Return of tollgates on federal highways
Public misgivings over the proposal by the Federal Government to reintroduce tolling in some federal roads should not be dismissed with a wave of the hand, going by downturn in the economy and COVID-19 pandemic that have negatively impacted on the average Nigerian; coupled with unsavoury official antecedents on toll plazas. The palpable fear is real that bringing back tolls on the roads will inevitably worsen economic indices and consequently the living conditions of citizens.
The government’s proposal, which has been approved by the Federal Executive Council, is coming 18 years after tollgates were demolished by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration supposedly for corrupt leakages of the toll revenue. Reportedly, the Federal Government spent about N500m to dismantle the gates, which at the time was greeted with mixed reactions, as many people believed that government was throwing the bath water away with the baby; and it could very well have sought to deal with the corruption issue rather than wholesomely disbanding an entrenched system.
It does appear that the Obasanjo government’s reason for the demolition was too simplistic, being an easy excuse to justify fuel price increase with a promise to use part of the increase to maintain roads. As it were, roads maintenance since then has been unimpressive, while fuel price keeps jumping to the detriment of the common Nigerians.
Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, while briefing State House correspondents said his ministry presented a memo, which the FEC approved to reintroduce tollgates on 14.3 per cent of the entire 35,000 km stretch of federal roads. When the scheme takes off, vehicles will pay between N200 and N500 toll per trip, depending on their category; while diplomatic, military, paramilitary, as well as tricycles and motorcycles would be exempted.
“We have seen that most of those dual carriageways also have alternative roads, but they are single carriageways; that’s why we left them. So, the only exception to single carriageways is some bridges and they are listed in the regulation,” Fashola explained, stressing that the open tolling system would not commence until the affected roads were motorable while operational agreements would be negotiated with relevant government agencies. “The toll collected would not only be used to maintain the roads but to construct new ones while the toll system would be electronically driven for transparency,” Fashola stated.
The announcement expectedly triggered age-old fears: Will money generated be used for roads maintenance, or is it a ploy by government to generate more funds without consideration of the hardship on impoverished Nigerians? Is the toll idea a ploy to rake money for the 2023 election? The issue of integrity and accountability in managing the tolls amid pervasive corruption also raise much concern. Has anything changed after Obasanjo?
The latest move portrays the manifest policy somersaults in Nigeria. However, by international convention, tolling on roads should not necessarily be oppressive, particularly if they are aimed at recovering privately-raised funds in constructing them. Even where the funding is public, more funds are needed to maintain them; and this is where Mr. Fashola has challenges: to ensure that the roads are safe, well-maintained, the funds fully accounted for and the public not exploited unduly. If well worked out, tollgates can provide added security and recreation platforms for commuters, as they used to be. In particular, the roads should be made safe and devoid of regular cases of kidnapping as is presently the norm.
Government must fulfill its promise to make the roads motorable before commencing tolling; and of course, the need to provide safe, motorable alternative roads should not be compromised. Practically, most major roads across the country are in bad shape and constitute death traps of which urgent action is required to rehabilitate them first before tolling. Government should seize the occasion as an opportunity to dispel the lack of trust that Nigerians normally harbor against it. And care should be taken to ensure that exemptions from tolls apply strictly to the relevant category, such as police and ambulances, deserving of such exemption. In this country, measures as simple as exemption can easily be abused.
There is nothing wrong if the fees stipulated can be reduced and made more affordable. That will not only encourage more people to ply the roads and thereby boost expected revenue; it will also discourage those aspiring to cut corners. It is important too that Fashola’s alternative routes are upgraded from their old and dilapidated condition. Motorists should not be forced to use the tolled roads.
There is no denying the fact that tolling will increase inflation as the charges of transport fares and commodities will be passed over to passengers and consumers. This will likely increase the cost of living; but this disadvantage can be cancelled out by proper management of the tolling scheme. Tollgates must be operated in a way to avoid traffic congestion that can add to the stress of commuters; and government must discourage the police from mounting exploitative roadblocks, which can further frustrate vehicle owners and drivers.