Uzokwe's Searchlight

Infrastructure neglect, deterioration and eventual collapse, as we just saw in the case of Ijora By-pass Bridge, is of course more of the norm than aberration in Nigeria; our nation is yet to imbibe the culture of asset management and maintenance.
Tuesday, November 5, 2002

Alfred Obiora Uzokwe


ecently, the Ijora by-pass bridge, which links the National Theater and the main expressway leading to Lagos Island, collapsed. Although no lives were lost, one however wonders what would have happened had there been vehicles on the bridge when it gave way? It would have been a catastrophe of unbelievable magnitude and given Nigeria's penchant for responding to emergencies only after the fact, it would have been VERY ugly.

The million-naira question now is whether authorities learnt any lessons from this disaster that would compel them to institute appropriate measures aimed at precluding a repeat on other bridges? I am almost certain that because no lives were lost, in the vintage Nigerian way, it would be business as usual until another mishap occurs.

Just like other infrastructures of its kind, the bridge did not just suddenly collapse; it had been exhibiting signs consistent with structural fatigue, degradation and neglect. Even people who do not have the benefit of engineering training could spot the gaping and ubiquitous cracks all over it. They recognized the fact that the bridge needed immediate attention; some even spoke up about its sorry state but for some reason, the authorities supposedly responsible for the upkeep of the bridge never realized the urgent nature of the situation until it came tumbling down.

Some say that the collapse of the bridge was not really an anomaly since it was an old bridge anyway; they argue that age simply caught up with it. Let me remind the people making this argument that there are many bridges in other countries far older than the bridge in question, and they are still standing tall till this day; in some instances, the bridges have become recognizable landmarks synonymous with the cities where they are located. How come those bridges have not all collapsed? The answer is simple: the bridges were preserved through sustained, aggressive and well-funded maintenance programs. Nigeria does not need to have had her independence 200 years ago for authorities to know that if you maintain what you have, it would last.

Infrastructure neglect, deterioration and eventual collapse, as we just saw in the case of Ijora By-pass Bridge, is of course more of the norm than aberration in Nigeria; our nation is yet to imbibe the culture of asset management and maintenance. We are quick to build new infrastructures but VERY slow to maintain them; hence they decay prematurely. This problem carries over to our highways; we build new roads all the time, but when cracks develop, thereby warning us about pavement fatigue, we neglect it. Out of neglect, the cracks become humongous potholes and eventually, the roads collapse.

A few months ago, experts reported that the multi-billion naira Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos, had developed structural problems, which could make it go the way of Ijora by-pass bridge. Specifically, the bridge pavement surface had become uneven and the pillars or piers on which the bridge rests, had shifted from their original spots. In the world of Civil engineering, uneven pavement and displacement of the piers, are indications of more serious structural problems.

The importance of this bridge cannot be overemphasized considering that it is the third bridge that links Lagos Island and the Mainland. What boggles the mind however, is why a bridge that was commissioned in the early nineties, would already be in structural jeopardy? The managing director of Guffanti Construction Nigeria, Mr. Abiola Salau, was quoted as warning that "the bridge is a structure waiting to collapse" [Guardian, July 17, 2002]

Along the same lines, several months ago, it was reported that hoodlums were vandalizing Onitsha Bridge. They were said to be removing the bolts that held the steel sections or stanchions together and selling them. This type of nefarious activity is actually jeopardizing the structural and aesthetic integrity of the bridge and would fast-track it to eventual failure and collapse. I have been hoping to hear about substantive measures being put in place to tackle the problem of vandals and restore what they may have damaged on the bridge but nothing so far. It seems that authorities in Nigeria do not realize that what they have in their hands are cases of time bombs ticking away and if nothing is done soon, we may start witnessing cases of bridge collapse in succession. I am writing here as a civil engineer who has seen all manners of bridges and studied their characteristics.

In May of 2002, the Lagos state commissioner for works, Mr. Rauf Aregbesola announced that plans were afoot to begin work on Lagos Fourth Mainland Bridge to link the Ikorodu area with Lagos Island. It is a very commendable step because with the alarming growth Lagos is experiencing (it is the sixth largest city in the world), if such steps are not taken, very soon, the problem of traffic jam would bring commerce to a screeching halt. My concern though is that building new infrastructures without proactive plans to maintain them make no sense.

General Obasanjo made a very good point the other day as he addressed the problems of bad roads in the country. He mentioned that the absence of Maintenance departments in our works ministries was responsible for the neglect most of our infrastructures are suffering. I would however remind him that he is the president and could help change things and not just talk about them. There are other reasons why our infrastructures are giving way prematurely. I will deign to outline some suggestions below, as to what Nigeria needs to do both at the state and federal levels, to arrest cases of bridge collapse:

  • Before the design of a new bridge commences, an "honest" study must be conducted to develop a projected estimate of what the traffic volume would be for the next thirty years. With this data, bridge designers would better determine the appropriate number of lanes needed on the bridge to handle traffic expansion as they occur. This would prevent premature congestion. For example, the third mainland bridge, which was commissioned in early 1990s, already experiences traffic congestion! It shows that the traffic projection done for the bridge was either wrong or none was done at all. Another reason why traffic projection data is important is that it would help bridge designers determine the maximum weight the bridge should be designed to carry. This way, if traffic increases, the bridge pavement would be able to accommodate it without experiencing fatigue and premature failure.

  • During the construction phase, qualified engineers should oversee the work of contractors to ensure that substandard materials are not used for construction. Use of substandard materials makes for premature deterioration and collapse.

  • Bridge contractors should guarantee their work for a certain number of years. If defects become apparent before the expiration of their warrantee, the contractor would be precluded from biding on government contracts (for a specified number of time) after correcting the defect. This would be a strong deterrent against sloppy work.

  • Maintenance departments should be established at the state and federal levels to oversee the maintenance of bridges and roads. Their responsibilities should include developing maintenance budgets for bridges and roads, inspecting and prioritizing the infrastructures according to their structural conditions and scheduling the structurally deficient ones for repairs. The department should be responsible for other activities like sweeping and cleaning of debris from bridge decks. Debris can clog drainage scuppers and prevent rainwater from draining off of the decks resulting in water pools on bridge decks and attendant deterioration.

  • It is not uncommon in Lagos and other cities to see hawkers displaying their wares under bridges. On occasions, they have been caught burning tires under the bridges. This is not only an eye sore but also poses dangers of sorts to the bridges. Heat from the fire degrades the concrete deck, reduces its compressive strength and also reduces the tensile strength of the iron bars or rods used for the deck. It should be the responsibility of the maintenance department to dissuade the hawkers from "camping out" under the bridges.

  • Every bridge is designed to withstand a certain amount of traffic load at a time. If this load threshold is surpassed in a sustained manner, the pavement is in danger of being overloaded to failure. This is what the weigh stations we see by the side of some major roads are for. They weigh trucks that may be carrying loads that exceed the weight threshold; trucks determined to have exceeded the load limit are precluded from plying the road or the bridge. Enforcement of weight restrictions on bridges and roads must become the responsibility of the maintenance departments. Overloading a bridge or roadway leads to premature pavement degradation and deterioration.

  • As for the case of the Onitsha Bridge, maintenance should be responsible for warding off vandals and correcting the structural deficiencies their unwholesome actions may have created.

The above is by no means exhaustive, but we would need to start somewhere. For those actions already in place, efforts must be redoubled. The other day it was Ijora By-pass Bridge, tomorrow, it could be Third Mainland or Onitsha bridge. A stitch in time saves nine.