The world is aware that Niger Delta region, South-South geopolitical zone, Nigeria, is prone to many negative influences as a result of successive Federal Governments’ unending neglect of the region. Some of these challenges are well known and glaring, yet no attention is given, even though they have substantial impact on the people, corporate and social levels. A typical example of such monumental neglect in recent time is the shoddy state of East-West Road, a strategic road, connecting the country’s busiest and foremost commercial cities in the region.

What is, however, yet to be unraveled by this piece is the intention of successive administrations in Nigeria, for allowing the road to degenerate to such a deplorable 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 take both practical and pragmatic steps to have the road permanently repaired.

For those unfamiliar with the Niger Delta region, the referenced road, from records, extends 188 kilometers and connects the Niger Delta cities to Lagos in the west, with Calabar in the east. On its route, the road links up with the vital commercial hubs of Port Harcourt and Warri. The first phase of the road according to experts’ comments is laced with no fewer than 31 bridges in lengths ranging from 31 to 850 meters.

It is also factually supported that before it was constructed, the trip from Lagos to Port Harcourt used to take 12 hours. But after its construction and put in use, it was drastically reduced to a third of that time. Farmers and fisherman from the over 1000 communities along its stretch were equally able to fetch a higher price by selling their produce and catch-of-the-day inland, new industrial opportunities were opened, and ecotourism for the region’s marshes, mangroves and coasts rose.

That was back in the days! The situation as it stands today is different! The road has become an emblem of national shame.

Aside from bringing about increased transportation costs for the commuters, and left local economies bereft of means to move agricultural products to larger markets, also disturbing is the new awareness that the road which was constructed to revitalize the region has overtly become a nightmare of the sort to the nation’s economy and negatively impacts on the generality of innocent Nigerians that has one business or the other to do in the region. Their time/man-hour are daily wasted on the road.

Take as an illustration, a journey from Lagos to Abraka, Delta state, which ordinarily should not exceed 7 hours, now takes a minimum of 17 hours. It was so bad lately that some of the prospective candidates that travelled in the early hours from Lagos to Delta state University, Abraka, for their Post Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination could not get to their destination till the following day, no thanks to the bad condition of the road.

To these innocent students who will provide the future leadership needs of the country, the experience will remain a pain deepened by the fact that it was avoidable, if the Federal Government had done the needful.

Most shocking is the awareness that former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan who is from the region could not fix the East West road despite it being the only major road that connects his home state-Bayelsa to the ‘wider world’.

Also devastating is the media reports that the road has remained in bad shape for over 13 years or more with no respite in sight, and ‘enjoyed’ a series of failed promises and deformed efforts from successive Federal Governments.

In February 2013, following the criticism President Jonathan has received on the deplorable state of the road and its non-completion, Godsday Orubebe, Minister of Niger-Delta Affairs during GEJ days in office promised that the Federal Government would complete the project by December 2014. Orubebe, whose assurance came a few days after he made a similar one in Benin City, the Edo state capital, said the road project which was about 53 per cent completed, is not as bad as many of his political detractors claimed.

Indeed, no Nigerian took that promise seriously because as at the time the promise was made, President Jonathan’s administration had already established itself in all facets as a government reputed for lacking in commitment to promises.

Illustratively, back in 2010, during the launch of a similar road map to the power sector in Nigeria, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, among other things, stated: “As President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, I and my Vice President, Namadi Sambo, GCON, are conscious that what we do with the Nigerian electricity supply industry will go a long way in determining whether Nigeria remains in darkness or joins the rest of the world in the race for development. Our commitment is to bring an end to our nation’s stunted growth and usher in the fresh air of prosperity by pursuing a new era of sector-wide reform which is driven by improved service delivery to every class of customers in the Nigerian electricity sector. Promising that with diligent implementation and meticulous application of what this road map provides, we will see an end to the chronic electrical power supply shortages.”

Regrettably, the declaration existed not only in frames but turned out to be a political gimmick with no traces of appreciable increase in power generation till the administration elapsed in May 2015.

What about the administrations that emerged after President Jonathan?

The answer is simple. In management, every nation or institution develops a culture of their own. And the success or failure of such an institution is closely tied to that culture. Working under this premise, no administration in Nigeria can boast of clean hands when it comes to issues that have to do with the unacceptable condition of the East West road.

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President Muhammadu Buhari who succeeded former President Jonathan inherited the road but to the consternation of Nigerians brazenly continued with the culture of ‘promise and fail’. In fact, if what happened during President Goodluck was a challenge, the experience under President Buhari’s administration was a crisis.

For example, in June 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari reportedly approved the immediate release of N19.67 billion to ramp up efforts in completing sections I-IV of the East-West Road project by 2021. The presidential directive was part of efforts to address infrastructure deficit in the Niger Delta region and boost its economy. Recall that Mr Buhari had, in his Democracy Day address, said the funding of the sections of the road project would be duly released to better the lot of his people and would be followed by a forensic audit.

That directive only existed in frames as the condition of the road remains without any appreciable change.

In February 2021, President Buhari again established the Infrastructure Corporation of Nigeria (InfraCorp), with initial seed Capital of N1 trillion, provided by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), the Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA), and the Africa Finance Corporation (AFC). InfraCorp was also expected to mobilize up to an additional N14 trillion of debt capital. Through InfraCorp, Buhari catalyzed and accelerated investment into Nigeria’s infrastructure sector via originating, structuring, executing and managing end-to-end bankable projects in the country.

The administration according to reports invested over a billion dollars in three flagship projects: Lagos-Ibadan Expressway (for completion in May 2023), Second Niger Bridge (for completion in May 2023), Abuja-Kaduna-Zaria-Kano Expressway (two of three sections for completion in May 2023) among others.

Stakeholders had expected that East West Road, being the only road connecting the Niger Delta region to the other part of the nation would in fairness and equity benefit from the above initiatives but that hope and argument has since been dashed.

That was not the only disappointment from the former President Buhari led Federal Government to the people of the Niger Delta region.

On the 16th of September 2022, the President Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), as usual ordered the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation and its subsidiaries to ensure that section 4 of the East-West road, spanning from Eleme Roundabout to Onne junction, was fixed without delay through the Tax Credit Scheme. Buhari who was in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State to deliver a keynote address at the opening ceremony of the meeting of the fifth National Council on Niger Delta held at Ibom Icon Hotel and Suites said that the East-West road project currently handled by the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing was the largest infrastructure in Nigeria, and very dear to his administration.

That directive did not in any way improve the life chances or ameliorate the excruciating pains commuters that daily ply the road went through as it existed only in words without fruition.

Even with just a few months left for the administration to ‘expire’, Buhari again, precisely on the 29th April 2023, reportedly approved the rehabilitation of the dilapidated Ogoni axis of the East-West Road in Rivers State. Buhari gave the approval during the groundbreaking ceremony of the three projects namely; the ‘Centre of Excellence for Environmental Restoration’, ‘Ogoni Specialist Hospital’, and the ‘Ogoni Power Project’, in Wiiyaakara community in Khana Local Government Area of Rivers State.

Today, President Buhari just like Goodluck Ebele Jonathan has gone and the pains of the road users not only continued but morphed from bad to worse.

From the above accounts, the question(s) that are important as the piece itself are; what happened to the recent approvals and directives on repair of the road? More specifically, what is the impact of President Muhammadu Buhari’s reported approval in June 2020, for immediate release of N19.67 billion to ramp up efforts in completing sections I-IV of the East-West Road project by 2021? Why did such directives fail to achieve targeted objectives? Who is going to save the people of Niger Delta region from this systematic abandonment? Will President Bola Ahmed Tinubu change the narrative or continue with the old order?

While answers to the above questions will be appreciated, this piece on its part, is of the view that the current administration must do something and fast to save the people of the region from underdevelopment and backwardness- and the best way to start is by having the issues surrounding the East West road permanently resolved.

As an incentive, getting the road redesigned and reconstructed will not only catalyze inclusivity but promote economic activities as well as give the people of the region a sense of belonging!

Jerome-Mario Utomi is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Public Policy), at Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), Lagos