World Bulletin/News Desk
President Goodluck Jonathan on Monday flagged off the construction of a 1.8-kilometre mega-bridge linking Nigeria's southwestern and south-southern regions to the sprawling markets of the country's southeast.
"The Second Niger Bridge is a strategic national infrastructure that holds so much importance for our economy," Jonathan said in a short speech before unveiling the bridge's foundation stone.
"It links the southwest to the southeast; it's an artery connecting the great markets of Asaba and Onitsha," he told a host of dignitaries including governors, ministers, traditional rulers and senior lawmakers.
The Second Niger Bridge links Asaba, a sprawling commercial-cum-fishing town at the tip of Delta State to Onitsha, another commercial city housing the southeastern region's only seaport in Anambra State.
Asaba town also serves as the gateway between the country's southwest and southeast.
The bridge, which will have 12.4-kilometer link roads, is being carried out under a public-private partnership arrangement using a design, build, finance, operate and transfer model.
President Jonathan said the government had already provided over $247 million for the bridge, representing 25 percent of the project funding.
The groundbreaking project, which is being jointly funded with the private sector, is expected to cost a little over $728 million. The concession was awarded to Julius Berger and the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (JB-NSIA) Consortium.
"The reason this project has taken long to start is because we needed to get everything right, including funding," Jonathan said. "With the funding we have provided, the project can begin and run for the next one year."
The planned bridge is expected to be operational within 48 months, according to Coordinating Minister of the Economy Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
She has nicknamed the project, which will connect the various parts of Africa's most populous country, the "love bridge."
President Jonathan said the project launch was a fulfillment of his electoral promise to the people of the southeast to build another Niger Bridge – 51 years after Nigeria's first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, built the first Niger Bridge in 1963.
"The bridge will promote national integration and economic interaction... especially between the southwest and the southeast – the two industrial nerve centers of our country," he said.
"Lagos alone has about 52 percent of the industries in the country," the president noted.
The first Niger Bridge sustained massive damage during the civil war of 1967-1970, and has been further weakened by heavy traffic over the last half-century.
The civil war was fought between Nigerian troops and the secessionist Igbo people of what is now the Eastern Region.
But the people of the southeast look at the planned bridge beyond its mere commercial value.
Top politicians and traditional rulers of the region took turns hailing the president for helping to "integrate the southeast [Igbo people] to Nigeria."
Echoing this sentiment, ranking Senator Ayogu Eze said it was the first time a Nigerian president "isn't paying lip service to the idea of reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction" – a policy declared immediately after the 30-month conflict that ended in Nigeria's favor.
Eze said today's event "again attests" to the president's determination to "truly reabsorb and reintegrate the Igbo people" after the war.
He cited, among other things, Jonathan's appointment of General Azubuike Ihejirika as the country's army chief-of-staff.
Ihejirika, now retired, had been the first Igbo man to head the Nigerian army after the civil war.
Anambra Governor Peter Obi said that by building the bridge, the president had made "Igbo a true part of Nigeria."Last Mod: 10 Mart 2014, 17:41