The ghost of tollgates

The ghost of tollgates demolished by the Obasanjo administration about 18 years ago appears to be warming its way back to the highways. Indeed, it has haunted successive administrations in power. Just recently, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) came up with a resolution to restore the collection points.

Works and Housing Minister, Babatunde Fashola, who announced the reintroduction of the exercise effective from a date to be fixed, hinted that interested investors in the sector should start warming up to key into the policy.

He explained that the FEC gave approval for the tolling of only dual carriageways of the 35,000 kilometres of the federal roads, saying that about 5, 050 kilometres representing14.3 percent would be covered. Breaking down the charges, he said car owners would pay N200 per trip, while owners SUVs, commercial buses, luxurious buses would shell out N300, N150 and N500, respectively.

The return of the tollgates has again ruffled feathers in many quarters. We recall that in December 2015, the 7thSenate adopted the recommendations of an Ad-hoc Committee on Works headed by Senator Barnabas Gemade, a seasoned civil engineer, which investigated the collapse of federal roads with an eye on tollgates.  However, no concrete followed those recommendations.

The following year, Senator Suleiman Nazif (APC, Bauchi), sponsored a resolution tagged “Need for Re-establishment of Tollgates on our Federal Highways”.

While moving the motion, Senator Nazif, said that the main purpose of tollgates was revenue generation which would aid effective and efficient maintenance of federal highways, noting that the deplorable state of roads in the country had become an avoidable national shame. No fewer than seven senators, including former Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, who presided over the plenary, queued behind Nazif.  

There is no doubt that the deplorable state of the federal highways with a total stretch of 34,340,90km, up from 3, 200km in 1914 and 66, 000km at independence in 1960, has become a terrible cross for Nigerian road users to bear.

The 7thSenator was not the first organ to toy with the return of tollgates. In March 2010 or thereabouts, the chairman of the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA), Engr. Abdulkadir Kure (now late) while addressing the press in Lagos, sold the ambitious revenue drive to ease the agency’s financial asphyxiation. Engr. Kure had identified dearth of funds as a major reason for the horrible state of the nation’s roads. In addition to the introduction of tollgates, FERMA had an ambitious plan to impose a five per cent petroleum tax to shore up its dwindling revenue. The agency had hoped to raise N30bn annually from the petroleum tax. This was in spite of the fact that in 2005, a Federal High Court had stopped former President Olusegun Obasanjo from imposing the levy. No one contested the ruling of the court because the initiative was generally thought to be infamous, ill-timed, exploitative and illegal.

Obasanjo’s move to introduce petroleum tax was to atone for his sin of mowing down the tollgates on the country’s major highways some years earlier. The demolition exercise cost the taxpayers over N300m.

In 2012, formerminister of Works, Mr. Mike Onolememen, also canvassed for the restoration of the tollgates as antidotes for the imminent collapse of the nation’s road infrastructure. The incumbent Minister of Works, Housing and Power, Mr. Raji Fashola, muted the idea upon assuming office, saying that the federal government might reintroduce tolls on federal roads in order to raise enough funds to maintain them.

 The federal government’s intervention between 1996 and 1998 through the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) had minimal impact considering the level of damage. In 2000, there was a further intervention programme tagged “Operation 500 Roads”, aimed at upgrading 500 roads across the country by the then Federal Ministry of Works, while 2003 saw yet another intervention, culminating in the establishment of FERMA. The frequency of these interventions has raised concerns about their efficiency and effectiveness, as a vast proportion of the road networks is still in deplorable conditions. This has been blamed on inconsistencies in government policies, flawed procurement practices and corruption.

Tollgates operation is a global practice. But in Nigeria, they constituted drainpipes. That was the reason why they were demolished in the first instance. While the scheme is not a bad idea altogether, the only way it can be operated successfully in this country is to ensure that it is not abused by those who would man them. To achieve a theft-free collection of levies, we advise that payment should not be made by cash. The government should device a means whereby motorists can obtain their tickets at some designated centres which should be closely monitored.      LThe role of transportation as a major driver of national economic growth and development cannot be over-emphasised. Here is a nation with over 95 percent dependence on road transport.We, therefore, suggest that the federal government should intensify its Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) taking FERMA into account as a viable means of bridging the funding gap in the road sector.