It is often said that those who do not learn from history, more often than not, tend to repeat mistakes of the past. To discerning Nigerians, history was repeated on Friday, April 16 when, exactly 1, 090 days after the former Minister of Transportation, now Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, announced her entry into Nigeria’s political consciousness by weeping over the Benin-Ore Expressway, Nigerians were treated to another needless emotive spectacle when the new Minister of Works, Senator Sanusi Daggash, during an inspection visit to the Sagamu end of the infamous road, lamented its sorry state. He labeled it “the worst on the planet and one of the notorious in the world”.
In August 2007, Alison-Madueke, fully attired in her red overall and helmet to match, had, during a visit to the collapsed road, whose strategic importance to the socio-economic life of the country cannot be over-emphasised, on August 6, 2007, wept bitterly because of the atrocious state of the road. After wiping her tears-soaked face, she mustered some emotional strength to declare that she was “actually very, very unhappy today at what I have seen. I am very displeased that this road was allowed to degenerate to this level”.
To cut the image of an uncommon public official in this clime, where government holds the citizens with legendary contempt, Alison-Madueke did the unusual by going ahead to offer her sincere apologies “for the deplorable state that I have found this road in”, stressing that “This is inhuman and unacceptable”. (There are many who would even say that the visit was the only thing of note the woman achieved all through the period she held sway in the Ministry of Transportation before she was later moved to the Solid Minerals ministry). Whether the bad state of the road she complained about was unacceptable to her as a person or the government she served is unknown, but what is known is that more than two years after this incident, nothing has changed for the better on the road and other federal roads across the country.
Instead, the condition has since deteriorated to such a level that failed portions of the road, which have become a nightmare to both motorists and commuters, have, as a recent report put it, “craters wide enough to swallow vehicles”. A recent study even suggested that “more than 5,000 premature deaths are recorded annually on Nigerian roads”, much of which reportedly occur on the Benin-Ore stretch.
Perhaps, it was this sad reality that informed the widely reported statement credited to Chief Emeka Anyaoku, the former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, recently, that Nigeria’s highways are worse than those of war –ravaged countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. An elder statesman and international diplomat of repute, Anyaoku is not given to making frivolous or inflammatory statements, but at the inaugural lecture series of the Federal Road Safety Commission last November in Abuja, he uncharacteristically blamed the nation’s political leadership for the appalling state of roads across the country.
Delivering a lecture entitled, “Capital Waste on Nigerian Roads”, Anyaoku attributed the incidence of auto accidents in the country to the “dilapidation of existing road networks”. In particular, he asserted that the pathetic state of Nigerian roads was a direct consequence of the failure of the government in road construction and maintenance, resulting in Nigeria’ roads becoming a ‘huge slaughter slab, where human lives are worth little or nothing”.
It is the expectation of many, however, that Daggash will go beyond his emotive expression to find lasting solution to the huge embarrassment which the country’s roads have become over the years. This is particularly urgent because, as an analyst observed recently, with roads accounting for about 70 percent of the movement of goods and services and 90 percent of socio-economic activities generally in Nigeria, it is clear that, without putting our roads infrastructure in their proper perspective, it would be difficult to achieve the Vision 20-20/20 initiative. Another study conducted in 2008 projected that Nigerians lose over N450 billion each year, being the amount spent on vehicle maintenance, due to the deplorable state of road network across the country.
The Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Works, Chris Berewari, was reported recently to have said that most federal roads in Nigeria were bad because funds appropriated for their construction and repair were hardly released on time. Berewari, who led members of the committee to assess some federal roads in Ondo State, also faulted the shoddy manner contractors handled federal roads, and specifically condemned the state of the Akure-Ilesa road that linked Osun and Ondo states and the Sagamu-Benin expressway, which connects the Western part of the country with the East.
To underscore his belief that the paucity of funds is at the root of the debilitated roads, he said that out of the N9.7billion earmarked for the rehabilitation of the Ofosu-Ore portion of the Benin-Sagamu Express Road, only N1billion had been released for the project. According to him, “The N1 billion that was released for this project is not even up to 15 per cent mobilisation fee. How do we expect good results in this kind of arrangement?” he wondered.
Interestingly, Daggash averred during his inspection tour of the Benin-Ore expressway that the N9.7billion contract for the road would be completed in November 2011. Although, this is not the first time such a promise would be made in the last 10 years, it means that, till then, Nigerians would have to be content plying the road with all its attendant costs and consequences. There is a need, therefore, for an audit of the various budgetary allocations on the road and other federal roads since 1999. Those found culpable should be brought to justice by the relevant agencies.
Given the difficulty in repairing and maintaining the country’s roads, it would be apposite to encourage the Federal Government to fast-track, without further delay, the concessioning of the federal highways to the private sector under a Public Private Partnership arrangement.
But by far, the most enduring solution to the country’s dilapidated road networks, especially the Benin-Ore expressway, is the rehabilitation of the moribund railway system. This is so because even if the government rebuilds the road into a 10-lane expressway, it would still not be able to sustain the huge human and vehicular traffic on it. But, this will not happen unless the anachronistic 1955 Nigerian Railway Act is repealed immediately by the National Assembly, to pave the way for private sector participation in the sector.