One of the bounties of the eased locked down is the freedom, once more, to travel across state boundaries.
I didn't miss that one as I took to the road on Tuesday last week driving from Abuja to Kaduna. It was a mildly warm afternoon, with resplendent clouds adorning the skyline, some white, some dark, keeping away the sun and threatening rain. There was a balmy breeze as I drove out towards Zuba avoiding the Dutsen Alhaji to Bwari route, which I always found convenient to link up to the Kaduna road at Jere. I enquired before driving out and learnt that even though it was many days into the eased lockdown, the barriers put up by Kaduna State Government along the route after Bwari were yet to be brought down. This meant that commuters who had to use the route would have to endure the agony of detouring into the bush whenever they met the barriers with all attendant hardship on their vehicles.
It was not going to be smooth driving on the Zuba to Jere route either. I had a forewarning of what to expect but didn't anticipate it to be as bad as what I saw. Onwards from Zuba the road is defined by the ongoing construction work. The contractors have turned a lot of the road upside down, forcing the two-way traffic into a narrow pathway that is full of potholes and gullies. Ordinarily, the highway is always choked with vehicles, many heavy-duty, particularly tankers and other long vehicles. Imagine consigning all these to a narrow part of the highway that is already dilapidated and you would understand the bedlam that is unleashed. To make matters worse there seem to be no real construction work going, as it seems the project that started more than a year ago is faltering to a stop, for now.
Many readers that have been on this road will recall that the stretch between Zuba and Jere could be covered in about half an hour. Now due to the obstructions by the none-going works on the highway, you would count yourself lucky to make it in two hours. But that's only part of the problem. The other obstacle is the ungainly parking of tankers at Tafa. This settlement is one of those must stopovers for tanker drivers on their way, wherever, up north. It is an age old tradition for long distance tanker drivers to have these stop overs as resting points to re-energise themselves for the tasks ahead. The problem is, without proper supervision, they park their vehicles anyhow along the highway for long periods constituting danger to other commuters.
In Tafa, it was worse than that. These tanker and trailer drivers routinely double-park their vehicles forming a long queue on the highway, many of them probably heavily laden with petrol, with the possibility of conflagration when ignited. Tafa had been a place of many fatal accidents over the years. In 2008, a notable Katsina Prince, who served as a minister in the First Republic and his wife tragically lost their lives on their way to Abuja in Tafa when their car hit a tanker. The last infamous occurrence was the accident in October 2017, when a fuel tanker exploded in Tafa killing 3 persons, injuring 15 and destroying 17 houses, a mosque, 12 shops and several other tankers.
I recall that Governor Ahmed El-Rufa'i rushed to the scene to commiserate with the community. During the visit, the governor was quoted to have made a firm promise that as soon as the Trailer Park being constructed in Tafa is completed, all the tankers would leave the highway. That promise rang in my head as I snaked through the long queue of tankers double-parked along the whole stretch of Tafa that Tuesday afternoon. El-Rufa'i is one governor I respect for his avant-garde performance when he was FCT minister and what he is now doing in transforming Kaduna city, but it beats me how the governor forgot the promise he made in Tafa three years ago.
The tortuous driving continued up to Jere with all the smaller vehicles like mine hemmed in by long and slow moving tankers and trailers along those diversions. Fortunately, after Jere the road cleared and one could drive freely and once more one could ruminate over the grim fate of Nigerian highways. Over the years, we have witnessed the degradation of highways all over the country. From Abuja the nation's capital, one cannot reach any state capital on a smooth surface. Within the states it must be worse. The silver lining in this is that there is at last a realisation that government alone is incapable of maintaining the number of roads we have, let alone constructing new ones. The funds are just not available. The only alternative is attracting the private sector as investors and partners in the construction, maintenance, and operation of these roads.
That is why it is noteworthy when, a few days ago, the Minister of Works, Babatunde Fashola announced the government's plan to concession ten major highways across the nation to private firms. However, I hope the government has done its homework properly to avoid the pitfalls of previous attempts. The minister might recall that as Lagos State governor, he superintended over the PPP, the Lekki-Epe Expressway concession for a duration of 30 years to Lekki Concession Company (LCC), a venture that turned out to be disastrous. Two years into the contract, the concession collapsed for many reasons and Governor Fashola had to use N7.5 billion of Lagos State tax payers' money to buy out the company. He was also living in Lagos and must have witnessed how the federal government concession to Bi-Courtney for the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway spectacularly collapsed too - a matter that is still in court. I pray the minister had picked lessons from those disastrous outings. But to me, it doesn't look so, as the body language and sound bites from government officials on this matter has not radically changed. We might end up in the same mess again, unless - -.
We shall return to the subject in due course. Keep a date with this page.
From my mail bag: Timely roar from the Villa
BUHARI HASSAN: "Timely roar from the villa? Not by a long shot. A long retired top NNPC management staff once narrated to us about what may qualify as the first roar from PMB. In the mid-seventies, the Federal Military Government decided to address the perennial shortage of petroleum products. Top management staff of the corporation were summoned by the federal commissioner of petroleum resources about the government's intention to build new refineries, expand existing one, and build new product depots and connect them with a network of pipelines, pump stations and terminals. Confronted with such a momentous proposal, the top brass responded with typical bureaucratic-induced inertia with proposed multiple feasibility and market surveys, front end engineering and final investment decisions etc. They were granted a grace period to revert with firm project timelines. At the expiration of the grace period they had hardly moved from their previous position.
The then Federal Commissioner of Petroleum Resources, and you guessed right, Muhammadu Buhari, presented a complete project brief with studies, designs, original equipment suppliers and contract documents. The startled management staff quietly but firmly decided to sit up and fall in line, to use the military term. This short account is how the country increased its refining capacity and constructed over 3000 km of product pipelines, later expanded to 5000 km, 14 pump stations and 21 storage depots. The second PMB roar is the flagging off of the 614 km Ajaokuta, Abuja, Kaduna, Kano gas pipeline on June 30 2020. The cantankerous politicians and some of the garrulous retired generals you mentioned were simply out-manoeuvred and out-flanked by the wily general."