apportioned to the FG by law, even when the FG is obviously failing in the duties?

Notwithstanding that the federal roads are a federal responsibility and the relentless dissuading propaganda against the states, Delta State Gov Sheriff Oborevwori has been moved, in consideration of the people, to intervene on the Amukpe-Eku-Abraka-Agbor road, another abandoned federal highway.

He is now also constrained to respond to the Koko incident, to provide relief for affected persons, ease the road, and help clean up the spillage on the land.

But, as we speak, nothing is being said about the Agbor-Uromi stretch of the Amukpe-Eku-Abraka-Agbor highway connecting Auchi to Abuja. So too are the Benin-Auchi road and the Benin Bypass, all federal roads now become not only terribly unmotorable but have dilapidated into death traps.

The fatal incident of October 1 occurred on the East-West Road, an important federal highway that connects all the South-South states and the region’s major commercial and oil cities, stretching from Calabar to Port Harcourt, Ughelli, Warri, Sapele to Benin and heading to Lagos.

The road has been under construction, albeit with equivocative attention, since President Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime. In 2013, President Goodluck Jonathan handed it to the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, and then Minister Godsdey Orubebe assured it would be completed in 2014. That did not happen.

Several years later, President Buhari handed it back to the Ministry of Works under Babatunde Fashola. The most we saw of Fashola on the road was an apparent propaganda against Niger Deltans in which he declared that “one condition for any project to take place is communal peace (and) if we don’t have peace there, we cannot do anything.”

He also reduced the seriousness of the matter by saying “Progress has been made from 2009 till date, but unfortunately, that progress is not reported because of the passion with which the uncompleted part has been reported.”

We had no one to put Fashola right, that the delivery of the road is not a matter of press reportage but of the actual experience of the road users. Even so, the issue of peace and community support for the construction and rehabilitation did not arise because the people desired and have always yearned for the completion of the road.

During the last election season, then Deputy Senate President, Obarisi Ovie Omo-Agege, also brought his politics into the matter. Shielding the ruling party at the federal level, falsely blaming the Delta State Government for the poor condition of federal roads crossing Delta and seemingly seeking self-glorious political capital from the contradictions, he claimed that he had secured approval for the release of N80b for the rehabilitation of the roads. It turned out empty talk.

We are hearing now again that the current Minister of Niger Delta Affairs is calling for the road to be handed back to his ministry.

It has been such rigmarole and summersaults on the East-West road over the years. All have now led to this harvest of death.

October 1 is symbolic, I do not know on whose head the blood of the dead will lie, but I can advise that we be careful of governing our nation by propaganda for, as the scriptures say, “those who cover their sins shall not prosper.”

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