Sunday, February 8, 2009
[email protected]
Harrisburg, PA, USA

Vehicle bottleneck at Onitsha head bridge

or years now, Nigerians have been hearing that a second Niger bridge would be built in Onitsha. Unfortunately, that promise has largely remained a mirage because of political shenanigans, a factor that has been the bane of many worthy projects in Nigeria. As I write, the current bridge is getting older, structurally deficient and functionally obsolete and the lives of many motorists are in danger while our leaders are engaging in unnecessary politics.

This project, which was conceived many years ago, has seen many administrations come and go and for some reason, they talk about it and do nothing in the long run. Infact, the former minister of finance, Dr. Kalu Idika Kalu, recently stated in an interview that he appropriated the funds for this project more than 14 -years ago and wondered why the project has not started. Nigerians would really like to know the answer to Dr Kalu's question.

Just before he left office, looking to get votes for PDP in the South East that he neglected throughout his presidency, General Olusegun Obasanjo hurriedly arranged a photo opportunity in Onitsha and announced that the construction of a second Niger bridge was about to start. Hopes were raised and motorists looked forward to the reprieve that the project would afford them when completed. The Otta farmer has now been out of office for almost two years and nothing has happened. It was after his departure, from office, that the details of what really happened began to emerge. Apparently, Obasanjo, in his characteristic style, coerced the governments of Anambra and Delta to agree to contribute billions of naira, which they did not have, towards the second Niger bridge project. He called it a public-private partnership where the federal government would contribute some of the funds and the states would contribute some while other private ventures would chip in.

At the time, there was talk about using toll system to recoup the money spent. The toll part sounded like a good idea but what was not considered was the fact that the state governments did not have the money to contribute. Now that Obasanjo is no longer in power, the Anambra and Delta State governors have announced that they do not really have the money to contribute and so would withdraw from participating in the project. This, to me, means that unless a miracle happens, the project will again remain dormant during the administration of Umaru Yaradua. This should not be allowed to happen again and is the reason for this commentary. This issue must be kept in the front burner by every means because time is not on the side of the current aging and excessively loaded bridge. With every excess load that the current bridge is forced to carry, with every additional vibration that the bridge is subjected to and with the passage of time that continues to see the concrete piers spall and the iron bars delaminate, the situation continues to get more dire.

The refusal of the federal government to take complete ownership of the proposed second Niger Bridge project and build it from start to finish, beats the imagination of this writer. Some people have posited that if that bridge were located in the north, it would have been built and commissioned long ago. Others see the dilly dallying as a ploy to delay and eventually cancel the project, because projects located in the South East never attract the interest of the Federal government. Whatever the case, it must be borne in mind that the Niger Bridge spans a body of water of national significance and commercial cum historical importance and is located on a major federal roadway linking the South West to the South East. That factor qualifies the project for hundred percent federal take over.

As recently as January 29, 2009, during a public hearing of the Senate Committee on Works, the Minister of Works and Urban Development, Dr Hassan Lawal, again made the same type of promise we hear ever day about the second Niger Bridge project. He said that the Federal Executive Council had approved the award of the contract and was getting documents for signing between the FEC and Debt Management Office when the Anambra and Delta state governments announced their withdrawal from the project. "The Minster disclosed that notwithstanding that development, the Federal government's 2009 budget had captured the project, and that given the viability and bankability of the project, many private investors would jump at the opportunity to partake if eventually the two states indeed withdrew from the project"[Leadership in Nigeria, Feb 7, 2009] My take on this is that if the federal government believes that the project is that bankable, what stops it from starting and completing the project and reaping the said rewards? The continued attempt to tie the states into a project that should be the responsibility of the federal government, smells like a ploy to continue to do nothing.

We are told that the reason why the federal government is not going it alone is that it does not have money. That is balderdash. Nigeria boasts of 50 billion dollars in foreign reserves and on top of that, reaped the excess profits that came in when the price of crude sky-rocketed. That bridge can be built if there is the will but unfortunately, ours is a country where politicians would rather line their pockets with public money than build projects for the safety of ordinary Nigerians. The government would rather spend millions of naira on pork-barrel projects like furnishing the houses of never-do-well legislators and government functionaries instead of embarking on projects beneficial to the public. This same leaders who say there is no money to fund a second Niger Bridge dash off overseas for medical check ups and spend millions of taxpayer money. If the federal government really wants to build a second Niger Bridge, it would put up the money and start the project in earnest.

Considering the age of the current bridge and the average daily traffic figure on which the design was predicated 40-years ago, I have always known that it is currently being overburdened by increased traffic. But after my visit to Nigeria, during which I took a trip to Asaba from Nnewi, it became clear to me that the problem was no longer just academic but a real issue that needs constructive action now. Our journey from Nnewi to Upper Iweka road bypass, in Onitsha, a distance of about 13-miles, took about 40 minutes. That was good considering that we had to deal with potholes in some sections of the highway as well as grapple with the surge of roadside hawkers that jammed the road as we entered Onitsha. When we got to the Upper Iweka bypass, heading towards the Niger Bridge to cross into Asaba, all hell broke loose. We were stuck in traffic for the next 2-hours, slowly creeping, slowly crawling like tired old turtles. As if the chaotic traffic congestion was not enough problem, vehicles were blaring their horns to the highest decibel and fumes from aging vehicles steadily wafted into the polluted and hazy afternoon sky. To add insult to injury, impatient drivers, erratically turning their vehicle steering wheels in an attempt to escape the nightmare, continued to bump into other cars, creating fender benders here and there to the chagrin of law-abiding road users.

As we snaked our way forward, I kept looking around in all directions to see what was causing the hold-up but could not see any accident or obstacles on the way. It was all vehicles, old, new, rickety, heavy and light, heading towards Asaba. We were already at the bridge head when my epiphany occurred! The problem was the Niger Bridge itself! I would use an hour glass analogy to describe to the reader what I saw. Imagine what happens when an hour glass, with grains of sand inside it, is placed on one end. Immediately, all the sand will start rushing downwards. But once they get to the constricted part of the hour glass, the downward movement of the sand slows down appreciably, almost to a halt. At that time, few grains of sand, at a time, start emerging slowly from the other side of the constriction. Just as the constricted part of an hour glass restricts the flow of sand because of the small opening at the constriction, so does the current Niger Bridge restrict the flow of traffic because the capacity of the bridge has become too small for the number of vehicles trying to go through it. Inotherwords, the number of lanes on the bridge deck no longer match the unbelievable number of vehicles competing for access through it.

When we eventually got onto the bridge deck, I thought that the traffic would speed up a little but I was wrong. It was a bumper to bumper affair all the way. An aerial photography of the bridge, at the time, would have given the impression that it was a parking garage rather than a bridge. That, in itself, poses great danger to motorists. Every bridge is designed to carry a certain amount of dead and live loads with some factor of safety. If this total load is exceeded and the factor of safety used up, that bridge becomes susceptible to failure. By allowing vehicles both heavy and light to pile up on that bridge deck for hours and crawling slowly, we are pushing the envelope of its structural tolerance. Nigerian authorities may think that they have all the time in the world to continue playing politics with the second Niger Bridge project. With the way the current bridge is being stressed, they better think again. Not quite long ago, I used to visit Minnesota three times a year or so on official duty. While there, I used to drive through the I-35 Bridge without thinking twice about it. It was a shock to me when that bridge came tumbling down, claiming the lives of many motorists. Of course the first thing that came to mind was that I could have been driving on it when that happened. Later, an investigation revealed that overloading was part of the reason for the bridge collapse. If this could happen in Minnesota, to a bridge that was routinely inspected and maintained, then we need to worry for the Niger Bridge that rarely sees inspection and routine maintenance. During a session that the Minster of Transportation had with Senate Committee on Works, she said that "maintenance records, for the bridge, were non-existent, since no maintenance had ever been carried out before the current intervention [ThisDay, Nov 5, 2008] That says it all, a bridge whose capacity has now been oversubscribed traffic-wise, has never even been maintained in the 40-years of its existence! Nigerians of goodwill must send unmistakable messages by phone, email and other means to the federal government that we can no longer accept the delay of a second Niger Bridge because the current one is an accident waiting to happen.

As it is today, the current bridge has a lot of problems. Some heavy vehicle drivers who use it have reportedly complained that it vibrates as they drive by. Granted, bridges are designed to experience and absorb a certain amount of dynamic forces during use but when the movement becomes very pronounced, it is usually an indication of serious problems. Excessive movement of the structure, as occurs with the current bridge, has led to bolts loosening and coming off from gusset plates that hold the trusses together. It has even been reported that the concrete piers are showing signs of cracking and spalling. All these are indications that the bridge can no longer withstand the load that it is being forced to carry. If the government does not want to build another bridge, for the sake of the lives of motorists, they should inspect the bridge, determine what its residual strength is and rate it. Rating means assigning the maximum weight of vehicles that can safely use the bridge and then put a weight restriction on it. That will at least buy sometime without putting the lives of people in danger. This will be silly to do, though, because that route is a major artery for commerce and if heavy vehicle drivers are deprived from using it, it will cause them a lot of hardship and increase cost of goods invariably.

Another issue that bothers me about the current bridge, is the phenomenon called scour. A bridge over water is supported from under by a series of pillars called piers. The piers are founded on sand below the river bed. As the river flows, depending on the speed of flow, sand and other sediments are gradually eroded from around and under the bridge piers. This is called scour. If the problem is not addressed, over time, substantial amounts of the sand could be scooped away from around and under the piers and make them unstable. Usually, most bridges built over water and with susceptibility to scour, are inspected periodically by divers and remediated if need be. Now, the Niger Bridge spans a river and has piers. We have read that pier 2, one of the piers that support the Niger Bridge, now has a shallow caisson foundation. It was originally designed to stand on land (land pier) but because the Niger River has slightly changed course over the years, pier 2 is now inside water, in a shallow foundation, making it unstable. Need I say more about the urgency of a second Niger bridge? As if this was not trouble enough, during her session with the Senate Committee, Mrs Madueke "said that the design and drawings of the bridge's substructure were missing"! [ThisDay, November 5, 2008]. It is laughable that the drawings of an infrastructure of that magnitude and importance are missing and we are not ashamed to say so. In civilized nations, multiple copies of drawings of this import are made and archived in several locations. What happened here? Some again have cried sabotage but one is willing to call this ineptitude. The problem is that without the substructure drawings, trying to inspect that bridge and coming up, with certainty, how to remediate it will be problematic.

My contention here, as experts have also said, is that the Niger Bridge is getting old and being overloaded. Even Mrs Madueke said it herself that "Further model simulation of the(bridge) trusses showed that some members(of the bridge trusses) were overstressed due to overloading[ThisDay, Nov 5, 2008]. Now that it has been established that the bridge is overloaded now, what happens when the Asaba airport, a project I talked about in my last commentary, is completed? Obviously, traffic will double and the bridge will face even more problems. Unless the Nigerian government is waiting for what happened to motorists on I-35 Bridge in Minnesota to occur in Onitsha, then it is time for politics to be set aside and the second Niger Bridge project commenced in earnest.

Even though it is not clear whether the second Niger Bridge has actually been designed, I believe that to truly serve its purpose, it must meet certain criteria. It must be designed to not only accommodate the chaotic traffic that stream towards Asaba from Onitsha everyday, but provision must be made for the expected surge in number of vehicles that will be using the bridge when the Asaba airport is completed. This means that, at a minimum, the bridge must have three lanes in each direction for a total of six lanes. Each lane must at least measure 12 feet or 3.6 meters and clearly delineated with raised pavement markers. There should be enough shoulder space on both sides of the deck for vehicles in distress to pull onto.

Let me warn that the government has the opportunity to prevent a potential catastrophe in Onitsha by acting swiftly, acting boldly and acting now. This dilly dallying and political grandstanding is not in any one's best interest. Time is of essence. President Umaru Yaradua, the one that campaigned as a compassionate leader but has turned into a press freedom suppressing president, should do his job on this issue and release all the funds needed for the design and construction of a second Niger Bridge before it becomes too late. If the state governments must get involved, then they should be asked to put up the money for the design of the bridge and provide construction inspectors that will ensure the quality of the finished product.

The statement by the Delta and Anambra state governments that they are pulling out of the project is the wrong one. Even if they do not have the money to contribute, they have other non-financial contributions to make. They should increase pressure, in every way, on the federal government to get to work on this project. They should be the vanguards in the forefront agitating for the project. Posterity will not forgive anyone, including those that had the power to influence the commencement of this project but did nothing should any mishap come to pass.


Author of the books- 1. Nigeria: Contemporary Commentaries and Essays

2. Surviving in Biafra: The Story of the Nigerian Civil War