BRIDGE IN TROUBLED WATERS

Nigeria 2017 | TRANSPORT | FOCUS: NIGER BRIDGE

Construction on the Niger Bridge has been delayed due to social and economic issues, but the project's economic importance means that the government is working to resolve these issues and build what will be one of Nigeria's most important thoroughfares.

When the first Niger Bridge was constructed in 1965, it was a key moment for Nigeria's economic development. The project linked Southeast Nigeria with Western Nigeria, becoming a key economic and cultural thoroughfare and contributing to a more unified country. Conscious of the need for an additional route over the River Niger, the Nigerian government seeks to construct a Second Niger Bridge. This new bridge, approved in March 2014 and expected to be completed by 2020, will be approximately 11.9km long and have a six-lane dual carriageway, a significant improvement over the current two-lane bridge. However, the project has been beset by construction, social, and political issues. Resolving these conflicts will be key to building a better bridge and a better country.

Former President Goodluck Jonathan approved the Second Niger Bridge project in March 2014. At the time, the bridge was expected to be completed by March 2018 and cost NGN117 billion. A concession was signed with JB-NSIA consortium for the design, finance, and construction of the project. The bridge's importance as a major transit artery for agricultural and industrial products has necessitated the construction of two complementary bypasses to ease the flow of traffic. The bypasses will connect the bridge to nearby interchanges and highways, linking it to key transport and population centers.

Soon after construction began, however, a number of issues began to emerge. First and foremost among them were the nation's larger financial issues. Nigeria depends on oil revenue for a majority of its government funding, and falling oil prices began to severely impact the nation's financial position at around the time the project was announced. This put the Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority (NISA) in an unstable position and rendered it unable to contribute to the project as originally intended. As a result, the government was forced to seek alternative funding sources, a search that is still ongoing. Officials are optimistic about finding additional funding, noting that several foreign investors have expressed interest in the project due to its well-structured nature and significance for Africa's largest economy.

There have also been accusations of mismanagement and cost overruns. Preliminary consultancy and project viability work has been lengthy and expensive and reports emerged in September 2015 that NGN140 billion in state funds intended for the bridge were missing from the sovereign wealth fund, though the Nigerian government refuted them. According to government figures, NISA has reportedly spent over NGN440 million on international consultancy projects but the project has still not received all the necessary regulatory permits to attain private capital and proceed with construction. The delay has frustrated the communities affected by the project, though the importance of the bridge gives all sides an incentive to see it constructed well.
Construction has also had to deal with social and cultural issues that have at times thrown the future of the project into question. The Niger Bridge's importance makes it a frequent site for protests. Some of these protests have turned violent, including one incident where military forces killed 150 activists who were blocking the bridge. The site's location at the intersection of several key populations makes it a politically charged area, which at times threatens to erode foreign investors' confidence in the long-term security of the bridge. There is also additional concern that poor relations with the communities located by the site of the second Niger Bridge could lead to delays. The issues of land rights, environmental impact, and concern over economic benefits have already flared up at times, and it will be essential for foreign investors to form strong communication ties with these nearby communities to minimize delays.

Despite these issues, there is reason to be optimistic for the future of the second Niger Bridge. All parties involved recognize the importance of the bridge for Nigeria's economic health, so there is strong incentive to get the deal done.