28 December 2012

Nigeria: Return of Tollgates

The Minister of Works, Mike Onolemenmen, recently reiterated the government's plan to reintroduce tollgates on federal highways across the country. According to the minister, the tollgates would first be introduced on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway as soon as the ongoing reconstruction and expansion works are completed.

Others would then follow in due course, he said. Mr Onolemenmen said that the plan to bring back tollgates to highways nationwide was basically to generate money, which would then be used to "sustain and maintain these roads so that they would not go back to the sorry state we met them".

The return of tollgates could have beneficial impact, but the minster's optimism about utilising the accruals derivable from them needs to be explained for it to be convincing. The truth is that the nation's roads are in such a sorry state today because of neglect by successive governments. The availability of funds is only one of the problems of road maintenance. Corruption, incompetent scheduling, and substandard work are part of the bane of Nigeria's road networks. In spite of vast sums of money routinely budgeted and supposedly spent on road maintenance and construction of new roads since 1999, the decay is evident.

Tollgates were prevalent all over the nation's highways in 1999. The problem was that despite the vast sums of money collected at such locations, these were not applied to maintain the highways and keep them in good condition as was the intention. This time around, if the tollgates are eventually re-introduced, the operators must ensure that revenue generated is applied to road maintenance. The authorities should also see to it that the tollgates do not become avenues for patronage by political office holders and party stalwarts and the revenues diverted to private pockets.

During the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, the tollgates were demolished because the government felt it was not getting the revenue due to it from the private operators of the facilities. The government accused all the franchises of cheating the government by fraudulently under-reporting toll collections. But these were operational breaches that could have been sorted out, and did not justify awarding contracts for the tollgates to be demolished.

Apart from the money they generated into government coffers, these tollgates also served other important purposes, like providing employment opportunities for many. They were also useful as security posts along the highways where travellers could always expect to find security posts, which provided avenues as resting points for weary drivers to break the journey and take a rest. In addition to all these, the tollgates played a role in providing highway services such as towing vehicles, mechanic workshops and spare parts dealers, vital services in a country with a vast but poorly maintained road networks.

In the new plan to re-introduce the tollgates, agencies such as the Federal Road Safety Commission should be provided with offices at each tollgate area. This consideration should also apply to the National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA), whose officials should be provided with tools to aid their duty. The Federal Ministry of Health should also establish clinics at each tollgate for treatment of accident victims with minor wounds and to provide stabilization of more serious cases before transfer to better-equipped facilities. It is possible that travellers would be more inclined to assist accident victims if they knew all they needed to do would be to take them to the next tollgate. The new tollgates should also have police posts with facilities for highway patrol. The private sector would migrate towards these facilities and each tollgate would then generate income in various ways for the surrounding community.

The return of tollgates is a good idea if properly managed; however the government should be more imaginative with their construction and design to ensure that they can sustain themselves, not just being avenues for collection of money.

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