By Gambo Dori
IT was the Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Raji Fashola, who stirred the hornet’s nest. During a briefing session with State House Correspondents, after the weekly Executive Council meeting, in early November, the Minister was reported to have declared that “the roads are not as bad as often portrayed – the roads are not that bad”. The criticisms that followed these rather thoughtless remarks can only be likened to a tsunami. The social media, newspapers, television and radio all clogged up with the torrent of responses from angry, daily road users.
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Admittedly, the cities are well serviced by a network of beautiful, dual carriage ways complete with an array of scintillating street lights that can be compared to what obtains in many cities elsewhere, even in the more developed countries. Abuja, the federal capital, is a showpiece of good roads but try going out to any of the adjoining state capitals, be it Minna, Kaduna, Lafia, Jos, or Lokoja and you will be shocked by what the regular road user faces on these roads. None of these towns can be reached without personal anguish and severe stress on the vehicle.
Lagos the nation’s commercial centre and former federal capital is virtually locked up. The highway out of Lagos to the hinterland has been under construction since God-knows-when, putting commuters on the edge all the time. Our most disgraceful showpiece of a road had always been the one that is leading out of the port that causes perennial gridlock with all the attendant economic consequences. Another is the road to Badagry, a crucial one and outlet to Benin Republic, Togo, Ghana and other countries of the West African community. While reaching Seme from Lagos is always a herculean task due to the terrible condition of the road, the highway from there to Togo and on to Ghana is fairly smooth and can be covered without hassle.
Other cities in the country face similar lock downs. Even before the insurgency, the federal roads servicing Maiduguri, my home town, have been in a state of unimaginable disrepair. The international route to Gamboru-Ngala on the border with Cameroun that was commissioned in 1979 has been dilapidated for many years and though many contracts have been given for its rehabilitation, it remains in the same condition. The federal road from Maiduguri to Baga, through Monguno as well as the one to Biu, through Damboa, and also the one to Mubi, through Bama, are all in similar condition. Of course the main artery going into Maiduguri from Damaturu is no better. It is ditto for most of the state capitals.
The state of most of our roads, to put it rather mildly, is sordid. Important highways such as Abuja – Kano, Abuja – Lagos (through any route), have become death traps in many portions, taking tolls on the hapless lives of commuters through accidents and the new scourge- kidnapping. The toll extends significantly on the trailers and lorries carrying essential goods to all parts of the country. Goods are delayed due to the conditions of the road and those involved in accidents never even reach their destinations.
It is true that many federal roads spread around the country are now under some form of construction, and, or rehabilitation. The Minister of Works recently said 524 road projects are currently being executed by his ministry in various parts of the country. This should be a cause for celebration under different circumstances, but in this case it becomes a cause for intense introspection for the intense suffering and distress that would follow. Road constructions seemingly go on for ever. Work on the dual Kano-Maiduguri carriageway has been going on for over ten years. The Lagos-Ibadan and Abuja-Lokoja highways have spent similar stretch of years under some form of rehabilitation. The rehabilitation of Abuja-Kano highway that was flagged off last year has put any one using that road on tenterhooks, because since the work started very little grounds seems to have been covered. To worsen matters the palliative rehabilitation on failed portions of the road seemed to have stalled. The agony the commuters face daily to reach Kaduna, Zaria and Kano is excruciating.
I am a regular user of our airports and I am glad to observe that there had been some significant improvements in the overall aviation industry. At the least, to the ordinary eye, planes run smoother and the services at airports are markedly better than in the previous years. I was also a regular user of the rail when I was a youth in the 1960s and 70s. The last time I was on the Nigerian railway was when I took the Express (Up North) train from Lagos at the completion of NYSC in July 1977. I am yet to travel on the rail recently. However, those that have taken the new Abuja-Kaduna line have nothing but praises for the timely initiative. The praises would bound to redound on the Ministry of Transport when the Lagos-Ibadan line comes alive in the new year.
But it is a pity that there is no good news coming from the direction of roads construction and rehabilitation. It is all right to lament the unwieldy number of road projects and lack of funds to execute them in a timely manner. I thought we should be beyond that now. The Federal Ministry of Works is adequately staffed to face any road construction and rehabilitation anywhere in the country and I guess there are enough contractors ready and willing for the jobs. What is lacking, perhaps, is the willingness to do what is right. I have spoken to many stakeholders in the road construction sector and I come away with the impression that the matter revolves around funding and getting the needed amounts as and when due.
Over the years the Ministry of Works had never gotten the funds it needed and since roads contracts had continued to roll out year in year out, debts had also piled up. Now the Ministry is said to be owing contractors debts that it can never hope to pay at the rate of the annual budgetary provisions. The awareness of these problems have never been lost to the stakeholders, at least so it seems, considering the amount of work that has been done by the National Assembly to come up with a workable solution.
The National Roads Fund bill was passed in 2018 by both the houses of the National Assembly and if signed into law would have addressed the basic problem of funding. Besides identifying sources of revenues and an enabling structure to administer the funds, that is the Federal Roads Authority, FRA, the bill also envisaged the possibility of a joint participation between the private and public sector in the construction and administration of some of the roads. This should have injected a large amount of ready private funds into public works consequently freeing fallow public funds to attend to other needs within the sector.
The President did not sign the bill when it was presented to him last year, citing concerns from the Ministry of Works that the bill would render the entire technical workforce of the supervising ministry redundant, among other reasons. I guess the President wanted to see more thoroughness so as avoid what arose in the Ministries of Communication and Power when similar bills affecting them were enacted. Now that the National Roads Fund bill is back in the National Assembly we hope that the distinguished members will address those concerns raised and return a cleaner bill for the signature of the President.
The President will then have a historic opportunity of putting his signature on a document that would lay the foundation of sustainable maintenance of our roads.
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