By Arinze CHIJIOKE
IT is midday on a day in late October 2023, Blessing Obinigwe sits inside her kiosk where she sells beverages and snacks along the Amoka end of the 9th Mile-Orokam Road. Her head bent down, her hands firmly holding her little son.
Obinigwe has yet to make any sales all day. She hardly does these days. Sometimes, she goes a whole week without selling a pack of drinks. She is the only one who still runs a business along her stretch of the road.
A year ago, it was a different story. The road was not entirely in good condition, but it was a beehive of activities. Obinigwe sold between five and ten packs of drinks daily. Owners of all kinds of businesses, from beverages to fast food and other food categories, had shops on both sides of the road.
“Businesses were booming daily, said Obinigwe. “Sometimes, we stayed up till midnight, making money from commuters who often lined up their vehicles after ending their journey,”.
The single-lane road, constructed as the major highway linking the Southeast to the North of Nigeria, stretches across seven communities, from the Ama Breweries at 9th Mile to Ebe, Egede, Amoka, Affa, Umuoka, Ogbede and Opi in Nsukka.
“I plan to move to another location for my business or change it completely since no one comes to buy, “said Obinigwe. “But I want to wait for some time and see if things will change”.
Demanding for a change
The dilapidation started gradually. On March 14, 2017, a former senator representing Enugu North senatorial zone, Chukwuka Utazi, drew attention to the state of the road, noting that it requires immediate reconstruction and dualisation to reduce the unacceptable level of accidents and robbery on the road.
Utazi said that the importance of the road lies not only in the fact that it is the gateway from the North to the Eastern part of Nigeria but also in the fact that commercial and other economic activities, especially the transportation of agricultural and industrial produce, are seriously threatened.
He noted that while Nigeria makes efforts to attract the much-needed investments to stimulate the weak economy and create jobs, the state of the infrastructure is a prime consideration for investors, and therefore, the state of this road directly discourages investors from the area.
“For instance, Ama Breweries is the largest and most modern Brewery in Nigeria, and its location should not only bring associated investments but also attract other investments into the cluster. Unfortunately, the major road for the evacuation of the products of the Brewery is in total disrepair, thereby causing economic lockjaw in the area,” he said.
The project and payments
In May 2017, the Federal Executive Council approved the construction of the 9th Mile – Orokam road. The 72km road contract was awarded to Reynolds Construction Company (RCC) at N38,034,539,413.79 with a completion period of 36 months. Yet more than five years later, the construction has not been done. The condition of the road has worsened.
The intention was that the road project would improve transportation infrastructure and restore the nation’s road network as part of the implementation of the Federal Government’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, like other road projects.
Jude Anibueze, a youth leader in Amoka, one of the communities along the road, said that they have made several efforts to get the government to complete the road rehabilitation.
“When we heard about the approval, we could not contain our joy; it was hoped that it will be completed in due time”.
Data on the govspend platform, which tracks and analyses federal government spending over time, shows that between 2018 and June 2022, RCC had received a total of twelve different payments amounting to over N3.5 billion (3,567,487,903) for the rehabilitation of the road.
While on a working visit to the road rehabilitation site in 2018, the Minister of State for Power, Works and Housing at the time, Mustapha Baba Shehuri, directed the Project Manager of RCC, Harel Vaknin, to ensure that further palliative measures were provided immediately and that the rough portions of the road were completely rehabilitated to ease the sufferings of road users.
Worsening state of the road
Despite the payments made to the contractor, findings show that the state of the road has worsened. Now, it is common to see some commercial truck drivers stuck and trying to pull their cars out of potholes.
Sources who spoke to The ICIR said that formerly, during festive periods, the Federal Road Maintenance Agency (FERMA) would scrape and re-surface some portions of the road. Sadly, that option cannot work as large segments of the road have collapsed, making it impassable.
Now, you can drive for over 30 minutes without seeing any vehicle, not even a bird.
Out of the 72km awarded for rehabilitation, only about 5.8 kilometres have been completed, with side drainages covering Ebe and Egede communities. The entire section from Amoka to Affa, Umuoka, Ogbede to Opi has not been attended to.
Some parts of the road have left their original level because drivers always try to navigate through. Others have transformed into dangerous craters. Some sections of the road have also been turned into waste dumping sites.
The state of the road has completely grounded the transportation of cattle, yams, beans, onions, and tomatoes from the North to the South; and the haulage of petroleum products, palm oil, motor spare parts and other products from the large markets in Onitsha and Aba in the Southeast to the North.
Haven for criminals
Armed robbers have taken advantage of the deplorable state of the road, becoming a law unto themselves, ambushing, robbing and dispossessing commuters and sometimes, causing harm to them.
Six years ago, a gang of armed robbers attacked a fully loaded luxurious bus said to be travelling from Abia State to Yola, the Adamawa State Capital, along the 9th Mile-Orokam Road. While the female travellers among them were raped, others were robbed of their money and other valuables.
In his presentation to the senate, Utazi had urged the Police and other security agencies to increase their surveillance on the road to protect innocent commuters from the marauding activities of armed robbers and other criminal elements.
However, during a field visit, the reporter noticed that security operatives- including the police and the army- were absent in most sections of the road. Checkpoints that used to be mounted along the road by the police and the army have been deserted.
Truck drivers who get stuck on the road are often extorted by boys from surrounding communities who threaten to beat them up or destroy their vehicles if they refuse to pay.
A truck driver, Abdullahi Idris, told this reporter that some group of boys on a bike collected N3,000 from him and his colleagues just before they finished translating some product they had transported from Abia state after their truck got stuck on the road.
“This is not the first time it is happening,” he said. “Sometimes, they even beat drivers up because the road is lonely, and nobody can help you if you are caught up in any kind of trouble”.
For drivers such as Abdullahi, who often ply the road on their way to the North of Nigeria, the road has become a source of nightmare. He spoke of how some trucks even fall while trying to navigate the road, sometimes spilling all their content on the road.
Abdullahi, who has been plying the road for over 15 years, recalled the times when it was still in good condition. He said it was always busy and a beehive of activities.
“Now, we experience a lot of delays for us because we travel to as far as Kaduna, Kano and other northern states with the product, “he said. “Whenever our truck gets stuck, we spend three days and sometimes more trying to pull it out. ”
Increased cost of transportation
The dilapidated state of the road is impacting the cost of transportation. Onyeka Eze is a motorcyclist who often plies the road. He said that he now charges N3,000 and more to carry passengers from 9th Mile to Amoka, which is less than a 20-minute drive.
“When the road was in good condition, the price was less than N1000,” he said. “Apart from the bad road, there is the increasing price of fuel, and it gets worse whenever it rains,”.
He said that the state of the road constitutes a severe threat to the lives of motorcyclists as some of them have had their motorcycles stolen from them.
“I have had to fix my motorcycle a lot, and I pay a lot of money and motorcycle riders are the only people who can ply through the road without getting stuck”.
Anibueze said that the situation gets worse every day. “Now, some parts of the road are so deep that they can almost swallow up vehicles; our hopes have been dashed,“he said.
Ugwu Onyebuchi, a resident of Ebe, one of the communities, said that the situation has affected business for women who used to travel to Ogbede, another community along the road.
“Now, they have to follow alternative routes, which cost more money,” he said. They spend over N2,000 for distances that used to be covered with N500. They have to get to 9th Mile before they can get a vehicle going to the market, and that affects their income. ”
Findings from a Bureau of Public Procurement Document showing certificates of no objection to different contractors show that the project was awarded to both RCC and China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) back in 2017.
While CHEC will handle the total reconstruction of the road from Lafia to Makurdi, through Otupko and 9th Mile, for the sum of Nine Hundred and Ninety-Five Million, Four Thousand, Twenty-One United States Dollar Ninety-Five Cent (USD$995,004,021.95), RCC was supposed to handle the Rehabilitation from 9th Mile to Orokam in Benue state.
During an inspection of the Lafia-Makurdi end of the project, the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Works, Abubakar Kabir Abubakar, said that it was a joint funding arrangement between Nigeria and China through a Preferential Buyer’s Credit loan from Export-Import Bank of China (CEXIM).
“While about Eighty-five per cent of the contract, the sum is from China, Nigeria is providing the other fifteen per cent counterpart fund of the contract sum,” he said.
An engineer at the Federal Ministry of Works who prefers not to be mentioned said that CHEC has written to the ministry, asking for the right of way and for compensation to be paid to all those whose property will be affected along the road.
The engineer said that the inability of the government to clear outstanding payments owed to RCC has slowed the rehabilitation and abandonment of the 9th Mile-Orokam project being handled by RCC.
“RCC has been off for a very long time after it completed 5.8km on the project without receiving some payment,” said the engineer.
Vaknin had been quoted in March 2020 as saying that the lack of adequate funding was slowing the execution of the project. Vaknin said that although the company could do more, it needed to be motivated.
Vaknin said that the company had only received N1.2 billion and was being owed about N6 billion. He spoke when the chairman of the Senate Committee on Works at the time, Adamu Aliero, inspected some ongoing projects in the state.
The engineer said that the government hardly drags contractors who fail to complete projects because they are guilty of non-payment. He also accused the government of breaching contract agreements with companies in most instances.
“For instance, a contractor should get paid after 30 days of submitting an invoice, but that is rarely done, “he said. “A certain contractor got his complete 15% mobilization in 2017 for a project he had started in 2014”.
He, however, recommended that more roads should be put under the federal road infrastructure Tax Credit Scheme-funded by NNPC Ltd to ensure the sustainability of funding critical infrastructure in Nigeria.
When this reporter called the RCC to get their side of the story regarding the abandonment of the road, the company’s PRO, Ken confirmed that the company was being owed some money by the government and that the project had since been re-awarded to CHEC.
“We are being owed some money we put into the project; hence we could not continue, “he said. “The management of the company must have sorted things out before the contract was re-awarded,”.
When contacted, an engineer at CHEC told this reporter that they were on the project. He, however, did not give specific details such as the timeline for completion and where they are exactly.
On Monday, November 13, 2023, the ICIR sent a freedom of information request (FOI), to the Federal Ministry of Works, requesting detailed information about the project, including the contract description, date the project was advertised, the approved threshold, procurement method, date of bid opening and name of the contractor.
Other details requested include the date of contract award, the contract execution period, the contract value, the approved budgetary provision, the amount paid and the level of project completion.
However, while the letter was acknowledged the same day, no response was received seven days after, as required by the law. Till this report was published, no response was received.