As many of us return from the Christmas and New Year celebrations, it is predictable that our experiences on Nigerian roads are still a major talking point. Road transport remains the primary means for freight and passenger movement across the country and has assumed even a more significant role since the collapse of the rail system. Our inland waterways as a viable means of transportation remains untapped, while air travel has become largely an exclusive for the elite and upper middle class. Even then, the roads still lead us through the last mile, hence account for about 95 per cent of all modes of transport.
Beside the various statistics on the true conditions of our roads, it is self-evident that our roads are in deplorable conditions and no part of the country is spared. It is also not essentially about who occupied what position, for even Presidents are not able to help themselves, as a journey to the home states and towns of serving and former Presidents would readily confirm.
Expectedly, this is taking a heavy toll on our nation. With an estimated vehicle operating cost of about N500 billion annually, the burden of inaction, in naira terms, 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 improvements 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 percent 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 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 N4 trillion, while Federal Government liabilities on completed portions stand at N306 billion. Worse still, much of the annual appropriations is never released due to paucity of resources. Of the N220 billion allocated to Works in the 2019 budget, less than N70 billion 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 have or would have anything to do with our roads. The 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. It will create an appropriate and structured framework for the ownership, management, and development of 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 FERMA, but with an enhanced mandate that transcends road maintenance to include road construction, rehabilitation, road 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 (PPP). 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.
Perennial inappropriate funding for road infrastructure leads to delayed/insufficient road maintenance and premature failure of road assets and increased costs of construction/maintenance.
Thus the second bill, the National Roads Fund Bill, creates an independent fund that addresses inadequate, unpredictable, and irregular funding and irresponsive to private sector development.
Several technical publications show that for every additional $1 a developing country spends on road maintenance, road users save $3 and at the core of the road fund solution, therefore, is the concept that some of the insufficiency and unpredictability of funding (and, by extension, planning) can be mitigated through additional funds in the form of a road user-based charge or levy. The proposed National Roads Fund involves the utilisation of a “User-Pay” model that stipulates the aggregation of a token fuel levy and other revenues, including tolls, derivable from road users directly to a fund managed by a board representing users’ interests. The Fund will be disbursed to the federal and state governments for routine preventive maintenance through their road agencies, which must be established by law with a dedicated account for that purpose as required by the bill. This fund is the practice in about 26 African countries plus India, Pakistan, USA, Japan, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Poland, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Moldova.
Fortunately, feelers we get from 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. Opportunity cost of our decrepit roads to the user is so huge and Nigerians would not mind paying a N500 toll to travel safely and conveniently from Abuja to Kano, for instance, than to be kidnapped or robbed, stranded, injured or even lose their lives on dilapidated roads.
Also, the proposed road sector reforms have positive consequential effects of on unemployment. Unlike road construction contracts, which have short lifespans, road maintenance creates sustainable employment. A single “Trunk A” road maintenance concession contract could employ over 100 engineers and other professionals for over 30 years.
Meanwhile, the 8th National Assembly amended the Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN) Act, which was signed by the President in 2019, to address the issue of capacity. The COREN Act now institutionalises internship/experience by engineering students, integrates local content into the operation of engineering firms, and makes construction firms part of the council.
For me, it has been a great privilege sponsoring these bills and I appreciate my colleagues for seeing the need for forward-looking, proactive, pragmatic, viable, and enduring approaches to road sector reforms espoused by the National Roads Fund Bill and Federal Roads Bill. We earnestly look forward to President Muhammadu Buhari’s assent to the bills when concurred by the Senate, as they are in tandem with his fervent aspiration to comprehensively tackle Nigeria’s derelict roads infrastructure.
•Okechukwu is Deputy Minority Leader, House of Representatives, and former Chairman, House Committee on Works