Return of the toll gates? First, fix the roads




Last week, Babatunde Fashola, minister of works and housing, told reporters after a meeting of the executive council of the federation that on the say-so of the council toll gates would be back on federal highways throughout the country. We do not yet know how soon but I am sure contractors are already salivating.

My immediate reaction was, here we go again. Our forward movement as a nation continues to be defined by what the northern political icon, the late Mallam Adamu Ciroma, described as toing and froing. We move forward and then we move backward in the strange shuffle of the confused. Experts call this policy summersault, an inherent policy instability that ensures we move for ever in circles.

The primary objective of toll gates is to make motorists chip in for the maintenance of federal state roads. Toll gates serve some fundamental social and economic purposes too. Other nations recognised the wisdom of this long before we woke up to it. While ours lasted they provided safe and conducive resting places for weary motorists and their passengers. They had eateries. Some of them provided a one-day accommodation for motorists who did not feel safe enough to continue their journey late at night. The social importance of these services certainly went beyond the toll fees. And we were happy to pay for the privilege of the safety and comfort they provided.

No one could accuse former President Obasanjo of being ignorant of the economic and social uses of the toll gates when he scrapped them at a cost of put at between N200 million and N400 million in 2004. He it was who first introduced the three toll gates along the newly built Lagos-Ibadan expressway in 1978. By the time he returned to power as a civilian president in 1999, toll gates had been built in virtually all the federal roads. But two things had happened to them that must have displeased the president. One, the roads were comprehensively dilapidated. Two, the toll gates were held hostage by our national affliction – corrupt practices. The toll collectors freely helped themselves to their daily collections and left the collection plates empty. The roads were not fixed because there was no money to fix them. The situation was beyond pathetic.

Abacha responded to the corruption in the system by farming out the toll gates to his political associates, some of whom were his serving or former ministers.  Each man was allocated a certain number of toll gates and was only obliged to pay a certain amount of money to the federal government each month. Abacha’s solution did not improve the toll collection; it worsened it. Those who owned the toll gates had no obligations towards improving the condition of the roads on which they collected tolls. The toll gates were bringing in a pitiful N63 million in revenue. It could have been worse if Abacha had not used part of the fuel price increase to set up PTF with the sole purpose of fixing the federal roads. Buhari was the chairman of PTF.

Obasanjo took one look at the situation and concluded that the toll gates had become a ‘nuisance’ because the N63 million from them was not worth the inconvenience to motorists. A president should be concerned about his people funding their own inconvenience. My suspicion at the time was that the president scrapped them outright to get even with his mortal enemy by denying his former political associates the right to enrich themselves at public expense. But it would be more correct so say that his action was informed by his personal disappointment with the failure of the toll gates to rise to his expectations in 1978. I would imagine that he also wanted to plug one visible loophole to stop the country from bleeding. You could not blame him.

Still, at Newswatch magazine we had our reservations about the economic and social correctness of the president’s action. We thought that given the primary objectives of the toll gates, scrapping them was an extreme position. We knew that things had gone all wrong with the toll gates. We thought the president could correct them and save the toll gates. We commissioned some construction experts to work out the mathematics of demolishing them. We wanted to obtain some hard evidence to support our argument then that it was better to clean up the system and reposition the toll gates rather than scrap them.

I do not have the full details now, but I recollect that the experts found that the contracts for demolishing the toll gates exceeded the original cost of constructing them by as much as one and half times in some cases. The toll plazas came down. The nation lost in constructing them; it lost in maintaining them and it lost in demolishing them.

            Now, we are being dragged back to square one by the Buhari administration, perhaps to put a lie to Obasanjo’s action and prove that toll gates are money spinners. This has been Fashiola’s pet ambition although there are suggestions that the Jonathan administration mooted the idea of re-introducing the toll gates towards the end of its life. Perhaps the minister wants to bring his experience with the success operation of toll gates as governor of Lagos State to bear on the need to reverse Obasanjo’s decision. He took his argument to a committee of the national assembly in November 2017. He told the lawmakers that money realised from the toll gates would be used for the statutory maintenance of the federal roads. He said then that “we have concluded plans to reintroduce toll gates across the country and we have finalised the designs.”

            I find his argument that they want to bring back the toll gates because there is no law stopping the federal government from doing so rather puerile. I say so with due respect. This is not about the law. It is about doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. I expect Fashiola to advance a stronger and more cogent reason than what he has offered us so far. Policy reversal has its implications and ramifications and ought not to be indulged in casually or even cynically.

            So far, he has provided no evidence show that earnings from the toll gates would be sufficient to keep federal roads in good condition. Indeed, according to Fashiola, “the expectation that collection of tolls will then produce the replacement cost of the road is perhaps not accurate because the traffic toll count that we have done on major highways does not suggest that there is enough vehicular traffic across all roads.” So, why go ahead with what is bound to fail? I am afraid his statement throws us back to Obasanjo’s reason for scrapping them. We need to be sober about this.

            PDP is opposed to the return of the toll gates. In his reaction Kola Ologbondiyan, its spokesman, said “toll plazas amidst economic hardship and inflation is ill-conceived and anti-people. Such an idea amounts to executive bullying which cannot be justified under any guise as it will lead to more increase in costs of goods and services across the country.”

Shorn of its political sentimentality, there is some sense in it. We know that food prices rise when policemen at check points ask food transporters to contribute more towards their family support. If there is no better reason than that a PDP government under a man this administration would not be found in bed with, scrapped the toll gates and an government is obliged to bring them back for the heck of it, it would be patently unwise.

            Those who argue that it is necessary to reverse Obasanjo on the toll gates because Nigerians should not expect to get everything free do have a point. After all, this is Nigeria, not Freetown. Nigerians must be made to appreciate their obligations as citizens to pay for some basic services. But once more, we are approaching this without first of all doing what should be done to ensure that if the toll gate policy failed once, it would not fail again.

            For the toll gates to return, the federal government must discharge one critical obligation. It must fix the roads. The government would be asking too much of us to pay for the privilege of dancing kokoma on the dilapidated federal roads. They do not justify tolls in their present condition. Travelling on almost all the federal roads is an ordeal. We travel in tears. We should we not pay for the privilege of travelling in tears. Fix the roads and then consider the return of the toll gates. It is only fair.

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