By D. Kaiheneh Sengbeh (First published November 2012)
It took us at most two hours on Friday, November 2, 2012, to get to Monrovia from the sea erosion-threaten City of Buchanan, unquestionably one of Liberia’s promising economic hubs. Even the two hours included some stops, and by June 2013, I pretty believe it would take at most one hour thirty minutes to cover the same distance. As development reporter, I had been invited by the Ministry of Public Works’ Communication Division to accompany the Minister who was traveling to Buchanan to inspect the level of work done on the road so far. The road in question is very critical to the economic vibrancy of the country that is still dusting itself from the effects of a destructive war.
Buchanan is the capital of Grand Bassa County, Liberia’s fifth most populated subdivisions. Also the third largest city in Liberia, it is referred to as Gbezohn in the local Bassa language. As of the 2008 census, Buchanan has a population of 34,270 –16,984 male and 17,286 female. Named after Thomas Buchanan, cousin of U.S. president James Buchanan, who was first governor of Liberia, the city lies 70 miles (110 km) southeast of Monrovia, near the mouth of the St. John River.
Buchanan was popular with refugees during the Liberian Civil War as it largely escaped the fighting. Fishing is an important industry in the town which has isolated beaches and lagoons. Buchanan is the port for the dormant railway to the iron ore mines at Nimba, now being operated by world steel giant ArcelorMittal. Rubber and palm oil once were also shipped out of the Port of Buchanan, while Africa’s first iron-ore washing and pelletizing plant was opened in Buchanan in 1968.
The city, gradually being eaten up by menacing sea erosion, currently hosts the headquarters of multi-million investments including ArcelorMittal and Buchanan Renewables as well as some other major companies. This port city attracts thousands of people business people, tourists and serves as an ideal economic melting point.
Only a year ago, there was no rainy season since the war ended in 2003 when people of Grand Bassa and thousands of others commuting on that highway could not complain of how deplorable it has been. Marketers and commercial drivers faced the worst situations as their goods and vehicles got spoiled and damaged respectively. This caused transportation fares and prices of commodities to climb Mount Nimba, posing serious hardship on poor citizens residing not only in Grand Bassa but also in Rivercess and other regions that depend on the road for supply of goods and services.
As the marketers and vehicles owners/operators were astronomically charging for services due to the challenged they faced on the bad road, so were the ordinary citizens pressing the government to do something about the road because their poverty was increasing. Politicians picked up the situation and used the road rehabilitation as a campaign tool—whether or not they had the capacity to change the situation. But the pathetic state of the road remained so for years.
The first time I ever travelled the approximately 80km Cotton Tree-Buchanan road was in 2004. As a member of the Presidential Press Corp (still I am) — independent journalists assigned at the Executive Mansion by their entities to cover the Presidency—I was part of the delegation of Transitional Chairman Charles Gyude Bryant who was paying an official visit to Buchanan. Though it was not a rainy season period, it took us at least four hours to arrive in Buchanan, indicating how difficult it was to voyage on a dusty potholes-littered road.
I still remember that fateful date when distressed Buchanan citizens booed the Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia for being reportedly “corrupt” and not doing anything about the road. That was just few months when the war had ended and disarmament and demobilization of fighters were still taking place throughout the country. But they people didn’t care. What they wanted was a better road; so, Mr. Bryant, as head of the government had to swallow the pills.
Meanwhile hope for the Buchanan road would not come soon. It would come at least five to six years later when the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, backed by a Public Works Ministry headed by Samuel Kofi Woods, would make solid commitments to the people of Grand Bassa.
Research had informed me that the Buchanan Road was first paved in the 1960s by the Germans. It was designed by a German, Otto Buchamn alias Engineer Buchamn, and constructed by a company named Strabile. It was in good shape until a crazy revolution kicked off in the country in 1989, starting in Buutuo, Nimba County. During the 14 years of war that followed without maintenance, the only good thing that happened to the road was its disintegration and destruction.
Citizens along the road told me that fighting forces deliberately damaged the road by shooting on the pavement, and launching rockets and other bombs in the name of cutting enemy lines. That’s how they launched the Michelin Bridge (built in the 60s) in 1990. “They forced people to use diggers to dig holes on the road, to spoil it so that the enemies could not use cars to come on the other side with weapons,” an old farmer, James Garyezon claimed. These remorseless destructive treatments of the road turned it into a very deplorable condition, often becoming impassable during rainy seasons until time came for intervention in 2009.
In May 2009, the very month Minister Woods took over the Ministry, work began on the first segment of the road after President Sirleaf and Vice President Joseph Nyuma Boakai, World Bank representatives, Chinese Ambassador Zhou Yuxiao, among other dignitaries, launched the project. The road is being constructed with funds from the Liberian Reconstruction Trust Funds managed by both the Liberian Government and the World Bank.
In October 2010, the first segment of the road between Cotton Tree and Bokay Town was completed—paved—and there would be not more complaint of dust and mud on the road for at least 30 years, the expected lifespan. This sharply reduced traveling time on the road as commuters in vehicles spend minutes instead of hours.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her Public Works Minister Samuel Kofi Woods were the happiest during the dedication ceremonies as hundreds of Margibi and Grand Bassa Citizens celebrated the completion of construction works on the 10-kilometer Cotton Tree-Bokay Town Road. The delighted Public Works Minister described the completed segment of the road project to journalists as a “dream come true.” Several dozens of jubilating citizens and county officials converged in Cotton Tree (a small populated town in Margibi County, where the modern road begins) to welcome the President and to commend her for the meaningful infrastructure development. Hundreds of others including marketers, students, and traditional leaders and mask dancers gathered on the newly constructed Bokay Town Bridge (in Grand Bassa County) to also receive the President.
“This is one of our major road projects…this is my first time coming on this new road. I have heard so much about it, now I have the time to see it myself,” President Sirleaf told journalists in a brief interview. “I look at the bridge I’m standing on; it used to be one of those deplorable bridges. Now, we have a modern bridge and a modern road,” the President noted and asserted, “What can I say; I just thank the Minister of Public Works Kofi Woods and the road construction company.”
That was way there in 2010, but the President would even have more commendation to do in 2013, hopefully when the entire road is paved. Already, the people of Grand Bassa, and Buchanan in particular are very happy with the development, and I could see that in their faces on November 2nd when I formed part of the Minister’s delegation to inspect progress on the road.
Despite the unprecedented heavy rainfall of 2012, the Chinese construction company, CHICO, has not relented in making sure that the road is pliable year round. No wonder there is no noise this year about the road, as all types of vehicles are plying it with greater ease.
Briefing the Public Works Minister, CHICO’s Site Manger Song Lei, flanked by other top officials of the company, said the rainfall served as a major impediment to the company’s acceleration of work on the Buchanan road, but the company will work to meet deadlines. Even on the visit of the Minister, rainfall caused workers to halt their chores in certain parts to wait for the sun to return and dry the portion before resuming work.
The company is currently working on the second segment (55.86 km) of the Buchanan road which stretches from Compound #1 to the Port of Buchanan, after successfully completing the first phase last year. The completed portion of the highway has been described so far as one of the best roads built in post war Liberia, and Public Work Minister Woods has vowed that the rest of the road will fall in line, pressing the Chinese company to build nothing but a long-lasting road of international standards.
CHICO commenced working on second portion of the road on May 6, 2012 and is expected to complete the project in June next year in line with the contractual agreement, but the heavy rains this year has posed a challenge in the usual acceleration of the company’s work. CHICO’s Site Manger Song Lei briefed Minister Woods and his delegation that the height of the average rainfall over the last nine years has been about 600 millimeters, with 2011 hitting 698 millimeters. In 2012, rainfall climbed as high as 972 millimeters, and even in November the rains is still falling.
CHICO said in order to speed up the work it increased the number of major equipment from 36 to 50 pieces and is paving the road respectively from two ends, with officials hinting this writer that the pavement from both ends will be connected before the New Year, if the rain does not continue falling as present.
Woods has strongly called for quality and commended the people of Bassa for their support in the construction of a new Buchanan road. “I am more excited about the anxiety of the community; I’m impressed by the citizens and their excitement about the road,” said Woods. He said the road will open up a lot of opportunities in Grand Bassa and adjacent counties.
“It will create the condition for more jobs; more services and companies will come in here because of the access; transportation cost and the cost of goods and services will reduce; the cost for maintaining vehicles will also reduce and the vehicles will last long. Education will improve, health services will improve and people will live longer because they have access to good healthcare,” he said.
As we departed Buchanan for Monrovia, looked behind me as saw dust spewing into the air, but in about 40 minutes, I felt the vehicle balancing on a smooth pavement and that there would be no more dust and rocking until I disembark at my destination. Indeed, Buchanan road is taking a modern shape, and by June 2013, I can’t imagine how sweet it would be traveling on that once deplorable and near-inaccessible road. Contact: +231886586531, firstname.lastname@example.org