Environment group kicks against Cross River’s N648billion superhighway contract

Cross River State Governor, Ben Ayade
Cross River State Governor, Ben Ayade

A non-governmental organisation in Nigeria has raised concerns over the award of a multi-billion naira contract for the 275-kilometre superhighway in Cross River State.

The NGO, Rainforest Resource and Development Centre, in Calabar, said the contract award was not transparent, did not follow due process, and could put the Cross River government and its people into huge debt.

But the state government said the NGO was only trying to mislead the public.

The superhighway, designed to cut across at least 16 local government areas, is one of the signature projects of the administration of the governor, Ben Ayade. It is meant to link the South-south state with Nigeria’s North-central region, through Benue State.

Besides the initial clearing of some sections of the huge Cross River rainforest to pave way for it, the road project was delayed for more than three years after ground-breaking was done by President Muhammadu Buhari in October 2015.

In what appears a sign of its eventual take off, the Cross River government on February 17 this year wrote to the state House of Assembly, seeking approval for an irrevocable standing payment order (ISPO) of N300 million monthly in favour of Sydney Construction Nigeria Ltd for the construction of the six-lane road project.

The contract for the superhighway is N648.8billion, according to the letter to the lawmakers, signed by the Secretary to the Cross River State government, Tina Agbor.

The ISPO would be drawn from the state government account with the United Bank for Africa (UBA), the letter said.

The NGO, Rainforest Resource and Development Centre, in its reaction to the contract award for the superhighway, has written to Mr Ayade, pleading with the governor to have a re-think on the project.

“Kindly reconsider committing the generations of our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beyond into liabilities spanning up to 180 years for a road project that certainly will not last up to 180 years without the persistent demands for expensive and comprehensive maintenance,” the group said to Mr Ayade, in a letter signed by its executive director, Odey Oyama.

The group told Mr Ayade that there was no public documentation of the process leading to the award of the contract award to Sydney Construction Nigeria Ltd.

They also complained that the state government refused to respond to its request for a disclosure of the source of funding for the superhighway.

“It is sad to note that our request was disregarded in contravention of the relevant provisions of the laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended,” the group said in its letter.

PREMIUM TIMES could not confirm if the governor has received the letter, as the government was yet to respond to it as at the time of filing this report.

“Section 39 (1) of the Nigerian Constitution guarantees all Nigerians free access to information without restraint,” the executive director of the NGO, Mr Oyama, told PREMIUM TIMES, Friday.

“The governor represents the people and government, and there are laws governing governance. And there are also laws prescribing procedure which you have to follow to award contract; you don’t wake up in the morning and say you are awarding this contract to company A or company B.

“You must advertise the contract and companies must bid for it, and this bid should be opened in the public.

“I am not aware that these processes were followed.

“We have not seen this superhighway project captured in the budgets of the state government,” Mr Oyama said.

Eric Akpo, a special assistant to Governor Ayade on technical matters, told PREMIUM TIMES that the claims made by Rainforest Resource and Development Centre were “false and completely wrong”.

Mr Akpo, whose office oversees the construction of the superhighway, mentioned various newspapers and the dates in which he said the bid for the project was advertised.

Nine different bids were submitted for the project, he said.

He also said the construction of the superhighway is in the budget of Cross River State.

The Cross River government conceived the superhighway and another multi-billion naira project, a deep seaport, as Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects.

Mr Akpo told PREMIUM TIMES last year that the superhighway is going to be an evacuating corridor for the seaport, majorly.

“You know, when the port comes alive, there is going to be constant industrial traffic going in and out of the port. And because the superhighway, as a private investment, is going to be toll, it is from this toll the investors will recoup their investments, based on the vehicular traffic generated by the deep sea port. So, the viability of the superhighway as a project is closely tied to the deep seaport,” he had said.

PREMIUM TIMES asked Mr Akpo on Friday if the latest funding plan for the project, going by the state government’s irrevocable standing payment order of N300million monthly in favour of Sydney Construction Nigeria Ltd, was not contradicting his earlier assertion that the superhighway was going to be a private investment in which the investor would recoup their money through toll.

“There is no difference in the projection that we intend to execute this project by investors’ funds,” the governor’s aide responded. “Even the investors’ funds are warehoused in the budget as prepared by this administration.”

“There is no confusion anywhere,” he added.

“The state government created something called Infrastructure fund.

“Four per cent of all accruals to the state have been going to this account by law for the purpose of infrastructure development. This is because while we are planning for this project, we also have a plan B. You keep asking yourself, supposing the investors’ fund would not come, are you going to drop this project or not? And even when the investors come, what is going to be your equity contribution?

“Cross River Infrastructure Company is the owner of the project, and would oversee how much is spent on the project, and how much the investors recoup, based on agreement, over a period of time,” Mr Akpo said.

Mr Akpo said the state was yet to receive any investor’s fund for the Superhighway, but that the government has signed preliminary MoU with prospective investors.

Environmental activists have continually kicked against the superhighway which they said would destroy several species of plants and animals and also displace the indigenous people of the areas where the road will traverse.

BudgIT, a civil society organisation in Nigeria, in 2017, claimed it could take Cross River over 100 years to recover the construction cost, if the state government goes ahead with the construction of the superhighway.

BudgIT had put the construction cost at N200 billion which is by far lower than the N648.8billion contract sum.

“The truth is that Governor Ayade achieves a lot through some unorthodox means, and people are resistant to change they do not understand. I think people prefer to live with the notion that Cross River does not have money, therefore you cannot do this, you cannot do that,” Governor Ayade’s aide, Mr Akpo, said, adding that the construction of the superhighway was “going on as we speak”.

“This is a state with the second most indebted states in the country and second lowest in terms of federal allocation.

“If the governor is able to pay workers’ wages and meet all other liabilities of the state, and at the same time be buoyant enough to stand up and say he wants to execute projects, somebody should be asking with all these things the man is doing, where is the money coming from? Is he taking a loan?

“He is not requesting for approval for a loan, he has not borrowed money ever since he came into office. He doesn’t even intend to borrow money because the Cross River state government does not even have legroom by the debt management office to obtain a loan from any bank,” Mr Akpo said.

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