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Understanding the Bills to Fix Our Broken Roads

Udora Orizu examines the problems with Nigerian roads and the need for President Muhammadu Buhari to assent to the road bills passed by the National Assembly, as a sure path to ending the perennial woes over the nation’s federal roads

Last October, the Senate finally took what many see as a major step towards arresting Nigeria’s worsening road infrastructure when it concurred two House of Representatives Bills, the Federal Roads Bill and the National Roads Fund Bill. Both Bills, which were sponsored by the Deputy Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Hon. Toby Okechukwu, as the lead sponsor, and Hon. Ossai Nicholas as the co-sponsor, were passed by the House in December 2019. But the Bills started their initial legislative journey in the 8th Assembly when they were first passed by both chambers, but were not signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari. This necessitated their reintroduction in the current NASS by their initial sponsors.

National Assembly

The state of the roads have been a matter of serious concern to the National Assembly in recent times. Last month also, the Senate passed a resolution urging the Federal Government to immediately declare a state of emergency on Nigerian roads. This came in the wake of the threats by Nigerian Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) to withdraw their services over the poor state of Nigerian roads and incalculable losses by their members.

“We are going on nationwide strike because of the deplorable and shameful state of our highways. When a truck loads petrol in Lagos, the drivers spend five to six days to get to Abuja because of the shameful state of the roads. Tanker drivers have been going through harrowing situation and the increased rate of fire incidences involving petroleum tankers with accompanying massive destruction of lives and properties of our members and general public is enough,” Tayo Aboyeji, South-west Zonal Chairman of NUPENG, said.

Also, the House of Representatives have severally called for action on Nigerian roads. The House has entertained at least two motions in the last two months calling out the federal executive on the state of the roads. In September, the House, vide a motion by Hon. Ibrahim Isiaka (APC, Ogun), urged the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing to immediately mop up all available funds to begin emergency repairs on the roads and to develop an actionable plan to execute the repairs, pledging needed legislation support for such action plan.

Likewise, vide another motion sponsored by the Deputy Minority Leader, Hon. Okechukwu, which was also joined by the Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila; Deputy Whip of the House, Nkeiruka Onyejocha, House Spokesman, Benjamin Kalu and 37 others, the House called on the Federal Government to immediately commence reconstruction and repair works on many broken roads across the country.

Although each region appears to assess itself as the worse off, the sad reality is that from East to West, from North to South, the story is the same everywhere. From the Apapa, which serves key national economic asset like the Nigerian ports, as well as, the Lagos-Badagary Road to the Damaturu-Maiduguri Road and Kano-Maiduguri Road, Kano-Katsina Road, Abuja-Lokoja Road, Abuja-Minna Road, East-West Road in the Niger Delta, Onitsha-Owerri Road, Enugu-Port Harcourt Road, Ikot Ekpene-Umuahia road; the story is the same.

By the Nigerian constitution, the most a lawmaker can do is to get projects into the national budget and possibly lobby the executive headed by the President to have the roads awarded and funded. The other is to make laws for proper funding and governance of the roads. But Nigerians, out of the daily frustrations they face on the roads, are fond of blaming lawmakers over the poor state of their roads. Ironically, it is noteworthy that the state of the roads appear to have equally defied presidential powers.

Lagos-Ibadan Road could not be fixed in Obasanjo’s eight-year presidency. Also, the federal roads connecting Abeokuta; from both Lagos and Ibadan are also not good testimonies. The East-West Road, which is the major artery road connecting the entire Niger Delta region did not fair differently for the nearly six years Dr. Goodluck Jonathan was President. In July this year, the youths of the Nigeria Delta occupied the road in a protest that lasted for days. In the same vein, the Yenogoa-Otuoke Road is equally anything but presidential.

Although government has continued to award road contracts, the funding has been very abysmal. During a recent 2022 budget defence session with the House of Representatives Committee on Works, Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, said the Ministry would need N7.4 trillion to complete ongoing 854 highways and bridge projects across the country. Not just that, government indebtedness to contractors had jumped from N392 billion in 2020 to N420.5 billion in 2021, according to him. Fashola, therefore called for embargo on new road contracts pending the funding and completion of the already awarded road projects.

“We appropriate for a very token amount for a project of certain quantum, now once the award is done, the question of financing becomes a challenge. With the inflation and everything, there must come a time and I think that time is now. Mr. Chairman and honourable members, enough of new roads and new projects.

“In view of the wide disparity between the actual 2022 indicative cost of execution of highway projects of N1,384,622,535,379.62 (N1.3 trillion) and the actual budget envelope of N282,636,433,510.69 (N282.6 billion), the prioritisation of funding in the 2022 budget becomes imperative in order to make an appreciable impact.”

From Fashola’s insight, it is easily deducible that each annual capital budgetary allocation to the Ministry, which is usually less than N300 billion has never been enough to offset FG’s indebtedness to contractors, let alone service new contracts, which are approved almost on weekly basis by Federal Executive Council. Worse, the paltry budgetary allocations are hardly released to the tune of more than 50 per cent. The result is that road projects drag on forever with constructed portions dilapidating even while the contractor is still on site.

It is noteworthy that the Federal Emergency Road Maintenance Agency (FERMA), which is supposed to maintain the roads, is grossly underfunded. According to Senator Gershom Bassey, the actual releases to the agency from 2016-2020 stood at just about 17 per cent of the required sum.

The FG has not rested on its ores as it continues to search for strategic approaches to Nigeria’s road challenges. Out of the nearly 1,000 ongoing road projects in Nigeria, only three are guaranteed to succeed: Abuja-Kano Road, Lagos-Ibadan Road, and 2nd Nigeria Bridge. This is because they are funded from the National Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) Fund, not the annual budget.

Also, Fashola recently told the House that his Ministry had identified some strategic road projects and scheduled them for completion between 2021 to 2023 relying on the Presidential Infrastructure Fund, Road Infrastructure Development and Refurbishment Investment Tax Credit Scheme, the Sovereign Sukuk Fund, Multilateral Loans among others.

Following the threat by NUPENG to withdraw its services, the FG recently gave an approval for the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, to construct 21 roads totalling 1804.6 kilometres. They consist nine roads in the North-central, three in the North East, two in the North-west, two in the South-east, three in the South-south, and two in the South-west.

Also in August this year, the FG announced the reintroduction of toll gates 18 years after they were scrapped by the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo administration in 2003. Minister of Works and Housing said only 14.3 per cent of the roads across the country would be affected with vehicles paying between N150 and N500 per trip.

However, experts and stakeholders believe that these measures are knee-jerk approaches, non-institutionalised, and unsustainable. They fear that unless these FG’s planned interventions flow from well thought out laws, Nigeria would still find itself in worse road situation after wasting stupendous amount on the roads.

“Everybody appears to have become an expert in road matters. Take the 21 roads approved for the NNPC to construct. When did NNPC become expert in road construction or road procurement? After the construction, what happens next? What happens to maintenance and governance?

“Also, how can we just wake up and hand roads over to the private sector like the telecom companies and the like to contract without appropriate laws? Who is going to ensure that Nigeria is not short-changed because for every additional kobo in terms of overpricing, it is Nigeria’s tax revenue that it frittered away. We need to sit down and institutionalise the much needed private sector involvement in our roads through laws and ensure that we get things right”, a development expert, Dr. Nnanna Ayim Udeh stated.

In order to identify and appropriately address the challenges, the House of Representatives Committee on Works of the 8th Assembly chaired by Hon. Toby Okechukwu (Deputy Minority Leader of the 9th House), inaugurated a multi-stakeholder technical panel, which comprised representatives of 27 agencies/organisations that have something to do with our roads. After public hearings, elaborate consultations and understudying of the best practices in other climes, the panel recommended a paradigm shift in road governance and funding.

Following the panel’s recommendations, the Federal Roads Bill and the National Road Fund Bill both sponsored by Hon. Okechukwu and two others. Both were passed by the 8th Assembly, but not signed into law by President Buhari. Consequently, the Bill reintroduced in the current Assembly by Hon. Okechukwu and Hon. Ossai. Both Bills were passed by the House in December 2019, but only got the concurrence of the Senate last October.

Explaining the intent and import of the Bill in a back page article, “Paradigm Shift Needed for Better Roads in Nigeria”, published in THISDAY on January 2020, Okechukwu wrote: “The Federal Road Bill is aimed at creating an appropriate and structured framework for the ownership, management, and development of our federal roads as obtainable in other economies with better quality and well-maintained road infrastructure. A major highlight of the Bill is the creation of the Federal Roads Authority (FRA) from the current FERMA, but with an enhanced mandate that transcends road maintenance to include road construction, rehabilitation, road network planning as well as technical regulation of road asset design and specification.

“This Bill is consistent with global practice and will strengthen the role of the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing in the roads sector. Nigeria will gain from the benefits accruing from such agencies around the world like the Highways England, National Highway Authority of India, South Africa National Roads Agency SOC Limited, and Federal Highway Administration in the USA and join the league of African nations like Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia with independent road agencies.

“The proposed FRA will manage the federal roads network to keep it safe and efficient, meeting our socio-economic demands, promoting the sustainable development and operation of the road sector, and facilitating private sector participation in the development, financing, maintenance, management, and improvement of roads in Nigeria that may require road concession contracts and other forms of Public Private Partnerships (PPP). It will also plan and manage the development of road safety technical designs and standards, in addition to advising the Federal Roads Safety Commission on appropriate and effective methods of enforcing road traffic legislation for the purposes of promoting road safety and preventing damage to roads”.

In the same vein, the National Roads Fund Bill, when assented, will create an independent fund that addresses inadequate, unpredictable, and irregular funding and irresponsive to private sector development.

“Several technical publications show that for every additional $1 a developing country spends on road maintenance, road users save $3 and at the core of the Road Fund solution, therefore, is the concept that some of the insufficiency and unpredictability of funding (and by extension, planning) can be mitigated through additional funds in the form of a road user-based charge or levy.

“The proposed National Roads Fund involves the utilisation of a “User-Pay” model that stipulates the aggregation of a token fuel levy and other revenues, including tolls, derivable from road users directly to a fund managed by a Board representing users’ interests. The Fund will be disbursed to the federal and state governments for routine preventive maintenance through their road agencies, which must be established by law with a dedicated account for that purpose as required by the Bill. This Fund is the practice in about 26 African countries plus India, Pakistan, USA, Japan, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Poland, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Moldova” he further explained.

On other benefits of the road reforms proposed by the Bills, Hon. Okechukwu explained: “The proposed road sector reforms have positive consequential effects of on unemployment. Unlike road construction contracts, which have short lifespans, road maintenance creates sustainable employment. A single “Trunk A” road maintenance concession contract could employ over a hundred engineers and other professionals for over 30 years.”

The opportunity cost of Nigeria’s broken roads infrastructure is so monumental, hence the feelers are that Nigerians would rather pay N500 toll per trip than use dilapidated roads with the attendant risks such as abduction, robbery, road crashes, and loss of huge man-hours. Stakeholders who spoke on the issue, believe that the Road Bills are Nigeria’s sure path to ending the perennial woes over the nation’s federal roads. But will President Buhari assent to the Bills? Will the FG take advantage of the Bills to bring in the private sector? The ball is now in the President’s court.

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