The reason for using a triple plea is simple. In football, when one scores three goals in a match, he is said to have made a hat trick. In philosophy, it is believed that most failures become successes on the third try. I am, therefore, hopeful that, with my triple plea in my umpteenth writeup on this issue, someone would hear me this time.
For a nation of limited resources, the way we treat our infrastructure suggests to a casual observer from outer space that we must be swimming in money. From the famous General Yakubu Gowon statement in 1975 that “money is not our problem, but how to manage it” to General Babangida’s Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, designed to stem imminent national bankruptcy, to General Olusegun Obasanjo’s Paris Club debt forgiveness scheme arising from our national plea for debt forgiveness from the Paris Club of lenders, we have abjectly failed to learn our lessons. Today, the General Muhammadu Buhari administration has gone on to borrow tens of billions of dollars, again.
The act of borrowing in itself is not a bad idea. Wise men and women borrow monies to use for processes of improving their lot. Countries borrow monies to improve their economies, putting the monies into use to boost the economy and drive productivity. In the USA, their economy runs largely on credit, both by government and the citizens. Personal credit spurs purchasing power and commerce, while government borrowing supports disaster intervention and the military, among others. Here in Nigeria, government borrowing is aimed at ill-defined projects with questionable capacity for revenue generation. When such borrowings are directed at building badly needed infrastructure, it is expected that such infrastructures will spur economic activities that will improve growth and consequent taxation will yield revenues for loan repayment. That never happens in Nigeria. We expect to collect monies magically from trees, probably, like the man in my village who claims to be the tree that mints money. And while we wait, we allow the same infrastructure to decay and die, then start all over again.
From my simple and basic engineering knowledge, the Apapa and Ijora bridges in Lagos are settling and sinking; the catastrophic consequences awaiting the bridges, if heavy trucks are not removed early enough, will be immense. Several years ago, I sounded a similar warning on the Third Mainland Bridge, Lagos. Fortunately, all those in authority read my article and, several weeks after, the bridge was closed and some temporary remedial works were carried out to avert an imminent collapse of the bridge. Prior to the publication of the article, I employed the services of a photojournalist, Basil Okafor, to examine and photograph the depressed and exposed columns and reinforcements. We both went in my boat and almost drowned from the unexpected current that threatened to overturn the boat. Basil Okafor and I would have been no more if not for the skilled way the pilot manoeuvred the boat out of the current. It was clear then from some of the photographs taken by Basil and published in national newspapers that, if nothing was done, the bridge was going to suffer from further settlement that might lead to a catastrophic collapse.
I have written about the Apapa bridge saga before but nobody seems to be reading me on this. So, I must state once more that the foundations of the Apapa Bridge are good enough because I was part of the foundation works and some of the piles were driven to refusal. But that notwithstanding, the bridge structures and the foundations are not built to take static loads, in addition to all the daily dynamic loads on the same structure. It is, therefore, very clear to the ordinary eye that the expansion joints are getting wider and wider. The Lagos State government must seek some collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Works who are the owners of these bridges to end the practice of turning bridges to truck depots. It is the commuters in Lagos State and the economic activities of Lagosians that will mostly suffer from the consequences of the collapse of any of the bridges. Four years are more than enough for both governments to have come up with a holding park for these trucks outside the metropolis, while waiting their turns to get into the nation’s only viable ports.
Talking about ports, the same culture of neglect and abandonment has befallen the Calabar, Onne, and Warri ports. Ask yourselves: “Are there any justifications why every ship coming from the Indian Ocean would leave Calabar port, or Onne port, or Warri port to go to Lagos ports and queue for days and weeks before discharging cargoes, a good percentage of which are destined for the eastern and northern states? Are we really normal people?
The same goes for most of the Federal Government infrastructures all over the country that are in pitiful conditions. Even the roads that are under construction have started to collapse due to abuse and encroachment of the public. I have also said it in the past: elsewhere in the world, governments build new roads to add to the existing, which ultimately improves traffic flow. In Nigeria, we build new roads, and abandon the old ones, ultimately eliminating them from our road maps. So, even though the population of vehicles on the roads are increasing, we continue to struggle to have our road networks stay ahead of the curve of traffic congestion and road failures.
One other practice of ours that defies logic and is downright annoying is the practice of allowing roads to fail to their base foundations whereby the earth surface is being scoured and eroded forming huge gullies and pits on major highways. A typical road profile would consist of a base of compacted earth materials, a soil stabilisation zone called a sub-base, a sub-wearing course of asphalt, and a wearing course of asphalt. In heavily loaded carriage ways, this profile could be up to one metre or 1.5 metres thick. It is normal for the top asphalt layer, which is typically 44mm to 60mm, to wear down from the traffic after a few years. The rate of wear can be measured, and a time will be set for resurfacing with just another layer of asphalt. This is what wise men should do. But in Nigeria, we allow the top layer of asphalt to wear down, watch the sub-wearing asphalt get degraded, drive through the now developed potholes and watch as our tyres kick out the stones and cement dust from the sub-base. By the time it rains, water seeps through to the base earth materials and we end up with a muddy pit that widens to a big valley with time. At this stage, simple resurfacing cannot fix the road; you must take out all layers and start new road works afresh.
Interestingly, no official pays a price for this shame and dereliction of duty, and for the mangled limbs and deaths of innocent road users, the mangled vehicles, and the lost productive hours and revenues from slow walking on the highways. The funds that could have gone to healthcare or education get put into a repeat road work as a fresh contract.
We can, and must do better than this.