When Beatrice Ochuole kissed her husband goodbye on the morning of June 12 2018, she didn’t expect that she would return to his lifeless body that evening.
“We had spent most of the night talking about getting our daughter into school. He was worried about her, and in the morning, he said we would continue the conversation when he came back.”
He never did.
Her husband rode a taxi that conveyed people and goods from communities around Okpoma, in Yala Local Government Area of Cross River, to Ogoja and the Okuku market.
That morning, his vehicle ran out of fuel, so he had to join another driver to get fuel. “I even saw him at the fuel station, and he told me that he was at the fuel station to get fuel,” Ochuole recounts.
Moments later, the vehicle Ochuole’s husband was in ran into a ditch left on the road. He died instantly, leaving behind Ochoule and their three kids.
“It is the saddest day of my life. I have played it over and over in my head, trying to see how I can undo what has happened, but here we are,” she said.
Mrs Ochuole is only one of the many people from Northern Cross River State who are negatively impacted by the failure of the Cross River State government to complete the 134-kilometer Cross River Northern Superhighway initiated by the administration of Ben Ayade.
Joy Turns To Sorrow
For Mrs Onah Ebiale, November 6, 2016, is a day she hopes to forget. That day, she and thousands of residents of Yala, Ogoja, Bekwarra, and even far away Obudu and Obanliku lined up for the Yala groundbreaking ceremony of the road, which was meant to connect the five local governments of Northern Cross River.
But instead of dualization, what residents got was trouble.
“I wish it had never come,” she said as she attempted to hold back the tears that were already gathering in her eyes.
Years later, after the groundbreaking, Mrs Ebiale lost everything she owned on that road in an accident. The driver had tried to dodge a hole and then lost control and hit a wall. Her goods, which she was taking to the Okuku market, got soaked in blood from a passenger in the vehicle. She spent months in the hospital before she was discharged.
“I spent all the money I had saved and even had to borrow to complete my treatment. My business is gone, and I am still unwell. They should have left the road the way it was before.” She said.
Mrs Ebiale said she is now a regular visitor to the hospital, as she has not fully recovered from the accident.
A promised unfulfilled
On that day, the people of Cross River North had thronged out to see their son – former Governor Ben Ayade, carry out the groundbreaking ceremony for the road, hopes that have now been dashed were raised.
Represented by Ivara Esu, the then Deputy Governor, Ayade had promised that “This project is beaconed on a promise of decoupling our people from over-dependence on government because the road is a major infrastructure in the socio-economic development of our State.”
Ayade insisted that the days of “difficulty in gaining access to farm lands, locating streams, coupled with harsh weather conditions are over. They toil so much, pray so hard, and struggle so much but earn so little. God cannot forsake us at this point.”
Instead, residents in some sections of the road insist that all the construction work has brought to them is pain and suffering, as the contractors, Messers Sydney Construction Limited, did a shoddy job in places where it asphalted and left suffering where it had graded.
When this reporter visited the road, at least five bridges were not constructed on the Bekwarra-Obudu axis, forcing motorists to, most times, use only one section of the road. On the Ogoja-Okuku axis, some sections of the road are already washing off. The worst part of the road is the Yala axis from Ochuchi to Oba in Okpoma, where after the contractors graded the road, a big stone base, as large as a baby’s head, was left on the road.
“It is the stones the contractor left on the road that are killing us,” said Boniface Ekpo, an indigene of Okpoma.
“The stones are too big and it is spoiling the bikes of our brothers, and if you make a mistake and fall on the road, you will be lucky to survive it,” Ekpo said.
It was the case for Okputu Edward. One evening last year, Edward was driving back on his bike when he saw heaps of sand on the road, when he tried to swerve past it, his bike fell, and he hit his head on the stones left on the road. He lost consciousness. It took more than two weeks in the hospital and several operations for Edward to regain consciousness.
“Everyone thought I had died. My wife and children suffered a lot in my absence, and I still live with the scar of that accident.”
It was the same for Odey Otia, a young man who was on his way to his prime until an accident caused by dust from the road confined him to a wheelchair.
“My life was going well. I had just bought a second motorcycle, and the accident happened close to Mbok Junction.”
To this day, Otia is still running around, raising funds for hospital visits and feeding his family.
Last year, Ekpo and other youths in Okpoma organized a protest demanding the government call the contractor back to the site, but the police dispersed the crowd before they could reach the Local Government Headquarters.
Checks on the Cross River State Open Contracting Portal revealed that Messrs Sydney Construction Limited received payments totalling over N20 billion on different dates: N4.7 billion on October 17, 2016, N4.6 billion on August 26, 2017, N2 billion on September 14, 2018, N8 billion on November 26, 2018, and N3.8 billion and N1 billion separately on August 20, 2019.
Surprisingly, the contractor secured the contract despite not filing annual returns, as indicated by its ‘inactive’ status on the Corporate Affairs Commission’s portal.
Furthermore, the Cross River State Government, in blatant violation of its public procurement guidelines, proceeded to mobilise Sydney Construction for work on the Yahe-Benue Border road, disregarding the stipulation that “contractors, no matter how competent, should not be loaded with contracts at any given time.”
Attempts to contact the contractor proved futile. Upon investigation, this reporter found that the address listed on the company’s Corporate Affairs Commission filing, 262 Sapara Williams Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, belongs to Genesis Cinemas. A security guard at the location revealed that Genesis Cinemas has occupied the facility for more than six years, and he is unaware of any Sydney Construction operating from that address.
Government reviewing project documents
Responding to the state of the road, Hon Pius Edet, the Commissioner for Works and Infrastructure in the state declined to provide insights into why the contractors are not present at the site. However, the commissioner affirmed that the present administration is accepting responsibility for the previous government’s failure to complete the road, “as the government is a continuum”, but the Commissioner highlighted that one of the issues with the road was “poor monitoring of that route.”
The Commissioner added that the government is “looking at the documents for the award of the contract, to look at the percentage, you know, of work done, and the various certificates that have been raised and then the payment made to see if it really meets what we have seen on the ground.”