New Niger Bridge triggers hope and resentment

The old Niger Bridge

The old Niger Bridge

Sometimes a bridge is more than just a bridge.

After years of delays and empty promises, Nigeria has finally begun work on a new bridge across the vast River Niger, connecting states in the southeast to major commercial hubs in the southwest.

Many of the Igbo ethnic group that dominates in the southeast have applauded the project as a crucial step towards improving trade and travel between two of Nigeria’s most populous regions.

But others have charged that the bridge was delayed as punishment to a people still persecuted more than four decades after a civil war that followed the southeast’s attempt to secede.

They charge that the project has been launched now merely to improve President Goodluck Jonathan’s political fortunes as he heads towards an expected re-election bid less than a year away.

The old Niger Bridge
The old Niger Bridge

– Keeping his ‘promise’ –

“This project is very dear to the people of the southeast,” Anambra state spokesman Mike Udah said of the proposed 1500 metre (5,000 feet) bridge project which broke ground last month.

The existing River Niger overpass, built in 1963, is decaying and cannot cope with the massive flows of traffic between the southeast, which has a population of roughly 50 million, and the major cities of the southwest, including Lagos, sub-Saharan Africa’s largest city with some 20 million people.

Crossing the current bridge has become a hellish experience with “excruciating traffic” disrupting business and commercial travel, Udah said.

The new structure being built by the German construction firm Julius Berger at a projected cost of 17.8 billion naira ($108 million dollars, 78 million euros) has the backing of many economists who say infrastructure spending needs to become a top priority for Africa’s most populous country and top oil producer.

Regardless of how people in the region feel about their government, Udah, an opposition party member, urged southeast residents “to put politics aside and support the president to ensure the success of this laudable project.”

At the groundbreaking ceremony, Jonathan described the new bridge as a piece of “strategic national infrastructure” and said that by pushing the project forward he had fulfilled “a sincere promise” from his 2011 campaign.

– Political ploy? –

Hardliners in the southeast said they were not persuaded that the president was working in their interest.

President Jonathan performing the ground breaking ceremony for new Niger Bridge
President Jonathan performing the ground breaking ceremony for new Niger Bridge

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“The project is a drop in the ocean,” said Madu Uchenna, spokesman for a group pressuring for southeastern sovereignty. “It cannot make us forget the injustice and marginalisation of our people by the Nigerian state.”

The southeast unilaterally declared independence in 1967 following waves of killings of Igbos in the mainly Muslim north, reportedly by members of the Hausa ethnic group.

Calling itself the Republic of Biafra, the southeast fought a brutal 1967-1970 civil war that killed more than a million people, many from starvation.

Uchenna’s group, the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), and others have long alleged that Igbos receive inferior treatment from the federal government in areas ranging from prominent political and military appointments to infrastructure projects.

Writing for the widely read Sahara Reporters news website, columnist Frank Onia suggested the new bridge would have been built years ago if not for an official, undeclared policy that calls for “holding down the southeast.”

“No other conclusion is possible from the continued neglect of the (River) Niger bridge,” he wrote.

Ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo also held a groundbreaking ceremony in 2007, but funds to actually build the project were never approved.

Unfinished public projects are a scourge across the country and are not specific to the southeast, but the delays still raised resentment in the region.

Fierce rhetoric from some Igbo hardliners aside, Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has performed well in the southeast since civilian rule was restored in 1999.

But the president is facing an unprecedented crisis within the PDP and will, should he run again at the election in February 2015, be up against a new opposition mega-coalition which groups his most prominent rivals.

His support in the southeast is also thought to be eroding, with two of five states in the region now controlled by opposition governors.

“If Jonathan thinks giving us another bridge will make him get our votes, he is joking,” said Uchenna.

.Joel Olatunde Agoi of AFP