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New bridge in Nigeria raises hopes, resentment with locals

LAGOS--Sometimes a bridge is more than just a bridge.

After years of delays and empty promises, Nigeria has finally begun work on a new bridge across the vast River Niger, connecting states in the southeast to major commercial hubs in the southwest.

Many of the Igbo ethnic group that dominates in the southeast have applauded the project as a crucial step toward improving trade and travel between two of Nigeria's most populous regions.

But others have charged that the bridge was delayed as punishment to a people still persecuted more than four decades after a civil war that followed the southeast's attempt to secede.

They charge that the project has been launched now merely to improve President Goodluck Jonathan's political fortunes as he heads toward an expected re-election bid less than a year away.

“This project is very dear to the people of the southeast,” Anambra state spokesman Mike Udah said of the proposed 1500 meter bridge project which broke ground last month.

The existing River Niger overpass, built in 1963, is decaying and cannot cope with the massive flows of traffic between the southeast, which has a population of roughly 50 million, and the major cities of the southwest, including Lagos with some 20 million.

Crossing the current bridge has become a hellish experience with “excruciating traffic,” Udah said.

The new structure being built by the German construction firm Julius Berger at a projected cost of 17.8 billion naira (US$108 million dollars, 78 million euros) has the backing of many economists.

Regardless of how people in the region feel about their government, Udah, an opposition party member, urged southeast residents “to put politics aside and support the president to ensure the success of this laudable project.”

Hardliners in the southeast said they were not persuaded that the president was working in their interest.

“The project is a drop in the ocean,” said Madu Uchenna, spokesman for a group pressuring for southeastern sovereignty. “It cannot make us forget the injustice and marginalization of our people by the Nigerian state.”

Writing for the widely read Sahara Reporters news website, columnist Frank Onia suggested the new bridge would have been built years ago if not for an official, undeclared policy that calls for “holding down the southeast.”

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