Cross River State governor, Prof. Ben Ayade, has lashed out at critics of his administration’s proposed Super Highway project, accusing them of playing politics to the detriment of national development.
At a Twitter engagement session on Monday with some media executives and civil society practitioners, the governor, via his Twitter handle “@ben_ayade,” insisted that having another road other than the existing highway has become a necessity as the nation’s economy expands.
Unveiled recently, the 260km Super Highway is planned to lead from a proposed deep sea port at Esighi in Bakassi Local Government Area, run through the Cross River National Park and the Ekuri Community Forest, and up to Katsina Ala in Benue State, at a cost of N700 billion or about $3.5 billion.
Already, bulldozers have begun destroying farms at Etara/Eyeyen and are continuing towards Ekuri and Okuni forests/communities, preparatory to the construction of the highway.
Local and international voices have however risen against the project, urging the authorities to reroute the highway along a less damaging path and away from community forests and the National Park.
But the governor remains adamant, maintaining that potitical interest, rather than genuine sustainable development motives, is fueling opposition to the increasingly controversial road project.
His words: “I think we should stop playing politics with issues of development. Since when did construction of road become a sin? Please Cross River State is more important than partisan politics. We should support what is good irrespective of our leanings. We have to learn to play politics of development.”
Ayade, a Professor of Environmental Management, questioned the rationale behind the clamour against the project, demanding: “The current highways in the state, were they built in the skies? When the present highway was constructed, was it not through forest?”
He, however, declined further comments when a range of questions were thrown at him, simply saying: “I am sure in this age of technology you can get that information on your own.”
His Tweet-mates wanted to know, for example, the corporate status of the Port Harcourt, River State-based Broad Spectrum Industries Limited (BSIL), a major player in the project. Investigations appear to show that the firm is relatively new and has no experience in road or port construction, a revelation that calls into question its track record in that regard.
The journalists and activists were likewise curious about the funding and the economics of the deep sea port and superhighway project, which some reports say BSILwill bankroll to the tune of N700 billion (US$3.5 billion).
A source said on Monday: “However, it is unclear where this staggering sum of money is meant to be coming from. It was rumoured that the funds were potentially coming from Germany or the UK or Israel but all efforts to find out more about the alleged funding for the superhighway construction project have proved futile. There are also reports of contributions from Heritage, Skye and Zenith banks. Do the funds for the construction of the highway actually exist? What kind of company would spend US$3.5 billion on the construction of a port/superhighway if the port will only pay back US$30 million a year? This would thus take over 100 years to pay back and that’s not including a discount rate! What kind of company would invest such large sums of money with such bad returns? There has been no transparency on this aspect of the project.”
Questions are also being raised about the engineering feasibility of the project.
The source disclosed; “It is notable that there do not seem to have been any engineering studies carried out to inform the design of the project. If there have been engineering studies, they have also been kept secret. The communities along the proposed route all attest that there have been no engineers surveying on the ground. Without such surveys how can one even determine the cost of the superhighway? How would one know, for example, how many substantial bridges are required or how many millions of tons of rock and soil have to be moved to pass through the hilly terrain?
“However, it is clear from contour maps that the terrain of the proposed route passes though some of the hilliest terrain in the entire country. This is slightly better than the mountainous route that was originally proposed through the heart of the National Park but such lack of basic research calls into questions the seriousness of the actual plan to build such a highway. How can a scheme of this size not be based on any field-based engineering surveys?”
Similarly, there were also queries concerning the existence or non existence of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report or public consultation on the route.
“The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Act of 1992 specifies that any construction project that is likely to have a significant impact on the environment or on people must have an EIA carried out and must receive an environmental permit from the Federal Ministry of Environment (FMEnv) before forest clearance works of any sort take place. Such an EIA must involve documented consultation meetings with a wide range of affected stakeholders before the final project design is concluded and approved. So, given the huge impact this project will have on one of Nigeria’s last surviving rainforests and the impact on the lives of thousands of people, how can such a scheme go ahead without an EIA which is made publicly available?
“If an EIA has been carried out who was consulted? Certainly none of the many communities or environmental NGOs have been consulted about the route. Reports from the villages say the superhighway construction has been awarded to several local contractors who are able to hire bulldozers. The local contractors have been apportioned 10 km each to bulldoze. How can clearance of the forests for the route commence be allowed without an EIA permit from the Federal Government?”
As a way out, observers are suggesting that, as an alternative, the state government should upgrade the existing Calabar-Ikom-Obudu highway.
“The existing Federal Highway from Calabar through Ikom to Obudu already serves all the purposes that the government wants the super highway to achieve. It links Calabar with Benue State and provides the route for trade. Communities and trade routes already exist around this road, whilst the super highway would necessitate new feeder roads, which would cut more into the rain forest. Furthermore, this would be much less costly and will do far less damage to the state’s forests and communities,” said the source.