In this report, ARINZE CHIJIOKE chronicles the sufferings of road users on the 15km Eleme-Onne end of the East-West Road in Rivers State and how the project’s execution has dragged on for a long time
In March this year, a resident of Aleto, one of the communities in Eleme Local government area of Rivers State, identified simply as Barnabas was knocked down along the Eleme-Onne section of the East-West Road by a truck driver who was trying to navigate the gaping potholes on the road. Residents said Barnabas was returning from where he had gone to check the level of work on his property. He died on the spot.
Barnabas is only one out of several cases of deaths recorded along the 15km Eleme-Onne road due to its dilapidated state. In July, at least two people were killed after a truck lost control along a Bridge on the road and rammed into a tricycle, pushing it into the River. Only the driver survived.
In late 2022, four occupants of a Toyota Sienna car were killed by a truck carrying a 40ft container in a similar circumstance. A week earlier, a tanker fell on a commercial bus between New Town Junction and Onne Trailer Park axis of the road and killed eight occupants.
On a daily basis, heavy-duty trucks carrying goods fall on the road, causing traffic and making life difficult for commuters and residents of the area. Trucks loaded with containers have fallen on commercial buses, killing travellers and inflicting severe injuries on them. Tankers loaded with fuel, diesel and other inflammable substances often spill the content on the road, resulting in fire outbreaks.
Travelling from Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital to Eleme ideally should not take more than 20 or 30 minutes. However, commuters spend three hours and sometimes more due to endless traffic snarls. Most part of the road is covered with potholes.
Rivers State, like other states in the South-South region, enjoys a longer rainy season and within this period, the situation of the road gets worse as potholes wide enough to swallow vehicle tires are created, leaving vehicle owners to battle with vehicle maintenance expenses.
Multiple residents told Ripples Nigeria that cases of armed robbery attacks have been reported due to delays on the road which connects a total of eight local governments in Rivers State, namely Khana, Gokana, Tai, Eleme, Andoni, Opobo/Nkoro, Okrika and Oyigbo.
The road is one of the busiest in Nigeria being the only gateway to other states in the South-South and the South-West. It is also the only access road to some multinational companies, including the Port Harcourt Refineries, the Onne Port Complex, and the nation’s flagship oil and Gas Free Zone at Onne. Others are Indorama-Eleme Petrochemicals Company, one of the nation’s leading fertilizer producers and exporters and Notore Industries Limited, another fertilizer producer and promoter of the Notore Industrial City (a free zone) among others.
Onne Seaport potential
In May, the Controller in charge of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) Area 2 Command, Onne- one of the national assets in the area- Baba Imam, said that the Command generated N54.9bn (N54,992,123,687.15) in revenue in the first quarter of the year.
Imam said that the figure represents 16.3 per cent of the total N336 billion given as the revenue target for the year 2023 and increased by N1.1 billion compared to what was generated within the time under review in 2022.
Earlier in the year, the former controller in charge of Area 2, Auwal Muhammad said that the NCS generated a total sum of N242bn (N242,090,629,309.29) in the 2022 fiscal year. The figure was an improvement on the N118 billion generated by the command in 2020 and N188.6 billion in 2021. The constant increase became possible following the introduction of improved revenue generation structures.
But one of the bridges which connects the road leading to the seaport- and is said to have been built in the 1970s- is almost collapsing, with no edge protection. Travelling along the road, It is common to see car owners struggling to pull out their cars from potholes. Some have been abandoned with food items and other products.
Under the Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration in 2006, the contract for the dualization of the 338km East-West Road, covering Warri to Oron through Kaima and Ahoada, Port Harcourt to Ogoni and Eket township was awarded in four sections to four different contractors.
However, while sections I and II, covering Warri to Kaima and Onne Port junction to Eket have been completed, the 15km section between Port Harcourt and Onne Port Junction of the road was not constructed.
That decision raised concerns. But the minister of Niger Delta Affairs at the time, Dr. Steve Oru explained that the road which was dualized in 1999, was in fair condition, hence it was not included in the major reconstruction.
However, as years passed, the road deteriorated due to heavy axle loading and flooding. It was no longer serviceable for traffic volumes and in 2014, the Federal Executive Council approved the award of a contract for its upgrade to Reynolds Construction Company Nigeria Limited at a sum of N43,869,381,730.23 with a completion period of 18 months with reference No MNDA/PROC/CAP/14/89/23, according to procurement details seen by this newspaper.
The amount was expected to cater to the upgrade and expansion of the road from a two-lane dual carriage to a three-lane dual carriageway. Another scope of work was to increase the thickness of the asphalt layer, and construction of interchange bridges at the Refinery junction and Onne Port junction to smoothen the traffic flow. However, the contractor was not immediately mobilized.
RCC is a subsidiary of SBI International Holdings AG (SBI), headquartered in Switzerland. Available information shows that SBI’s first foray into Nigeria was in 1956 when it established a construction company called Nigersol Construction Company Limited together with some Nigerian investors.
Nothing to show for billions spent
However, findings by this reporter showed that on different occasions between 2015 and 2022, different amounts of money were either paid to the contractor for the rehabilitation and upgrading of the Eleme-Onne Road or secured in the name of the project.
Available data on the govspend platform- which tracks and analyses federal government spendings over time – for instance, shows that between July 31, 2021 and October 15, 2021, RCC received four different payments amounting to over N2.4 billion (2,483,675,543) for the upgrading of 15km section of the road.
While three different payments, including N821,734,627.40, N594,604,779.33 and N769,707,104.90 were made on the same day, July 31 2021, another payment of N297,629,033.21 was made on October 15, 2021, all of them with (0451001001) as payment code.
On the 15th of July 2015, Nyesom Wike, who was governor of the state at the time, held a meeting with seven multinational companies operating in the Onne axis, including Intels, Indorama, West Africa Containers Terminal, Port Harcourt Refining Company and the Nigeria Ports Authority.
Findings showed that during the meeting, all parties agreed to collectively contribute N3 billion for the rehabilitation of the road with the contract sum allocated as follows: Integrated Logistics Limited (N1 billion), Indorama Petrochemical (N500 million), West African Container Terminals (N500 million), Rivers State government (N300 million), Port Harcourt Refining Company (N300 million), Nigerian Ports Authority (N200 million), and Oil and Gas Free Zone (N200 million).
At the end of the meeting, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed and RCC- which was handling the project was mobilized to commence rehabilitation work. Part of the agreement was that the road would last for two years.
Residents who spoke to this reporter said that what was done at the time was filling up of potholes to make the road motorable.
“The rehabilitation helped in the first year after it was completed, “said Johnson Ononwi, a resident of Aleto, one of the communities along the road. “But it soon started to fail some months into the second year,”.
In 2022, Godswill Akpabio- who was minister of Niger Delta Affairs at the time- reportedly secured N10.4 billion also for the completion of construction work on the Eleme Junction to Onne section of the East-West Road from the 2021 Sovereign Sukuk Issuance.
Before he was presented with the cheque by the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs Zainab Ahmed in Abuja, the senator, who spoke through his Permanent Secretary, Dr Ardo Babayo, was quoted as saying that the Eleme Junction to Onne was abandoned because of lack of funds and that was why he went to Sukuk through the ministry.
Sadly, despite all these payments, the road remains dilapidated and continues to deteriorate with every passing day. Residents say it has only become a piece of cake for government officials as one form of patchwork or the other takes place almost every year.
Dangerous state of the bridge along the road.
“It is sad that despite the money the government makes from the companies in Eleme, they cannot fix our road, said Martha Egbe, a woman leader in Aleto. “We have lost our children, our fathers and mothers on this road,”.
When contacted for comments, the Special Adviser on Media and Public Affairs to Akpabio, Eseme Eyiboh, said that he was not aware of any payments secured for the contract by Akpabio.
Eyiboh said that the Ministry of Works, which awarded the contract, was in a better position to respond to questions concerning the status of the road, including the award, payments and status of the project.
Business owners count losses
The state of the road remains a threat to potential investors who consider good road networks in making investment decisions. Findings show that many small businesses that would have thrived along the road and further contributed to the economic growth of the area and the state have changed location.
Residents said those who stayed back are having to deal with losses. Precious Iyay, who owns a provision store close to the Petrochemical junction where she sells beverages, snacks and engine oil, lamented the poor state of the road. The junction is usually a beehive of activities because trucks usually come in to convey different products, including fertilizer to different locations. But Precious said she hardly makes sales because trucks don’t come in to load.
Precious Iyay says bad road is affecting her business
“Nobody wants to get stuck in traffic with their products”, she said. “Some trucks have stayed on the road for days, leading to losses and that is affecting our business because I cannot sell if they don’t come around,”.
Favour Ofonime, who works at a furniture shop by the roadside, said he and his colleagues wash their ready-made furniture because they are often covered by dust when the road is dry and muddy water, whenever it rains.
“Sometimes, when people come to buy and notice that we have washed repeatedly, they begin to price below what they are sold for and we have to sell because we cannot keep having them here”, he explained.
Victor David, a motorcyclist said that he has had to fix his motorcycle after plying the dilapidated road with the money he should have invested into something else. He recalls one occasion when he fell on the road while trying to navigate through a pothole.
These days, tricycle riders and motorcyclists tell passengers that as soon as they get to a point where they can no longer proceed, they (the passengers) would have to come down, hence many people are having to trek long distances to get to their destination.
“Sometimes, I don’t even accept to drive on the road and those who accept to ply the road, more than double their price,” he said. “Distances that used to be covered with N250 are now N500 and more because I have to also wash my motorcycle at the end of each day,”.
Blessing Chigozie lives around the GVC area in Eleme and works in a Petrochemical company located around Edaramu Estate which is roughly a 10 to 15 minutes’ drive on a motorcycle or tricycle. But she prefers to trek instead of paying for transport and getting dropped mid-way.
“On severally occasions, I have paid N200 for transport but the drivers did not get to Edaramu because of holdup”, she said. “Now, instead of spending that money, I just jug in the morning to work and wash my legs and jog back after work, and I have done that for over a week now,”.
The protests and demands for construction
Irked by the condition of the road, hundreds of youths blocked the Eleme axis of the road with petrol trucks and other articulated vehicles In July 2021, demanding its immediate construction.
Bearing placards, with different inscriptions such as, ‘We have suffered for too long, fix the Eleme East-West Road now,’ ‘enough of deceit from FG, fix our roads’, the youths occupied the road for seven days, vowing to remain on it till the federal government takes a decision to fix it.
After the protest which crippled the country’s oil and gas activities as trucks were not allowed to access the Onne Oil and Gas free zone and other multinational companies in the area, Akpabio announced that the federal government released an additional N2.5 billion for compensation to pave way for remedial works to be carried out on the road, as according to him, the initial N4.5 billion budgeted for compensation could not meet up with demands.
Meeting with stakeholders and contractors handling different sections of the road in Abuja, he appealed to protesting youths to vacate the road as contractors were about to commence work.
“That gave many of us hope and we thought that the contractor will begin work immediately on the road and ease our pain,” said Festus Solomon who regularly plies the road. “Sadly, we did not hear from them.”
In September, as the road remains deplorable, a group of ex-agitators from Ogoni extraction vowed to shut the Port Harcourt Refining Company and other multinational firms in Eleme.
Stakeholders in the region, including national assembly members from the state have also asked the government to intervene on the state of the road. This July, the Senate constituted an ad-hoc committee to investigate the back-to-back failure of every attempt of governments to complete the East-West road since 2006. This followed the adoption of a motion on” Urgent Need for Construction of Onne, Eleme communities Axis of the East-West Road sponsored by Mpigi Barinada, a senator from the state.
In its further resolution, the Senate said that the ad-hoc committee would invite the permanent secretaries of the Ministry of Works and Housing, Niger -Delta Affairs, Petroleum Resources and Finance, Budget and National Planning. Others were the Group Chief Executive Officer of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) Limited, the Managing Director of RCC Construction Company-which was given the contract- and any other relevant stakeholder to present detailed information on reasons for prolonged delays and abandonment of the project.
The committee was also expected to provide information on measures to address the socio-economic impact of the abandoned road on the affected communities, plans, timelines, and strategies to ensure the completion of the project within a reasonable timeframe.
When the committee visited the state on their fact-finding mission, the governor of the State, Siminalayi Fubara again expressed displeasure over what he described as the prolonged neglect by the Federal Government of the collapsed Eleme Junction to Onne Road.
Ray of hope and repeat of an old story
In September this year, President Bola Tinubu promised to reconstruct the road when he received a 62-man delegation from Rivers State led by the governor.
Exactly one week after the visit, the Minister of Works, Dave Umahi, announced that another N33bn had been released to RCC to reconstruct the road during an inspection of the project and other federal government projects in Rivers State.
Some residents and road users received the news with excitement, while others said they were sceptical as this was not the first time promises made concerning the road have not been kept.
On Saturday, September 30, the contractor returned to the road and covered up the potholes with stones after which rollers were used to compact them. Residents expressed worry that it wasn’t the same as the reconstruction promised.
When this reporter revisited the road, commuters were seen navigating through the road for fear that the stones, which were looking sharp on their edges, would puncture their tires. Cement were later used to cover up the stones.The traffic did not get any better.
Commuters who spoke to this reporter said that the exercise was only a confirmation of their fears that the government was not committed to reconstructing the road.
“This is not the first time the potholes are being covered with stones and after some months, it goes bad again”, said Oluka Gomba, a road user. “The only option is to completely reconstruct it.”
This October, representatives from RCC held a meeting with Aleto, one of the communities along the road where it promised leaders that its workers will commence work in earnest. According to a source who does not want to be mentioned, the representatives said during the meeting that they will need “young men from the community to work on the road.”
When contacted, Ngofa Brown, the Aleto community liaison officer to RCC on the East-West Road project, said that shops and other obstructions along the road are currently being demolished to allow for an expansion of the road.
“That is the difference between other years and now,” he said. “They have brought their machines and patching the road is still ongoing to make it motorable. It is not going to be business as usual because there is no issue of payment.”
But residents say they can only be hopeful of a different story this time.
RCC, Works Ministry keep mum
When this reporter contacted RCC for its reaction on the continued delay in the execution of the Eleme-Onne project and what exactly had been done with the funds provided so far on Friday, October 6, the contractor refused to comment and instead asked the reporter to contact the Federal Ministry of Works for all details concerning the project.
“The Ministry of Works is the one handling everything about the project and that is where you can get every information you need,” the contractor said. “There is no information concerning the project you can get from the contractor.”
This reporter also tried to confirm from the contractor the new payment made after the contract was re-awarded for N33 billion as reported by the Minister of Works during his visit to Rivers State. But the company declined to comment on the matter.
On Monday, October 09, 2023, BudgIT sent a Freedom of Information Request, (FOI) to the Ministry of Works, requesting details of the contract, including payments made to date and the duration. By Friday, October 13, the ministry acknowledged the request. However, it refused to respond at the end of seven working days on Tuesday, October 24 as required by law.
This story was published under the GovSpend Media Fellowship, supported by Budgit, ICIR and MacArthur Foundation.
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