Jeff Amechi Agbodo, Onitsha
Members of the communities hosting the Second Niger Bridge in Anambra and Delta states, as well as some workers in the company handling the project, are not happy.
They have drawn the battle line against the contracting firm, Julius Berger Nigeria Plc, over what they described as total neglect of the communities, denial of entitlements, non-employment of indigenes and the recent sack of some staff.
Protests by the communities and workers at the same time recently shut down the Julius Berger Yard Office at the Bridgehead, Onitsha, Anambra State.
The protesters demanded the sack of the project director of the firm, Mr. Fredrick Josef Wieser.
Indigenes of the 10 host communities of Onitsha, Obosi, Odekpe, Okpoko and Harbour in Anambra State, as well as Asaba, Idioko, Power line, Amakom and Okwe in Delta State had, on September 23, besieged the premises of the Julius Berger Yard in Onitsha as early as 7.30am to register their grievances through a peaceful demonstration.
They said they were protesting the non-compliance with the agreement between the host communities and the firm over compensation, employment of ad hoc staff, skilled and unskilled staff, suppliers as well as sack of some workers.
The protesters marched around River Niger Bridgehead and blocked the Berger Yard gate. They carried placards with various inscriptions such as “Wieser must go”, “The 2nd Niger Bridge project director is highhanded”, “Fashola goofed over the alleged demand of N10 billion for compensation”, “Fashola lied against us”, “Wieser sacked over 90 percent of workers”, “Wieser is a racist”, and “We demand for implementation of FG policy on local content from Julius Berger onSecond Niger withheld by Wieser”, among others.
As the host communities blocked the Julius Berger Yard at Bridgehead, the workers inside the yard also protested, singing and marching round the premises against the management of the firm. They demanded the removal of the project director, Wieser, over some policies that were allegedly against the workers. They also accused him of withholding their salaries.
The leader of the protesters, Mr. Peter Okafor, demanded the sack of Wieser for his highhandedness and neglecting the plights of the community.
He said that the host communities never demanded N10 billion compensation as alleged by Minister of Works, Raji Fashola, stressing that the Federal Government had not paid any compensation to the affected communities.
“We don’t want to see their workers in our communities. There will be no work until they come to terms with us. The man is not treating the communities and the workers well. We know how Berger treats their workers and host communities, but Wieser came and changed the whole thing to his benefit. He refused to compensate the communities whose houses and economic trees they destroyed. When we meet Wieser about it, he will tell us that it is the Ministry of Works. And when we meet the Ministry of Works, they will refer us to Berger,” Okafor said.
An elderly man from Onitsha, Chief (Dr.) Chuma Agbakoba, demanded an apology from Fashola for what he termed malicious allegations against the host communities.
“There is an order to stop work by the union workers at the Second Niger Bridge project site and the reason is that they want the project director to leave the place. Otherwise, the work will come to a stop. There are some things that were given to them like tissue paper, soaps and so on, which Mr. Wieser suddenly stopped giving them. So, the workers have gone on strike pending when the management of the firm replaces Mr. Wieser with another person.
“There are so many irregularities going on in the company, just like we have a percentage of indigenes to be employed by Berger. But they are not keeping to the MoU. Although we have not signed it, there is a certain percentage of indigenous workers that have to be employed and we have discovered that majority of the workers there are not from the communities. That goes against the MoU. It is not possible that this Second Niger Bridge project, which is located in Anambra and Delta states, will have our indigenes unemployed while we have people from Benin, Ondo, Ogun, etc, taking their place. That is why we are protesting,” Agbakoba said.
Another stakeholder who represented Delta communities, Mr. Henry Enebeli, stated that flood sacked their communities in Delta and Ogbaru due to the blockage of their access roads and drainages by the firm. He accused the firm of not creating alternative access roads for the people to use.
According to him, “the firm has denied us jobs meant for the host communities. There is no job for the host communities but they have been giving jobs to people outside the host communities. The project director once told us that even if we stop the work, that it doesn’t concern him. He said it is the Federal Government that is losing money and not him.
“We want the project direct to leave the company because he has been maltreating the communities.”
Traditional ruler of Atani Community, Igwe Augustine Azuka Ngody, and liaison officer of Obosi community, Mr. Shedrick Okenwa, said the communities never demanded N10 billion from the Ministry of Works as alleged by the minister.
They said the firm has not fulfilled any of the MoU agreements, even though the document has not been signed officially. They claimed there was a requirement for the firm to compensate the host communities, but that was yet to be done.
They also lamented the indiscriminate sacking of the indigenous workers and their replacement with people outside the host communities.
The community liaison officer from Okpoko community, Chief David Chukwukezie, accused the firm of neglecting their community after blocking the access roads, thereby causing serious flood in Anata Anaba village and its environs.
He said the community had written a save-our-souls petition to the permanent secretary and director, Federal Ministry of Works, due to the blockage of water channels by the firm, which stopped water from flowing freely into the Idemili River, causing serious flooding.
“We wrote several letters and reminders to the firm and ministry of the devastating flood occasioned by the firm’s blockage of the water channels that submerged our houses, roads and sacked the community. The letters were written in June and July and there was a reminder in August but we never received any reply,” Chukwuezie noted.
Public relations officer of Julius Berger, Mr. Joseph Ojelabi, said he was not in a position to address the issues raised by the protesters. He said the only one who could respond was the project director who he said was out of town.