RIVER NIGER BRIDGE, ONITSHA:
The River Niger Bridge in Onitsha (also known as the Onitsha Bridge), Anambra State, Nigeria connects south eastern Nigeria with western Nigeria over the River Niger. It is linked to Asaba in Delta State, Nigeria. The River Niger Bridge was one of the landmark achievements of the first civilian government of late Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa before political upheavals interrupted Nigeria’s first republic in 1966, six clear years after she gained her political independence from Britain. The Niger Bridge was built in 1965 based on the Second National Development Plan of 1962-1968. The building of the bridge was the outcome of mutual political bargaining between the leaders of National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), the dominant political party in the eastern and mid-western regions and Northern People’s Congress (NPC), which controlled the Northern Region. Its construction had the official support of NPC and NCNC that controlled the Federal Government. The inclusion of the project in the 1962-1968 National Development Plan was the logical strategic policy of the two coalition parties, because the Midwest Region was considered as the periphery of the Eastern Region, which was a NCNC stronghold, as the creation of the Midwest Region in 1963 out of the Western Region gave a fillip to its construction two years later in 1965.
The primary aim of building the bridge was as a result of the Federal Government’s policy of expansion and upgrading of transport facilities in the country, in order to provide the necessary level of transport infrastructure to support the nation’s development programmes and also meant to integrate the economic fortunes of the Eastern, Midwestern, Western and Northern Regions.
This was also predicated on the nature of Nigeria’s economic demands to meet the changing needs of the time and also a response to the rapid growth of all sectors of the economy precipitated by the tremendous increase in the volume of domestic trade that took place in the country. Thus, there was a need to move heavy freight of agricultural inputs and outputs, merchandise as well as large numbers of traders, workers and commuters.
The Niger Bridge was designed by the Netherlands Engineering Consultants of The Hague, Holland (NEDECO), which carried out an investigation on the practicability of constructing a bridge across the River Niger from Asaba to Onitsha in the 1950s. French construction giant, Dumez Construction Company built the bridge in 1965, at the estimated cost of £6.75 million.
The bridge, at its completion, comprised eight by four hundred and twenty feet (8×420 ft.) with a designed carriageway of 36 feet centre-truss and consisted of pedestrian walkway at both sides of the carriageway. It was completed, commissioned and opened for traffic in December 1965 by the then Prime Minister, the late Alhaji Tafawa Balewa. The commissioning of the bridge was one of last public functions before his assassination on January 15, 1966.
The economic activities stimulated by the building of the bridge were not sustained for more than three years, as the bridge was destroyed during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970.
On August 9, 1967, Biafran soldiers successfully over-ran the Midwestern Region and made an inroad into the Western Region and attempted to take Lagos, the then Nigerian capital.
In October 1967, the federal troops recaptured the Midwestern Region and attempted to capture Onitsha, but it met stiff resistance from the Biafran forces while trying to cross the Niger Bridge. The federal soldiers’ continued advance from Asaba to Onitsha led to the blowing up of the bridge, at the Onitsha end, by the Biafran forces. This was meant to stop the federal troops from advancing into the Biafran territory. The destruction of the bridge constituted a major setback to the federal troops’ incursion into the Biafran territory until the war ended in January 1970.
The two spans on the Onitsha end of the Niger Bridge damaged during the civil war were replaced with a fourteen-foot wide bailey, at an estimated cost of 1.5million pounds.