Last week while driving on the Abuja – Kaduna Expressway, the terrible condition of the highway led me to ruminate on the fate of our Nigerian roads, many that have really gone to the dogs, to put it as mildly as one can.
Readers might recall I recounted the experience of the average traveller on that road on this page last week.
The highway that had been under construction and rehabilitation for over a year now is today the travellers, ultimate, nightmare.
Driving in the midst of those heavy duty vehicles, the trailers and tankers, along the winding road diversions, is truly nightmarish.
And at the pace the work is going, one can surmise that it would be well-nigh impossible to complete it within the envisaged contract period of 30 months or anything near it.
Normally it should be a cause for jubilation for any community to have a road leading to it or within its reach, listed for construction or rehabilitation.
Now many would say: ‘not any more’.
Construction of roads by the federal government seems to be a never ending affair, inflicting hardship all the way round.
But it is a general malaise affecting all the levels of government in all parts of the country.
At least the roads I know never seems to be better – the construction work never seem to finish.
The dualisation of Kano – Maiduguri highway project, which started in Obasanjo’s administration is still uncompleted.
And for ages now all the roads leading out of Maiduguri have been dilapidated and many of them are federal roads.
You can point at the road leading to Monguno/Kukawa/Baga and the one going to Gamboru/Ngala, as well as the one to Bama/Banki and the Damboa/Biu stretch.
The contracts for their rehabilitation must have been awarded and re-awarded over the years to no avail.
The excuse could be that the area is affected by the Boko Haram insurgency.
I would say it is lack of diligence and focus.
If Governor Ibrahim could successfully reconstruct the Yobe State portion of the Damaturu to Biu and Damaturu/Dapchi/Geidam roads under the barrage of the Boko Haram insurgents, I see no reason why the federal government with all its might cannot do so.
If need be, they can always borrow a leaf from the former governor, now in the Senate, learn from his experience and attend to many of the dilapidated roads in that axis.
With all these challenged roads in the kitty of the federal government, many under construction and rehabilitation, I am amazed that many more contracts are still being rolled out.
I was surprised that among the contracts approved was the Dikwa/Marte/Monguno.
This is actually a linkage road that runs through the rich agricultural area of the South Chad Irrigation Project (SCIP) and as well connects the Maiduguri to Ngala road to the one that goes from Maiduguri to Monguno.
For many of us that started our careers in Chad Basin Development Authority in the 1970s, the very mention of those roads arouse evocative memories of the rapid developments that heaped in that area in those years.
The Maiduguri/Dikwa/Marte road was constructed in a very short time frame as Borno State then was getting ready to receive the Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo who was coming to inaugurate the SCIP in New Marte on 5th July 1979.
I was the secretary of the launching committee and recall the constant trips to and from New Marte on that road under construction.
It got finished on time for the head of state to drive smoothly on it to New Marte.
Many years I learnt that what helped most to push the road project to its conclusion was Col Tunde Idiagbon, then Military Administrator of Borno State, constantly breathing down the neck of the contractor to hurry up and finish the road.
Oh! There were beautiful roads in that region then.
From Maiduguri you could run to Damasak through Monguno and Kukawa or through Magumeri without any hitch.
The 120 kilometres road to Ngala could be covered in less than one hour.
Travelling to Bama was always about half an hour journey.
Also covering the Damboa road was always about an hour’s beautiful drive.
Sadly, lack of diligent maintenance on these roads have brought them all to this sorry pass.
For years now, it has been a downward slide for roads in that region.
Now I even wonder how this new contract is going to be effected when its major link, the main highway Maiduguri/Dikwa is in shambles.
I alluded on this page last week that there was a silver lining in the skies as the federal government has concluded plans to concession some major highways to private participation.
The Minister of Works, Babatunde Fashola, made the announcement at the National Assembly when he faced the Joint Committee on Works.
He said that the federal government will concession 10 major highways in what is dubbed ‘Highway Project and Management Initiative’.
The roads are spread across the country and they include Kaduna-Kano, Ilorin-Jebba, Benin-Asaba and Enugu-Port Harcourt roads among others.
It is expected that the investors would develop the added road infrastructure, from toll plazas to street lights, rest houses, ambulance services etc.
There are a host of benefits to be derived from this project but most importantly it is expected that the initiative would ease up on the finances of the federal government.
This should make it possible for the federal government to have more funds to spend on other roads and reduce the period spent on constructions and rehabilitations.
Many of those who are critical of the project point to the abysmal record of concessions in this country, whereby structures built with public funds are handed over to private hands that end up just looting them.
With roads, concessions by both the state and federal governments have so far met with some grand failures.
Glaring examples include the Lekki-Epe Expressway given out by the Lagos State Government on concession to Lekki Concession Company (LCC).
It didn’t work out and the state government then under Babatunde Fashola had to dig out N7.5b from the treasury to buy out LCC.
The federal government had also had its fingers bitten in the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway concession to Bi-Courtney.
The federal government had taken back the road but the matter is still undecided as Bi-Courtney is in court.
Notwithstanding all these failures, the proponents of road concessions insist that it is a practice whose time has come in this country and we should continue to try fine-tuning our strategy and ways of selecting the concessionaires.
On this, the National Assembly is on the same page with the proponents of road concessions.
Some legislations were made by the 8th National Assembly to revamp the roads sector including the creation of a Federal Roads Agency with powers to engage in concessions.
However, when the bill was passed and sent to the President for signing, it returned with a rejection note, explaining that it would render the technical arm of the federal ministry of works redundant by taking away its supervisory powers.
There is no let on the matter, yet, as the 9th Assembly is pursuing the same crusade earnestly.
The bill has been passed by the House of Reps and the Senate is due to complete the process very soon.
Now that the minister of works is talking about concessions, I guess the Assembly and the ministry have sorted out their differences hoping that the president will not withhold assent now.
But there is still the matter of having the Federal Roads Agency in place as a viable regulatory body.
And the government must ensure a merit-based, transparent and honest procurement process with clear and enforceable sanctions in place.
This is the only guarantee that concession will not go awry.