We need paradigm shift for better roads in Nigeria

Our experiences on Nigerian roads during the last Christmas and New Year celebrations are still fresh. Unfortunately, our inland waterways remain untapped for the purpose of transportation while air travel is largely exclusive for the elite class.

It is no longer news that our roads are in deplorable conditions, and no part of the country is spared.

Expectedly, this is taking heavy tolls on our nation. With an estimated vehicle operating cost of N500 billion annually, the burden of inaction is estimated to be as much as 5:1, while the losses in man-hours could be as much as 10 billion hours per year. At a minimum hour rate of N100, therefore, the cost of loss in man-hours can be as much as N1.02 trillion. And this does not include the impact on the economy, especially in the agriculture sector where costs occasioned by delays, disruptions and destructions incurred in moving produce from farms to markets are high. Nor does it include impact on the manufacturing and logistics industries, or on our wellbeing like debilitating injuries and fatalities.

Unfortunately, hopes of any improvement under the current arrangement dim when it is considered that whereas our national expenditure on roads ought to be at least 3.0 per cent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per annum, it has been just 0.5 per cent to 0.1 per cent because roads funding has been strictly to fiscal allocation, which is ever paltry and also diminishing in terms of actual releases.

I was privileged to chair the Committee on Works in the 8th House of Representatives, and our experience as a parliament is that the deficit in the quality of our roads continues to widen despite our best efforts, working with the executive through the ministry and the Presidency, to appropriate resources to our roads.  It is even almost impossible to contemplate new federal highways. Not when capital allocations to the roads usually hover around N200 billion, a tiny drop of water on a parched land, given that road contracts awarded by the Federal Government already amount to over N4trillion while Federal Government liabilities on completed portions stand at N306bn. Worse still, much of the annual appropriations is never released due to paucity of resources. Of the N220bn allocated to works in the 2019 budget, less than N70bn was released. It is that bad.

To diagnose and properly address the challenges, the House Committee on Works in the 8th Assembly set up a multi-stakeholder technical panel, comprising representatives of 27 agencies/organisations that would have anything to do with our roads. That panel recommended a fundamental paradigm shift in addressing the multi-faceted problems of capacity, governance and funding to keep our roads in good condition to support economic growth and development. Against this background, the current Session of the House of Representatives considered and passed two very important bills before the Christmas and New Year break to reform the management of the roads sector.

The first is the Federal Roads Bill, which will create an appropriate and structured framework for the ownership, management and development of our federal roads as obtainable in other economies with better quality and well-maintained road infrastructure. A major highlight of the bill is the creation of the Federal Roads Authority (FRA) from the current Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA), but with an enhanced mandate that transcends road maintenance to include road construction, rehabilitation, network planning, as well as technical regulation of road asset design and specification.

This bill is consistent with global practice and will strengthen the role of the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing in the roads sector. Nigeria will gain from the benefits accruing from such agencies around the world like the Highways England, National Highway Authority of India, South Africa National Roads Agency SOC Limited, and Federal Highway Administration in the USA and join the league of African nations like Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia with independent road agencies.

The proposed FRA will manage the federal roads network to keep it safe and efficient, meeting our socio-economic demands, promoting the sustainable development and operation of the road sector, and facilitating private sector participation in the development, financing, maintenance, management, and improvement of roads in Nigeria that may require road concession contracts and other forms of public private partnerships. It will also plan and manage the development of road safety technical designs and standards, in addition to advising the Federal Roads Safety Commission on appropriate and effective methods of enforcing road traffic legislation for the purposes of promoting road safety and preventing damage to roads.

Fortunately, feelers we get from the everyday road users – interstate commercial transporters, private car owners, commercial motorcyclists (okada) and tricycle (Keke) riders – indicate a willingness to embrace the proposed reforms and in turn hold the government more accountable. Indeed, Nigerians are not averse to tolling of well built or even concessioned roads.

It has been a great privilege sponsoring these bills. We earnestly look forward to President Muhammadu Buhari’s assent to the bills when concurred by the Senate.

Rt Hon. Okechukwu is the Deputy Minority Leader, House of Representatives and former chairman, House Committee on Works

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