Since I was inducted into this hallowed profession, I have tried as much as possible not to join issues with people, especially on matters that directly impinge on my sense of judgment or where I have an interest. At least such stance has enabled me to comment fairly on a number of issues on several occasions without imputations of sordid motive. How the reader sees this current issue however depends on which angle he views the prism.
I spent part of my 2007 leave with my family at home. When we went to visit my late stepmother who was always fond of us, she went into her inner room and brought out an exercise book containing list of debtors. She told me that my wife owed the women of Ozizza community two thousand naira. It came as a shock to me. Then I looked her in the face and retorted: for what? She explained to me that all the women in Ozizza were levying themselves to tar the six kilometre stretch of road leading from Mater Misericordiae Hospital Afikpo to Ozizza beach.
I was nonplussed and befuddled. It was an audacious thing to do by anybody—and especially of all people women—in an age when patriotism is waxing cold. For a moment, I was lost for words, I could not understand, and I decided not to ask further questions. I drew out my wallet and handed her the two thousand naira.
Recently, I visited home again. As I boarded Okada from Eke Market and made my way down to Ozizza, I met a mammoth crowd of women clutching shovels, pickaxe, head-pans etc. some strapping their children on the back. Even pregnant women and nursing mothers were not left out. All hands were on deck. The tarring had begun, all women both at home and abroad had been mobilized, and they say it is “no retreat, no surrender!” I envied them for their gut and courage in borrowing, sacrificing and denying themselves the barest comfort for the good of the community. What has never been seen anywhere in Nigeria is happening at Ozizza, live!
When I came back, I could hardly sleep. I was agitated in spirit as questions upon questions raced through my mind. Why should a collection of peasant women who scratch daily to eat, who can hardly afford the fee for their children’s education, elect to place the burden of tarring public road, state and federal road that runs into hundreds of millions of naira, on their brittle and battered frames? Why should women, enfeebled by life’s vicissitudes, dare to do what their male counterparts tried but failed? What is it that moves them? Do they know that tarring a road is not breastfeeding? Or is it overbearing hubris? Questions and questions!
However, it might seem obtuse of me to comment on the Ozizza road at a time everyone appears to have been anaesthetized, when people speak of it in hushed tones for obvious reasons. But the Ozizza road is like a covered sore; it has to be opened so that the invigorating and scintillating powers of air and the sun can heal it. That is why I write, albeit with mind unsullied.
For the record, contract for the construction of the Ozizza road was awarded to Bayview Nigeria Limited in 1997 by the Ebonyi State Government during the administration of Walter Feghabor. Bayview is a company owned by Omezue Emmanuel Azu Agboti, a politician and businessman who represented Ebonyi South Senatorial zone in the National Assembly from 2003-2007. But disturbingly, since 1997 when the road was awarded till date, not even a shovel of sand has been tipped on that road by Bayview. And yet, the contract sum has not only been paid fully by the Sam Egwu government when the going was good, but has been reviewed and the variation completely paid.
I was going through my past collections of Afikpo Today magazine the other day and I stumbled upon the 2006 edition where Senator Agboti spoke on the Ozizza road. The comments were not only laughable but equally lamentable. Laughable because there was not a grain of truth in it; and lamentable because the views he canvassed were not only pedestrian but revealed the extent of moral decay in our society. As absurd as the views were, I will restrict my comments on the issue at stake.
Let me quote him in the interview:
‘There was hunger in the land when I got that contract and I told him (his engineer, Omezue Eze O. Eze) to divide the gutters in such a way that each family gets something, and we were awarding them at above prices that we should award them”
I must say, however, that Agboti’s magnanimity is never in doubt, and I thank him for playing Joseph in the land of Egypt! But for God’s sake, who made him chairman of Poverty Eradication Programme? Even if he was, what is the propriety and morality of diverting money meant for road construction into poverty eradication, to the extent that, as in economics, the forces of demand and supply were not followed? From the above, the distinguished Senator implied that each family in Afikpo got a piece of the action. How many families in Ozizza got his largesse, by the way?
Let us hear him further, and I quote him again.
“At that time when you go to the market, anybody carrying fish or yam they say it is Agboti’s money. When we were building that road, I used to sign blank cheque so that work could continue.”
This is stupid. What is Agboti trying to say? That he was careless with the money? If construction of the road was not programmed to fail from day one, or not planned as conduit pipe, how can someone whose name is at stake, who says he means well for his people, give blank cheque to his workers for them to fill in the blank space and withdraw whatever amount that tickled their fancy? What has happened to accountability? Did it never occur to him for once that one day he would be called upon to account for it, if not to man but ultimately and inexorably to God? But let us not judge, as it is said, that we may not be judged!
Obviously referring to Ozizza people and other men of goodwill who are urging him to construct the road he concluded:
“They don’t even know how I got the contract. They didn’t give me the job because I was your son.”
Herein lies the flaw in the granite!
Whichever way he may have gotten the contract and for whatever deal, or condition, it does not matter. If it was not because he was our son, he should have done it first and foremost because he is our son. If it was not for profit motive as in every business deal, he should have done it because it was a contractual obligation to which he had willingly staked his honour, and for which he could be held liable.
I disagree with him that the road was not given to him because he is our son. It was actually given to him because he is our son, because he is from that area and because as a prominent and well-heeled son he was perceived—whether rightly or wrongly—as capable of doing the job without running away with the money.
I recollect that in 2001 His Excellency the Deputy Governor of Ebonyi State, Engr Dr. Emmanuel Oko Isu, embarked on inspection tour of road projects in the state. As his Chief Press Secretary, I was part of the entourage. We visited all the road projects in the state including the Ozizza road. When the team sought to know why the Ozizza project was abandoned, a staff of Ebonyi State Ministry of Works who was part of the tour—may his soul rest in peace—told Dr. Isu that all the outstanding debts to the contractor including variations had been paid. And when the deputy governor wanted to know why the contractor could not be arrested or persuaded to go back to site, he was told, to the bewilderment of everybody, that he was “a friend of government”!
This is the problem. Jobs are given not because one is capable but because one is well connected in the government circle. When jobs are given because one is “a friend of government”, government will lack the moral capital to enforce its completion and according to specifications. When jobs are given to friends of government, it shows how unserious the government is. It exposes the level of decay and bankruptcy of leadership among our ruling elites and how far those in authority, whether politicians or civil servants, can go to subvert our collective will for pecuniary ends. And each time I look around, I see many other projects in the state abandoned and the money down the drain for the same reason that the contractor is “a friend of government”.
No doubt, Agboti could haveembarked with all good intentions to construct the road. But what baffles us is why after the contract had been reviewed upwards and the amount duly paid the job still remained abandoned. I am pained each time I ply the road. I am pained not because it has been made impassable by successive rains but because our only route to the outside world has become a subject of high level politics. I am pained, because that road has been awarded twice. First by the Sam Mbakwe administration and second by the Ebonyi State government. But twice our own compatriots lifted their heels against us.
Some people say we are making a lot of noise about the road, they volunteer an unsolicited advice: why not let a sleeping dog lie? But one thing they don’t know is that we have every right to “make a lot of noise” about the road. We are right to squeal and screech and squeak because we are involved. And our youth are right to vent their spleen and pent-up feelings. They may go on circus marches; they may haul insults and twigs because government has left them behind. What other weapon does one who is down have if not to shout and cry with the distant and forlorn hope that one day he may be heard and helped? And so we cry.
I agree with W.H Auden in his apothegms. “Narcissus”, he says, “does not fall in love with his shadow because it is beautiful, but because it is his”. We are sentimentally attached to the road not because someone failed in his contractual obligation but because the road that leads to the area that called us to light is gone.
However, what saddens me more is the Senator’s revised version of his story, which is more screed than sermon to me. Now he says that Federal Road Maintenance Agency (FERMA) has taken over construction of the road. It is unkind of him to say that, but if it is so, good and fine. Ozizza people are not a collection of illiterates who can hardly differentiate a handclap from a thunderstorm. FERMA, as its name implies, is a maintenance agency; it does not construct new roads but maintains an already constructed one. But let us even agree with him that FERMA has taken over the road, the question is: how does he refund the public money he had collected? That is the truth. Let us not make the mistake of thinking that that road is Ozizza road only. It only happens to lead to a place called Ozizza. It is the road for all of us, Ebonyians and any otherwayfarer or traveller who may have one thing or the other to do in that hamlet or beyond it.
The Senator’s good sentiments and deeds which have lifted his community and mankind are never in doubt but this unfinished business has left many jagged edges. As one who says he is deeply pious, he should understand the implications: that even though he has built a beautiful edifice or church for the faithful, with its cross and crucifix pointing heavenward as if kissing the blue ethereal sky, in no way does it attenuate or atone for the dent. My Bible tells me there is something called restitution, and you can only restitute when, out of a contrite spirit, “you pay that which thou owe”.
This is where I agree with the Psalmist: “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”! This is where I also agree with Thomas Huxley that “the ledger of the Almighty is strictly kept, and everyone of us has the balance of his operations on this earth paid over to him at the end.”
The sin of Jezebel, as every serious Bible scholar knows, was not necessarily because she coveted the collective patrimony of Naboth even when she had a bigger and more luxuriant vineyard than Naboth’s, but because, and mainly, she desired it without conscience, without consideration of his lowly estate. Today, that road may be our vineyard, and we loathe that anyone should deny us government’s good intentions.
As it is, I call on the federal and Ebonyi state governments not to let the sin of one man be on our heads, or be our ruination, rather, let them be our saviour. Let them stand in the gap for us. Let them look into the circumstances that led to the abandonment of this road project and take it over.
Our women are taxing and working themselves to death because of the foibles of previous administrations. All of them have responded to the Macedonian cry and are bringing all their widow’s mite to the altar of collective patriotism. Ma obughu mgbimgbi, ma obughu ose eru, ihe obu ma ‘bu! It is like a clarion call, like a call to duty. They know it is not enough, but they know also that in the dim lies a saviour, that there is a balm, not only in Gilead but also in Governor Martin Elechi. Ochudo, please help us.