I met Paul Malimbo, a Tanzanian, in Berlin two years ago. ‘Father Paul’, as we all later began to call him, actually wanted to become a reverend father but that was until he strayed from his seminary into the waiting arms of the woman who became his wife. After he left the seminary, he had to earn a living, and perhaps to brush himself up, he attended the Reporting on the Environment course organized by the International Institute for Journalism, IIJ, of InWent, Germany. We met there. I noticed that he was fascinated with Nigerian home videos and he once told me that I could make my fortune exporting these videos to his country. We struck up a pretty chummy relationship even after the course and as international members of the Fourth Estate, we share ideas, compare notes and we prefer to refer to ourselves as ‘bothers’.
On this occasion when Father Paul contacted me, there was a note of urgency and alarm on his email. The government in his country was planning to construct a road right through the Serengeti National Park, a United Nations designated zone inhabited by more than 200 species of birds and 35 species of mammals, including cheetahs, leopards, lions, giraffes, Zebras and Rhinos [Encarta]. If that road gets constructed, 90 percent of those endangered species would be wiped out permanently. Paul, a hardboiled journalist, brought up German style couldn’t sit still and allow this happen without a fight. That is why we have pooled ideas and Paul is in the trenches now. Part of what Paul may want to find out includes the following: did the authorities conduct an environmental impact assessment, EIA, before wanting to embark on constructing the road? By adhering to an investigative principle in Bob Woodward’s Deep Throat, Paul is going to ‘follow the money’ in the road construction saga. How much is involved in the road construction? Who is constructing the road [chances are that a friend or relation of the minister in charge of road construction is involved; or that a multinational is interested in some investment on that terrain has given some government agency a lot of money to look the other way]. I told Paul that I wished I was in Dar es Salaam because of the relationship that his story has with James Cameron’s Avatar and of my interest to help with the story.
My attention continued to be riveted on the toll that the construction of a road in Tanzania would take on the environment. Poachers would have a field day. Other human activity such as buying and selling, transportation of goods and services, the erection of buildings and the construction of instruments of communication would likely bring in more cash to government and to some of the local people. But the 200,000 zebras, 2million gnus and the horde of wildebeests and elephants that migrate from Serengeti to the Masai Mara Game Park in Kenya only in the dry season would be forced to shift location and timetable for their migration. What this means is that there would be a radical shift in the ecosystem in Kenya and Tanzania in favour of some Tanzanians but it would escalate changes that would affect us all.
I also spent similar time reflecting on Nigerian roads. Perhaps it would not be altogether a lie to say that nearly all Nigerian roads are in one decrepit state and dilapidation altogether. The most decrepit [my meaning by using that word is that the road is a celebration of pits and potholes] is the Lagos-Shagamu-Ore-Benin expressway, where Deziane Alison-Madueke, then a Minister in the Yar’Adua government shed what many have said were crocodile tears from the shock at seeing the decrepitude of that road. Those who said so made a grave mistake [in my opinion] because a great many of these highly placed people hardly ply our roads. They usually have their transport cut out for them in the skies and the lady must have been really shocked at seeing the road the way it is. The best way to capture the cold comfort of it all would be to liken this to that picture of George Walker Bush flying over the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in New Orleans without as much as stopping by. But you cannot blame these government people – armed highway robbers, petty traders are the beneficiaries of the decrepitude they fly over. But we are not discussing that road now because it recently came up to the front burner of public attention as a result of the complaints of Olusegun Mimiko, governor of Ondo State, against the Federal Road Maintenance Agency, FERMA.
We just want to bring to your attention something much worse than the Lagos-Shagamu-Ore-Benin road or the Serengeti. You won’t believe it but the place I am talking about is nowhere else than Nigeria’s so-called capital city, Abuja. When I got here last year, I was initially wowed at the sleek network of roads. I was told that the place was built with attention to a rigid master plan. But looking closer however, I saw that the sleekness was not only artificial but was only to be found in the city centre, a place for only those who can afford to pay N4million per annum for a mere 2-bedroom flat. I also saw that nearly everybody else that works in the sleek city centre ‘lives’ in the forests and bushes of ‘satellite’ towns like Maraba, Nyanya, Chika, Kabusa, Pyakasa, Lugbe, Pape, Masaka where most of the ‘roads’ are mere thoroughfares, bush-paths and byways of stones and used polyethylene bags. Take the example of any top civil servant who lives on any of the hamlets along the Umaru Musa Yar’Adua/Airport Road. On a daily basis, he would meander through streetless streets of gullies, will be greeted with the acrid stench of human waste diverted onto the centre of what could be loosely regarded as a road. A friend of mine who once lived in Lugbe told me he had to cough up as much as N500, 000 to escape the horror of Lugbe. ‘But I was shocked that in spite of the fact that the place is called Federal Housing Phase 1, I still had to face the nightmare of living without power, I buy my water daily and crawl gently on my road of potholes and crevices to work everyday’, he said.
Since publication of the first part of this story, it has been difficult to bring you this second part. Today is Wednesday and the time is 9.30pm. I am huddled in a cyber café hitting away at my pc, trying to meet the deadline for the submission of this piece. This is because like the friend I mentioned in the first part of this discussion, I also use one of the roads that lead to the city centre and I am always stuck in that hellhole. Since the commencement of the dry season, I hardly put on a white shirt or black trouser because of the dust on these roads. Mentally tasked and physically drained from trying to maneuver in between four sets of drivers on a single lane, I get to my destination spent and hardly productive. My mind flits in and out to the homeward journey where the same horrible experience recurs – this time mostly because on that narrow road the street lights are often dead. Things always come to a head whenever the long entourages of a governor, minister, or an Abuja big boy also try to use that same narrow road to the airport. They try to speed past in their 4X4s, headlamps fully on and blaring those annoying sirens. They too get caught in that mess and their orderlies brandish guns and jack knives and drive us into driving into ourselves so that they can get to the airport in their arrogant huff. I have lost count of the number of accidents that have occurred from this madness. While others have been in multiple road accidents, I have been lucky. I only have the mark of the butt of an AK-47 on my car trunk from these rabid orderlies shooing me away from that road so that one stupid governor may get to his destination on time.
e reason we leave our homes as early as 5:30am and do not get to our places of work until 10 or 11am is that we are caught between taxi drivers who park on the roads and between the construction activities of Julius Berger. We have no quarrel with these taxi drivers or with Julius Berger. The people who initially constructed the Airport Road did not do their homework nor did they anticipate that Abuja’s population might explode and that people would subject themselves to the indignity of living in these shacks of polyethylene bags and bamboo sticks in these ‘satellite’ towns to give the impression the live in Abuja. Ninety nine percent of these people who live in these hamlets run the oligopolistic and dormant Abuja economy and rely on these taxi cabs and buses to get to the city centre. So when the taxi cabs and buses park beside the main road with hundreds of commuters standing along the road waiting for transport, a snarl, which even the FRSC can do anything about ensues.
Perhaps this was the reason for trying to reconstruct some of these roads, particularly the so-called Presidential road – leading to the airport. But these reconstructive activities have their drawbacks. First, it has displaced the traders, artisans and many self employed people along that vicinity who cannot afford shops in the city centre. Some of these people who spoke with my reporter said that they are convinced the real reason for reconstructing some of these roads is to further impoverish them. Innocent Okonta, 38, a graduate of Economics from the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Edo State, a roadside recharge card seller said, ‘They are ashamed of our huts and hamlets. The first thing that international visitors see along this road is the squalor and wretchedness of our lives. This is what they are trying hard to conceal by driving us away from our sheds’. Second, these reconstructions have taken too long. See the scenario: one government comes and awards a contract for road reconstruction. It goes before the work is done. Another comes and discovers that the preceding one had colluded with Julius Berger to inflate the contract cost. They suspend the contract, and Julius Berger suspends the reconstruction work. And when it is actually found out that there is foul play in the award of the contracts, the construction company accepts to make refunds. A good case of this kind of rubbish can be found on page 2 of The Guardian of November 23, 2010.
But if there are no roads at all in the satellite towns, there are very many of them in the city centre. Let me describe these roads and why they are a danger to everyone. The people who constructed them used European and American designs thinking that we are as civilized as people living in those places. If you are not careful you may think they were built for Formula One drivers. And of course, our people took advantage and began to race on these roads. Averagely, the FRSC recorded 20 motor accident-related deaths monthly in Abuja last year. In fact, I saw a car broke in two equal halves in an accident here, just so for us to realize at what speed our people drive in Abuja. Our investigations at Bob MajiriOghene Communications reveal that Segun Awolowo, former transport secretary to Adamu Aliero, brokered some sort of arrangement with Oceanic Bank. As part of their corporate social responsibility, CSR, the Bank donated N40million for the construction of speed breakers, as a temporary measure to stem the carnage on the roads. But no sooner than that, supposedly honourable members of the National Assembly waged a fierce war with the former minister. Their grouse was that the speed breakers were not vehicle friendly, and that their cars were getting spoilt. Now, how could ordinary speed breakers spoil the sleek SUVs of the honourable legislators? But they mobilized the media as foot soldiers and unleashed a fusillade of public hearings to frustrate the purpose for the speed breakers. At last they got their way in the new minister, Bala Mohammed, who has spent more than N60million to remove those life-saving speed breakers. All of this was against the pleas of the FRSC and many responsible people in Abuja.
Members of the Legislative arm of government were not magisterial with respect to those speed breakers. If for anything, they should have been the ones putting in place measures like the one they frustrated. In fact, I want to ask, since the removal of those speed breakers, what have the National Assembly done to stem the high statistics of motor accidents in Abuja? Why are they not interested in finding out how monies allocated for roads are spent? Are they just interested in their sleek cars at the expense of human lives? That is why we must realize that one of the first things that the colonial government did was road construction. Their purpose was to exploit. But it might interest you to know that some of those roads are still where the colonial authority left them. Our government can do same in Abuja and in other parts of this country, though not with an intention to exploit us. They should get us to work on time and get the country moving without endangering our lives.