By Helen Ovbiagele
Look, Helen, I hate to discourage you in this, but a write-up on this won’t yield any positive results here in Nigeria,” observed a relation when we were discussing the news item from South Africa about a court order to repair a bad road.
“For one, where would you get a dedicated group or an individual (devoid of self-interests) who would bring such a case against any level of governance, since governments are in charge of our roads?”
“We have credible NGOs and human rights activists who can boldly bring such an action against the government.”
“Their chances of getting judgment in their favour would be slim, because the judges who would hear their cases are government employees.”
“You mean our courts would never give judgment against the government even where the government is at fault? I don’t think that’s right.”
“In my opinion, outwardly the courts may seem to be neutral, but at the end of the day, they can’t force the government to comply with their judgments. We haven’t reached that level of national interests and enlightenment in this country yet. The courts haven’t gained their independence yet, in my belief.
”But go ahead with your write-up, it may inspire some citizens to organise to set up a body which can successfully sue the various governments for dereliction of duty which is injurious to our lives. Yes, if that happens, we may begin to see a change in government’s attitude to the welfare of Nigerians. Right now, they just don’t care.”
That relation may be right, still, I think the write-up is worth putting out, anyway.
Many years ago on this page, I said that the reason our governments are not much concerned about the huge potholes on our roads, and have a lackadaisical attitude towards road rehabilitation and maintenance is because Nigerians are very tolerant and would rather find a way to cope with the failure to perform of a government, than to take legal action against it.
A friend then cited some parts of California, in the United States of America, where workmen are to be found almost every week day, repairing the roads in one form or the other. On enquiry, she was told that there were special lawyers there for handling cases of damages to vehicles due to bad roads, and in many cases, the suits were successful, and huge claims were awarded the plaintiffs. The government had to find the money to pay, so, they decided that it was cheaper to keep the roads in good shape than to have to pay out claims.
“I’’ve heard of that too,” my relation said, “but that’s in the United States where citizens’ issues are sensitive and taken seriously by the government, and the judiciary has a lot of power. In Nigeria, even if a judge has the courage to award costs against the government, who will enforce the judgment? I’’ve never heard of government paying out claims awarded by courts to individuals, or even companies or
NGOs. Have you?”
I don’t think I have, either. However in the South African case, it wasn’t about suing for money, but for road repair.
The news report on the internet went thus, ‘The Mpumalanga government was busy fixing potholes on Thursday, following an earlier court order that the road between Springs and Witbank be repaired.
“The provincial government is currently fixing that road as I’m talking to you,’’ Victor Khanye municipality spokesperson Ronald du Toit, said on Thursday afternoon. They said they would be done by the end of the day.”
This was after the High Court in Johannesburg ruled on Tuesday that the potholes on the road between Springs and Witbank, which also runs through Delmas and Ogies, be fixed within 72 hours.
The Society for the Protection of Our Constitution secured the court order against the mayor on Tuesday. Mohamed Vawda and Willem Harmse, both from the Delmas area, applied for the order after unsuccessful attempts at getting local authorities to repair the road.
They believed the road was in a poor state and that potholes contributed to a crash last week that killed two people.
Du Toit said the road was a provincial road and that the municipality was not responsible for repairing provincial roads. That was why the Mpumalanga government had taken over the responsibility to fix the potholes, he said.’
There was a picture of one of the potholes in question, and I must say it was a child’s play, compared to the craters that are to be found on the roads in Nigeria. The reporter talked of two people being killed on that spot. On our roads, it’s usually tens of people who lose their lives because the drivers of their vehicles were trying to dodge potholes on our highways. This is almost on a regular basis, not just a one off thing.
Our roads are so bad that anyone aspiring to rule, makes the issue a campaign promise. So far, we’ve always drawn blank. They come, they inspect the roads, and they complete their tenure without carrying out any meaningful rehabilitation or repairs; leaving the roads worse than when they found them.
Right now all over the country, road use in whatever form is a nightmare. I learnt that this is not limited to the southern areas of the country which is plagued by incessant heavy rains of the Rain Forest and Mangrove Swamps, but that in the Savannah areas of the north, roads are bad too.
We’ve been told that one of the major and very important roads in the country, the Lagos/Benin road which leads to the northern and eastern parts of the country, and the Cameroons, will need total rehabilitation. This will gulp money, yes of course, but the government just have to find the money to rehabilitate that road. No amount of money is worth the loss of a life, no matter how lowly placed that person is.
Our main problem is that instead of standing our ground and insisting that the government respect human lives and fix our roads, we would readily find a make-shift way, like driving through bush paths to get to our destination. As long as Nigerians do this, the authorities are not going to take seriously the issue of roads in this country. What are our lawmakers, corporate bodies, human rights activists, transporters, market leaders, farmers and even students, doing to ensure that the relevant government is prodded into action?
Though South Africa cannot be categorised as being 100 per cent Third World, it is nice to know that a government body in Africa can obey court order within the period given.
Maybe we need such a court order here in Nigeria to make our rulers fix our roads and protect the lives of citizens. But the question is, do our courts have enough independence to give a serious ruling against the government and enforce it?