FG and tollgates

RECENTLY, the Federal Government gave an indication that it would soon return tollgates on federal highways across the country. Minister of Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, disclosed this while briefing State House correspondents after the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting presided over by President Muhammadu Buhari at the Presidential Villa, Abuja. Fashola said: “There is no reason why we can’t toll. There was a policy of the government to abolish tolls or, as it were, dismantle toll plazas, but there is no law that prohibits tolling in Nigeria today. We expect to return toll plazas. We have concluded the designs of what they will look like, what materials they will be rebuilt with, what new considerations must go into them. What we are looking at now and trying to conclude is how the back end runs.”

The minister stated that the government was also considering  eliminating the payment of cash by introducing electronic modes of payment, adding that it needed to acquire more lands to expand the width of the tollgates. In a subsequent clarification, through, the minister claimed that there were no plans yet to introduce tollgates on federal roads across the country. Speaking through his media aide, Hakeem Bello, the minister said he wanted to be understood as saying only that there was no law against tollgates. If there would be toll gates, he said, it would be a government policy. But his ministry, in a statement issued on Friday, October 4 and signed by one Stephen Kilebi for the Deputy Director of Press, quoted the chairman, Senate Committee on Works, Senator Mohammed Adamu Aliero, as suggesting tollgates as an alternative source of funding major road projects.

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The lawmaker, speaking during  an interactive session with the minister and the ministry’s officials at the National Assembly, Abuja, was quoted as saying, “I believe that if we concession some major roads and get the contractors to construct those roads to international standards, we can recoup the investments within reasonable time by tolling roads. This will gradually reduce government involvement in road construction and allow the ministry to focus on being the regulator in line with what is obtainable in many countries in the world.”

The plan to return tollgates to the federal highways indeed goes back to December 2015 when the then Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr Babatunde Fashola, disclosed that the Federal Government would reintroduce highway tolling to raise additional funds to finance road infrastructure and ensure efficient road maintenance. Fashola had stated at the time: “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.”

Then in October 2016, 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 synergise 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. As we noted in previous editorials, tollgates across the country were demolished at great public cost in 2004 by the administration of the then President Olusegun Obasanjo on the strength of the argument that roads should be maintained from revenue generated from fuel pump price increase. 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. The tollgates were initially managed by civil servants in the 70s, but they were later turned over to private contractors in the 90s when the late Major-General AbdulKareem Adisa served as Minister of Works. With the return to civil rule in 1999, the tollgates had become a huge public embarrassment,  serving only as veritable centres of sleaze.

Time and again, we have maintained the position that tolling is essential, with the caveat that the government must ensure proper maintenance of the roads. We have not been persuaded to change our opinion that the government cannot toll bad roads. That would be both irresponsible and unconscionable. If the government must toll the federal roads, the question must be asked regarding who will manage the money realised from that endeavour. In this connection, we advise the Federal Government to concession the roads, even as the revenue realised therein should be put in a new account and used to maintain the roads and develop new ones. In addition, the charges should not be exploitative. They must take cognisance of the economic miasma in which the majority of Nigerians remain mired. Another point that must be noted is that the government cannot toll all federal roads; it should toll only the very strategic, high-traffic ones. Furthermore, there should be weigh bridges for the roads to be durable. Needless to say, in terms of payment of toll fees, there should be no special considerations for uniformed personnel.

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