The Cursed Bridge

If you grew up in Nigeria or spent any extended time anywhere there, you’ll eventually be desensitized to absurdities. Following the abduction of the Chibok girls 8 years ago, I wrote this response to a question on Quora effectively dismissing it as no big deal. You would have had to live in a tinted bubble for you to have missed a few street lynchings and burning of people for crimes they were rumored to have committed. It is difficult for me to be surprised about any degree of gore in Nigeria, while I understand that this is a complex problem to solve. A combination of trauma from military rule, fear-based religious teachings, uncivilized cultural habits, poverty, and more, ensures that events that should shock the nation are no longer newsworthy. 

Yet, Nigeria manages to blow my mind when it comes to certain issues. Granted, we face some tough technical challenges. For example, power can’t be that easy to solve, nor the FX problem, despite the general pile-on for Meffy. It can’t be easy to expand the government revenue base given the historical tax culture, and the combined factors of religion and culture mean that solutions to an exploding population like family planning will be a tough sell. With enough willpower, all of these are fixable, but they are not easy fixes. My real challenge with Nigeria, however, and what keeps me confused, are the really easy problems that are just somehow impossible to solve. I’m talking about problems that you can solve perfectly by walking into a random classroom filled with 10-yr olds across the country, handing a random kid a piece of paper, and having them sketch a solution. I’m not talking about simple problems like one-way offense violations in Lagos, which I wrote about here, or controversial issues like the merits of the NYSC scheme, which I wrote about here. I mean problems with commonsense solutions that perhaps only 50 of 200million people will consider controversial. A perfect example of this type of problem is unfortunately one that incurs a human cost: the Ojuelegba Bridge. 

There is nothing peculiar about this bridge except its physics. The math behind the design simply predicts with 100% accuracy, that at a given speed, with a given tilt, a moving vehicle of a certain weight carrying a certain load, unhinged, will topple because of the bridge’s incline. You can model this with perfect certainty on a computer. Yet, as surely as the sun will rise, no quarter goes by in Lagos without a heavy container truck toppling, most times crushing people in stationary cars beneath. In 2014, my route back from work included the 10-meter or so stretch of road where I must have seen crushed cars at least 3 times during the year, and any of those instances could have been my car. I dreaded that bridge, and I always thought that surely, it can’t happen again. Yet…

At some point, I started tracking the news about falling containers on the Twitter thread below till I got tired and gave up. So far this year, there’s been one per quarter. The Q2 2022 version happened today. 

After the first death, ask random ten-year-olds how to fix this problem, and they’ll blurt out possible solutions that might be silly by design, but they will be low effort, and they will guarantee that no more deaths will be recorded on that bridge. A 4-yr old might propose mile-high steel barriers on the tiny stretch where vehicles flip, following which we can laugh and implement 30ft barriers instead. A pre-teen might propose extreme and very public punishments for drivers and owners of low-integrity vehicles, e.g., multi-year jail terms for drivers and fines that run the vehicle owners out of business, or vicarious liability for law enforcement agents posted to police the area. You could literally implement any solution here while figuring out the engineering fix, and you’d have 99.99% of public support. Yet, for what seems like decades, people continue to be crushed on that same spot, quarterly. 

This is not incompetence on the part of the government, because the solution needs no competence. It’s not a money problem either, and it can’t be because they simply don’t care, since they’re genuinely trying to solve some hard problems. It’s just nothing else but confounding, and it’s the one thing in Nigeria I just cannot figure out. A similar example of this type of problem but with cheaper consequences is the existence of federal agencies responsible for facilitating religious pilgrimages. 99.99% of people agree they shouldn’t exist because it only benefits a few hundred people a year at a great cost. Since they can be abolished for both major religions, the executive can’t be accused of bias. Yet, these agencies continue to exist with permanent staff and massive budgets. It’s not incompetence, it’s just absurd, and it’s the type of situation that will forever surprise me about Nigeria. 

As the 2023 election cycle kicks off, I feel like we should park the hard problems initially and, as a filter, directly ask candidates to sketch out how they will solve very specific problems that have common sense, low-cost solutions. If I had a face-to-face with the Lagos State governor, I’d simply ask why he is not able to solve the Ojuelegba Bridge problem by the weekend. I can’t think of anywhere else where a vehicle will fall off a bridge due to design issues, claim a few lives in the worst of ways, and the exact same thing will happen a third time. Twice, maybe, but not a third time. It blows my mind every time. 

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