Return of toll gates: Cost of dodging corruption

The rulers of Nigeria have a diffident way of dodging obstacles the way the builders of the ancient Itu-Ikot Ekpene road in Akwa Ibom state did. The dust road was built in 1901 apparently with primitive tools that could not confront the horrendous natural obstacles in the terrain.
The terrain, especially in Use Ikot Oku where Mary Mitchel Slessor’s tomb is, musters clusters of steep hills and deep ravines.

The builders cowered to the horrendous terrain and ended up building a road that was treacherously long, calamitously crooked and inherently dangerous. The blind curves were motorists’ nightmares.

Fougerolle, a French construction company, confronted the natural obstacles when it constructed the Calabar-Itu-Ikot Ekpene road in 1975.

The intimidating hills fell to Fougerolle’s bulldozers as they were used to fill the deadly ravines that the previous road builders dodged. In my village, Ikot Aba, Ibiono Ibom LGA, the steep hill that lorries laboured to climb with gear-one, was levelled until it reached clean underground water some 150 feet below.
What emerged from the daring posture of Fougerolle engineers was a straight road that one could see two kilometers away at some spots.

Nigeria needs rulers who can confront obstacles the way the engineers of Fougerolle did on Calabar-Itu-Ikot Ekpene road. Corruption is the major obstacle to Nigeria’s development and no ruler in the last 61 years had the courage to confront it. They all dodged the obstacle like the builders of the ancient Itu-Ikot Ekpene road.
In 2003, former President Olusegun Obasanjo was convinced that corruption was the obstacle to the generation of enough funds from the toll gates for the maintenance of federal highways.
The solution was to confront corruption by arresting those who were stealing money generated from the toll gates, prosecuting and sending them to jail to deter others. The toll gates should have been concessioned.

Obasanjo dodged the obstacle (corruption) and confronted the toll gates instead. The toll gates fell to Obasanjo’s bulldozers and the president watched as corruption relocated to other parts of the mammoth federal civil service structure.
The president punished Nigerians for the sins of the toll gate fraudsters.

In a bid to raise money for road maintenance in the absence of the toll gates, Obasanjo imposed a petrol tax which was paid by everyone including peasant farmers hauling their farm produce to the markets in rickety vehicles plying roads that had become death traps.

Right now, importers and exporters in land-locked Niger Republic have convinced the present administration that extortions at police and customs check points on Nigerian roads (corruption) is the obstacle to their using Nigerian ports.

Like the builders of the ancient Itu-Ikot Ekpene road, the federal government is dodging the obstacle (corruption) at a colossal cost to Nigerians. Government has offered to build a $2 billion railway to Maradi in Niger Republic to enable Niger importers and exporters dodge the corruption on Nigerian roads.

The solution to the $2 billion (N1 trillion) rail project would have been for government to order the police and customs to dismantle the dubious road blocks and allow everyone, including Nigerians to move freely.

That would not only encourage importers and exporters in Niger Republic to patronize Nigerian ports, but would drastically reduce food inflation in Nigeria.

Farmers and traders factor the cost of the extortion at police check points into the price paid by consumers for food items. They constitute anything from five to 10 per cent of the cost of food items.

The federal government would have succeeded in bringing down food inflation by anything from five per cent if it had confronted corruption by removing the dubious road blocks that compelled it to spend N1 trillion to lure importers and exporters in Niger Republic.
The cruel and absurd decision to demolish the toll gates in a desperate bid to dodge a formidable foe (corruption), has resonated all over again. Government has ordered the rebuilding of the toll gates as Nigeria teeters precipitously on the throes of bankruptcy.
Obasanjo spent N300 million demolishing the toll gates at a time when the naira was exchanging at N80 to the dollar. Now the naira trades shamefully at N517 to the dollar at the parallel market.

At current inflation rate, what Obasanjo demolished with N300 million might be rebuilt with well over N3 billion. Besides, government is curiously silent on who would manage the new toll gates.

Everyone knows that leaving the new toll gates in the hands of government officials would boil down to putting new wine in an old skin. The men who diverted the funds from the demolished toll gates into their pockets are waiting on the wings to plunder proceeds of the new toll gates.

The only sane option is to concession the toll gates to private operators. Unfortunately, corruption has raided the concession process in Nigeria.

MM2, the second terminal of the domestic wing of Murtala Mohammed International Airport (MMIA), is a sad reminder of private sector participation in infrastructure development gone awry.

It was founded on corruption and built on insidious legal ambiguity. Agreement of the transaction was so ambiguous that several years after MM2 came on stream, ownership of the general aviation terminal (GAT), the old domestic wing of the airport, is still a subject of litigation.

Besides, the number of years it would take the concessionaire to recover his investment and hand over the project to government remains as treacherous as a goal post that is adjusted when the ball is in flight. There are claims that the concessionaire drafted the agreement for MM2 project and deliberately couched it in insidious legal ambiguity.

Despite the flaws plaguing MM2, concession remains the best option for managing the new toll gates. The flaws can be addressed.
Government must verify the integrity of those to be handed the concession. They must be given realistic targets that would generate enough funds for the rehabilitation of the decaying roads.

Besides, money from the toll gates should not be paid into federal government coffers. The cumbersome process of getting funds from government accounts is why we spend billions of naira reconstructing roads that could have been maintained with a few millions.

A committee of men of integrity should be set up to manage funds from the toll gates and ensure prompt disbursement for road maintenance.

The second coming of toll gates is a sad reminder of the eternal truth that our timid way of dodging corruption is a very expensive and licentious way of managing the economy. It is responsible for Nigeria’s worsening financial asphyxiation.

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