By Usman Babaji
In what looks like collaborative deceit and corruption, both the Federal Government and Taraba state have comfortably wasted over N36.3 Billion but failed to deliver the 230km Gembu road in Taraba years after it was awarded to different contractors.
Not only did the governments fail to deliver the road, but officials at both levels have also turned the road into a cash cow; siphoning billions in yearly releases while commuters continue to perish amid other socio-economic bruises.
In 2013, when residents of Mambilla Plateau heard that the 230Km Gembu Road was awarded for reconstruction by the Taraba State government, they shared a common feeling—excitement. They thought they could be at least connected to other parts of the State and even beyond.
Years after the contract was awarded, the Taraba State Ministry of Works and Transport dubiously claimed that the project was done, citing ‘the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation of the Bali – Serti – Gembu road’ as some of the achievements recorded in the State.
A publication titled, ‘Two Years of Gov Ishaku’s Rescue Agenda: So Far, So Fruitful’ in 2017 also claimed that Governor Darius Ishaku had completed the Bali – Serti – Gembu road, stating that driving on Gembu road, “is a one-hour smooth journey” and all trenches that were notorious on the road were also identified and repaired.
Similarly, Babatunde Fashola, the Minister of Works and Housing, had in 2021 disclosed that the Federal Government approved N20 billion for the reconstruction of the same road project.
The approval, according to Fashola, was in line with Executive Order No. 007 (Road Infrastructure Development and Refurbishment Investment Tax Credit Scheme) signed by President Muhammadu Buhari in 2019.
Moreover, on May 18, 2022, Mr Fashola announced that the federal government has approved another N95.232bn for the reconstruction of the Bali – Serti – Gembu road in spite of the N20billion already handed over to him as Minister of Works and Housing by Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).
WikkiTimes’ investigation revealed that despite these releases done at various times, the road remains in tatters and the residents continue to bemoan that their dream of getting a better access road is dashed away. The road as many residents fondly call it, remains ‘a Death Trap’. Men and women, young and old, share the pain of losses and tribulation that they can’t figure out as a result of the horrendous experiences they pass through on the Gembu road.
Alh. Awwal Labaran Village Head of Yelwan Gembu told WikkiTimes how his wife, Fadimatu Awwal died after a prolonged journey on the Gembu road while in need of urgent medication.
“She fell sick and we started going to Jalingo. We spent about four hours on the way and she died before we even arrived”. He said late Fadimatu left the family with a vacuum he believed would not be replaced.
Alhaji Amadu Idris Tela, the Imam of Kaigama Mosque in Gembu, has a somewhat similar experience. He began by recalling how he was so excited when Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto drove his car to Gembu in 1963, the first in the history of Mambilla Plateau – he was a boy of 15 then.
According to him, about 30 years later, the former Head of States Gen. Ibrahim Babangida tarred the road into asphaltic lanes up to Gembu. “It was taking us less than three hours to reach Jalingo (about 376 km away)”. He recalled.
He said that 30 years later, the formerly good road became a nightmare, wasting lives and property of helpless masses, making transportation agonising and the toughest in the history of Sardauna Local Government.
Imam Idris explained to WikkiTimes how he also lost his wife Aminatu Idris when her family members were trying to rush her to Jalingo for treatment after she fell sick. “We spent hours on the road; she died on the process along the road helplessly. It’s indeed painful”. He said whenever he passed through the poor Gembu road he remembers his caring wife.
The Cleric warned that the road is on the verge of being disconnected. “This road is about to cut off, in fact, we can’t forgive.” The Imam grieved.
The pains of being turned into a widower could simply be traced on the face of the Imam as he at some moments remains speechless.
“In the last 8 years, the people of Mambilla are in torment. The worst part of the road is from Baruwa (Serti) to Gembu (115). We used to get to Baruwa in two hours but now you may spend eight hours without reaching there.” He added.
Again, in 2021, Gembu residents became very optimistic when the Federal government approved the reconstruction of the road. As time faded out, they regretted that the promise like other ones appear fictitious.
Residents Lament As Hope For Access Road Dashed Away
Malam Sabo Idris, 50, a school teacher in Gembu said, only if something is urgently done, they will be disconnected from other parts of Taraba State and Nigeria; the consequence, he says, will force them to join the Republic of Cameroon.
“This is the only road connecting us with other parts of Nigeria. If the government fails to do something urgently, we must be part of the Republic of Cameroon. “The road is a hell”, he whined.
Malam Sabo explained that the pain the inhabitants of the Mambilla Plateau feel is obvious that everyone could see. “We spend about 10 hours before we reach Jalingo as a result of the bad condition of the road. In fact, the pains we feel are written on our faces and everyone can see it”, he explained.
JD Yaji, one of the members of the #FixGembuRoad# campaigners decried the road as worse than in its 80s. “Yesterday I drove up the hills of the Mambilla Plateau, all that the state of the road requires now is an SOS (Save Our Soul) Message. The difference between now and the 80s is the broken piece of gravel and chippings that are scattered on the road”.
The Imam, Malam Idris, and other residents of several communities in Sardauna Local Government of the State have one dreadful story or another to tell regarding the condition of the Gembu road.
Higher Prices for Goods as a Result of Transportation Intricacy
Alh. Awwal Labaran Village Head of Yelwan Gembu, said they pay for commodities at higher prices because of the escalating transport fares. “Transportation system is stressful here. And that is why our commodities are so costly”, he told WikkiTimes.
Sulaiman Abubakar, a businessman in Gembu town, also explained how the shabby condition of the road impacts the price of goods in Gembu. He stated that the transport fares businessmen suffer must reflect on the poor buyers, “you see, the goods we ought to pay like N1000, we are paying over N3000 because of the transport fares. And you must reflect it on the buyers by increasing the price of the commodity you sell.”
Apparently, the prices of commodities multiplied their average costs in other places. For instance, the mosquito coil was bought at N500 at Malam Abubakar’s shop against its average price of N150 in other places. “Anyone who passes through that road will certainly sympathise with us,” he stressed.
He, however, belittled the politicians representing their communities, saying “the road was constructed by a military regime, General Babangida, which they (elected politicians) now failed to fix it. We go out to vote on election days, but look at how they are treating us; very unfortunate.” He regretted.
Nigeria loses Due to the Lack of Good Road
Bali- Serti – Gembu road is the major highway in the Central Zone of Taraba State leading to the Mambilla Plateau, to the famous Kakara Highland Tea Company and the Federal Government Mambilla Hydro Electric Power Project as well as the gateway to the Republic of Cameroon.
It is also the route to the Gashaka-Gumti National Park, the largest national park in Nigeria covering 6,731 sq km of wildlife where flora and fauna are in thousands, as well as other beautiful landscapes full of aesthetic appeal – good for tourists attraction and for national income.
Malam Gambo Idris argued that “if this road was constructed, not only Gembu people, but Nigeria as a whole would have economically profited. You have seen sorts of animals here, and there is a Highland Tea Company in addition to the tourist attractions in this area.”
Yet, he said the socioeconomic misfortune they suffer as a result of the road makes one speechless. He noted that transporting their agrarian produce to market is not only pathetic but overwhelmingly distressing.
“it’s disheartening that Nigerian politicians are still campaigning with roads; these are essential and basic things we need not to beg for. Imagine, a military regime constructed a road which now civilian and elected politicians failed to rehabilitate, it’s really sad and shameful, isn’t it?” He retorted.
Kaigama Usman Kaigama, the Kaigama of Mambilla Land and kingmaker in the Sardauna Emirate, said the major problem of the residents of Gembu is the road. “Our major concern is the road”. He however stated that traditional leaders of Gembu are lobbying to get the road done”.
“We were told that the Federal Government awarded the project. We want this road to be reconstructed. For instance, now it was just last month we lost some of our people who were referred to Jalingo for treatment but before reaching there they died. This road is the only route linking us with other parts of the state and the country”.
The traditional leader stressed that they have enough agricultural produce like cows and other harvests, however, their transportation network is shoddy. “We have Mambilla Highland Tea Company here, we have pears, and pineapples, just to mention but a few.
WikkiTimes’ visit to the site of the project shows that the 115km Bali – Serti road was mostly done about a couple of years ago, yet some bridges remain unconnected, hence, forcing commuters to divert the road.
From Serti to Gembu axis (115km) of the road is really terrible. The countless potholes and frightening trenches on all sides of the road remained abandoned for several years. Due to the terrain of the Mambilla Plateau, some deserted holes are so terrifying; missing the road means waving a farewell to loved ones. “Most vehicles that dived down the trench had gone forever”, a source told WikkiTimes.
The copious vehicles trapped on the road and those being involved in one type of misfortune or another is the simplest thing one can see. Commuters and other road users are exposed to untold hardship on the terrific Gembu road – men, women, and children alike.
Terrified by the shock of a vehicle crash on the road that gobbled hundreds of lives, a female passenger onboard identified as Maimuna Isah told WikkiTimes that she has given up her life in a motor accident she had just survived.
“No life was lost”, she assured. “Due to the deep potholes on the road, the car had a break failure and we started scampering down the road. Knowing the dangers of missing the road, the driver turtled the vehicle and fell on the road, we thank God, He rescued us, see where it (vehicle) fell”. She demonstrated to WikkiTimes.
Another victim of the crash who was also reviving back his consciousness from the shock shared his experience with WikkiTimes. “I’m Vitalis Oboh, the road is terrible. We really saw danger. Thank God no life was lost. Actually, I thought I had gone.” Mr Oboh beseeched for the government to consider the plight of the people of Gembu.
He said taking Gembu route is a life-risking conclusion, yet no alternative. “This is the only road here, where can you follow else”?
Alhaji Awwal Ladan, the village Head of Yelwan Gembu said it is not a common thing to have seven consecutive days without a fatal road crash that would take some families into premature mourning for their loved ones, “some die at the spot while others die sometime after. In fact, we are suffering on this road.”
Zubairu Saleh Gembu, a driver said he can’t figure out lives being lost in a month from the gushing crashes on the road, “the road is terrible”. He stated that the road is their utmost challenge, and is more pronounced during the rainy season. “We lost so much on this road. Let the government come to our rescue.” He pleaded.
Yerima Usman also a driver, told WikkiTimes that he can’t figure out how many times they complained to the Taraba State Governor Darius Ishaku to come to their aid, but all remain in vain, and their hope dissipate.
“On several occasions, we complained to the Governor but the work was not done so far. His tenure is ending now. We were in unquantifiable pain for 7 years just because of this road.
Usman revealed that he lost a lot of money fixing parts of his vehicle that damaged as a result of the road, “I lost about N20,000 sometime in a week while occasionally in a day fixing parts of my broken vehicle,’’ he revealed.
Usman also warned that there is a segment of the road which is on the verge of being bisected by a large trough advanced on the road. According to him, if that happens, there would be no route for the entire residents of Mambilla Plateau. “Now, there is a portion of the road at AhlilKitab (a village along Gembu road) where a large pit is about to engulf the entire portion of the road there, and nothing is done so far”.
“I was there today and any moment from today, the pit can advance to the road and will therefore cut the road apart, especially in this rainy season,’’ the driver forecasted.
The Federal Road Safety Corps FRSC statistical digest indicated that 6,928 people were involved in road accidents in Taraba State in five years. Whereby 4,106 survived without injuries, 2,679 and 197 were victims of injuries and death respectively.
However, thousands of victims of road crashes; dead and living have experienced the tragedy of road crashes on the Taraba State highways without being documented on the FRSC papers.
Controversy on the Award of the Road Construction Project
In 2021, the Federal Government’s announcement of the reward for the reconstruction of Gembu road upset the Taraba State government. The state in a statement disparaged the Federal government for ‘unnecessary duplication of effort’ and for not being in touch with the people of the zone by re-awarding the project Governor Darius claimed to have completed.
In a statement signed by Governor Darius’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Bala Dan Abu, dated November 9, 2021, stated that “The Taraba State Government wishes to state categorically and for the avoidance of doubt, that this portion of the road (Bali-Serti totalling 115 Km) leading to Gembu, had earlier been awarded to PW Nigeria Ltd. and reconstructed through the initiative and funding by the Taraba State Government.”
Both the State and the Federal governments appeared to be deceiving the people and sending many commuters to their untimely death.
Despite Billions Paid, Gembu Road Remains a Nightmare
WikkiTimes has unearthed several payments running into billions made to different contractors in respect of the Bali – Serti – Gembu road. For instance, Taraba State 2019 Financial Statement released on 31st December 2019, revealed that a sum of N16,311,100,000.00 (Sixteen Billion Three Hundred and Eleven Million One Hundred Thousand and One Hundred Naira) as due from the Federal Government was already paid to PW Nigeria Ltd. out of the Contract Sum N18,214,711,149.33 (Eighteen billion, Two Hundred and Fourteen Million, Seven Hundred and Eleven Thousand, One Hundred and Forty-Nine Naira, Thirty-Three Kobo.
The N16,311,100,000.00 (89.5% of the contract sum) paid for the uncompleted 115 km Bali – Serti (50% of the project), can only describe how the money to the tune of N7,203,744,425.33 vanished in Taraba State Government under Governor Darius Ishaku who has been governing the State since May 2015. Total sum of the project was N18,214,711,149.33. Only N1,903,611,149.33 (10.5%) was not released out of the total amount.
Pie Charts Comparing the Percentage of Money Paid & the Road Project ‘Done’
The above infographic pie charts revealed that only 50% of the project was done despite the release of 89.5% of the funds said to be the total amount allocated for the Gembu road paid in Taraba State. This diagnoses that the project executed (50%) which still has unconnected bridges is not proportional to the funds released (89.5%) for the project as of December 2019.
Similarly, on 22 December 2021, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) handed over a symbolic cheque of N621.24 billion to the Ministry of Works and Housing for the rehabilitation of 21 critical roads across the country through the Tax Credit Scheme under the Executive Order 7 signed by President Muhammadu Buhari in 2019 whereas the construction of Bali to Serti road was on the list.
Instead of awarding the 115 km Serti – Gembu road which the Taraba State government failed even to glance at, Federal Government took the N20 billion (allocated to Gembu road) for the “recently completed” Bali – Serti road again, yet no contractor was seen on site as of the time WikkiTimes visited.
On that account, the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) alleged the unscrupulous moves by the state governments, the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing officials and desperate politicians to divert the N621 billion released for the reconstruction of the roads.
NUPENG insisted that the officials of these leagues were already dipping their hands into the fund and diverting them to roads already completed, contending that it has facts and figures to prove its case. The union in a statement bewailed that its members continued to be wasted as “sacrificial items” and that the wanton destruction of millions of public lives and property needed national attention.
“Officials of the Ministry of Works and Housing are going around showing pictures of roads done in June and August 2021 to justify payment made from the fund, which was approved in October 2021 for the identified 21 critical roads,” the three-page statement read in part.
Nonetheless, Babatunde Fashola who has been in charge of the Ministry since November 2015, claimed that the funds were saved in such a way no one can misappropriate them.
Sadly, despite the claims and the evidence of payments being tracked and analysed, WikkiTimes can authoritatively report that Gembu road remains in tatters. While Bali to Serti road was reconstructed with some abandoned bridges yet unfixed. The Serti – Gembu road axis remains a mirage; pathetic and continued to torment the lives and property of innocent citizens.
Ministries/Companies Ignore Requests For Clarification
Responding to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request addressed to the Taraba State Commissioner for Works and Transport, Ibrahim Hammanjulde, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry, Engr. Luntsi J. J. said the Ministry will respond to the request when they get the opinion of the State Ministry of Justice.
“We are in receipt of your letter www.wikkitimes.com dated 11/05/2022 requesting details on the contract awarded for the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Bali – Serti – Gembu Road and Bridges awarded by Taraba State Government.
“However, I am directed to inform you that the Ministry of Works will respond to your enquiry as soon as we receive the opinion of the Taraba State Ministry of Justice on your request accordingly please”, the statement read.
When contacted, Mr Iliya Bekyu, the Chief Press Secretary to the Taraba State Governor told WikkiTimes, “I am so busy, call tomorrow I will be in the office”. Mr Bekyu did not respond after several attempts the following day. He also ignored a text message sent to him by our reporter.
Weeks after, Taraba State Government officials did not respond to the request for clarification on billions that disappeared within the hoop of the people trusted by helpless men and women of the State.
The Federal Ministry of Works and Housing Taraba State Field Office, in its response to the FOI request initially addressed to the Federal Controller of Works in the State, Habu Musa PTO 1(Civil) on behalf of the Controller, stated that “I am directed to inform you that you are to forward your request/queries to the office of the ‘Honorable Minister’ of Works and Housing (HMOW&H) Headquarters, Mabushi – Abuja.”
The FOIA was forwarded to the Honourable Minister of Works and Housing Babatunde Fashola to among other things, make clarification on the N20 billion given to the Ministry, and on what interest the completed Bali – Serti part of the project was re-awarded to the detriment of the deadly Serti – Gembu road. Four weeks after, the request is ignored.
Also, a FOIA request sent to the Contractor of the project, PW Nigeria Ltd was also ignored as of press time. “Thank you for your email, it will be forwarded to the relevant person and addressed accordingly”, the feedback read.
All the key players and handlers of the road failed to offer WikkiTimes convincing explanations despite enough time given to them to respond at a time when the defenceless residents of Mambilla Plateau continue to record myriad deaths and other losses.
This publication is produced with support from the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under the Collaborative Media Engagement for Development Inclusivity and Accountability project (CMEDIA) funded by the MacArthur Foundation.