Roads, roads everywhere but none to drive on
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.