Southeast zone: The road to nowhere

UNLIKE some parts of Nigeria, there are two major problems (among many) that hinder socioeconomic development in the southeast region of Nigeria.

These are soil/gully erosion and the ghastly network of roads, in particular roads that fall within the rubric of properties owned, controlled and managed by the federal government. Over many decades, people in the southeast zone have been served badly by bumbling federal officials who couldn’t understand why the southeast should consistently whinge about lack of federal attention evident in absence of basic infrastructure.

Eight months ago, it looked like all this was going to change suddenly. In October 2008 we received news that the southeast geopolitical zone of the country would receive more federal attention when it is declared a “disaster zone”. The news emerged following a meeting between Vice President Goodluck Jonathan and the governors of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo states. Like most promises made by the federal government, there was a catch attached to the pledge. A committee would be set up to map the details of the funds required for the program, as well as the different ways the government could intervene. Assembling a committee has become the most effective way the federal government annihilates projects it doesn’t want to take off.

In his capacity as chairperson of the southeast governors’ forum, Governor Peter Obi of Anambra State advanced reasons why soil erosion should be deemed a priority problem that deserves urgent attention by state and federal governments. Obi argued that the scope and destructive nature of soil erosion in the southeast zone underlined the need for the federal government to accord it the same level of priority as other problems in various parts of the country, such as deforestation and desertification, which the federal government is tackling.

Obi told journalists at the end of the meeting: “The entire South-East zone has been steadily and remorselessly ulcerated by landslides and gully erosion. This has created a problem so monumental that it is far beyond the initiatives and financial capabilities of the South-East zone to address. Whole communities have been buried in deep gullies, farmlands wiped out and roads truncated.”

He added: “It is a matter of deep regret that, over the years, successive Federal administrations looked the other way while the natural disaster of erosions wrought incalculable havoc on our section of the country. The same cannot be said of the northern parts of the country where concerted federal efforts are ranged against desert encroachment. Nor can it be said of the South-West where federal authorities are pitted in a continuing battle against the ravages of the Bar Beach in Lagos.”

Someone once asked: Does the southeast zone have to be in very bad shape before federal officials are roused from their slumber and compelled to take on their responsibilities? Decaying infrastructure and basic facilities across the country never seem to be of any concern to anyone until a disaster occurs or until government officials and their relatives are threatened directly by an imminent disaster. Here is an example.

We never quite realised how bad things had deteriorated at airports across the country until members of the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation visited the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency in Lagos in October 2008. Members of that committee were stunned by what they saw and heard. The chairperson, Bethel Amadi, told journalists: “Our visit to the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency… paints a picture of sadness. We were very sad and very unhappy. In fact, it made me very scared to fly. We believe that something urgent and critical needs to be done to avert a disaster… Right now, there is no radar cover at the Lagos airport. What is simply being done is manual. They are now using radio communication to give information to the Air Traffic Controllers, and that is what they use to direct aircraft, which is very dangerous.”

It was only after the scandal at the airports was brought to public attention that the relevant federal government ministry and officials panicked and started to act to avert the danger. If the House of Representatives committee had not raised the alarm, nothing would have been done to upgrade radar facilities at domestic and international airports across the country. This is just one example to underline the indifference with which federal officials approach their responsibilities. Here is a second example.

Only last week, the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Investigation of Transport Sector said, after a visit to the southeast, that the state of roads in the region was “the worst in the country”. That description confirmed what most people already knew. More fundamentally, it captured not only the horrifying state of roads in the southeast zone but also the extent to which the roads have suffered from federal neglect over the years. Chairperson of the committee, Heniken Lopobiri, said last Friday that the “deplorable condition of roads” in the zone meant that previous federal governments did not regard road rehabilitation and reconstruction as priority projects in the southeast. He identified gully erosion and years of federal neglect as the main reasons for the poor state of roads in the southeast.

In an assessment that also served as an indirect denunciation of the federal government, Lopobiri said: “From what we have seen so far – from Imo, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Abia States, this zone is the worst in terms of federal roads. Our concern is the fact that the hub of commercial activities here is on the high side and we really need to make the roads work as a way of stimulating the economy of the zone. This is the only way this vision will be realized.”

Every quarter, federal authorities are quick to show off the stupendous amounts of money allocated for road construction and repairs. However, on-the-spot evaluation presents a different picture. Unfortunately, the road projects exist only on the paper in which the fine details are written. There are no repairs and certainly no construction works on the ground.

Where did all the money budgeted for road construction and repairs go? Nigerians are entitled to ask fair questions relating to a culture of rampant embezzlement of public funds by senior government officials. Failure to account for money set aside for specific capital projects makes nonsense of President Umaru Yar’Adua’s talk about his government’s policy of financial accountability, transparency and responsibility.

In an interview published in The Guardian of Wednesday and Thursday last week (29 and 30 April 2009), Yar’Adua was asked offhandedly to identify one legacy for which he would want to be remembered. His answer was as pretentious as it was ordinary. He said: “Frankly speaking, one thing, one legacy I would want to be remembered most for and I know it is very, very difficult to achieve, but I am determined to achieve it, is the establishment of respect for the rule of law. Because all these problems this nation is facing, whether it is in the electoral process, the economy, corruption, or others, are as a result of disrespect for or violations of the rule of law. So, restoring respect for the rule of law is honestly one thing I would want to be remembered for.”

Yar’Adua has a blinkered conception of his rule-of-law mantra. The behaviour and performance of members of his government are at odds with his public statements about his dream legacy. Why should Yar’Adua propagate a philosophical mission which members of his administration scoff at and are unwilling to undertake? This has been a common practice among Nigeria’s political leadership — a president picks up an abstract concept and runs away with it, even as his aides pour scorn on that concept. This is exactly what Yar’Adua is doing. He has not stopped to reflect on whether his ministers are practising his rule-of-law principles. We’ve seen it all before.

For eight years, Olusegun Obasanjo conned the nation when he said he was determined to eliminate corruption from the society. He preached anti-corruption. He conducted informal anti-corruption workshops. He stitched anti-corruption slogans on his clothes. He nearly put his teeth into that farcical beast called corruption. But soon after he left office in May 2007, investigations by various committees of the National Assembly began to expose the skeletons in the anti-corruption cupboard kept by Obasanjo’s government.

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