The raging controversy over the erection and collection of tolls on the yet-to-be completed Lekki-Epe Expressway in Lagos State, Nigeria is a classic example of the consequences of dearth of communication between the government and the governed. The imperative of communication has been brought to the fore by the rejection of the idea of toll payment by the residents of the area covered by the expressway. While the purpose of this write-up is not to look at the merit or demerit of the proposed expressway (and in sincerity, the whole contract issue relating to this road raises a lot of questions), the importance of respect to the citizenry on the part of those fortunate enough to be in government is a virtue that should be strenuously cultivated.
The Lekki-Epe axis of Lagos State covers areas that include both the high brow and the relatively impoverished parts of the state. It includes the wealthy, the intelligentsia and the struggling masses of Nigerians. In reality, the bulk of the population of these areas actually consist of the struggling masses – the subsistence farmers, the fisher men, labourers and what have you. The axis might appear affluent around the Eti-Osa portion perhaps up to and including Sangotedo and Ajah, but a trip to the Epe end would tell a different story. I had lived around this area and had travelled this road extensively.
While the efforts of the Lagos State government in ensuring that segments of the state partake in industrial and economic development is commendable, yet the lack of adequate information, consultation and engagement of the people before the project was embarked upon was a great error. Gone are the days when governments in the country, in their wisdom, could unilaterally impose a conceived idea (no matter how well conceived) on the people without consultation. A successful idea has many stakeholders to contend with. While the decision to single out that area of Lagos for a Public Private Partnership (PPP) remains curious, the key issue involves the length of time granted to the concessionaire (Lekki Concession Company Limited, LCC), the content of the agreement between the Lagos State Government and LCC, the rate of construction of the proposed road and the haste with the implementation of toll collection by LCC.
The idea of Public Private Partnership is universally acclaimed and practiced. However, for a Third World country like Nigeria, special efforts should be made by governments to ensure that its citizens are not subjected to undue exploitation. Experience has shown that government control and regulation of such projects when completed is practically non-existent. A 49.5 kilometre of road was awarded at billions of Naira by Lagos State government in its wisdom and for whatever reason to a consortium of questionable composition. This project was awarded in April 2006 and as at now, only less than 5% of the road had been completed. Yet, the concessionaire (LCC) is extremely keen to start toll collection with a test run completed on August 10. The issue of the slow rate of progress of work is one of the issues affected residents are concerned about. Not only this, the haste at implementing toll collection by LCC also brings a vital question to the fore.
The idea of Public Private Partnership is to provide a social amenity without undue financial strain on the part of government. The idea is to free scarce resources which can then be utilised in other areas of development. However, a situation where a 49.5 km stretch of road is only about 5% completed with imminent toll collection is worrying. The main question here is this: was it part of the agreement between the concessionaire and the government that money raised from such toll collections would be used in financing the remaining parts of the road? The other issue is the length of time granted the concessionaire to operate the road before transfer to the government. Thirty years is no child play. The other questions are: would the suffering residents of this area be subjected to three decades of exploitation by an obviously influential and powerful concessionaire before heaving a sigh of relief? Would they have to pay toll for almost three decades? At what point would toll collection stop?
The other area of concern is government seeming lack of respect for the inhabitants of the proposed road. There is a worrying government apathy and reluctance to address pertinent issues raised by the people of the affected area. The people’s complaints centred amongst others on lack of communication and engagement on the part of government, the financial impact of double toll payment on a segment of the corridor, the reluctance of the government to provide an alternative non-tolled corridor and the seeming insensitivity of LCC to the people’s rejection of the idea of multiple tolling. Merely appealing to the people to accept an intolerable idea as being done by Governor Fashola is just not the solution.
There is no doubt that a lesson would have been learnt by the Lagos State government from this whole imbroglio. It is apt for the government to accept its mistakes and make urgently required amends. The best the government can do is to return to the drawing board and make efforts to reach out to the people in effecting a panacea to the issues at stake. Ignoring or simply using the paraphernalia of governance to impose an unpopular policy or idea would negatively harm the legacies of the incumbent governor. There should be clear guidelines on when toll collection should start and for how long within the 30 year period of the agreement with LCC. Giving LCC power to operate unfettered would only impoverish the citizens tremendously. Are there control machineries in place? What is the rationale in collecting tolls on a road that is only 5% completed? If premature toll collection is to finance the rest of the road, then why is the agreement with LCC fixed at 30 years? What does it cost the government to review the location, and in fact, the reduction in the number of tolling points on the road?
Governments in Nigeria would achieve a lot if they could understand that participatory democracy does not end with mere election to public offices. It entails the process of consultation and dialogue with the people on issues with direct relevance to them and also issues that could affect their financial wellbeing. It is built on the principle of respect to the people as its origin is basically the people’s power. The Lagos State government, by initiating and executing this controversial project, failed in its basic contract with the people, that of carrying them along in its policies and programmes. Lagosians (nay, Nigerians) are not monkeys that any government could just impose any programme it deemed fit upon. The process of governance should not be too remote from the people. This has been the style in Nigeria and it calls for a serious review and change. The proposed road on the Lekki-Epe corridor is meant to be used by the people and not donkeys or cows. As such, the people have a right of say over what they rightly or wrongly perceived as its inherent injustices. It is equally imperative for a responsible government to show a listening ear.