THIS CHRISTMAS I TRAVELLED BY ROAD AND BY TRAIN: CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?
Like most of my kinsmen, the wise men from the East, we have to go home every Christmas. Though for some, especially my Anambra brothers, that has not been the case in the last few years. For them, the fear of Kidnappers has become the end of wisdom. Kidnappers reigned unchallenged for many years. It was not originally a home grown idea. The 'boys ' from Niger Delta invented it in Nigeria but it became big time business in the South East Nigeria. At one point, you could get a victim released by sending a recharge card and in one occasion, the guys returned change as I saw one policeman do recently. Kudos to the Governors of the South East for confronting the kidnappers and getting them to surrender! Infact when you leave Lagos up till Ijebu Ode, you will hardly see police Check points on the road, from Ijebu Ode to Ore, you will see one or two. From Ore to Benin you will see three or four. From Benin to Onitsha, you will see five or six. But From Onitsha to Aba or from Aba to Ikot Ekpene you will see about a dozen and there after, you will see one police checkpoint every two hundred yards. Infact as you are being searched or interrogated by one set of policemen and you look ahead, you will see the next set of policemen waiting to repeat the excise. My wife and I felt sorry for one rickety car loaded with Plantain and we wondered how much the driver 'coughed' out at those several check points and what impact that would make on the final cost of the plantain to the consumer and also the kind of margin, the trader would make in that kind of transaction. Talk of the cost of doing business in Nigeria and fall in inflation!
Believe me, this story is not about Policemen and checkpoints because as a matter of fact, we felt safe driving on the roads with the generous presence of Policemen and except some where near Ahoada on the East-West Road, where my taxi driver told me there was an early morning armed robbery, there were no incidents or stories of crime on the road from Lagos to Benin to Agbor to Ogwashiuku to Kwale on day 1 and from Kwale to Ughelli to Patani- kaima - Yenagoa- Ahoada to Portharcourt and then from IMO River train Station to Aba , Umuahia and to Arochukwu on day 2. As a matter of fact, since the end of the Nigerian civil war in 1970, I have travelled to my home town every Christmas. My attempt to stay back in Lagos in 1983 because my wife was expecting our third child failed. My wife had to set me free by asking me to just go to the village so that my body and Spirit could be in the same place. Ever since, she has continuously requested and prayed that I should decide to spend one Christmas outside my home town and I had continued to promise her that I would oblige her one year. Now I make a promise publicly that I will do so before 2050, if Jesus tarrys.
Now to the main story. We left Lagos at 12noon on Monday 22nd.December. As you would suspect, we had planned to leave much earlier, actually at 9am. But when you have to travel with the family, it is usually difficult to keep to scheduled time. I had to plead severally with my wife that we needed to leave early for several reasons. We anticipated that the traffic would be quite heavy out of Lagos and on the road to the East, three days to Christmas; we heard that the roads were bad and we did not want to travel at night, with its security implications. Yet we struggled to get out and indeed returned to the house twice to pick up one forgotten item or another. As we prayed when we got to old Toll gate on the Lagos-Shagamu Expressway, I hoped I would not regret this renewed decision to travel home at Christmas by road after about a 10-year break. The last time we travelled home by road was In December 2003. The experience on the road that year was so horrible and dangerous, that I decided to stop, despite my personal liking for driving and traveling in the large Nigerian Landmass with variegated vegetation and contour. I always enjoyed the cool harmattan breeze of December/January and the beautiful scenery.
The first 'shock' we received that Monday was that we passed the Redeemed Church Camp without the 'usual' traffic snarl and we sang a song of Praise. Further down, we ran into a traffic jam occasioned by the narrowing of the road caused by the Road Reconstruction work being undertaken by Julius Berger and we sighed. My wife admonished us to sing another song of Praise. We reluctantly agreed and just as we were entering into the second song, the traffic eased and we sped off, enthralled by the wide expanse of road in front of us( the completed portion of the road expansion), that we almost missed our turn off point into the Shagamu-Ore-Benin highway. The second 'shock' was that we did not know when we passed the IjebuOde intersection. We just drove on and saw a mighty overhead bridge or fly over. We had passed when my driver announced that the Governor of Ogun State had built the flyover, thereby " abolishing" the regular accidents on that intersection. I said, how nice that we have some Governors who think and who care, not those who will allow their people to suffer and blame the Federal Government.
The Journey from Ijebu Ode to around Ajebandele was the usual hop, step and jump, but I was prepared for that, because that's the usual. But a few Kilometers to Ore, we were ushered into a fully paved, fully marked, well demarcated dual carriage way that took us into Ore .We briefly stopped to refresh and then resumed the journey on this " mecadamised thorough fare"( apologies to the author of 'Veronica my daughter' and Hon Obasagbon) . As we drove, we passed Okada without recognizing it and all of a sudden, we were in Benin. I looked at my watch. We had been traveling for only three and half hours. I could not believe it. The last time, I did Lagos to Benin in three hours was in 1992.
From Benin, we connected the Benin-Agbor-Onitsha Expressway, through the Bye Pass( enduring legacy of Chief Anenih as Minister of Works) and we were amazed to see how the Bye-pass linked also the Benin-Warri Federal Highway and we said, yes Nigeria is really building Road infrastructure that can compare with the best in the World. The Journey from there to Agbor and to Ogwashiuku was like driving on the new Lekki expressway( without the Ajah bottleneck). The other 'shock'( I have lost count) was that we arrived Kwale in Delta State at 5.30pm. Only Five and half hours to travel from Lagos to Kwale? With all the stops?That was record. I said in my heart, thank you Mr President, there is evidence that our Highways are being transformed!
The next day I ran into fresh wonders. I had been sufficiently shocked the previous day, that I became resistant to shocks. We drove from Kwale, through Ozoro( work in progress by Delta Governor) and unto Ughelli and saw the wonder that is now the East West Road. We drove from Ughelli to Patani on a well paved dual carriage Express way and saw the wonder of the second new long span bridge across the Patani River and continued on a pleasant ride to Kaima and indeed to the Yenagoa junction. But the whole fun was almost ruined at Mbiama where due to the ongoing work, the refusal of the Mbiama traders to relocate to a new market and especially the indiscipline of the road users, we came to a traffic jam that kept us for over two hours. At some point, I had to disembark from my car, left my driver and family,trekked about two kilometers past the Mbiama bridge to hire a taxi to take me to Portharcourt.
You will be wandering why I had to take a taxi. I wanted to see another 'wonder'happen in Nigeria in these times. The Vice President of the Fedreral Republic of Nigeria was to flag off the resumption of train services from Portharcourt to Enugu. And I wanted to be among the first to enjoy this . And so no devil or traffic hold up, would stop me. I just made it. The Vice President arrived at the Main Railway Station( Terminus) on Station Road in Town, Portharcourt few minutes after I got in. He did the ceremonial flag off and I thought that was it. But when I struggled into the air conditioned brand new coaches driven by new Diesel Lovomotive Train Engine, I was pleasantly surprised to see Arc. Namadi Sambo seated with Chief Theodore Orji ( Abia Governor), Governor(ex) Peter Obi, the Chairman and MD of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), Gen Martin Luther Agwai( Sure-p Chairman) and several other dignitaries enjoying plates of Rice and pounded yam, I quietly joined them and enjoyed the train ride to IMO River train Station in Abia state where I disembarked to continue my journey on the road.
To be sincere, were it not for the yet un repaired Arochukwu- Ohafia federal Road, I would have recommended that both the Ministers of Transport and Works should be given Honours by the Eze Aro of Arochukwu Kingdom for the great work they have done on the Rail lines and the Roads. But then what should I recommend to be given to Gen Agwai and his Sure-p Commitee for providing the additional funding and supervision that have speeded up the delivery of the Roads and the resuscitation of the moribund Railway lines. Ok, what honours should I recommend for Mr President who in the first place, employed both the Ministers and the Sure-p committee members? While I await your advice, kindly join me in raising cheers for the great works that have been done on our highways and Railways!!!
Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa OFR