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A year ago, Nigeria and Africa lost one of their most brilliant and resourceful scholars in the circumstances of Professor Adebayo Adedeji. This country could have done better considering the creativity and ideas he generated in the academia and government.
We first met in Harvard in the early 1960s before he left for further studies in the UK. When next we met he was teaching at the University of Ife while I lectured in the University of Ibadan. The civil war changed all that as we became government functionaries. In this capacity, he played a big role in the building of the East-West Road, which I hope to highlight here. But space will not permit me to also detail how in a single day he approved the establishment of the Universities of Port Harcourt, Sokoto, Kano, Maiduguri and Ilorin.
Post-civil war, Nigeria was in a hurry to develop as General Yakubu Gowon rolled out a national Five-Year Development Plan. On the priority list were Trunk A interstate roads linking up capitals, seaports and airports. The man entrusted with this plan was Adedeji, Federal Commissioner for Economic Development.
Commander Alfred Diete-Spiff, pioneer governor of Rivers State, also came up with Rivers Five-Year Development Plan as component of the national plan. As his Commissioner for Finance, 1967-1973, and joint Commissioner for Ministries of Economic Development and Reconstruction, and Information, 1973-1975; I implemented this plan. Manning similar ministries meant Adedeji and I worked together.
Originally, I conceived the East-West Road to be limited within Rivers from our boundary with South-Eastern State to that with Mid-Western State. The aim was to open the young state for massive development without leaving any community behind. But when I suggested the project to the great Commander Diete-Spiff, he asked if we had the money to build a road of such magnitude. I replied that we had no fund but I had an idea.
If he would permit me, I explained, I could approach the other littoral states, namely, South Eastern, Mid-Western and Lagos, and see if they could link up with us to make it a joint project. If this could be done the challenge of fund became a non-issue as the Federal Government would then take over the road as Trunk A interstate East-West Road. My governor readily gave his permission.
S.E. Udoyang was the South Eastern State Commissioner for Economic Development. EY Ekeh was his Mid-Western equivalent. That of Lagos State was IS Adewale, aka, “The Boy is Good.” They all agreed and we submitted a joint project application for Trunk A interstate East-West Road to the Federal Government. My past students in government monitored our file; briefing me as it inched closer to the Supreme Military Council, SMC. But just when we were on the threshold of success disaster struck.
On the day the SMC was to take a decision on it,somebody jokingly asked my governor, “Commander, everyone in Port Harcourt is talking about this East-West Road. What do you need it for?” Thinking it was a joke he replied, “Who wants to drive through Igboland to Lagos?”
All I can say is that the gods had a hand in the tragedy that followed. General Gowon overheard what my governor said and barked, “Alfred, Come here! Don’t you know that the civil war is over and that we are all brothers? We said there was no victor and no vanquished to make reconciliation possible but it seems you’re not ready for reconciliation. The East-West Road is cancelled.”
A subdued Commander Diete-Spiff announced to his executive council back home, “The East-West Road has been thrown out because of a careless remark made by someone.” It was a thunderbolt.
I was devastated, “But, Your Excellency, we refuse to accept this fate. Nigerian roads are built with our money. This one road that means so much to us cannot be thrown out. We’re not against our Igbo brothers. It is common knowledge that we are not on the best of terms with them for not supporting them in the civil war. We are going to award the contract and go back to the Federal Government to take it over.”
Some commissioners were skeptical, “We’ll be seen as bad boys awarding a project that was rejected.” “How can we be bad boys for developing Rivers?” I calmly asked, “Does development mean waging a war? We’ll award it and go back to Lagos to fight for it.” It was Commander Diete-Spiff himself who surprised everyone, “If we have to fight for this project then I’m going to be in the battleship with you. But do we have the money to pay the contractors till the Federal Government takes it over?” I clearly saw the hazard, “Yes.” Very well, Commander Diete-Spiff gave his consent.
After the meeting, I went to see him in his office upstairs. I knew he was expecting me. He asked, “Do we really have the money to build the road, Larry?” I sat down and cleared my throat. Rivers didn’t have a dime, I admitted. He sprang up to his full height in anger, “You mean you deliberately misled me?”
One good thing about Commander Diete-Spiff was his respect for elders. He sat down again and I began, “I toiled for this project and will not want to see it dead. Had I admitted we didn’t have the money you would have also cancelled it. My answer saved it. The East-West Road will be built. I have an idea.” “Another idea? What is it this time?”
I explained I could get the best construction company in Nigeria to handle the project. This could be done by identifying the company with the highest number of federal projects. But we must be honest and tell the company that Oil Rivers was just in name and not in money. That we were planning the road with the hope that the Federal Government would take it over. So, while we lobbied Lagos, the contractors should also use their Dodan Barracks contacts to do the same thing. Our collective effort must yield the expected result. With faith, determination and conviction, we could do the impossible. After I finished speaking, my governor gave his immediate consent.
Dumez Nigeria Limited, a French company, built major roads, including the Niger Bridge at Onitsha. At its Marina headquarters, I met Dr. Andre Kamel who agreed his company would design and build the East-West Road. Matching words with action Dumez did an aerial survey of the proposed route before sending me a copy of the plan. I returned to Marina for negotiations.
I asked and received terms better than what Dumez gave the Federal Government. But two problems still confronted us. The first was the payment schedule. Dumez wanted us to start paying with project commencement in 1973 and final payment on completion in 1976. I told Dr. Kamel and his team that in the unlikely event the Federal Government declined to take over the project, we might not be able to finish paying in 1976. I asked to stretch payment to 1981. This infuriated them and they walked out, contending that Dumez was not a bank.
I called them back pleading that our offer was not because Rivers didn’t want to pay but that we must be realistic considering our financial capacity. If the Federal Government took over the road then 1981 would have no place in the payment schedule. But to be good partners, let us take the unlikely 1981 for final payment. They reluctantly agreed.
The second problem. Dr. Kamel wanted first payment in foreign currency to enable them procure equipment abroad. I told them that Rivers did not receive allocations in foreign currency and so could only pay in local currency. Once more, they left the negotiation table in anger but I called them back to hear me out.
The East-West Road was already rejected by the Federal Government, I reminded them. If Rivers applied to the Federal Ministry of Finance and Central Bank for foreign currency, such request would be shot down and that would be the end of our joint endeavour, “But Dumez has international contacts. Kindly use them to procure the necessary machinery and start work first. By the time we begin to lobby the SMC, our language won’t be for the Federal Government to “begin” the East-West Road. It will be to “take over” a project already under construction.” They saw sense in my argument and nodded again.
I was in Broad Street when Allison Ayida, Permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Finance, sighted me, “What have you done to Dumez, Larry? This is the same Dumez that collects the last dollar before mobilising to site but we hear you awarded them the East-West Road without coming to us for foreign exchange. And now Dumez has a shipload of equipment at Apapa for your project. What is going on?” I started saying something about the tailless cow but changed my mind, “It’s God.”
Three federal commissioners must be won over if the Federal Government must buy in. The first was Shehu Shagari, commissioner for Finance. The second was Femi Okunnu, commissioner for Works. The third was Adedeji. My argument before them was simple: Look at what the road meant to our people; don’t look at Gowon’s reaction. Shagari and Okunnu were won over. My own Adedeji could not fail me.
His office was on the 23rd floor of the Independence Building. On the Tuesday when I was to meet him the lift broke down. Postponing our appointment was simply unthinkable as I was expected to brief the executive council the following day. I must see Adedeji immediately and dash off to the airport for my evening flight to Port Harcourt. Summoning courage, I began to climb up. I was on the verge of cardiac arrest when I crashed into his office and collapsed on the couch. Adedeji was scandalised and soundly scolded me for endangering my life. But I left his office a happy man. In six months flat the Federal Government took over the project.
Not just my humble self, Rivers people, the Niger Delta minorities and Nigerians were lucky to have Adedeji at the highest level of government. In a clime where ministers behave like gods, he was simple and approachable. Such was his true character that he saw the human in everyone.
LAWRENCE BARAEBIBAI EKPEBU