Return of the toll gates
Before the Senate Committee on the Federal Emergency Roads Maintenance Agency, FERMA, the minister responsible for-federal-roads, Babatunde Fashola announced that tolls would now be re-constructed at the 38 locations from which they were demolished in 2004. This decision by the federal government to bring back toll plazas is a clear admission that the funding of roads cannot be from yearly budgetary allocations and that to continue with the current model is a disservice to Nigeria. Ordinarily, this new move would have been considered a good step but a look into history reveals it as an indictment of the nation’s leadership for policy somersaults arising in part from disregard for the rigorous input of experts.
In 2003, when the then Minister of Works, Adeseye Ogunlewe announced that tolls would be removed from Federal highways “if the fuel tax was introduced,” there was an avalanche of counsel against the idea. Nevertheless, the government of the day went ahead and subsequently met a brick-wall on the fuel tax plan as the National Assembly affirmed that there must be an enabling law for the proposed five percent surcharge on the pump price of fuel. As fuel tax was part of the matrix of funds for the National Road Fund, the Federal Government resuscitated the idea and a Draft Bill was sent to the National Assembly in 2009. Not much progress has been made ever since.
In the recent briefing to the Senate Committee, current minister, Babatunde Fashola gave details: The final designs for the toll plazas had been received but tolling would commence only after the rehabilitation of the roads to be tolled. Toll collection will be contracted out to private operators. Latest available technology would be deployed; with Electronic Reading System, e-payment and direct transfers by motorists using their mobile phones.
It is, however, understandable that the Senator Magnus Abe-led Committee raised issues concerning FERMA. It was an opportunity for the Minister to solicit the Senate’s support for a quick passing of the Bill in the Senate for the establishment of the National Road Fund and the Federal Roads Authority. That effort is being led by Senator Kabiru Gaya, Chairman of Committee on Works with oversight functions over federal roads. Certainly, the Minister and the senators need to pay greater attention to the bill, which has gone through a second reading. The minister also needs to allay misgivings about his position on this issue. His predecessor in office, Mike Onolohmemen, had announced in 2013 that the road agency would be established as the permanent solution to the challenge of funding roads and to eliminate the duplication of functions by FERMA and the Federal Highways Division.
In the past, revenue collected from toll plazas did not go directly into road maintenance and administration, because such funds were deposited in the Consolidated Revenue Account. Payments for road programmes, therefore, had to come from budgetary allocations. This time around, the Minister assured that monies collected from toll plazas would be used for maintenance. How would this be achieved without a Road Fund and given the exigencies of the Treasury Single Account?
On the problems of FERMA, the Minister reported that in the current fiscal year, the agency has a budget of N25B but only N800M has been released by the Ministry of Finance. Yet, the Minister promised that the Highways Division and FERMA “will try and repair the roads before people start travelling in December.” It is widely known that to every challenge in Nigeria’s infrastructure development, all the necessary solutions had been proffered and are well-documented. Many Nigerian experts and consultants who have worked for years have however suffered frustration in the hands of successive leadership without the will to implement. So have the officials from international development agencies who worked with the best interest of Nigeria at heart. Many specialists have taken similar recommendations or solutions to other nations, which promptly implemented them to their benefit while Nigeria has been a pitiable model of the absence of the will to do the right thing. This is the malaise road reforms have suffered since 1972.
Now, there is a need for synergy in government policy and programmes for roads. The duplication of efforts exists also in the legislature. Why are there many committees on roads, as in other areas? It is time for the executive to drive the actualization of the effort to establish a Road Fund and the Federal Roads Authority. To re-introduce tolls without the National Road Fund and the Federal Roads Authority is to put the cart before the horse. If the vacillation on this long-standing issue continues, it will result in total collapse of Nigeria’s road network.
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