Roads, roads ev­ery­where but none to drive on

Sunday Trust - - VIEWPOINT - ochima44@ya­ with Dan Agbese 08055001912 (SMS only)

The Na­tional Eco­nomic Coun­cil de­cided last week to ask the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to hand over the con­struc­tion and man­age­ment of some of its roads to the state gov­ern­ments. The states would then in part­ner­ship with the pri­vate sec­tor tackle those roads in their var­i­ous ar­eas. Splen­did.

On the face of it, it seems like a sen­si­ble de­ci­sion, as in, if-the-fed­eral-gov­ern­ment-can’t-we-can. The gov­er­nor of Ebonyi State who briefed state house re­porters af­ter the meet­ing said “Coun­cil was highly con­cerned about the fail­ure of our roads, even af­ter fix­ing them.”

The de­ci­sion was clearly taken be­cause of the mount­ing frus­tra­tion of the cit­i­zenry with the de­plorable state of our roads, fed­eral, state and lo­cal gov­ern­ment, through­out the coun­try. But the coun­cil’s sug­gested so­lu­tion to the prob­lem needs to be looked into much more care­fully. We must not rush into im­ple­ment­ing it lest in try­ing to es­cape the in­con­ve­nience of the fry­ing pan we find our­selves in a con­sum­ing fire.

The con­di­tion of our roads is scan­dalous and shame­ful. No news there. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment, the se­nior part­ner in the Nige­ria project, car­ries the larger por­tion of the blame. It would be fool­ish to con­test the fact that it has shown a low ca­pac­ity for the con­struc­tion and man­age­ment of its roads over the years. Yet, it votes a hand­some amount of money in its an­nual bud­gets for road con­struc­tion and man­age­ment ev­ery year. In­deed, an in­formed es­ti­mate puts what the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has spent on roads since 1999 at N1.4 tril­lion. So, why do the roads still re­main shame­fully de­plorable? Well, we are, as usual, lost in the blind thick­ets of abra­cadabra: the more you look, the less you see.

From the colo­nial pe­riod, the three tiers of gov­ern­ment had shared re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for road con­struc­tion and main­te­nance. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment is as­signed in­ter-state roads known as Trunk A; the state gov­ern­ments have re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for in­tra-state roads called Trunk B and the lo­cal gov­ern­ments were as­signed in­tra-lo­cal gov­ern­ment roads or Trunk C. This sen­si­ble shar­ing of re­spon­si­bil­i­ties ought to en­hance the per­for­mance of each tier of gov­ern­ment here. And it would mean that if each tier of gov­ern­ment did its part, we would have a good net­work of roads through­out the coun­try.

Sadly, this is not the case. As of 2015, there were about 200,000 km of roads through­out the coun­try. Trunk A roads ac­counted for 34,000 km of this im­pres­sive fig­ure. It means the bulk of our roads are trunks B and C and are squarely the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments. Nearly all of th­ese trunks B and C roads are as de­plorable and as im­pass­able as the fed­eral roads. If, in tak­ing this de­ci­sion, the gov­er­nors sought to cre­ate the im­pres­sion that they have done their part and proved their com­pe­tence in road con­struc­tion and man­age­ment, I say na lie. The facts would make non­sense of their sen­ti­ments and their claims.

It would be un­fair to hold the fed­eral gov­ern­ment en­tirely re­spon­si­ble for the poor con­di­tion of our roads. It is as if our lead­ers have never heard of the Ro­man say­ing that civil­i­sa­tion fol­lows the roads. Some peo­ple travel on th­ese roads and live to tell the tale of suf­fer­ing and trauma; oth­ers travel on them but do not live to tell the tale. Bad roads are not just death traps; they are also ex­ploited by armed rob­bers who way lay ve­hi­cles at the par­tic­u­larly bad spots on the roads. The poor are al­ways the losers.

As far as I know, only La­gos State, both at the state and lo­cal gov­ern­ment lev­els, takes road con­struc­tion and man­age­ment se­ri­ously. Long be­fore their coun­ter­parts in the other states woke up to pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship as a vi­able and sen­si­ble ap­proach to road con­struc­tion and man­age­ment, suc­ces­sive gov­er­nors of the state since 1999, from Tin­ubu to Fash­iola and now Am­bode, had adopted this ap­proach. The re­sults have been im­pres­sive.

PPP on roads is im­ple­mented in one of two ways. There is BOT - build, op­er­ate and trans­fer. Here the pri­vate part­ner builds the road, re­cov­ers its money through the col­lec­tion of tolls and gives it back to the state gov­ern­ment; or it builds the road ac­cord­ing to a fund­ing for­mula. This is the more prob­lem­atic of the two. If a state gov­ern­ment can­not pro­vide its match­ing fund, the pri­vate part­ner aban­dons the job.

The prob­lems of our roads are com­plex and mul­ti­ple. I do not see the coun­cil de­ci­sion as a quick fix to them but I chalk it up in my di­ary if only be­cause it sounds as if the state gov­er­nors are be­stir­ring them­selves. No, not be­cause of 2019, silly. Still, it sounds rather ro­man­tic to ex­pect that PPP would help the state gov­er­nors take care of the fed­eral roads given to them. A magic for­mula chances along every­day.

If the de­ci­sion be­comes a pol­icy, our im­me­di­ate prob­lem would be how best to im­ple­ment it and en­sure that we, the peo­ple, are not cheated at the end of the day. Most of the state gov­er­nors do not have proven com­pe­tence in road con­struc­tion and man­age­ment. Yet, they would all want to be given fed­eral roads to fix and con­ve­niently ig­nore the irony that they are un­able to fix their own roads in the first place.

There are, at least, three crit­i­cal prob­lems here. The first is the poor phys­i­cal con­struc­tion of the roads by indige­nous con­trac­tors. Ex­pe­ri­ence has shown time and again that some of them have no right to be called road con­struc­tion com­pa­nies. They do not have road con­struc­tion equip­ment. No, I take that back. They boast of dig­gers and shov­els. With th­ese they win jumbo road con­tracts from state gov­er­nors who pa­tro­n­ise them be­cause they are ei­ther party mem­bers or party fun­ders or both.

This brings us to prob­lem num­ber two: cor­rup­tion. We butt our heads against this mon­ster any­where we turn. Our roads are in the con­di­tion in which they are be­cause road con­tracts are ei­ther poorly ex­e­cuted or the con­trac­tors take the money, share it with the of­fi­cials, aban­don the con­tracts and van­ish into thin air, never to be traced. PPP might even make this worse, not bet­ter, and the na­tion and its peo­ple would still not get value for their tax or, more ap­pro­pri­ately, crude oil money.

The third prob­lem is the lack of a com­pre­hen­sive ap­proach to the road prob­lem. In­ter- and in­tra-town­ship roads are im­por­tant but it is wrong to con­cen­trate on them to the ne­glect of our ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties. Good roads for some, bad roads for oth­ers is no way to let civil­i­sa­tion fol­low the road.

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