Baro, in Niger State, is known largely for its port, which was shot into prominence with its commissioning by President Muhammadu Buhari, two years ago. Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, who was on a reporting trip to Baro, penultimate week, writes on the poor condition of the roads in that part of the state.
Save for a firm and unwavering determination to make the trip to Baro, I would have shelved it. The road is bad” I was told repeatedly by persons I shared the travel plan with.
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Some of them with a sense of figurative language were starker. “There is no road!” one respondent declared.
I was not miffed at first because Niger State has no reputation for a great road network, in fact, the Power State is infamous for the poor condition of its major roads. However, it was evident from the outset that the Baro road must be especially bad for it to generate the many warnings I got.
One person, however, issued more than just a warning. A Minna-based colleague I was expecting to help me discover Baro sounded an alarm. “Have you gotten security clearance for the trip,” she said on the phone when I called to divulge the plan. I was taken aback. Was I going to Sambisa or any of those recesses of the Zamfara forests? This colleague went on to warn about the operations of bandits in the rural areas of Niger State, and even when I insisted that I was not aware that part of the state was infested by the notorious bandits, she authoritatively countered that 12 of the state’s local governments were now vulnerable to attacks. The bandits, I was told, had reached the outskirts in Minna with a recent attack at Maitumbi.
But when I spoke to a friend from that part of Niger State he said something funny but auspicious. “The kidnappers are not fools”, he said, explaining that the deplorable condition of the area would not make kidnapping profitable. “They’ll go to where there is money,” he submitted. I would later see the reasons why he said those things.
Adhering to wise counsels, I decided not to go with my car. The road from Abuja to Minna is still what it is; mostly bad with a little good portion.
With the help of a couple of contacts in Minna, I was put in touch with a driver who picked myself and my colleague, Simon Chidiebere, from the hotel at 9 am on Sunday for the trip to Baro. No one could tell us exactly how long it will take us to be at Baro, a journey of some 150 kilometres. We only got warned; you must set forth early enough. We braced up for it. Our plan was to first stopover in Agaie, where he had an appointment to see the emir of Agaie, before we proceeded to Baro. The appointment was slated for between 11 am to noon. For a distance of fewer than 100 kilometres, we were advised to leave by 9 am to arrive at Agaie by 11 am; twice the time one would ordinarily need to cover such distance.
It was a surprise when by 8:34 am Mallam Isa, our link man, rang to announce the arrival of the driver. He had to wait some 15 more minutes before we joined him at the hotel premises to commence the journey.
The car, as expected for such routes, is a weather-beaten 1998 model of Mazda, a trusted accomplice for drivers plying rugged rural roads. But the driver, Baban-Nana, makes up the inadequacies of the car through his calm and friendly demeanour.
In no time, we were outside Minna, racing to Paiko Junction, from where the driver negotiated a turn off the Minna – Abuja road, towards Lapai. It was a “normal” drive from that point, with most of the road tarred and in good condition, until we reached Lapai. The first alert, on entering Lapai was the huge pits dug on the middle of the road. It’s like war-field trenches. What’s this? I asked our driver. The people, he said, dug the pits to divert the heavy traffic of articulated vehicles from plying the road and render decrepit like they did the road from Mokwa to Bida and Agaie.
The Lapai – Agaie road is a picture of what the entire stretch of road from Mokwa to Lambata, through Agaie and Lapai would be. Burdened by heavy vehicles, Niger State SSG, Ahmed Matane later told us, the over 2,000 kilometres of federal roads in Niger state, bear the brunt of serving as a gateway from the two sides of the country.
Once out of Lapai, we began to see the reason why everyone was warning us about that road. Heavy-duty vehicles struggled for the little space as they limp through the potholed stretch. Smaller vehicles, like our car, got shoved off to the shoulder either because the vehicles are too fragile for the craters along the road or are unable to find space among the competing heavy-duty vehicles. At many points along the road, the unpaved shoulder is more motorable than the main road.
Something turned in my stomach when the driver praised this horrible road. The main trouble, he said, lied ahead—the part from Agaie to Baro. The little respite was our stopover at the Emir’s Palace in Agaie, which enabled us to catch some rest before we hit the much-talked-about road to Baro.
The condition of the road to Baro varied in stages: about half-way from Agaie to Katcha is completed with asphalt overlay and shoulder drains. The second half linking up to Katcha is graded and paved but without the granules needed before asphalting, making it weary from frequent use.
From Katcha, however, we were faced with a nightmare. Cars and other vehicles meander through a turgid terrain in what was more like a bush path – barely any trace is there to suggest that a road once existed there. Years of disrepair and floods wave erased whatever was there of the old road.
As a riverine community, the area is dotted with water channels and tributaries, yet there is no bridge to help commuters cross the water channels. The proverbial string holding residents with their local government headquarters are some five bridges, themselves at different degree of dereliction. The newest bridge was one fabricated from an empty shipping container supported by some stones and light concrete. It is so narrow that any slight slip could land a car in the ditch. The most frightening, however, was a wooden bridge just close to Baro. The tree trunks and branches used to hold the woods from the centre are sinking from the weight of passing vehicles, giving the bridge a sharp bend in the middle. We passed with our hearts in the mouths.
The condition of this, and other link roads nearby have rendered Baro an unintended island—no one wants to go there, making the town pitiable and residents visibly poor.
Sadly, the contract for the construction of the 52.3-kilometre Agaie-Katcha-Baro road has been awarded three times, in 2009, 2012 and 2012. The last award in January 2015, again, another possible campaign stunt for the 2015 elections a few months away. The federal government awarded it with a proclaimed completion period of 12 months. To the anguish of residents, however, the road remains undone.
By the time we arrived at our hotel in the evening, my grey coloured kaftan had turned brown. I washed up and rested my tired bones, rethinking how life is being made difficult for not getting things as basic as transportation right.