By Adeola Akinremi
I travelled through Calabar-Ugep-Katsina Ala Federal Highway in Cross River State a few days ago and it felt like a road to hell. To compound my woe, I was moving at that time of the day when the shadows of the evening had enveloped the road and its environ.
Of course, I saw the grim picture of the road as I returned from Ogoja to Calabar the next morning. There are many roads like that across the country.
Yes, under President Goodluck Jonathan, federal roads have seen a remarkable revamp compared to what obtained in the past, yet there are still many roads scattered across the country that are best described as Golgotha – a place of suffering, sacrifice and death.
As my driver coerced the car into movement on this road on a recent Friday and I managed to gaze down at the big potholes on the famished road, I started a conversation with God. It was a normal conversation about heaven and hell as common with Nigerians when they are faced with death.
Ironically, exactly a year ago, on Wednesday July 31, N2.99 billon was approved by the federal government for the rehabilitation and extension work on Calabar-Ugep-Ogoja-Katsina Ala Road, according to the Minister of State for Works, Bashir Yuguda.
The elated Yuguda made the announcement after one of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meetings presided over by President Jonathan.
I can remember that Yuguda told the nation that the original cost of the project was N4.6 billion and the new approval of N2.99 billion would bring the total cost of the project to N7.6 billion. The new approval according to him would extend the road from kilometre 48 to kilometre 76 and would be completed within 24 months.
Now, 12 months have passed and Calabar-Ugep-Ogoja-Katsina Ala Road has changed from worse to worst.
Even Yuguda acknowledged that the road that is perhaps the busiest federal highway in the state has been in a serious state of disrepair.
So why the project hasn’t taken off after receiving approval of FEC is a question the Minister of Works, Mike Onolememen may have to provide answer for.
I can imagine Onolememen will find words to explain it away just as he did when a reporter asked him recently on the reason why road construction in Nigeria is expensive. He had compared what is budgeted for road construction in Nigeria to what is spent in Zambia.
Onolememen would have us believe that Nigeria is not doing enough in terms of funding for road construction. In his wisdom Zambia fares well by spending about 1 billion naira on the average each year to maintain a total road network of 7,000km, whereas, we with about 35,000km road network spends less than 50 per cent of what Zambians are spending on their roads. He even went further to say that “for a road network of 35,000km, sometimes we receive as little N60 to N70 billion. For years, the military did not even budget up to N10 billion for those roads.”
True or false? I’m familiar with Zambia economy and I have been to the country about five times, so I can say that Onolememen’s comparison is not a good one. Let me be clear that in its 2013 budget Zambia budgeted K3.4 trillion which translates into $6.5 million for its roads that required overhauling and for all you care the kind of mismanagement around here is not common with the Zambians.
I believe the problem with our road construction is not really paucity of fund as Onolememen wants us to believe, but the fact that federally funded projects are known for mismanagement and cost overruns. How would you explain that after one year, Ugep-Calabar-Ogoja-Katsina Ala Road is still there the way it was when it was approved for a reconstruction?
Now, you can expect cost variation that will further jack up the expected expenditure on the project. It is one thing, most of the contractors undertaking road constructions in Nigeria are politicians with proxy construction firms. So it is often difficult to make progress with road construction in Nigeria.
And where that happens, the citizens are the victims. We can all remember the story when Chief Bola Tinubu was the governor of Lagos State and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was the president of Nigeria. Everywhere in the city, we were greeted with road signs that pointed us not to danger or some guidance on where not to make a U-turn, but wordings like “bear with us this road belongs to the federal government.”
The Lagos State Government under Tinubu didn’t care a hoot about the fact that citizens dying on those badly damaged roads were citizens of Nigeria and not ‘federal or states’ citizens.’
And now, we are beginning to see that kind of ugly politics again where damaged federal highways are ignored in several states, despite record of deaths on those roads and difficult conditions citizens using them are exposed to.
If I were part of those charged with decision-making about maintenance of federal highways, I would be asking the federal government to reduce spending and downsize the federal role in transportation such as maintenance and construction of federal highways.
That approach would encourage state governments to pursue their own innovative solutions for highways and transit, such as new types of user charges, public-private partnerships, and privatization. And since most states wants to improve their Internal Generation Revenue (IGR), they will consider it a quickwin and the issue of ‘bear with us, this road belongs to the federal government’ won’t be there anymore.
Of course, construction of federal highways creates winner and loser states, and the losers are often states that have higher needs. Some states with growing populations are on the same pedestal with small states and that is a critical issue for consideration.
Essentially, it is important that we all as a nation, regardless of this federal character of a thing that is not even working any longer, recognise the distinction between problems of national scope (which may justify federal action) and problems that are merely common to the states (which will not justify federal action, because individual states, acting individually or together, can effectively deal with them.