By Pini Jason
THE seriousness and the power of any country can be gleaned from the quality of the roads it builds for itself. You can never be in doubt of America as the most powerful nation on earth or of South Africa as the strongest economy in Africa, once you leave their airports and hit their road! Driving on the roads of these two countries, for example, you immediately come face to face with nations that love themselves; nations that have respect for their citizens; nations that are sincere with themselves; nations that do not cheat themselves and nations that want to be taken seriously among serious nations. Have you heard of any scandal associated with South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup? No, you won’t!
In Nigeria, our roads also give a visitor an impression about us. With the knowledge of Nigeria as an oil-rich country and a pretender to the leadership of the black world and with the unmistakable swag of Nigerians wherever you meet them, you get a cultural shock once you hit our roads, especially the ones we call expressways! But don’t despair. Our true story awaits you—at the home of the Nigerian rich! Once you navigate the broken and waterlogged roads and the mosquito-infested overflowing gutters and make it to the home of the Nigerian elite, you are lost in splendour and opulence, so much that you would need to pinch yourself repeatedly to remind yourself that you are not in the home of a Saudi prince! Nigerians are Forbes-listed rich citizens of a very poor country, the only ones in the world richer than their country! That is the story told by our roads!
Last week, the House of Representatives held a four-day public hearing on the poor state of our roads. Making his presentation, the Hon. Minister of Works, Mr. Mike Onolomemen told the House that an annual budget of N100 billion to fix 35,000 kilometres of Federal roads was not enough, especially given that releases of funds come in trickles. He said N500 billion per annum is more like it! I agree with him! What we actually do is not to repair or fix deteriorating roads. Because our roads are deciduous, we are perennially rebuilding them! The quality of the roads is criminally poor! And we ignore the little cracks and potholes till they become gullies and yield major contracts!
Two unasked questions: There are two questions we have not asked ourselves. Have we been building the right quality of roads for our soil texture? Why do our roads collapse before they are five years old? On 28 November, on my way to Odi in Bayelsa, as soon as I hit a portion of what is called the East-West Highway, I realised how insincere we are to ourselves as a nation! Beneath a thin film of asphalt is sand, beach sand! In the same way if you scratched the surface of the Shagamu-Ore-Benin expressway with a spoon, you would immediately get red earth! These are expressways plied by trailers and heavy tankers!
During the public hearing, the House of Representatives disclosed that N4.14 trillion was appropriated by the National Assembly for the road sector from 1999 till date! Yet, only 35 per cent of the 35,000 kilometres of Federal roads are paved and a substantial percentage of it is in varying degree of deterioration. Ask yourself, when, since 1999 have we not cried and wailed annually about the deplorable conditions of Shagamu-Ore-Benin, Enugu-Port Harcourt, Enugu-Onitsha and the East-West Highway? We do not know whether the appropriated funds were released and whether even what was released was used for the roads or ended up in private pockets. If we are not a nation that steals from the right pocket and hides it in the left pocket, N4 trillion is enough to give us at least 20,000 kilometres of quality roads that last, at least, long enough for us to build other new roads.
I am sure that if we budgeted N4 trillion annually for roads we may still not have good roads. The Minister of Works made that salient point in an interview with Saturday Sun of 15 December when he said: “We need to tell ourselves the home truth. The way we go about road construction in this country cannot deliver good roads for Nigeria”. The reasons are obvious. One is that no serious country today develops roads with annual budget allocations. That is why the releases cannot and will never march the pace of deterioration or the demand for new roads. As the Minister of Works said, “Road development is not cheap. You need quite a lot of money”.
So, you either borrow a quantum of money to build roads and pay later or you are run over by infrastructure deficit! Secondly the present method of road funding is rife with endemic corruption. By the time the politicians who introduce the contractors and the civil servants who issue certificates for poor jobs skim off the contract sum, nothing is left to construct quality roads. That is why I say that we are simply lying to ourselves about roads!
PPP Strategy: The debacle of the Public Private Partnership on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway should not be regarded as an indictment on PPP as a strategy to increase our stock of quality roads. Rather, that was a sad commentary on politics of nepotism in the management of our economy. What we need to do is to engage a reputable international consultants to design the roads (don’t leave that to the concessioner or the Ministry) and give them to reputable private companies to build, toll and recoup their investment.
The design consultants must supervise the construction to ensure that it is in accordance with the design. That way, we can free our own money for other social sectors. Even if the Chinese who have a lot of cash and are looking for where to invest them take over, build and toll the road, it will still remain a road in Nigeria! I don’t care about who is the owner of LCC-and we should learn to care less about such things-but what they are doing on the Lekki expressway is the sensible way to go! We must not let the experience of the previous toll gates deter us. Government built those roads and the government in power used the toll gates for political patronage! The less you have in the hands of governments, the less the co-efficient of corruption!
But if the Federal Government, for reasons other than efficient provision of roads in Nigeria, insists on building “Federal Roads”, I insist that the maintenance of such roads be handed over to the states and the budget for their maintenance shared to the states on pro-rata basis. The Federal Road Maintenance Agency, FERMA, should according, be disbanded to save costs. The states are closer to these roads and will detect deterioration and effect repairs more promptly than anyone in Abuja who all his life have never or will never use the road unless on an inspection tour long after the road had collapsed!