By Onyedimmakachukwu Obiukwu
The journey from Owerri, the city in the heart of Nigeria’s Southeast, to Port Harcourt, the largest city of the oil rich Niger Delta, is supposed to be at most an hour drive. So close are both southern cities that many work in one while residing in the other. But this inter-connectivity is now threatened by the deplorable state of the federal highway linking both cities. Since it began to rain on a daily basis about three months ago, swimming pool-sized potholes and metres of mud-swamps have taken over the highway, which ensures close to four hours of misery for those travelling through it while sending many vehicles straight to the mechanic.
‘Last month I spent over 100,000 naira to repair my car,” Mr. Chima Anyanwu told me as we journeyed back from Port Harcourt to Owerri as co-passengers in a commercial 14-seater bus. A state government worker in the latter, he lives in the former with his wife and two kids. Normally, he goes home every Friday and returns Sunday evening or early Monday morning for the week’s work. But that was before the road deteriorated. Now he says his next time home, save for a serious family emergency – like the one he was returning from – would be sometime in January or February after the rains subside and the road becomes a bit more “manageable”. “I have not been home for nearly a month,” he said, seated between myself and the driver of our bus who though participating in our discussion was much focused on threading the exact path of the vehicles ahead him because missing a cue was not an option. “This time I went [home] because my daughter was very sick, she is better now. I won’t be travelling again until the dry season, although they will have to bear it and come to the village in December,” Anyanwu said referring to the Christmas break.
Anyanwu’s hometown is a rural village in Imo state. He tells me that its road, like most of those leading to most rural areas in Southeast Nigeria, is very bad. However, his major worry is the Owerri-Port Harcourt highway through which his family must first pass. “The last time I drove through this road, I got stuck around there,” he said, pointing to a now abandoned side of the road where a tipper was stuck. “I had to pay the village boys five thousand naira to help me pull out my car, and by the time we got it out my radiator, fan belt and shock absorbers were all damaged.” The most painful part, he said, was that after repairing the car in Port Harcourt, he had to repeat the journey back to Owerri. In the effort not go through the same ordeal, he looked for an alternative route and the only other option was to travel first to Aba in Abia State and connect Owerri from there. Normally the journey would be around a three hour drive, but Chima says he didn’t know that the roads connecting Port Harcourt and Aba and then Aba and Owerri had also been damaged by the rains, even if not as bad as that of Port Harcourt-Owerri. He ended up spending over 6 hours in the journey but luckily his car only suffered overheating.
“It’s the season,” said the driver of the bus when I asked him why all the roads are bad at the same time. “Most roads usually get worse during the raining season, although this year’s own is much worse. But it will get better when dry season comes,” he added, as if to calm my worries. Although the Port Harcourt-Owerri highway looks as if it was wrecked by heavy floods, the rains—often a mixture of light showers and relatively mild downpours—are actually not heavy enough to outsize drainages. But the road, like most federal highways in the Southeast, does not have a drainage system. Thus as it rains, water, instead of being channelled out of the road, either stores up in potholes, creates more potholes, or mixes up with the heaps of red earth to form mud swamps.
A section of the highway is so bad that motorists use the pathway of the local community as a bypass. The youths of the community, seeing a business opportunity, erect checkpoints at every bend where they stop the vehicles to ask the drivers if he “has anything for the boys”. When the commercial bus that I am in gets to the first checkpoint, the driver opens a little cabinet in his dashboard and brings out about ten pieces of fifty naira notes. He gives two of the notes to one of the boys who approach his window the others lift up the log of wood which they used to block the path. The same happens at every check point until the driver runs out of his stack of fifty naira notes. At the next stop he looks around his dashboard and sees a 20 naira note, gives the leader of the group – a 17 year-old looking boy – and pleads with him that it’s all he’s got. The boy nods to his fellows to lift the barricade, and they do. At the next stop, the driver tries to plead with the boys that he no longer has any money on him, but his pleas fall on deaf ears as they insist that he must “find them something” to pass. Anyanwu gives the driver a 100 naira note to give them and they finally give way.
“This is one of the reasons why I won’t be travelling by this road any time soon, Anyanwu said in frustration. “If I could I won’t”, the driver responded in a resigned tone. “It’s how I feed my family. “The problem now is that I am spending too much just to keep this vehicle running,” he added, tapping his steering. “By the time I finish spending money on vehicle maintenance and settling these boys every time I pass here, not mentioning the normal payments that I have to make at the park, there’s little [money] left with me even though we raised the fare[from 500 naira to 1000 naira]. I asked the driver why he hadn’t contemplated changing his route and he said he had, but backed away from the idea because most other interstate roads in the Southeast were just as bad. “Have you passed through Onitsha-Enugu road?” He asked me, referring to the federal highway connecting the largest commercial city of the southeast to the de-facto regional base of corporate firms and federal agencies. I affirmed that I have journeyed through the road and have also seen how very similar it was to the one we were currently driving through.
“Why isn’t the government doing something about these roads?” I ask, looking at Anyanwu and then the driver. Both remain quiet for a moment before Anyanwu says he thinks “they [the government] can’t build or repair roads when it’s raining so frequently.” “That’s what we heard last raining season, and the raining season before that,” the driver cuts in. “It is what they always say, yet when dry season comes the highest they do is pour sand or just patch some potholes.” “Well, it’s not even because of them that I am praying for dry season,” he continues. Whether they do something or not the road will get better when the rains stop.”
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