Still on tolling of federal roads

ON  Tuesday, October 25 this year, the Senate passed a motion raised by Senator Suleiman Nazif (APC/Bauchi North) backing the proposed reintroduction of toll collection plazas on federal highways across the country. In his motion, Nazif had noted that the deplorable state of Nigerian roads could be addressed with revenue generated from the collection of toll. In adopting the motion, the Senate however promised to synergize with other relevant bodies to study the policy and find effective and efficient ways to carry out the policy in order to generate more funds for road maintenance.

The precursor to the Senate’s move actually came in December last year when the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr Babatunde Fashola, disclosed that the Federal Government would re-introduce highway tolling to raise additional funds to finance road infrastructure and ensure efficient road maintenance. Fashola had stated: “Maintenance would be our watchword. We are setting up a robust maintenance regime to keep our highways in good shape. This shows that tolling is necessary to support government funding. So, it will not be too much if we ask every road user to pay a little to augment government funding for road maintenance. It is eminent commonsense for us to find that money. We will use technology; so if you don’t pay cash, you will pay by tokens or tickets and the money will go to the right place. We will manage that fund properly and we will hold those who we put there to account.”

To be sure, the planned reintroduction of the policy 12 years after it was abolished by the Federal Government raises serious questions about policy formulation and implementation, and indeed governance, in the country.  For instance, the question can be asked whether the  government is merely taking the Nigerian people for a ride with its policy flip flops. This is because toll gates across the country were demolished at great public cost in 2004 by the then President Olusegun Obasanjo,  on the strength of the argument that roads should be maintained from revenue generated from fuel pump price increase.

Admittedly, though, this was not the only factor. Obasanjo also took the decision out of exasperation with the failure of the managers of the toll plazas to meet up with the projected revenue. Initially managed by civil servants in the 70s, the toll gates were later turned over to private contractors in the 90s when the late Major-General AbdulKareem Adisa served as Minister of Works. However, this did not significantly arrest the corruption in the sector. By the time civil rule returned to the country in 1999, the toll gates had actually become a big public embarrassment,  having served for too long as centres of sleaze. But instead of evolving better options to manage the situation, and in a manner recalling military rule, the Obasanjo administration hit on a drastic solution.

However, even though the Federal Government has now abolished the fuel subsidy regime altogether, the vagaries of the global oil market has tended to limit its access to ready funds.  And so it is returning to highway tolling. Still, coming in the middle of a recession and the consequent unemployment and general misery among the populace, it is no wonder that the plan to reintroduce the policy 12 years after it was abolished  has been roundly criticised by the House of Representatives and the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) as well as many critical voices in the polity.

It must be noted that the opposition by many Nigerians to the planned reintroduction of toll gates in the country is not predicated on ignorance of the importance of highway tolling in an economy. Certainly, Nigerians are aware that toll plazas are meant to generate revenue for road maintenance. Because of the importance of roads to a modern economy and given the funding challenges with which government is often confronted, tolling roads provides a ready stream of revenue with which repairs can be guaranteed. Indeed, the ongoing Lagos/Ibadan expressway is, on completion, going to be tolled.  Again, the presence of security operatives at the toll plazas would no doubt enhance safety on the nation’s federal highways.

However, Nigerians have for far too long been daily confronted with the challenges of  bad roads, and the situation has not abated. As we warned in our previous editorials, tolling bad roads amounts to inflicting misery on a badly misgoverned populace. Thus, if the Federal Government is sincere about its new plan, it must first give proper attention to the nation’s federal roads. It must also consult widely with relevant stakeholders before implementing the plan. That would afford Nigerians the opportunity of making inputs into the policy for the overall good of the nation. We believe that tolling is the way to go. But the Federal Government must ensure that it does a thorough job, in order to win the trust of a skeptical public. The factors that led to the abolishment of the tolling system by the Obasanjo regime must not be allowed to recur.