Will the Minister for works, Senator Nweze Umahi, gladden the hearts of Southeasterners  and embolden them  to travel to their homeland this Christmas? Or will he scare them away with potholes, craters and broken bridges?

Soon, in less than 25 days, it will be Christmas. Easterners, especially  Igbos, will begin their traditional exodus from all parts of the world to their Communities to perform pilgrimages of sorts, to reconnect with their umbilical cords. The  yearly visits have become more or less rituals, traceable to  time immemorial before the creation of Nigeria and before the first celebration of Christmas in Badagry, Lagos, 181 years ago.

Christmas in Badagry was the first in history to be marked in the territory that later became Nigeria in 1914 after the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern protectorates by the colonialists. Two West European Missionaries, Reverend Thomas Birch Freeman, a pioneer Methodist Missionary and Reverend Henry Townsend, his Anglican counterpart, are said to have organized the historic Christmas for the earliest freed  slaves and some newly converted locals on 25 December 1842.

Christmas is celebrated widely in the world to mark the birth of Jesus Christ whom Christians believe is the son of God. It is a period they use to particularly appreciate God for sending His only son to die to save humanity from sin. But for the Igbos, Christmas or these end-of- year visits means a lot more.  After a year or two of sojourning in far-away lands, they find it difficult to resist the urge to return to the homeland. Like mechanical vehicles, they drive home to refuel with energy and inspiration from their ancestral filling stations, to strengthen their entrepreneurial acumen and brother’s- keeper spirit.

This home-coming,  is so significant for many reasons among which are: family reunions,  search for marriage mates and celebrations of marriages, rest from the hustles and bustles of the year and  commemoration of festivals coloured with masquerades and dances . In addition, it has recently become a veritable season to organize and launch community development programmes and projects. In short, activities in  Igbo communities at Christmas turn into carnivals for various reasons considered too important to be missed by any “Nwafo” – true Igbo.

Unfortunately, not so much anymore as is now evident from the recent past. The lure to spend Christmas at home, has lately become weak, primarily because of bad roads and insecurity. Obviously,  road as a major infrastructure facilitates these movements.  Good roads help to improve citizens’ quality of life and grease economic activities. The Igbo, more than any group in Nigeria, take these advantages home every Yuletide. But in their current dilapidated and worn-out condition, roads to and in the South East have  become very difficult and challenging to navigate. Some of them have  become near impassable at several points, thereby negating these benefits.

Consequently, travels to destinations now take three to four times their normal durations. Vehicles get  knocked and damaged, sometimes abandoned in the middle of nowhere to the mercy of robbers, bandits and terrorists. For instance, a journey to Umuahia from Abuja – a distance of about 700 kilometers which would normally take nine and half hours – now takes about 14 to 16 hours, depending on the type of car used.

The increased wave of insecurity occasioned by clashes between sponsored non-state actors and federal and state security agencies is  another reason going home at  Christmas and embarking on such end-of-year visits, have become  less attractive and  a risky venture.

Considering other benefits of good roads, including improved connectivity between other parts of the world and homeland, attraction and  repatriation of investments, free flow of products and services, as well as  increased  economic stability and quality of life, the call for the rehabilitation, reconstruction and construction of strong, paved roads to the east can therefore not be overemphasized.Their rehabilitation will consequently  go a long way in  restituting  the confidence and desire  of Igbos to revive their waning  homeland spirit.

It is in this light that the appointment of Senator Nweze Umahi as the Minister of works by President Bola Tinubu has ignited hopes of redemption among the Igbos, nay, Easterners that  Christmas 2023  may be a turning point for their demoralized homeland spirit. Chief Umahi, himself, a core Igbo and an  astute politician was former Governor of Ebonyi State,  His deployment to the works ministry by President  Bola Tinubu is an absolute testimony to his transformation of Ebonyi into a modern state through the provision of infrastructure in various departments of that state’s economy.

Any wonder then that his appointment raised the hopes of many Igbos and euphoria for the revival of the mass return. As a key  agent of Mr President’s “Renewed Hope”  mantra and the first Igbo in recent history to be appointed to the portfolio, the big question many are asking  is:  “will the roads leading to and in the east be built, now that our son is in charge. Or will he leave them in their current ruinous and parlous state?

The Minister shows keen awareness of the state of the roads in the South East, as well as other parts of the country. He is also aware of  expectations from his kinsmen to make a difference in his administration of road infrastructure in the region this time around. For instance, at one of his meetings with contractors handling road projects in the six geo-political zones of the country, the thoroughbred structural engineer admitted as much.

“I shed tears for the kind of hardships our people are enduring. I travelled through the roads myself and I was brought to tears by the pain our people are experiencing… I was glad that I experienced the hardships firsthand” At another meeting, where he got emotional, he added, that there was  no evidence of good roads in the South East.

His other statements that ”  we will get it right. The time to do a good job is here. If you were doing a bad job before, this period is not for you. We must work 24 hours to do a good and acceptable construction that will last.” This evidences his strong commitment to deliver on his mandate.

The Federal government recently allocated four hundred billion naira (N400billion), for roads and infrastructure in the 2023 supplementary budget, but the Minister says over seven trillion naira,(N7trn), will be needed to reconstruct Southeastern roads.

The-Enugu-Abakaliki-Ogoja, and the Amawbia-Ekwulobia-Nnokwa roads are among the 20 road construction projects across the six geo- political zones recently billed for dualization  at the cost of fifty-eight billion Naira (N58 billion), while sources at the Federal ministry of works add that N8.4billion has been allocated to the rehabilitation of highways in the Southeast.

Additional statements made and actions taken by the Minister on the roads, seem to be thawing the doubts in the minds of Southeasterners and reassuring them that the roads will be built. For example, while inspecting the state of the roads, he  directed contractors handling road projects in the region to redesign them and to use concrete to complete the remaining dilapidated sections.

Again, the prompt attention the Minister gave to the collapsed fly-over bridge at the Enugu end of the Enugu- Port Harcourt expressway is another indicator that he will rise up to the expectations of the people of the Southeast. It demonstrates his sensitivity to the pains of users of the road which links Rivers, Cross Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Delta and Edo states would have experienced if they dared travel the route this December in its damaged state. Already, palliative work has  begun on the bridge. Full reconstruction of both of its lanes has been slated for the middle of December. Following the development, an elated Governor of Enugu state, Dr. Peter Mbah  praised Chief Umahi for quickly mobilizing for the repair of the failed bridge immediately it collapsed.

The Governor recalled that  the Minister visited the bridge within 48 hours of its failure, to demonstrate his preparedness  to walk his talk in respect of building and reconstructing eastern roads. Bad roads have been the major worry of Igbos since the end of the civil war. Major arteries destroyed during the unfortunate conflict have remained so, more than 60 years after the war. It is one of the major reasons Igbos feel marginalized and have not trusted the leaderships of the Central governments since the return to civilian rule in 1999.

Some political analysts have propounded that President Bola Tinubu, appointed an Igbo to the  prominent ministry of works as a strategy to win the confidence and support of the Igbos who barely voted for him in this year’s general elections. There is little doubt that if roads in the South East are rehabilitated, reconstructed and constructed by the Tinubu administration, many Igbos will review their assessment and perception of Mr. President and the All Progressive People’s Alliance, (APC).

Until then, the question in the hearts and mouths of many Easterners will remain ”  Will Umahi mar, or, make our roads”?

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