By Azuka Onwuka
Long before now, driving into Onitsha was demoralising and embarrassing. Even though the nest-like Niger Bridge gave one a sense of “home at last”, the filth and rowdiness that welcomed one between the Niger Bridge and Upper Iweka painted the picture of a jungle where nobody was in charge. Heaps of refuse competed for height and breadth by the roadside. Sellers of goats, chickens, yams, potatoes, tomatoes, garden eggs and whatnot haggled with their buyers by the roadside, further narrowing it.
The stench from the refuse dumps, human waste and decaying tomatoes and other items permeated the air. Buses, cart pushers, commercial motorcycles, and trucks that either brought in goats, cows, tomatoes and other farm produce competed for space on that stretch of the road. Those selling clothes on the floor beside the road shouted endlessly and rang their bells to attract buyers. Under the Upper Iweka Bridge and its environs, touts and all manner of shady characters held sway, posing as government tax collectors and harassing pedestrians, or picking pockets and snatching bags. The aroma of marijuana wafted through the air.
That stretch of road in Onitsha is part of the Enugu-Onitsha Expressway, which is a Federal Government road. In spite of the work the Anambra State Government was doing inside the state, anybody passing through Onitsha to other South-Eastern states or South-South state would write off Anambra State and its governor as mediocres.
In 2010, I wrote an article on the eyesore that the stretch from the Niger Bridge to Upper Iweka had become and how the then governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi, could beautify it and create some positive image for himself and his state. I received a call from them that the article was noted. It was, therefore, heart-warming when not long after, those selling by the roadside were relocated from that stretch of road and work started on the road.
At the end of the reconstruction, it became obvious that that stretch of road was a multi-carriage way. Its beauty came out. Subsequently the kerbs were painted and street lights and a pedestrian bridge were added. Now, anybody driving into Onitsha for the first time or after a long while would exclaim: “Wow! Is this Onitsha?” The Federal Government through the SURE-P scheme reimbursed the Anambra State Government the money it spent on that reconstruction and claimed the reconstruction as done by the Federal Government.
Today, while Onitsha wears a new look, that ugly picture of the old Onitsha painted above has now been recreated on the Asaba side of the Niger Bridge on the Benin-Asaba Expressway. Right from the Koka Junction or the Ibusa Junction in Asaba, one sees the rowdiness and filth until one gets to where the toll plaza used to be. Midway, there is a roadside animal market where chickens and goats are sold. Chickens are slaughtered for customers by the side of the Benin-Asaba Expressway, the feathers are plucked off and the chickens are cut up. One could imagine how that neighbourhood smells given that the entrails of chickens are constantly disposed there.
Asaba’s case is worse than Onitsha. It is a new state capital city, while Onitsha has always been a commercial city. The capital city of a state, which houses the Government House and attracts visitors from different parts of the country and the world, especially of class, deserves to be beautiful. Just as Onitsha is the gateway to the East, Asaba is the gateway to the South-South and other parts of Nigeria. When the council polls held on January 6 and the state was locked down from 7.00am to 3.pm, travellers from the old Eastern Region and those from Lagos, Abuja and other cities were all locked out. It was hellish for those caught in that lockdown. That shows how strategic Asaba and Delta are in connecting different parts of Nigeria.
There may be two reasons why the Benin-Asaba Expressway that runs through Asaba has not received the attention it deserves. The first is that for decades, the early governors of Delta State did not fully accept Asaba as the appropriate capital city of Delta State. So, they did not pay any serious attention to its welfare. Even till today, there are some Delta State indigenes who still nurse that grudge that Asaba should not have been made the capital of Delta State.
The second reason is that there is a belief in Delta that the Benin-Asaba Expressway merely runs through Asaba and is not really for Asaba or Delta people but for those who pass through Asaba. So it does not look like a priority that needs to be expended scarce funds on.
However, anybody who thinks this way about the road is short-sighted. Even if the Benin-Asaba Expressway runs through Asaba and is used by many people who are only passing through Asaba, it is the most important road in Asaba and the busiest too. It is the road that makes many people see Asaba. Many states pray to have such a road that will make people pass through their states in large numbers. It is from having a good impression of a state while passing through it that many people decide to visit eventually for tourism or business.
There is a reason many people ensure that the facade of their houses, including the compound fence and the gate, is beautiful. They want those who drive by their houses to have a good impression of their houses. That is also the same reason why most people ensure that their sitting room is the most beautiful room in their home. In offices and hotels, the reception or lounge is given such a special attention. It is to leave a good impression in those who step in, even if for enquiries. It is such an impression that will help them decide whether to come for a deeper relationship. If the lounge is unkempt, it is most unlikely the visitor would be impressed to patronise such a company.
But beyond the fact that the said road is used by those who pass through Asaba, it is also heavily used by residents of Asaba and Delta State, because it splits Asaba into two. It houses the major filling stations in Asaba as well as the airport and some companies. So making it look beautiful is also for the sake of residents of Asaba and Delta State.
It is also important that an overhead bridge is constructed at the Koka Junction to take commuters across the Benin-Asaba Expressway towards Ibusa and the Warri axis or into Asaba. In addition, two pedestrian bridges should be constructed on the two sides of the flyover. Overhead bridges, beyond decongesting traffic and saving lives, also help to beautify an area, especially when viewed from above.
Bus stops should be constructed within Asaba for commercial buses and taxis which ply the Onitsha-Benin route. Sellers of farm produce and animals should be taken away from the road. Those who sell goods in plazas beside the road should be made to have see-through fences, beyond which they should not keep their wares.
Even if the Delta State Government does not want to reconstruct the road because it is a federal road, it should at least beautify the two sides of the road, plant flowers and trees on them, and paint the kerbs.
Asaba has a lot of potential. The reason all airlines ensure that there are stopovers in the home countries of the founders is to compel travellers to have a glimpse and taste of such countries or cities, which may convince them to return later for a full holiday. Asaba has that on a silver platter because of its location. What she does with it depends on her.