© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
INVESTIGATION: How thieves render Abuja bridges armless and residents unsafe
On every school day, for the past two years, fourteen-year-old Patience Mbaze walks through Olusegun Obasanjo Way in order to get to Junior Secondary School, Wuse Zone 2, where she studies. But her unavoidable journey is equally an unusual one, filled with trepidation. Twice, in the morning and two hours after midday, she has to cross a short bridge that abuts Michael Okpara Street.
Though strong, this particular bridge would instill fear into the hearts of anyone walking over it, and the reason is not far-fetched. Only fragments are left of the rails on both sides, meant to prevent pedestrians from tipping over and falling into the raging stream below. The other parts? They were forcefully sawed off and carted away the previous year, leaving the bridge disfigured and the people at risk of falling 30 feet into death’s cold embrace.
“When you are passing, it will be as if you want to fall inside,” Patience tells the ICIR. “But I don’t walk on the side where you’ll fall, I walk by the other side”. If they are walking in groups, she says, they will file into a line and cross individually.
“For me, I always feel afraid because I am someone who is always afraid of heights,” says Fatimah Danjuma, a J.S.S. 3 student of the same school. “So when I am walking around that side, I always walk close to the left side of it because there is a rail there. When I see somebody else going, I tell them to shift. You know, students, they can be playing and you never can tell what might happen.”
Disturbing as their narrations are, the bridge is not the only one in Abuja that has been amputated. There are many like it ― including also places that used to have manholes ― scattered across the city, waiting for government to restore what is lost or, maybe, even the criminals to demand, like Oliver Twist, for what is left.
This is the story of armless bridges, heartless thieves, and life-threatening vandalism in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
‘LIKE A THIEF IN THE NIGHT’
Paul Oniloku, a young car detailer who operates a car wash adjacent the bridge on Olusegun Obasanjo Way, discloses to the ICIR that the vandals usually show up only at night and doing the damage in the early hours of the morning. But during the last operation, which occurred late 2017, law enforcement officers fortunately intervened before the thieves could do their damage.
“Normally, it is the Road Safety that pursues them along with SARS operatives,” he says. “If not they would have cut everything here. When SARS came, they arrested some of them and others escaped. Early one morning, we saw stains of blood on the floor and could tell they were shot at. We also asked people around and they said there were gunshots the previous day.”
Also, according to Micheal Ojobo, who works as a vulcaniser at the tail-end of the bridge, “they used to do that thing towards night time.”
THE HANDIWORK OF BABAN BOLA?
There have been conflicting assertions on who exactly these criminals are and what background they have. Some think it is the Hausa metal scrap scavengers, locally referred to as baban bola, who are to blame. There are, however, others who seem to have proof to the contrary.
Godfrey, a horticulturist whose workplace stands at the opposite end of the bridge, adjacent Paul’s car wash, holds no one but the baban bola responsible for the damages.
“It is their handiwork, these set of people,” he says, pointing at one young scavenger as he pushes his cart at the other end of the road. “They are the people that normally do it. Many times we report to the police, and they have arrested some and locked them up.”
“They even killed two of my dogs that I have to secure here around May, April last year,” he laments. “They come and steal my things, the scavengers. They have stolen two of my pumping machines. At a stage, they carried my wheelbarrow and shovel. And I have reported to the police many times. They are very very dangerous.”
Paul, however, disagrees. He thinks they are too sophisticated to be part of baban bola. “I don’t think they are baban bola,” he opines. “Because those people always use their personal cars. And they use saw and machine in cutting the metal. I normally get here early in the morning around 5 or 6. At a time, we picked some saws, which they left while running.”
Likewise, Ifeanyi, a tailor who specialises in tent rental, says the thieves are different from the scavengers. “They are not baban bola,” he states confidently. Ifeanyi’s workshop is located at another section of Olusegun Obasanjo Way, close to the famous GSM Village at Wuse Zone 1. In December 2016, security guards working opposite his shop caught three of the thieves red-handed and handed them over to the police.
“They parked their car somewhere close. We couldn’t trace it but we saw them with car key,” his assistant chips in.
SOME REPLACED, OTHERS LEFT DISPLACED
Perhaps, the government has grown weary of fixing the damages, while thinking they will only be stolen again ― but this is certainly no excuse when lives are at risk. Some damaged bridges have been fixed half-way, and some have been abandoned to their fate for over a year.
Micheal Ojobo observes that the government, in 2017, replaced the rails damaged along the Michael Okpara Street, but has left the ones on Obasanjo Way the way they are.
“But they came with some oyinbo people to survey the damage, also last year,” he adds. Ever since, no repair has been made to the bridge in the area.
Resting on the Herbert Macaulay Way, close to Wuse Market bus stop, is yet another unlawfully amputated bridge. While the side rails were replaced in the previous year, the steel barrier have, till today, been left in ruins.
“They cut the rails in 2015,” narrates a passport photographer working close-by. “But they fixed the rails last year, and left the other side. It’s only this one they fixed.” Asked why this happened, he says he has no idea.
The same story goes for the bridge located close to the GSM Village at Wuse Zone 1. Since the damage in 2016, only the side rails have been fixed. The steel barriers are still a very ugly sight.
‘WE HAVE MADE A LOT OF ARRESTS’
Though their work hours fall within the heart of the night when most are asleep and they possess modern instruments for efficient operations, Anjuguri Manzah, Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO) for the FCT Command says many of the vandals have been arrested and made to dance to the tunes of justice.
“We have filed a lot of arrests and recoveries of hoodlums who are involved in vandalising critical infrastructure, like those who specialise in vandalising manholes,” he informs the ICIR. “In some of our divisions, you will see some of the exhibits we’ve recovered meant to serve the interest of the entire populace.”
“We’ve also had many of them prosecuted. So, it is something the command holds dear to itself. We see no reason why they vandalise these things. And we have realised that by the time they vandalise, they just go and sell them at a giveaway price. They melt and use them for other purposes.”
Asked who it is they sell to, he says investigations are still ongoing but no companies have yet been linked to the menace, only individual receivers and buyers. He says also that the vandals make use of cars to perpetrate their crime. He also implored the public to cooperate and feed the police with needed information.
“We have had cause to arrest them with cars, which they use in vandalising, in the late hours of the night. What they do is they cut the items into size; once they are ready, they bring their cars to convey them.
“We call on members of the public to cooperate with us. Information is key. When you see someone at any point where he ought not to be, alert the police. We assure you that the information given to us will be used to its utmost. It is our duty to follow up and know why the person is there at that particular moment. By doing this, you are only helping the society and also yourself.”
THE NIGHTS DO NOT HAVE TO BE THIS DARK
With streetlights and closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV), night in Abuja will not offer so much cover and safety to men of the underworld during their illicit operations. Day or night ― there would hardly be any difference, since faces on the streets will be taped and movements illuminated. Sadly, bridge rails are not the only victims of vandalism in Abuja. These too have been affected ― and are still affected.
The ICIR reported in September 2017 that CCTV cameras planted on major roads in Abuja have never worked since their installation and failed to detect criminal activities. This is despite the fact that a huge sum of N76 billion was spent on the project. Many of them have been vandalised and one, it was observed, even serves as shelter to the homeless. It is of course unthinkable that devices that have not succeeded in protecting themselves will be able to protect other assets.
Indeed, with cameras in place 24/7 and streetlights shining cheerfully upon the streets when the sun goes down, nights in the Federal Capital Territory will not be this dark ― enough to give safety to those who do not desire it for others.
WE DON’T GRANT INTERVIEWS ‘LIKE THAT’
The ICIR was informed by the Head of PR, Abuja Metropolitan Management Council (AMMC), that the agency in charge of maintaining and repairing bridges and manholes is the Facilities Maintenance and Management Department.
This reporter therefore proceeded to the department to ask what challenges are faced and why there is delay in fixing certain rails. After meetings with the Department’s Public Relations Officer, Head of Civil Engineering and Director, however, he was told they do not grant interviews “like that”, and was encouraged to write first for authorisation to Muhammad Bello, Minister of the FCT.
According to uploads by the National Assembly on its website, the Department was allocated N2.8 billion for capital expenditure according to the 2016 FCT Appropriation Bill, and in 2017 it received a similar allocation of N2.2 billion. This year’s budget has, however, not been passed yet ― as the one before it, which did not pass second reading until mid-October.