Time for National Road Fund, Highways Authority
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recent Technical Assistance Report on Nigeria, which stated that the country would need an aggregate investment of 100 billion United States Dollars on roads (from 2020 to 2030) should not be dismissed at this time. This is for an additional 180,000 kilometres to the existing network of 195, 000 kilometres of federal, states and local government roads. It is said that this is for the country to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). About the same time, the Federal Government announced its intention to concession 10 specific roads nationwide. While the IMF commended the present administration’s significant investment on roads, it stressed the urgent need for improving the institutional governance for roads. This is a stark reminder that since 1972, the consistent recommendation for efficient road administration is the establishment of a Federal Highways Authority. This newspaper has consistently underlined this fact whenever the issue of institutional governance for roads has come up.
It is instructive that the IMF issued this assessment of Nigeria at this time because its operating arm, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (The World Bank) has been involved in Nigeria’s road reform initiatives since 1993 with the first workshop in Abeokuta, Ogun State. This progressed to the 1997 Steering Committee for Road Vision 2000 that was charged with the specific responsibility to “mid-wife” a National Road Fund and the Road Board for federal roads. A Draft Decree was the culmination of the effort in 1998 but the Abdusalami Abubakar regime decided to defer it to the civilian administration. Bewilderment was a mild word for those involved in the effort when the Minister for Works in 2000 opposed the proposed roads agency and convinced the President to excise the Maintenance Division in the proposed Highways Authority and established the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA). From the outset, without a Road Fund, the nascent agency has suffered from insufficient funds while it set up a parallel structure to the Federal Highway Division of the Ministry of Works. In 2004, against the counsel of experts, the Federal Government abolished tolling, the second item in the matrix of road user contributions into the Road Fund.
Administrative schemes were brought in to justify the inefficient dichotomy in the management of federal roads, whereby FERMA would carry out maintenance while the ministry handled major rehabilitation and new construction. In 2009, to solve the problem of funding road programmes, the Federal Executive Council approved the merging of the two outfits in an Executive Bill sent to the National Assembly, for establishing the Road Fund and the Federal Highways Authority. Although the Seventh Assembly did not process the bill, private members introduced and passed the Federal Highways Authority Bill in 2018 but it was not signed by President Muhammadu Buhari, ostensibly because there were existing agencies for roads, the intended policy of encouraging private sector involvement including possibilities for concession of selected routes was lost in the steam.
At this time, the Works Minister, Babatunde Raji Fashola, who is responsible for roads, announced a Highway Development and Management Initiative, as an “avenue to mitigate the paucity of funds.” In the first phase, ten selected routes would be concessioned for projected revenue of N163.32 billion. Details of the scheme are still being expected but already, investors are to construct toll plazas, rest areas, weighbridge stations and install lights. We must not lose the lessons from the contracting of toll collection to private companies and the failure of the concession of Lagos Ibadan Expressway in 2005. In its current report, the IMF aptly alerted us that while partnerships with private sector could attract investments, they might exacerbate governance problems without strong institutional regulatory regime. Furthermore, tax–swop arrangements could be used to bypass budgetary scrutiny that is needed to ensure value for money.
In a separate briefing, Fashola announced a federal intervention programme to upgrade infrastructure for slums, conceived to fulfill Buhari’s wish to help alleviate poverty and the economic plight of many Nigerians. Better roads improve the quality of living and enhance the value of real estate. Although this is a programme within the Housing portfolio, its intended collaboration with the states aligns with the tier responsibility for roads. Streets in urban areas and roads in rural areas are the responsibility of local governments.
Also noteworthy in the IMF report is a point about the outdated statistics of roads in Nigeria. The federal road network is 34,000 kilometres. Every new bridge and any new road add to this figure. For years, we have paraded the figure for states at 30,000 and 85,000 for local governments’ roads. The survey is not so clear with states’ roads while the figure for local government roads is totally outdated. As our towns and cities expand, every street adds to the figure. For years, there have been calls for the Federal Government to revisit the roads taken over from the states in 1974. There are clear reasons for handing segments of federal roads passing through cities to the states. For such an exercise, a special case must be made for Lagos metropolis and Abuja City. All highways and streets in Abuja were built by the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA) and the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) while no clear responsibility has been given to the local councils for streets and rural roads.
These are the issues highlighted in the report on Nigeria and which must be tackled within a proper institutional framework. Fashola’s briefing on slums highlighted the National Council on Housing, indicating its severance from the erstwhile National Council on Works (Highways) and Housing. The National Council on Roads must step out.
The effort to set up a semi-autonomous agency for federal roads commenced in 1970 when the Federal Military Government set up a commission that studied road administration in five countries and recommended the setting up of a Federal Highways Authority, “without delay.” The bill passed by the Eighth National Assembly in 2018 was the first time a Draft Law on the Federal Highways Authority reached the Executive arm of government, after a journey of many decades.
At this time, the leadership and members of the Ninth Assembly must take up the gauntlet for the establishment, “without delay” the National Road Fund and the Federal Highways Authority, to salvage our collapsed and unsafe road network.
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