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Beyond emergency on federal roads

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FERMA


A recent call by the Senate for a declaration of emergency on federal roads marked a milestone in the avalanche of events on the sad state of road infrastructure in Nigeria. In this instance, the information divulged by Senator Gershorn Bassey revealed that the fundamental problem of funding roads has persisted because of disconnect within the federal legislature and the executive branch. 

Specifically, the error committed by the Eighth Assembly must now be redressed by the Ninth Assembly for the harmonisation of the contents of the rejected bill for the establishment of a National Road Fund with the law establishing FERMA. This will result in terminating the duplication between the Federal Road Maintenance Agency (FERMA) and the Highways Division of the Ministry of Works and Housing. 

Interestingly, the Federal Government told states the other day to hands off federal roads rehabilitation unless they intended to spend their funds without requesting refund. In his submission, Bassey called for a declaration of emergency on federal roads. The salient information in his address on the Senate floor is that FERMA has been unable to access funds from the 5% of pump price of fuel, as contained in the FERMA Amendment Act 2007.  This is the heart of the matter. 

The 1998 draft law for establishing the Road Fund included the road user contribution of a percentage of the pump price. The Abdulsalami Abubakar military government deferred enacting the law and opted to leave it for the Obasanjo administration whose minister advised against enacting the law to establish the Federal Roads Authority and the National Road Fund. Instead, it excised the maintenance division of the proposed Federal Roads Authority and formed FERMA. That singular step has been the root of inadequate funds for roads in Nigeria. FERMA relied on budgetary allocations while it built up a nationwide structure parallel to the Highways Division of the Ministry of Works.

The Orasanye Committee on reducing costs of governance recommended the termination of the duplication. Accordingly, the Yar’Adua administration placed federal roads under the Ministry of Transportation. In the restructuring, FERMA would handle maintenance of federal roads while the Highways Division would be responsible for major rehabilitation and new construction. However, it has been difficult to draw a line in these functions. The tardiness in carrying out routine maintenance has resulted in such dilapidation to the extent that major rehabilitation is now required.

In 2008, the Federal Government organised a stakeholders workshop on the way forward in Road Reform and accepted the recommendation to establish a National Road Fund under the Ministry of Finance and the Federal Roads Authority under the ministry responsible for roads. It would necessitate abrogation of the law setting up FERMA, which would become the maintenance division of the new agency. The Executive Bill was sent to the Seventh Assembly, which did not enact the law.

When Mr. Babatunde Fashola was being screened as minister in July 2019, Senator Rochas Okorocha asked him how he intended to solve the problem of funding roads. Like Fashola, he was a state governor and spoke from experience. Curiously, Fashola did not mention anything about the National Road Fund and the rejected bill for a Federal Roads Authority. It was also surprising that the proponents of the passed bill in the Assembly and who have returned in the 9th Assembly were mute and did not ask any questions.

Now that the senator from Cross River State complained that FERMA has not been receiving funds due from the 5% of pump price, many questions have arisen. In the 8th Assembly, while the Senate Committee for Works, headed by Kabiru Gaya, was pushing for the Federal Road Authority, how did it fail to note that the major item in the matrix of funds for the NRF had already been ceded to FERMA in the 2007 Amendment of the law establishing FERMA? During the deliberations in the National Assembly, did the Executive feature to give the information? 

Since the first attempt in 1971 to set up the FRA, the road user contributions from tolls and the price fuel have recurred in the sources of funds. The list includes other items, which were contained in the 1998 Draft Decree and the 2008 Executive Bill. The idea of having a National Road Fund is that the regularity of inflows would provide the confidence for raising long-term financing for road programmes.

Therefore, it is ill-advised to have tolls collected and spent by the Federal Highways Department. In the same way, it is not advisable for FERMA to receive and spend funds derived from the 5% of the pump price of fuel. As was contained in the provisions of the Executive Bill of 2008, the National Road Fund, with a separate board under the Ministry of Finance, will harness road user contributions to provide funds for roads and road safety operations. 

It is time to end the dichotomy of functions in road administration. Beyond the wailing by Senator Bassey (Cross River State), the federal legislature must resuscitate the bill that President Buhari rejected because of the existing duplication. The executive must recognise the need to alter the status quo. The minister responsible for roads must himself identify the need for ending the present inefficient structure. This is legal work and requires revisiting all the laws on Federal Highways. However, there is a way to achieve this speedily.

When FERMA was established, many experts in road financing and engineering described it as “a child before its parent.” However, the agency already has an enabling law. In the effort to achieve these recommendations for adequate funding for road administration in Nigeria, the executive and legislature must work together for an amendment to the FERMA laws such that it becomes the Federal Roads Management Agency or simply the Federal Roads Authority. This must be done now, as the nation can no longer allow the vacillation on this essential matter that has caused untold suffering to the people.


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FERMAGershorn Bassey
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