By Josef Omorotionmwan
THERE must be an outbreak of Keynesian economists in Nigeria. Suddenly, they are showing up on the idea of our tolling policy.
John Keynes (1883-1946) was a classical economist who had a soft spot for full employment. For him, the people must be employed, even where it meant getting them into what might ordinarily look like the absurd cycle of pit digging: Let a group of youths be engaged to dig a big pit. They would be paid for their labour. You would then engage a group of youths to refill the pit; and these would also be paid for their labour. Society could continue this exercise of excavating and refilling the pit for as long as it puts disposable income in the hands of otherwise unemployed youths.
This is more like what we are doing with our tolling policies, except that the motivations are totally different – Keynes had an ultraistic vision of full employment for the people; but in Nigeria, it is simply a case of ineptitude fuelled by corruption.
Towards the dying days of the Goodluck Jonathan Administration, the idea of re-introducing toll gates on our roads became attractive. Today, it is really on the front-burner.
It is instructive that the same PDP Administration that abolished the toll gates also started the agitation for the re-introduction.
It would be recalled that Nigeria operated toll roads for several years before they were abolished in 2004 during President Olusegun Obasanjo-led Administration, because of alleged legal disputes, revenue leakages and unmet promises of applying the revenue from toll collection on the maintenance of the roads.
In spite of the tremendous benefits accruable to the system in many parts of the world, the tolling regime in Nigeria has ended in a fiasco with many unintended consequences.
The first tolling regime came at the middle of the so-called oil boom and, like many ideas of that time, the policy was hopelessly mismanaged. At a point, it was another job for the boys, meant to prosecute the spoils of office.
For the government, there were toll gates. Along side the toll gates, there existed Police and Customs trap-gates, where motorists were bled to their bones. If you had a fairly good car, as soon as you passed through the toll gate, you were pulled aside for further interrogation by men of the Nigeria Police and the Customs, where you must have the history of that car at your finger tips. It didn’t matter to them that you had never been to Detroit where the car was made, extortion was their sole mission.
Where the carcass is, there the vultures go. In the last tolling regime, the toll gates attracted many ugly sights. They soon became trading posts for retailers of all sorts. That was how they became garbage dumps together with the attendant unregulated toiletry and everywhere stank like the toilet where you must hold your nostrils together.
Besides, the entire precinct of the toll gates soon became a veritable rendezvous for beggars of all descriptions, including the “Babi-Allahs” and the leprous.
At first, it was reckoned that the presence of the toll gates would be an added advantage to our security system. The thinking was that armed robbers were likely to operate unhindered in a free stretch of road without occasional stops. But the strength of this argument soon became its weakness, when the same toll-gates became hideouts for the armed robbers.
On the economic side, the toll gates soon became drain pipes. At the peak of it all, some of the toll-gate attendants even became richer than the Federal Government. They were alleged to have printed their own receipts – they would issue 20 of their own receipts to the unsuspecting motorists before issuing one government receipt.
It is too early to forget the ordeal of Nigerians at the toll gates, particularly during festive seasons. At the Asaba end of the Asaba-Onitsha bridge, traffic jams extended beyond Okpanam and Iselle-Azagba junctions; and at the Onitsha end, the traffic build-up became mixed with the market crowd. The bridge was clogged up. On occasions, people slept and spent their yuletide on the road. Journeys that were planned for some four hours spilled over to four days.
We have attempted here to highlight some of the obvious pitfalls that characterised our previous tolling regime. In the re-introduction bid, government must demonstrate the will to remedy the obvious anomalies that beset the previous toll gate administration while assuring the citizens of their safety and security on the highways.
We must quickly set up a viable committee of credible and concerned citizens who should be empowered to manage and oversee the administration of the funds from the toll gates. Such appointments must be devoid of political colouration as the road users who pay the tolls cut across party lines.
This time around, the indices of corruption and lack of accountability must be properly taken care of. We must avoid the situation where the Police and Customs Officers use the toll gates as bases for the extortion of innocent motorists.
Never again shall we allow the toll gates to be used as criminal hideouts. The activities of night marauders must be checked; and so must hawkers and beggars be constructively prevented from turning the toll gates to markets and refuse dumps.
From the experiences of other lands, toll gates must have along side, facilities where travellers could ease themselves and possibly rest a little before continuing their journey. Modern toiletry must not be free to air.
Democracy does not exclude the roads. This entails that government must provide an alternative to every tolled road. It is left to the motorist to do his cost-benefit analysis and decide for himself which way to take.
Most of our highways are in a deplorable state. The present move to get funds to maintain them from tolling is worthwhile but this time around, they must be meticulously handled so as to avoid the pitfalls of the past.