Highway to Heaven?

The basic facts of the ‘Superhighway’ are as follows. It will cost an eye-watering N200bn and will be 275km long. It is also going to be a ‘digital’ and ‘wi-fi’ superhighway.

There are many problems with building infrastructure in Nigeria. One underappreciated one is that very often, the ‘host community’ don’t really care about what is being built. They just want to get paid upfront so they come up with all sorts of shenanigans to extract cash money from the government or the private company involved. And of course, infrastructure costs a lot of money so this will always be a constraint.

But what happens when people oppose infrastructure for very good reasons? What if people are vehemently opposed to the construction of a highway because they have genuine fears that what is being promised is not what they will end up getting? I’ve been following the Cross-River State government’s plans for a ‘Superhighway’ for a while now and even though I consider myself an infrastructure fundamentalist, on this one, my gut is to side with the people who oppose this project.

The basic facts of the ‘Superhighway’ are as follows. It will cost an eye-watering N200bn and will be 275km long. It is also going to be a ‘digital’ and ‘wi-fi’ superhighway. ‘But where is this digital highway going to,’ I hear you ask? Or, for that matter, ‘where is it coming from?’ There is a separate plan for a deep-sea port in Calabar. Thus, the digital superhighway will facilitate the transportation of goods to the north of the country as well as Chad and Niger Republic. It all sounds so seductive and on any other day, such a plan will be lauded to the high heavens and welcomed with open arms. But today is not that day.

The first thing that sets off alarm bells was that the plan for the digital superhighway was for a 20.4km-wide corridor for the road to pass through. That is, 10km on each side of the road with the rest for the actual width of the road. For context, the land proposed to be taken by the government for the project would have equalled 25% of the entire land of the state. That is a huge amount of land for a road that cannot possibly be even half a kilometre wide. Further, the road was to run through one of Nigeria’s last protected rainforests. As such, a 20km-wide-road running through such a forest would surely have involved felling a huge number of trees. And even if the trees weren’t felled, the important thing is that the land would have belonged to the state government as part of the road. Happily, after much pressure and outcry, the state government in March of this year, reduced 10km on each side to 70 metres on each side.

Less happily, the digital superhighway will duplicate an existing federal road that runs from Calabar to Katsina-Ala in Benue State. It is a lot of money to spend on a substitute. Most importantly of course is that, the deep-sea port that the road is supposed to link to has not been built. But can the port be built? Calabar is almost 100km from the Atlantic Ocean via Cross-River. The only way to make this work is perhaps to build a channel from the river to the ocean which will cost more money than Mansa Musa ever had. Regardless of how noble anyone’s intentions might be, this is still Nigeria we are talking about. Having a lot of money to spend wisely on infrastructure is not something that one can confidently say is how things have historically worked in Nigeria. And sadly, the past is often a good predictor of the future.

So, to summarise – this digital superhighway that has not yet been built would have cut through rich biodiversity containing many endangered species. It would also have taken away the livelihood of several communities, who rely on the forest for their farming income, for a road of dubious economic value, that was to service a port that may never be built, because, it simply cannot be built.

The question then is: why is the Cross-River government intent on going ahead with this project? I cannot claim to know the mind of the governor and his government and I can imagine that they have their own side of the story as well. But it is not difficult to see that this superhighway is going nowhere and is a waste of time and money. Maybe the governor is a dreamer who sees things that everyone else can’t see. There is certainly room for such people in our country. But sometimes it is preferable to just wake up and stop the dreaming. Infrastructure is hard to do even in developed countries. Sometimes even after the best of planning and funding, things still go wrong. In straitened times such as this, Cross-River state surely cannot afford to waste a single kobo.

But the more troubling general point about such projects is that they simply waste everyone’s time. So much bad blood and anger has been generated by this project with neither side willing to back down. Given the original plan that the government was forced to back down from, people’s suspicions are now at code red levels. Trust has been greatly eroded and this might end up paralyzing the government in other areas where it is trying to do even harmless stuff. Between the government and the governed, no one is going to come out of this happy. And you can bet that the next guy who comes along proposing a big but realistic project is going to be met with plenty of suspicion and great difficulty convincing anyone to agree with him. Maybe next time, people will be so weary that they will just ask for money upfront and then let the government do as it pleases.

The echo of bad governance reverberates through the generations. Cross-River does not have all this time to waste. The current governor is already halfway through his first term and this digital ‘superhighway’ has taken up so much oxygen from his government.

This highway is going nowhere. Time to put an end to it and move on to other things.


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