Minister of Works Babatunde Fashola recently declared that government has concluded plans and designs for the return of toll-gates on federal highways. In response the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) spokespersons are having a field day accusing the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) of being “clueless and inconsistent”. As far as inconsistency is concerned they may have a point.
Back in 2011 when the ruling PDP government mooted the return of toll-gates current Information Minister Alhaji Lai Mohammed was the National Publicity Secretary of the opposition Action Congress Nigeria (ACN) which later metamorphosed into the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). He is on record as saying that there was no justification for toll-gates and PDP’s plans for their re-introduction was an “obnoxious policy”. Organized labor has rejected their planned reintroduction referring to it as “desperation by government to raise money at all costs”.
Claiming that further taxation would worsen misery and raise poverty levels labor spokespersons said it’s “fraudulent” because before they were dismantled the money to be realized from toll-gates was factored into pump prices of fuel. In 2003 President Obasanjo increased fuel prices and ordered the demolition of existing toll-gates. He claimed that they inconvenienced travellers and encouraged corruption because most of the N63 million cash collected daily ended up in private hands.
Without debunking any of these arguments Federal Ministry of Works spokespersons insisted that reintroduction of toll-gates doesn’t mean that all highways will now be repaired or that pump prices will come down. The Minister himself even went as far as admitting that the money collected would have little impact on road maintenance because the traffic flow on many of these roads isn’t significant. The logical conclusion from this argument is that government is seeking additional ways to raise funds to spend on themselves. The cost of governance has leapt drastically under APC from N2.59 trillion in 2015 to N3.51 trillion in 2018 less than half of which was allocated to capital projects. As has been severally pointed out the real reason why government is always in need of more money is fiscal indiscipline.
Even as roads and various other infrastructures fall into decay the cost of governance continues to increase because money is regularly squandered on building new Government Houses and Secretariats, purchasing new vehicles at over-inflated prices, maintaining unnecessary small jet aircraft, subsidizing private individuals on Christian Pilgrimage and Moslem Hajj, maintaining an ineffective and overly-expensive National Assembly, banqueting, celebrations and other frivolities. Paradoxically while there is no economic justification for the re-introduction of toll-gates, the move should be welcomed! There is an adage that if you give a blind person a gun and enough bullets they will eventually hit the target.
The inference is that even when people are severely incapacitated in knowing what they are doing, by sheer luck they will eventually do something right! Government has proved incapable of creating avenues for employment, and indeed is threatening retrenchment in order to pay the new minimum wage. However in addition to assisting long-distance travellers in breaking their journeys, toll-gates give rise to new communities and provide opportunities to make an honest living. All varieties of petty traders, as well as caterers, mechanics, parts sellers, towing vehicles and newspaper vendors make money at toll-gates. Indeed newspaper circulation suffered when they were demolished.
The new toll-gate design must have offices for the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) who should cease detaining and harassing motorists in the middle of nowhere. There should also be public toilets, medical facilities to treat accident victims, helicopter landing pads for emergency evacuations, as well as Police, Nigerians Security and Civil Defense Corps (NSCDC), and National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA) stations. Unfortunately as is the habit with government who believe they have a monopoly on wisdom neither road users, nor the general public has been asked for their input. As such what is more likely to happen is that shanty towns will grow up surrounding the toll-gates and the areas will become environmental eyesores within no time at all! Meanwhile paying of toll by drivers on highways has proceeded unabated despite the abolition of toll-gates.
The multiple police check-points which have failed to abate the spate of robbery, kidnapping and murder on highways, are referred to by the travelling public as “toll-gates” from which the police collect funds to fuel both their vehicles and their stomachs while on road duties! The “Honorable” Minister for Works felt no reason to justify the return of toll-gates and their proposed nationwide distribution. Rather he said that there is no law preventing him from doing so. To the casual observer it seems inconceivable that the South-East with only 5 States and a relatively small land mass needs 56 toll-gates, while the North which prides itself on land mass and 19 States need just 35!
It’s vital that the National Assembly exercises its oversight functions to provide answers as to why this is so? How much each toll-gate would cost? How much is expected to be charged as toll? How much money is expected to be collected monthly? How long it will take for toll fees to pay off the cost of constructing the toll-gates? What is the proposed ownership and operational structure? What are the fraud prevention mechanisms, and what are the proposed additional facilities?
Most important of all they should pass a law to ensure that another government can’t demolish these structures sometime in the future. The nation must develop a sustainable means of funding road maintenance, and erecting toll-gates on decrepit highways isn’t the solution. The waste of money occasioned by the construction, demolition and now proposed reconstruction of toll-gates while the roads remain in abysmal condition is taxing both the finances of Nigerian drivers as well as their patience!