Road to nowhere: How abandoned, broken roads hurt small businesses in South-East Nigeria

Wednesday, July 17, 2018. It is an interesting day for Nkechi Eso, a small-scale cassava processor at Umuleri, a tranquil town situated 31 kilometres from Awka, the Anambra State capital.

Three days earlier, she had spent the whole day peeling off cassava skins and cutting the tubers into small sizes after thorough washing. The next day, she ground the tubers into flour and allowed it to dry for another 24 hours. She supplies this flour to two small-sized bakers at Awhum, a town in a nearby Enugu State located 90 km from Umuleri. The bakers prefer cassava flour to wheat because the villagers believe it is healthier. They have come to trust Eso whose flour is better than what they get around town.

That is not all. Eso also turns the flour into ‘garri’, a fermented product from cassava. In her part of the world, it is a popular meal for most families, often eaten with soup, or soaked in water and eaten raw.

A hardworking woman, Eso wakes up as early as 6am to start this whole process. Her garri processing is not different from what you find in most Nigerian villages. She pours the flour into a frying pan and heats it for some minutes until it becomes dry. She then turns it from time to time to avoid burning.

She supplies the garri in 100kg bags, selling each at N7,500 to N17,000— depending on the purchasing power of each customer. A corporate customer who buys more than one bag pays as low as N7, 500 for each bag, while others pay as high as N12,000. Prices are lower during a glut period. Corporate customers bid the price down to N6, 000 during this period, while others are often reluctant to pay higher than N10, 000. But in periods of scarcity, she sells a bag for as high as N17, 000 in open markets. Ordinary flour is often N2, 000 or N3, 000 cheaper than N7, 500.

Today, like Eso has done for three years now, she hires a truck driver to ferry 21 bags of garri and 12 bags of ordinary flour to Enugu. She intends to sell the garri in Enugu and supply the flour to Awhum bakers.

She leaves her home at 8.49am with the hope of getting to Enugu in one hour and thirty minutes’ time.

The truck driver, who often ferries the bags of garri, charges her N14,000 from Umuleri to Awhum. Ordinarily, this trip should not cost her more than N8,000 if the roads were good.

Now, the journey is set. The truck driver gets to Oji River and stops. Something must be wrong somewhere. His vehicle cannot come to a screeching halt without a problem.

The driver gets down, checks the engine for overheating but all is well. He checks for electrical faults and transmission fluid but he finds no problem. He gets a mechanic who detects the problem and fixes it. Moving from Oji River to Ugwuoba takes 20 to 25 minutes, but this turns out to be Eso’s worst nightmare. The tyres burst twice. The driver moves to buy a tyre, but the price is 50 percent higher than what you get in the cities. He buys it reluctantly and fixes it.

Twelve minutes after restarting the trip, the vehicle falls into a ditch at Ugwuoba. Getting to Enugu takes them four hours because of a terribly poor road network. The road is being constructed by a contractor known as RCC, but it is taking ages. In more than ten years, at least, three contractors have handled this road, but they all abandon it every now and again because government officials refuse to release money to the contractors, findings show.

On her way to Awhum, Eso moves from Enugu to Umulumgbe and then to Umuoka. The vehicle stops three times and the driver refuses to go further.

“If you want me to move an inch further, you must pay me extra N6,000,” the driver threatens.

“I am not here to look at a woman’s face,” he barks—at Eso.

James Obinwe, the driver, has transferred his frustrations to Eso, who herself is not the cause of the misfortunes. His anger ordinarily should be directed to the Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Works and the Presidency that do not understand the importance of the road.

The deceit

This road criss-crosses towns such as Amokwu,  Ikedimkpe, Egede Ojieyi and Awhum. It was awarded by the Federal Government on June 13, 2018 to one construction company called IDC Construction Limited at N6.245 billion—about $20.47 million. Google Map says the distance between Umulumgbe and Awhum is less than 15 km. This means a kilometre of this road costs Nigeria N416.33 million, which is $1.365 million.

In 2013, Aminu Amidu Sulemani, minister of roads and highways in Ghana, said the cost of resurfacing 1km of road in the country was GH¢135,000, while resealing would gulp GH¢70,000 per kilometre.

The dollar value of GH 135,000 in 2013 was $41,990. With an exchange rate of GH5.37 to one dollar in 2019, the highest amount for a kilometre of road in Ghana should be $25,139. Assuming that the distance between the two towns in Nigeria is 100km, which is impossible, it then costs N62.45 million—$204,754.

But that is not all. The road is not being constructed as claimed by Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s minister of information. The minister had claimed in August 2018 that the road was being constructed. He was responding to claims by governors from South-East Nigeria that federal infrastructures in the region were decrepit. But as I visit this road alongside Eso and her angry driver, I see the equipment of another contractor Arab Contractors packed along the axis. The pieces of equipment had been there for over one year, as they were in September 2018 when I used the road.

Eso’s plight continues

Eso gets to Awhum after six hours and 12 minutes. She sells 14 bags of garri and three bags of ordinary flour. Her impatient customers have bought from other sellers. The bakers have bought from alternative sources as they cannot wait for so long.

“How will I take these items back to Umuleri?” she asks, sobbing.

Returning to Umuleri with these items can cost her a fortune. But her concern is the flour, which will likely be sour when taken back to Umuleri. She sells each remaining bag of flour for N1,200—making a loss of N3,300 on each bag. She rushes back home to avoid being attacked by armed robbers who have found opportunity in that broken road network to rob innocent commuters. Fortunately for her, she gets home at 8.09pm with her money intact.

Eso is not alone. More than five businesspeople in Abia State tell me that they can no longer move their products around the South-East region owing to the poor state of roads in the region.

“I used to go to Anambra twice a week for supply, but I dare not do that now,” Ada Nwolisa, executive director of MC Shoes Limited, a shoemaker at Ariaria, who supplies student shoes to schools in Onitsha and Nnewi, tells me.

“No one wants to die,” she further says.

The politics

Eso’s plight moves me to investigate some of the recent road projects awarded by the Federal Government in the South-East Nigeria. There are six regions in Nigeria, and South-East is one of them. The region, more than any other, has the worst road network because politicians at the state and the federal levels use road repairs as a campaign tool every time elections are close.

They mobilise contractors with 20 to 30 percent of the contracts during elections and abandon them after elections are won and lost. The contractors themselves, obviously unsupervised, would work with inferior materials and abandon the construction or rehabilitation anywhere they want.

Federal, state, local government roads

Having obtained permission from my office, I headed for Aba. In Nigeria, roads are classified into federal, state and local government categories. Usually, federal roads connect one or more states to another. Such roads are often constructed or rehabilitated by the Federal Government. State roads link one or more local governments to another and state governors have the responsibility to construct or repair them. Similarly, local government roads connect communities and states or local governments have the constitutional responsibility to repair them. My concentration is centred mostly on federal roads which are the worst among the three sets of roads. The South-East is made up of five states: Abia, Anambra, Enugu, Imo and Ebonyi.

Tears, despair, abandonment

It is a rainy day on September 16 along Aba-Ikot Ekpene Road.

The road links Abia to Akwa Ibom—two states in the oil-rich South-East and South-South regions of Nigeria. In the 1990s, Aba shoe and textile makers ferried their products to Akwa Ibom through the road. But the road now looks as forlorn as its passers-by. The Aba section is overrun by dirty water. The axis crisscrossing Umuokpo and Onicha Ngwa communities in Obingwa Local Government Area is broken, with grass growing in the middle of the road.

“They have abandoned us to our fate,” Nonso Obima, a shoemaker at Ariaria, who lives in Ogbor Hill area of the road, says.

“They have cut off the section through which we supply our shoes and textiles to neighbouring states and Cameroon,” he cries.

Talking about abandonment, the road was awarded on December 13, 2012, to Arab Contractors OAO Nigeria Limited at the cost of N3.780 billion. The road links Aba to Akwa Ibom and Cross River in Nigeria, and Cameroon in Central Africa. It was supposed to start from Ikot-Ekpene, criss-cross Aba and end in Owerri. The original plan was to dualise it, but the contractor has not done that. Residents and business owners along that axis say that the project was started in 2012 but abandoned midway. Findings show that after a long period of abandonment, the contractor ran to the Ministry of Works, complaining that the contract was undervalued. The federal executive council thereafter approved additional N6.17 billion in 2018, which is yet to be released.

Strangely, Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed listed this road as one of the 69 ongoing projects in the South-East in August 2018. When I visited this road in 2018, work was not going on as claimed by Mohammed. I discovered that the contractor merely parked vehicles at a private residence in-between the United Evangelical Church and Onyedika Industries, Alaoji Ntigha.

Around 2011, this road had over 40 filling stations, 50 restaurants, seven hotels, over six manufacturing firms, three farm settlements and tens of super markets, among others, Ben Ihu, a resident of one of the towns along the axis, tells me.

“But most of them have closed shop,” he says.

Past Nigerian presidents since 1999 have neglected this important road, using it as bait for the state during general elections.

The road has been in this state for more than 15 years, with Federal Government officials playing politics with it.

Runaway contractors vs clever politicians

There is something about Amanwaozuzu-Uzoagba-Eziama Orie-Amakohia Road in Imo State, awarded to Imo Vic Phranc Nigeria Limited on November 23, 2013, at N1.275 billion. The award is for the rehabilitation of this road. But the contractor started the contract in 2013 and ended it in 2014. Five years down the line, nothing shows that the road was ever rehabilitated. Potholes and mud dot the road, showing that the materials used to build it were substandard, engineers tell me.

For reference purposes, Onitsha-Owerri road in the South-East was completed before 2007 when the then President Olusegun Obasanjo was in power. But this road is still good more than ten years down the line.

But that cannot be said about Amanwaozuzu-Uzoagba-Eziama Orie-Amakohia Road.

Worse still, a greater section of Uzoagba road was not repaired. One village called Umueze, which links Uzoagba and Amakohia, was not even considered.

Lai Mohammed said this road was being repaired in 2018, but this is far from the truth, pictures and videos show.

I stand on Okigwe-Anara-Amaraku-Atta-Owerri Road on September 21. Commuters make conscientious efforts to avoid this road for fear of hurting their waists.

Only drainages are constructed at Amaraku. The section from Amaraku to Okigwe is bad. The Federal Ministry of Works was not found on this road anywhere. Only the light repairs of Amaraku-Attah-Iho are done by a small contractor, Iyke Jordan Limited, funded by the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).

“The quality of work done on these roads leaves much to be desired,” Ike Ibeabuchi, an Enugu-based manufacturer, tells me.

“Some individual contractors do not have the capacity too,” he says.

Contrary to claims by Minister Mohammed in 2018, the Olokoro-Isiala-Oboro-Nnono road, awarded to Bok Company Nigeria in 2010 at N515.315 million, is not ongoing on September 22.  I do not find any contractor anywhere. More so, the Olokoro-Alaukwu-Itaja-Okwu-Obuohia-Ikwuano Road, contracted to Abia Rhas in 2010 at N990.673 million, is not ongoing as claimed by Mohammed.

“Is that a joke?” Amarachi Ukeje, a native of Alaukwu, asks me when I tell her that the road is supposed to be ongoing.

It is a no-show for Umuahia-Owerri Road. Sections of this road along Obono are bad and no work is going on there. The section along Emekuku is worse and abandoned.

Roads to nowhere

My findings show that some of the roads claimed to be going on by the Federal Government lead to nowhere.

Of particular interest is a project listed as ‘Oseakwa Bridge’ in Anambra State. This project was awarded on October 6, 2009, to Horizon Construction Co. Limited at the cost of N896.863 million. I can confirm with pictures that the location called Oseakwa Bridge is not technically a bridge.

The Cambridge Dictionary (online) defines a bridge as a “structure that is built over a river, road, or railway to allow people and vehicles to cross from one side to the other”. Road leading to the so-called Oseakwa Bridge in Ihiala, Anambra State, is not tarred and the road extending from it is decrepit. It is not passed by vehicles, and leads to nowhere. Yet this project was listed last year by information minister as “ongoing”.

There is a road that links Nkporo and Abiriba to Ohafia. It is an abandoned road at the moment.

“Sometimes, I wonder where it leads to,” Nnenna Ahanna, a resident of Nkporo, says, jokingly.

This road, like many others, has been abandoned. The Federal Government listed Dutum Construction Limited as the contractor. This company got this contract in May 2012 at a whopping cost of N2.739 billion. But no vehicle dare go through there now.

Drivers now avoid the road and prefer to take the easier and better Abiriba Road.

If you think that this is the whole story, then visit Amasea-Ebenebe-Umuna Road, which borders Anambra and Enugu states. The road cuts across Aguobu Owa-Mgbagbu Owa-Ebenebe- Awaha-Oyoha and Oyofo Iwollo.

It was awarded on December 13, 2012 to Conduc Nigeria Limited at the cost of N3.035 billion. Some sections of Ebenebe axis are in good shape, but the Ebenebe-Umuna section is nothing to write home about.

“Where does this road lead to,” I ask Onyeka Agbalike, a commercial motorcyclist.

“It leads to Umuna and Aguobu Owa, but many people do not like to go through this road because they easily get confused,” he responds.

From Ebenebe, you are on your own. Only the chirping of birds and other strange sounds of wild animals are heard.

“You see, good roads bring development,” Agbalike says.

“Because of bad roads, small farmers cannot move their produce to Enugu,” he says.

“And this place can be dangerous at night,” he adds.

Minor repairs were done in the Enugu State axis in December 2018, but the general impression by natives is that the contractor did a shoddy job.

State governors and misplaced priorities

It is easier to blame the Federal Government, but state governors in the South-East are doing little to change the milieu of the region.

In Imo, Naze-Nekede-Iheagwa Road has become a bad advertisement for the state. Students pay 150 instead of N100 to come to school from Owerri town as buses break down in muddy waters.

Osisioma is also bad advertisement for Abia State, with the road dirty and broken. Many roads in Aba and the entire Abia State are in a state of disrepair.

“Abia State must embark on urban renewal,” Joshua Ini, an Aba resident, recommends

Anambra State is pushing for a cargo airport and has even earmarked N6 billion for the construction of an international cargo airport at Umueri, Governor Willie Obiano said at the presentation of the state’s 2020 Budget on September 26, 2019. In 2017, while seeking his second term, Obiano was quoted as saying: “With the speed of works at the Umuleri International Cargo Airport (UICA), and the combined commitment of my government and core investors, the project will be ready in 2019.”  But I discover on September 25 that even the road to the airport site is not trodden by any living creature. There is no work going on anywhere.

“The governor is setting aside such a huge sum when all roads in Onitsha, Awada, Ngbuka, Nkpor and other parts of the state are bad,” Oluchi Ikeaka, a school proprietor in Onitsha, the commercial nerve centre of Anambra, tells me.

Ebonyi State is among the least three states that get lowest allocations from the Federal Government.

Already, the state has secured an approval from the Federal Government to build an international airport in the state. As lofty as this project is, it makes little economic sense because Enugu, a nearby state, has an international airport. Also, there is an airport in neighbouring states such as Rivers and Delta.

“There are 30,000 people working for Dangote Group, but are there up to 20,000 Nigerians working for all the airports in Nigeria combined?” Ike Ibeabuchi, who has been quoted earlier, asks.

Ebonyi is the only state in the South- East region which falls under the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI)’s top poorest countries, with a 73.6 percent poverty rate.

It is followed by Bauchi, Kebbi and Zamfara with 73 percent, 72 percent and 70.8 percent poverty rates, respectively.

“This shows you how politicians misplace priorities,” Ibeabuchi adds.

A national phenomenon

Abandonment of beneficial projects is not peculiar to the South-East alone.

A 2019 survey carried out by the Chartered Institute of Project Management of Nigeria says that the value of abandoned projects across the country is N12 trillion.

Fifteen thousand projects are abandoned in the South-East; 11,000 in the South-South; 10,000 in the South-West; 6,000 in the North-West; 7000 in the North-Central; 5,000 in North-East, and 2,000 in Abuja, the report explains.

Among the abandoned projects are Monorail project in Rivers State awarded at the cost of N50 billion; Minna Airport City in Niger State awarded at the cost of $600 million; Minna five-star hotel at N19.6 billion, and Abia International Hotel at N6 billion.

“The cost of abandonment of these projects to businesses, especially small-scale players like us, is enormous,” Chukwubuike Nnoli, CEO of Zubnol Limited, an Awka-based pillow and duvets manufacturer, says.

“I have practically lost some of my customers because I cannot handle their cost of logistics. If I produce in Awka, it takes me a lot of money to move the products to Enugu, and more to Afikpo, owing to bad roads,” he says.

“That is practically why we are not competitive,” he adds.

Where does Nigeria go from here?

“First of all, if the government has paid for a contract and the contractor fails to do it, the government can apply for what is called specific performance in law,” Emmanuel Okeke, a lecturer in a Nigerian university, says.

“You can ask the court to compel the contractor to enforce it or refund the money paid with damages,” he explains.

“Except in a case where the contract is frustrated by government, that is, where the government fails to pay, it can enforce it, and sometimes it can be criminal,” he adds.

According to the Ministry of Budget and Planning, Nigeria needs to spend four to five percent of its $450 billion Gross Domestic Product annually on infrastructure. A recent report by the Financial Derivatives Company, a financial research and advisory firm, says Nigeria requires $15 billion investments annually for 15 years to adequately develop its infrastructure nationwide.

Nigeria is currently cash-strapped as years of mismanagement and relatively lower oil prices hurt fiscal policies. The country’s government has borrowed N24.39 trillion, according to the Debt Management Office, but much of this has gone into recurrent expenditure, rather than capital projects.

Nigeria’s capital expenditure on annual budgets has rotated between 10 and 30 percent in the last 10 years, budget experts say.

“I am yet to see the bridges for which we borrow all the money,” says Peter Obi, former governor of Anambra State.

“Let us borrow and build infrastructure, rather than borrow to pay salaries,” he advises.

Chukwuma Soludo, former Central Bank of Nigeria governor, says the country must compete or die.

“We need to start preparing for 400 million people that will soon be upon us in a world without oil,” he says.

“We have been living on the life support of oil, when oil goes up, the economy goes up and when oil comes down, the economy comes down,” he further says.

He urges Nigeria to build solid infrastructure and raise a well-equipped population of people that can manage it.

“A modern infrastructure, which includes roads and rail network, will facilitate the movement of people and goods while reducing the cost of transportation and the total cost of production,” Babatunde Ruwase, president of the Lagos Chamber Of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), says.

Over to Works Ministry

David Henry, Federal Ministry of Works spokesman, admits that the government owes some contractors.

He says that budget delay has been the major reason why the ministry has not mobilised some contractors.

“Secondly is weather conditions,” he says.

He explains the ministry only gives certificate of completion when a contract is completed, stressing that the government will soon mobilise all contractors being owed.


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