January 2016, three months after the ground-breaking ceremony for a superhighway in Nigeria’s Cross River State, fewer than 50 men and women of the Ekuri community, carrying hand-made placards, stopped bulldozers from encroaching on their lands where a wide slope had already been cut into the forest.
Since then, protests, petitions with over 200,000 signatures, and a stop-work order from the federal government have put a temporary halt to what was supposed to be Governor Ben Ayade’s legacy project: a wienabled superhighway described as “a digital road for the 21st century”.
What went wrong? Why would there be any opposition to a road that the governor proposed as a mega-development for the people of the state? By all means, road development should be welcomed by infrastructure-thirsty Nigerians, and all the more so in the remote communities of Cross River State where the last remaining rainforests of Nigeria offer rich agricultural resources but there is no infrastructure to process, package or sell their products.
The governor’s dream for a superhighway starts at the yet to be built deep sea port in the state’s capital, Calabar, right in the Bay of Bonny between Lagos and Douala, Cameroon. From the deep sea port, the 260 kilometre road is planned to go straight north to link up with a not-so-super national and international road network, taking goods to northern Nigeria and neighbouring Niger and Chad. The major downside: the superhighway cuts through forests – some of which are protected under Nigerian law, are parts of a national park, or are inhabited areas. The initial plan envisaged a 20.4 kilometre-wide land corridor with 10 kilometres on each side of the highway. No official explanation was given for this humongous land seizure, despite the national highway code stipulation of a maximum 50-metre width for a buffer next to a tarred road. When pressed for answers, various government spokespersons gave vague and inconsistent responses about building new cities on the highway’s margins.
Clearing and logging began even before the state government published a notice of land confiscation in January 2016. By the time the people of Ekuri confronted the bulldozers, some communities had already seen their farms destroyed without notice or valuation. Learning about the potential loss of land and livelihood, more and more people started to ask questions and rethink their initial excitement about infrastructure development.
Some want a highway if it does not take too much, or all, of their land. Even the Ekuri people, having mounted the most visible and vocal opposition to the project, desperately need roads in parts of their communities. However, they want a simple two-lane road, a few kilometres long, which can be completed in six months with minimal impact to its forest.
Especially women are disadvantaged and likely to loose their livelihoods
Some are wary of not being compensated. Women are especially vulnerable to big infrastructure projects where having a voice at the planning table or in compensation schemes depends on land ownership. Although women are responsible for most of the farming activity and for the sustainable use of forest plants for food, medicine and related trading, they are less likely to inherit or own land. As a result, the first round of bulldozing cleared many farms belonging to women who tend smaller crops and have little clout.
Some do not need a new road at all: they have access roads but need electricity, water, health centres, business support, or their broken bridges fixed.
In any case, the cost estimate of USD3.5 billion that Governor Ayade announced seemed high for an already financially challenged state, and the scale of the project is immense – occupying a quarter of the state’s land surface and affecting more than 180 communities. Who would even ensure that the road would actually be built, and not abandoned like a string of other infrastructure projects all across Nigeria? The possible scenario of logged forests and an unfinished road made waves in social media and community conversations.
Megaprojects at the expense of the environment
Why not fix the existing federal highway that traverses the state in the same direction and repair the feeder roads that serve local communities, which could boost the local economy? Or consider options that leverage and link to regional and national infrastructure projects like the Calabar–Lagos railway to make Cross River the transport and economic hub it desires to be?
In March 2017, the government of Cross River State annulled the 20.4 kilometre-wide land corridor, reducing it to 70 metres, but kept the plans for the superhighway alive. It even issued an angry ultimatum to the federal government to approve the twice-failed environmental impact assessment (EIA) – a constitutional requirement for large-scale infrastructure projects – declaring that the state would otherwise go ahead without one.
Deep sea dreams in shallow waters
However, serious doubts about the feasibility of the superhighway project remain. Its business plan relies on transporting goods directly from the planned deep-sea port and generating income via tolls along the road. The catch: experts believe that proposed site for the port, which has a depth of 7 metres (falling to only 1 metre during low tide), is unsuitable for even modestly sized cargo ships. The competitiveness of a port there is also uncertain. The state already has an underutilised federal sea port, which is in need of an upgrade, whilst neighbouring Akwa Ibom State has approval to build a new port in a less shallow and more viable location, very close to Calabar. A transfer hub may be more feasible, but even here, competition from Cameroon is a deterring factor as the port in Douala already supplies Chad and Niger, and international funding has been directed to develop two additional Cameroonian ports in Kribi and Limbe.
The project's opacity, in terms of financing, project partners and even scope of design, is a big problem. Open data and a viable business plan are needed to reassure the public. The most basic questions have never been debated, nor answered. Who is supposed to fund this superhighway? What income would it generate to cover its US$ 3.5 billion construction cost and the cost of losing forests and dispossessing people? How many trees are being logged to make way for it? What do communities really want? How much would it cost to build and refurbish feeder roads and the existing highway in the whole state instead? What is the current state of the existing eco-assets? How will the investment be recouped? And how many tollgates will there be?
Big infrastructure does not necessarily provide development solutions beneficial to the population
Cross River State is in dire need of revenue. Having lost part of its territory to Cameroon, following the 2002 judgment by the International Court of Justice on Bakassi, and oil revenues to the neighbouring Nigerian state, Akwa Ibom, the superhighway and deep sea port have been pitched as its comeback plan. Given that the state ranks 4th and 8th in external and internal debts respectively in Nigeria, there seems to be no room for government financing. The governor has therefore already pointed out that this initiative needs to be led by the private sector.
However, a back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that, for the superhighway to break even, 1,000 vehicles, paying an average US$ 50 toll per trip, would have to trawl the road every day in both directions for at least a hundred years – and this is only possible after the deep sea port is functional. These are optimistic numbers, bearing in mind that, according to the National Association of Road Transport Owners, about 400 container trucks travel each day from Nigeria's busiest ports in the west to the north of the country. The Douala port in Cameroon, which offers major sea access to Chad, receives 700 containers daily. Compounded by the secrecy around funding, implementation and project partners, the business case for this project seems extremely hard to make.
A Need for Real Solutions
There are those who describe the superhighway project as a “logging scheme”, calculating how much remote and hitherto unreachable exotic timber it could make accessible. But even taking the superhighway at face value, big infrastructure does not necessarily provide development solutions that are beneficial to the population. Much of the lack of trust arises from the state’s approach to procedural matters. The authenticity of the proposed “techno x” is thrown into question when EIAs are done without consultations, when communities are not aware of the pros and cons of largescale projects, and when intimidation is used to try to silence critics. As a result, the rush to bulldoze – without a completed EIA, without consultations or even valuations for compensation – sparked off serious advocacy efforts and increased opposition to the superhighway. The curious inability of the state-commissioned consultants to correct procedural lapses before the third EIA hearing drew even more scrutiny from a public that is conscious that the governor's current term expires in two years' time, and that the highway would take six years to build.
The current stalemate, after three unsuccessful attempts to get federal clearance for the project, presents an opportunity to consider alternative development options that would balance economic, environmental and socio-economic needs. US$3.5 billion is a lot of money in these parts, and is greater than Nigeria’s 2017 budget for the ministries of works, power and housing, transport, health, and education combined.
The state should aspire to develop in a far more inclusive and comprehensive manner, addressing power, transportation, and the needs of agriculture and other businesses while conserving the eco-assets of its mangrove and rainforests. The federal government recently launched guidelines for a “green bond” to “enable capital-raising and investment for new and existing projects with environmental benefits”. Considering that 70 percent of Nigeria’s remaining forests are in Cross River State, the incentives to make sustainable development choices appear to be strong.
This article was published in the publication Perspectives Africa #2/2017: "Putting People Back Into Infrastructure".
 Leadership Newspaper, March 11, 2017: Importers Pay N100b Freight Charges From Lagos Ports Yearly.