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By NBF News
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Armed with a Ph.D in Public Policy and Administration with specialisation in public management and leadership, Architect Mike Oziegbe Onolememen, is a professional with no airs about him.

He has extensive knowledge of the Nigerian situation when it concerns roads and this, he has brought to his position as Minister of Works. Since his inception in office, he has embarked on massive reforms in the ministry, determined to leave an enduring mark for the future of the nation's 200,000 kilometre-road networks.

In this interview with a group of journalists, he gives a road map of how to restore Nigerian roads and ensure that the nation does not get to this inglorious path again. Excerpts:

What are the key responsibilities
of your ministry?
Generally, the ministry of Works has the responsibility for the planning, design, construction, rehabilitation and maintenance of federal roads across the country. You know in our country, basically we have about 200,000 kilometres of road networks out of that, the federal government has about a total length of 35,000 kilometres, the states that is the 36, share about 30,000 kilometres and the local governments and others account for about 135,000 kilometres.

Basically, the challenge that we face today can be traced to the many years of neglect of these roads. When you construct a road, there is what we call routine maintenance, a compulsory maintenance of the road, major maintenance of the road ought to take place every 15 years, but in our case, we have roads built 30 or 40 years ago not being maintained at all until the roads collapse. So, we have a situation in our hands where most of our roads are in deplorable condition, and the resources of government are dwindling and it is not able to respond in terms of funds allocation.

When you look at the situation that we have today where you have a total commitment of almost one trillion Naira, as at today and you look at the budgetary estimate which stands at a paltry N120 Billion, then you begin to really situate the problem that we face in the sector. Yet, if you are to extend the dualisation of the road coming from Ibadan to Ilorin, and you are to extend it to Kaduna, Ilorin to Kaduna with a distance of about 600 kilometres, you will need to spend almost N500 Billion just on that. Then Abuja to Lokoja, two dual carriage ways where we have spent some money even before now, you still need as much as nearly N98 Billion to complete that stretch, alone.

This is the problem. Even the Shagamu-Ore-Benin road, despite what we have spent we need about N35 Billion to complete that particular road. Between Kano and Maiduguri, the dualisation that is going on there, we still need about N102 Billion to complete that road. The East-West road from Warri to Port Harcourt which the ministry of Works has now transferred at the directive of the late President, despite what has been spent, we still need about N160 Billion to complete that road. So, with the little that we have in the ministry scattered around too many projects in the country, at the end of the day, you will not be able to see feasible impact and this is the major challenge.

So, what have you done faced with this enormous task?

When I came in, one of the first things I did in the ministry, the first time I had a meeting with directors of the ministry I said to them, on a road map of Nigeria and I gave them markers saying to them to indicate on this map of Nigeria, all our on-going projects. They did it and I was astonished.

I was astonished because the roads were scattered all over the places and there was no connection between them. No road network is planned or built that way, because they don't add up. Since they don't add up, it certainly cannot make any meaningful impact. So one of the first things I did was that I told them that from now on, this is not how we are going to go about road planning, design, rehabilitation and construction. We have to evolve a more pragmatic plan so that Nigerians can begin to see what we are doing in the sector. So, I said for me, I am going to set new guidelines. We are going to prioritise our road projects in the country.

Let us identify major road arteries in the country that help to oil the wheels of the national economy. And we did that prioritisation and a few of the major roads came up, because I told them that the pactice of just carting money to different zones and people are fighting to build roads in their constituency must stop. As far as I am concerned, the national economy is one economy, the national economy knows neither north nor south.

Because the man in Maiduguri needs to move products from Lagos or from Port Harcourt and trunk it all the way perhaps through Benin, Lokoja, Kaduna, Kano and on to Maiduguri. Or if they lift from Lagos, they need to move it from Lagos through Shagamu, Ore, Benin, Onitsha, so on the basis of that we did our prioritisation. First and foremost, we said the access roads to the Ports are major roads and that is the famous Oworonsoki-Oshodi-Apapa Expressway. Then of course, we prioritised the Shagamu-Ore-Benin Expressway; of course we prioritised the Onitsha-Onitsha-Port Harcourt Expressway; then we prioritised the Benin-Lokoja-Abuja Expressway and the Abuja-Kano and Maiduguri Expressway.

That is not to say that these are the only roads that we are giving attention to in the country but what we are saying is that these roads that I have mentioned if we are able to rehabilitate these roads completely and complete them, the only nexus is that all the roads I have mentioned are work in progress, the only missing link which is not yet on is the Benin-Lokoja stretch, if that one is added to it and we are able to drive them to completion; we would be able to bequeath to this nation a system of dual carriageway that will link all the six geo-political zones in this country. If we do that, we would have transformed the road sector sufficiently.

So for me, this is my article of faith and this is what I have set out to achieve and I am driving the process vigorously. And with the understanding of Mr. President and the Economic Management Team and I believe with the right support and with the allocation of adequate and sustainable financial resources; we should be able to drive these to completion in the life of the administration of President Jonathan.

What then would follow after this?
If we do that, we have some other key projects which we intend to add to it like the second Niger Bridge because of the delicate position of the Niger Bridge in Onitsha right now. As we speak, we are still carrying out maintenance work, integrity work on the existing bridge and we don't want to have a collapse in our hands and the entire South-Eastern part of Nigeria is cut off. So, we are driving the second Niger Bridge and we are collaborating with the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank. As it stands, the IFC is offering about $4 million for that project and as a government, we are also prepared to pay our counterpart fund for the project.

That is one, the second one is the Oweto Bridge which will connect the northern part of the country to the South-east and the South-south geo-political zones. And it lies between Nasarawa and Benue states. If that bridge is completed across the Benue river, it would shorten travel time to the South-east to between three to four hours. For us, it is important as it would remove pressure from the Lokoja Bridge. Because the two axis are already connected we have just completed the road between Nasarawa-Toto and Abaji, so if there is a problem on one you can take the other right now, there are no options. Sometimes it is unthinkable that a country as big and as rich as Nigeria what the road users suffer when there is an accident on some of these roads. As a responsible government and responsive administration, we are trying to at least ensure that Nigerians are provided alternatives in case of emergencies.

It would appear that you have it all mapped out what you want to do. Let's look at the challenges. Are there none?

We have a lot of challenges in the sector. Apart from funding, and of course you know that recently, we started driving the issue of Public the Private Partnership (PPP) because we have realised that government alone can no longer fund infrastructure in this country. So, one of the windows that is open to us to ensure sustainable funding of our road infrastructure is to encourage private sector participation in the development of these infrastructures. So we have a full-fledge Public Private Partnership Unit in my ministry which over the years have built enough capacity to drive road rehabilitation and construction through that particular vehicle. And we believe that in the next few years, the dividends will begin to show because in a few months we would be rolling out some projects through this initiative.

And only recently, I have also realised that the sector is being robbed of a lot of income that would otherwise be generated from some user-related charges on the road. We are living witnesses to the abrogation of toll gates and toll plazas in this country, a couple of years ago and to my mind, I think it was a wrong government policy. If that were to be in place, I don't think our roads would have degenerated to the level they did, presently. Everywhere in the world, there is no way users don't pay some form of service charge to infrastructural facilities that they use.

We have electricity in our homes and we pay charges for them; water is supplied to our homes, we pay charges for them, telephone is supplied, we pay charges for them and we use the GSM and we pay for them. Nigeria is the only country in the world in the past couple of years that the road infrastructure is free, thus there is no money for maintenance. The little money at the disposal of government is not able to guarantee sustainable maintenance of the roads.

So, we needed to do something and one of the things we decided to do is to reintroduce the toll plazas, toll gates across major roads in this country. But, we are very sensitive to the feelings of the people. So, in retooling the toll gate policy, we have also decided that we are not going to toll a road that is so bad, that there would be nothing to show for it. So, what we are doing is that as we rehabilitate and reconstruct the roads, any road we have completed construction work or rehabilitation work or we know we are just almost there; we are going to start tolling those roads so that those roads are never again allowed to degenerate to the state of disrepair that they were before we started those rehabilitation and reconstruction works. And in so doing, we should be able to sustain the all-year maintenance of these roads. And as we progress with the rehabilitation of the roads, so also we would keep mounting our toll plazas so that the sector can be self-sustaining.

Beyond that, we've also noticed that we do not have a proper framework, an institutional framework for the sustenance of our road infrastructure in this country. We are also working on a policy which eventually will be forwarded to the National Assembly for legislative action. Again, Nigeria is the only country in the world where you don't have appropriate institutional framework to pull funds together and manage our roads. So, recently, I inaugurated a committee on Road Sector Reform in Nigeria. The purpose of that committee is to come up with acceptable policy paper for the establishment of a Road Fund and a National Road Authority or Road Board.

The goal is to have this pool of fund where user-oriented charges can be pooled together and you have a Board that will manage the Fund and in this Board, government is going to be a minority participant in the Board. It is going to be a private-sector led Board. Where different stakeholders like National Association of Road Transport Owners (NARTO), National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE) and all sorts of people.

Then of course the Federal Road Maintenance Agency (FERMA), Federal Road Safety Corp (FRSC), representative of the Federal Ministry of Works that will represent government and they would be in the minority. It is to be led by a private sector person with integrity because we believe that the road infrastructure should be administered like a private business. That is the only way we can guarantee sustainable development and maintenance of our roads. So, we are upbeat that before the end of the year, this committee would have submitted its report which would have draft base for the establishment of the Road Fund and the National Road Authority.

Beyond what we collect at toll plazas which would be one of the sources of income for the Road Fund, we also have other user-related charges like charges through Weigh Bridges for overloaded vehicles and lots of other charges on our roads which are not being harnessed by government and they are entering private pockets. We have advertisements on the roads, right of way, we have people who commit crimes on the road and they are fined and such money ought to go into road maintenance then you have the five per cent fuel surcharge which though was enacted in 2007 in the Amendment Act of FERMA but has never been collected to date and for which we have developed a framework and a template for its collection from January 1, 2012 and this would be shared between the Federal and State governments on a 40 - 60 per cent ratio as enshrined in the law of FERMA. We also have Transit Vehicle charges. If you and I drive to any neighbouring ECOWAS country - Togo, Republic of Benin, Ghana, you pay Vehicle Transit Charges but in Nigeria you don't pay anything. And again, that particular Vehicle Transit Charge is also part of the 2007 Amendment Act of FERMA. We want to start collecting it and I have just approved that that collection should begin.

We need to help ourselves in this country and help the road sector. As long as there is integrity in the process, there would be accountability in fact, we would ensure that there is accountability. Just like the Toll Plazas that we are planning now, it is not going to be business as usual, we are going to have automated Plazas.

They are going to be monitored, they are going to be automated, we are going to ensure that it is not just driving to Toll Plaza and start paying cash, you can get a ticket or whatever from any of the designated Banks anywhere in the country and as you ply these roads, and you already have your sticker or ticket and with it you can go. So, we are working out all these details and we believe that with this, we should be able to turn the face of the road infrastructure in this country.

Beyond these which are funding related, we also have bureaucratic and technical challenges.

And among the bureaucratic challenges is that when I came into the ministry, I found that in the entire ministry, we had just one Federal Director of Highways who was responsible for taking decisions for the about 35,000 kilometres of Federal roads in this country sometimes with about 200 ongoing contracts. One man was expected to take decisions on them across the six geo-political zones in this country. As a Project Manager myself, and as a Construction Manager because I have a Masters degree in Construction Management, I thought that was bizarre.

There was no way such a structure could deliver good result. So, I briefed Mr. President and I got his approval to restructure the Highway Department and in the course of restructuring, I created six Directorates of Highway Construction and Rehabilitation, one in each geo-political zones of the country and appointed directors to man them with full powers for these Engineers.

So, what man used to do in Abuja now has six directors in the front line with all the powers to better deal with challenges arising from any of our on-going projects. In that way, projects would be completed faster, we would have value for money, the director is closer to the project in his zone and is able to take decisions that are germane and are a true reflection of what is on the ground. Unlike having a man seated in Abuja without any connection with project on ground and only relies on monthly reports from controllers some of whom are less than credible from what we have seen.

Even at the headquarters, we also created a full-fledge Design Department because we also have problems with some of the designs. Because designs were not properly articulated, they were done haphazardly, there was no coordination and no care was taken to ensure that designs were fully completed before award of road contracts. And these had in the past led to unnecessary variations and augmentation of contracts and these have cost this country lot of money.

And I said this cannot continue. I mean we shouldn't allow things to continue that way. With the coming in of this department, there are basic designs that the ministry can handle, it is not everything that has to be designed that should warrant the engagement of a consultant. That we've been able to do, so we have been to create two sub-divisions headed by two directors. One Road Design, the second one Bridge Design and that is being coordinated now by a Director of Highway in charge of Planning and Development who now seats as a coordinator.

And most importantly, we created a new department of Geo-Technics, Material and Quality Control. In fact, one of the greatest disservice to this nation in road construction has been the absence of this department because it ensures quality of the content of our roads. And this department has been down played and for some reasons, the department has never existed so there has been nobody to really drive issues of quality and to ensure that things like sub-soil investigation before construction are really carried out to the letter, laboratory tests and analysis are done and specifications are reviewed, updated and enforced on some of these our road projects. With the attendant result that most of the roads get bad as soon as they are completed.