(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Repairs start on vital bridge

[Cameroon] Wouri bridge.
Jo Foster

The Anglophones of southwestern Cameroon have lived in an uneasy alliance with the Francophones that dominate the rest of the country since 1961, but the heavily used bridge that joins the two communities together in the port city of Douala is on the verge of collapse.

Built in the 1950s, the 1 km-long road and rail bridge over the Wouri river is overloaded with a perpetual traffic jam of passenger trains, trucks, buses, taxis and motorcycles.

The foundations of three of its supporting pillars have been washed away by strong tides, leaving the concrete struts hanging free.

The bridge carries nearly half of Cameroon's exports of cocoa, coffee, timber, rubber and bananas from the anglophone Southwest of the country to ships waiting at the quayside on the south bank of the river.

Thousands of commuters also cross the bridge every day from the large residential suburb of Bonaberi on the north bank to the centre of this city of 1.5 million people.

But this sole crossing point over the Wouri river has become so overloaded and degraded that parts of the roadway bounce and vibrate as heavily loaded trucks lurch across its pot-holed surface.

"That bridge is the heart of Douala," said Bodo Helaras, a technical manager in the port. "But it is old and in such a state of disrepair that it is dangerous," he added.

Now however, something is finally being done to solve the problem.

Public Works Minister Dieudonne Ambassa Zang announced in December that long overdue repairs, costing an estimated 13 billion CFA (US$25 million) were about to start.

The repair work, which is being financed by a French government grant, is expected to take 28 months.

The minister also announced new measures to reduce the weight of traffic on the bridge and reduce congestion.

Taxis will shortly be banned from using the bridge. Instead, commuters will have to board special buses of the Cameroon Urban Transportation Company (SOCATOUR) to make the crossing.

A further possible step, the minister said, may be to limit lorry traffic on the bridge.

Trucks carrying perishable goods such as food would be allowed to cross during the daytime, but others carrying less urgent loads such as timber, might only be allowed onto it at night, he suggested.

There had been rumours that repair work on the bridge would start at the end of 2002, but for the following year nothing happened.

Since Ambassa Zang's announcement however, clear signs of activity have appeared.

A floating pontoon has been put in place from which the construction workers will operate and an area of land by the riverside has been cleared to serve as a taxi rank where taxi drivers will be able to pick up and drop off passengers crossing the river by bus.

Heleras is relieved at these signs of progress, but like many others in Douala, he believes that severe congestion on the Wouri bridge will only be solved once the government builds a second crossing.

"There is no doubt they need another bridge," he said, maybe just a light bridge which could take the weight of the taxis. That would be cheaper for the government and would make a huge difference. If they don't (build it) there will always be a problem."

Camille Komendi who runs a trading company in the port, told IRIN that it takes him at least 45 minutes each morning and more than an hour each evening to travel the across the Wouri bridge.

"When heavy lorries pass my small car you can feel the bridge shaking. It's quite frightening," he said.

Tata Nyamnsai, a taxi driver, said traffic accidents on the bridge can sometimes extend the delays to two or three hours.

All three men agreed that the only long-term solution was the construction of a second bridge. "This bridge is too small" said Nyamnsai, "the government should build a second bridge, but they tell us it is not in the budget".

Komendi said that without such vital investment economic growth and the prosperity of Douala, which is Cameroon's largest city, could be threatened.

"It's really going to disturb the economic activity in Douala port and when this work starts in the next few months it's going to get serious for the exporters and businessmen like myself who rely on that crossing," he said.

Economists reckon that 45 percent of Cameroon's entire exports have to cross the Wouri bridge to reach the port of Douala as well as most of the cotton exports trucked south from Chad.

These agricultural commodities shipped out of Francophone Douala come from the heavy populated Anglophone region of Cameroon, which lies just to the northwest. This area was formerly governed by the British as part of Nigeria. However, it voted in a 1961 referendum to join the rest of Cameroon, which had obtained independence from France a year earlier.

More than 40 years later, the two communities still sit uneasily together in this country of 15 million people. Its political fault lines often coincide broadly with the linguistic divide.

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