Africa, Headlines

TRANSPORT: Nigeria Turns to Foreign Contractors

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Sep 11 2003 (IPS) - Travellers describe the appalling state of the road in southeast Nigeria as hell on earth.

”It is worse than hell. They are very, very bad,” says Adeseye Ogunlewe, Nigeria’s Minister of Works, who made a trip to the region recently.

A journey that usually takes less than three hours now takes more than six hours if the vehicles and passengers are lucky enough to reach their destination in one piece. Many lives have been lost, while goods worth billions of naira have perished as a result of the bad state of the road. Some portions of the highways have been washed away or cut off by erosion.

The state of the roads has been a subject of concern to both government and the local people. Last month, members of the House of Assembly in the eastern state of Abia went on hunger strike to draw the attention of the federal government to the problem.

But the federal government has accused local engineers of colluding with local contractors to certify road constructions as completed.

At the weekend the federal government, which is investigating local contractors, revoked all contracts, for repairing and building new roads, in the region. It is now re-awarding the contracts to a multinational construction company.

Ogunlewe told journalists in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, recently that the federal government was treating the region as an emergency case due to the "embarrassing state of roads even after contracts had been awarded for their rehabilitation".

The local companies had been awarded nine-million-U.S.-dollar contracts for rehabilitating 1,211 kms of roads and building new bridges in the region.

”We have reviewed all the contracts. Local contractors given the job in Igboland (southeast) have failed government. I have invited Julius Berger (a multinational contractor) to construct two major roads that traversed the southeast,” he said.

Ogunlewe said he was disturbed not just with the attitude of the local contractors but with the role played by Igbo engineers, whom he said, supervised the various road contracts in the zone. He noted that out of the 345 engineers in the Highway Department of his ministry, 107 are Igbo (the main ethnic group in the region). ”Unfortunately, the engineers from the southeast did not do well. Something must have gone wrong within the system,” he said.

”I asked them why they refused to report accurately to appropriate authorities. They said they thought local contractors should be encouraged,” he said.

Ogunlewe said "since the local contractors have failed us, it is time for multinationals to come to our rescue”.

The federal government paid 5.3 billion naira (53 million U.S. dollars) for rehabilitation of roads in the southeast from 1999 to May this year, according to a ministry of works summary of road rehabilitation programme, made public on Monday.

The document said a number of contracts awarded for road rehabilitation in the region had been paid for by government. ”Most of the deplorable roads were awarded to construction companies and were certified as completed by relevant authorities of the ministry of works,” it said.

Ogunlewe, through his aide Lawrence Ojabo, has written to the Speakers of the five southeast State Houses of Assembly, who are scheduled to hold a joint session in Enugu on Sep. 15, requesting for an opportunity to attend and address the sitting. Part of the agenda for the joint sitting is the deplorable states of the roads in the zone.

The meeting of the Speakers from Abia, Anambra, Imo, Enugu and Ebonyi states in Enugu comes at the heels of a 2.6 billion Naira (26 million U.S. dollars) worth of contracts awarded by the federal government to Julius Berger Nigeria Plc for the repair of roads in Abia State.

Kelechi Nwagwu, Speaker of the Imo State House of Assembly told the influential Guardian newspaper that after Monday’s meeting, Speakers from the region would press for the repair of the roads.

”We are losing a lot in terms of human resources. We have lost prominent sons and daughters to road mishaps as a result of the state of our roads. Economic activities in the South East and South-South have all been grounded. People do not come to Ariaria and Onitsha markets (two major markets in the zone) to buy things anymore because of the deplorable state of these roads,” he said.

Achike Udenwa, governor of the state of Imo, told the Minister of Works in Abuja on Monday that the roads in his state require reconstruction rather than rehabilitation.

Civil engineers say the roads were supposed to last for 15 to 20 years before major rehabilitation could be carried out on them. But because of the unscrupulous activities of contractors and supervising engineers who collude to defraud government, such projects usually failed within two to four years after construction.

They also blamed politicians for awarding contracts to their supporters without caring if such people can repair or build roads.

”What was the government doing all this time when it knows the contractors cannot perform? Why did it in the first place award contracts on party patronage without thinking of the implications should the contractors not perform?” asks Tunde Ogun, a school teacher in Lagos.

But Ogunlewe appears to be winning the war. He has solicited the support of the National Assembly whose committee on roads is now touring the projects in the region. If they found any shoddy deals, the contractors would be prosecuted.

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