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Return of tollgates good, but concerns remain

The federal government of Nigeria is planning to reintroduce tollgates on the country’s highways and the aim, according to government authorities, is to generate alternative funding for maintaining road infrastructure most of which are in deplorable condition.

The return of the tollgates after they were dismantled 17 years ago by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration is good and has been welcomed by Nigerians who share the government’s view that it would not only improve the condition of the highways, but also lead to economic development.

It has been established that budgetary allocation for road maintenance is grossly inadequate. This is underscored by the fact that Nigeria’s entire planned expenditure in the 2021 budget is only 65 percent of what South Africa spent on infrastructure last year.

Previous governments’ efforts at creating other investment vehicles to unlock private capital for infrastructure financing were based on the public-private partnership (PPP) model. These gave rise to the National Integrated Infrastructure Master Plan (NIIMP) and the Road Trust Fund (RTF) both of which have seen limited success.

To ensure success of the return to tolling, the Federal Government is concessioning 12 federal highways, which, in our view, offer the country one of the most sustainable options.

The 12 federal highways are to be concessioned under the government’s Highway Development Management Initiative (HDMI).The highways include the Benin-Asaba, Abuja-Lokoja, Kano-Katsina, Onitsha-Owerri, Shagamu-Benin and Abuja-Keffi-Akwanga highways.

Others are the Kano-Shuari, Potiskum-Damaturu, Lokoja-Benin, Enugu-Port Harcourt, Ilorin-Jebba, Lagos-Ota-Abeokuta, and the Lagos-Badagry-Seme Border highways, which have a combined 1,963km stretch.

A document on the objectives of the HDMI indicates that the initiative would attract sustainable investment and funding in the development of road infrastructure in the country. It explains that the HDMI would maximise the use of assets along the right-of-way and develop other highway furniture.

We share the opinion that the return of the tollgates is a policy summersault and lack of continuity in government policies and programmes

“Our target is to develop an ecosystem along the federal highway network by bringing multi-dimensional resources of skills, finance, technology and efficiency into national highway governance,” Babatunde Fashola, Minister of Works and Housing, assures.

These are lofty ideas and elevated propositions, but Nigerians have their concerns and reservations. We are not any different. These concerns revolve around the poor condition of the highways and revenue that will be generated from the tolling.

Nigeria’s total network of roads is estimated at 200,000 kilometres. Out of this number, 32,000 kilometres are federal roads while 31,000 kilometres belong to the states. Only about 60,000 kilometres are paved, leaving 135,000 kilometres untarred and, therefore, not motorable.

Based on the above, Nigerians are yet to come to terms with the sincerity and seriousness of the federal government in concessioning these highways as concessionaires are businessmen who would not, under normal circumstances, invest in what is overly ‘bad business’.

Again, it remains to be seen what, in clear terms, the government’s real intentions are. We share the opinion that the return of the tollgates is a policy summersault and lack of continuity in government policies and programmes.

A major reason cited by the Obasanjo administration for scrapping tolls on the highways was monumental corruption. A daily return of N63 million, the government said was unacceptable as it was grossly inadequate to maintain the roads.

Fashola has projected as much as N365 billion yearly from the concessioning and tolling of the highways. That is quite encouraging and gives hope that the country’s roads infrastructure would be maintained. But what are the guarantees that the money would be deployed to purpose?

Nigerians argue that if the purpose of bringing back the toll gates would be met, which is bringing the revenue to be generated to maintain the road; there is nothing bad in it. But if the idea is for individuals to line their pockets, it is going to be a wasteful effort. For us, nothing could be truer.

To be successful, the government needs to employ automation where individuals can pay with auto cards, like in other climes, so that the money will not pass through individuals. Additionally, the National Assembly should come up with legislation that ensures revenue collected would not only be accounted for, but also used for road maintenance.

We have our fears on how effective and sincere the tolls will be in maintaining the roads. Government needs to tell Nigerians how sincere and practicable the idea will translate into the maintenance of roads because the roads need continuous and constant maintenance for them to be safe for users.

We live in a country where the government hardly respects contract agreements. Wale Babalakin, Bi-Courtney Group’s chairman, notes that public private partnership (PPP), despite its highpoint for developing public infrastructure, cannot work in Nigeria because of the government itself which, he says, appears to be in competition with the private sector.

It is our expectation that the government should develop the capacity to stand on high moral ground this time to prove all skeptics wrong, by living true to its promises and seeing the highways concessioning to its logical and successful conclusion in good time. And time for action to begin is today.

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