The politics of state and federal roads is dicey - Onolememen, Minister for Works

By The Citizen

Minister of Works, Arch Mike Onolememe, knows the situation of Nigerian roads like the back of his hand as he demonstrates in this interview. Onolememe speaks on what the Jonathan administration is doing to fix the roads and the challenges that go with  it.

Excerpts: Let's start from the Benin-Shagamu Road. As  far back as 1987, rehabilitation of the road started. Almost 25 years down the line, we are still on the rehabilitation; the Ore-Benin axis is now so bad. When will that road be delivered? If a road were to be completed today, immediately, what we call routine maintenance on the road starts. There are always a number of activities, even on a good road because that is international best practice. But in the case of the Benin-Ore Road, at the time you mentioned, 1987, I was also living in Lagos, and I used the road quite often.

There had been intermittent work on the  road, and, from the  outnset, those were just palliative repairs or, if you like, maintenance works at the time. But  at about 2009, major rehabilitation contracts were awarded on that road and,  because the Ministry of Works had very paltry budgetary provisions, the contracts were segmented. In other words, the ministry's policy at the time was to target the most impacted parts of the road, so it was like an ad hoc approach.

It was  not until 2011 when we came in that we decided to take a holistic look at the road and strategise to rehabilitate the entire stretch  from Benin up to Shagamu, and that has been on-going. From time to time, we are also hampered, but one of the things we set out to do in 2011 when we came was to ensure that the subsisting contracts we inherited were quickly finished.

The alignments you talked about from Benin to Ofosu were the sections we inherited, and we have since completed that. We  awarded another one from Ofosu to Ore, which has also been completed. Just before that was completed, as part of our desire to get the entire stretch rehabilitated, we awarded a third section of the road, which is from Ore to Ajebandele.

President Goodluck Jonathan (m) being assisted by Mr Hartlied Harald, Asphalt Supervisor, Julius Berger (left) and Gov Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun state, operating construction equipment during the flag off ceremony of Lagos Ibadan Expressway Reconstruction in Sagamu photo by Joe Akintola

In fact, if you have travelled  on that road in recent times, you would discover that  work  has been on-going, and it is going on well. The final section of that road, which is  Ajebandele to Shagamu, was put in our  2014 budget, which means the contract  will certainly be awarded this year, and, by the time the third section is  completed, we estimate that the Ogun section, which used to be the very good part of the road that has now deteriorated, will be okay.

Only this morning (Thursday February 20) the Managing Director of RCC, the contractor working on the road,  was with me and  we discussed how  to go about it, particularly the way we can guarantee sustainable funding of that last section, once the contract is  awarded. I want to assure that government is determined. Before now, paucity of funds was the problem.

However, since 2012, that project has also benefited from enhanced funding as result of funds from the Subsidy Reinvestment Programme (SURE-P). As a result of the SURE-P funds and some other funds we are trying to access, I want assure you that the entire corridor would be rehabilitated.

You  mentioned the issue of funding, but we know that it is one to have budgetary allocations, it is another to have the funds released; even with the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway reconstruction, there have been questions about how much exactly it is going to cost, and when the project be completed? First of all, the issue of funding is germane. It is a major challenge because, often times, budget provisions are made, but in terms of releases, the provisions are not matched. A point in case was last year when we had a budget of N141 billion for highway projects in the ministry, but, at the end of the day, we received only N65 billion.

Usually, that is the problem, but what we have done differently this time  is that we have also been able to tap into non-budgetary sources of funds. One of the first things we did when we came on board in 2011 was to  institute a road sector reform committee in order to take a holistic look at the  sector and our road development programme, and look at how they could be properly  funded in line with international best practice.

Although the recommendations of that committee, which include the setting up of a Roads Authority and the creation of a road fund that can  help to fill the funding gap in road development projects and programme, we have since been implementing  the  recommendations by looking towards the private sector and other non-budgetary sources of finance for our road development projects.

We are looking at private finance initiatives, enhanced collaboration with multilateral and development agencies around the world. A  case in point is  the Federal Road Development Project which has been  the World Bank putting  down about $330 million  and  has led to the effective rehabilitation of the Nigerian-Cameroun transport corridor from Enugu through Abakaliki to Mbok, through Ogoja junction to Ikom and Mfam.

That entire corridor was made possible by tapping the World Bank and Africa Development Bank funds. Also, last year, we were part of the President's trip to China and we also hope that trip will  yield another $285 million into our road development programme.

Beyond that, since 2012, we have  been a  recipient of enhancing funding from the SURE P, and, more importantly, we are also working with the private sector on some public private partnership scheme. The major one we are handling now in that respect is the Second Niger Bridge; the financial architecture has just been finalized, which is why we are preparing for the ground breaking for the bridge in a couple of weeks Looking at the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, which you asked a pointed question on, that project is designed to cost N167 billion.

If you recall, the project has been awarded to two contractors in two sections: Julius Berger Nigeria Ltd handling Section 1, from Lagos to Shagamu interchange, and RCC Nigeria Ltd handling Section 2, from Shagamu interchange to Ibadan. The financial architecture we designed for that  project remains the same as approved by the Federal Executive Council at the material time.

What we said  was that the Federal Government was going to contribute about N50 billion into the common purse. From the 2014 budget alone, we are contributing N25 billion, and the final N25 billion, which will now form the total of the Federal Government commitment to the project will be part of the 2015 budget. But beyond that, the outstanding money, which is  almost N120 billion is being raised through a private finance initiative.

The private finance initiative involves  our fund arranger, the Infrastructure Bank, and  you have credible agencies including  the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority, who are also part of the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for that. There are  many private sector agencies, including  financial institutions, that have indicated  interest in putting this money down.

We are finalizing on that. It is part of tapping into private sector resources to implement critical infrastructural  projects of government that are germane to the running of our economy. If you look at the Lagos Ibadan Expressway, it is a major economic arterial route. For government, doing that road is not just a social service, it is also an economic service, and,  because it is an economic route, it can benefit from private sector investment, and such investment can be recouped.

With the PPP you talked  about, does it mean you are introducing toll gates on Lagos-Ibadan Expressway? We  have decided that it is only economical routes on which private sector resources have been deployed in completing those roads that we will reintroduce toll plazas, and  Lagos-Ibadan Expressway is one of them. Tolling is part of international best practice because when you borrow money from the private sector to do an infrastructural  project, the project itself should pay back.

That is why we do the outline and final business case studies, which have all proved that Lagos-Ibadan Expressway  is a viable road, and that, based on  traffic flow on the road,  investors would be able to recoup their investments. It  is in line with international best practice, and  one of the things we need to do in order to guarantee  sustainable maintenance of our federal highways across the country.

And this is not new in Nigeria; even in those days, when  government  had to use its funds to carry out major dual carriage way projects, at the end of the projects, they put in place toll plazas, at least to guarantee the maintenance of those roads, even if it was not geared towards recouping the investment.

Talking about the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA), there are some  young Nigerian graduates who one would have expected to be engaged to do FERMA's work. But the way I see FERMA now, it appears like an agency to create job for the boys, while our young men who are graduates in engineering wallow in joblessness… FERMA  has been in existence since about 2002 at first, and, in 2005, the law was revised. As we know it, FERMA has a direct labour unit component, where quite a number of Nigerians have been employed within the past one year, under  SURE-P. In every local government, we have people who now work directly for FERMA for the maintenance of roads, and road shoulders.

However, these crews are not trained enough to embark on major maintenance works in terms of stretches of failed portions of federal roads where asphalt overlay is needed. But we intend to develop capacity in FERMA to such an extent that in the not too distant time, FERMA operatives would be able to do all of  that. That is why are establishing asphalt plants for FERMA on  zonal basis, and we are also equipping them.

Since we came on board, we have been able to buy about 42 FK Beckham Road Patchers for FERMA and staff are being trained, such that they can deploy to any part within their state to patch roads. This will help us do away with the practice of cutting roads and leaving them for weeks or months, a thing that has led to untimely deaths, through accidents in the past.

Beyond this, President Jonathan, in late 2011,  approved that 500 young Nigerian engineers should be employed in the Federal Ministry of Works. That has been fully complied with, and the engineers have been deployed to several departments of the ministry,particularly in the field offices, and they are being trained on the job.

On Kano-Kaduna and Kano-Maiduguri roads, there is  the need for effective culture of maintenance… If you look at the design of  Kano-Kaduna Road, it was to last for 25 years;  after the 25 years, a  major rehabilitation ought to have taken place. But what has happened in our system is that we have not had enough budgetary provision for us to maintain that road the way it ought to have been maintained because, at that point, we are supposed to remove the entire wearing course, stabilize the base course and do complete asphalt overlay.

We have not been able to do that because of the cost. Ask yourself, how much is budgeted for road works in Nigeria? For a road network of 35,000km, sometimes we receive as little N60 to N70 billion. For years, the military did not even budget  up to N10 billion for those roads.

You can compare our situation with little countries like Zambia, which has a total road network of 7,000km. But if you go to Zambia, you will find  that they spend, on the average, about  1billion USD yearly on their roads. But here we are with about 35,000km, which is five times the road network of Zambia, and we are not able to spend 50 percent of what  Zambians are spending on their roads. So if you look at that, it gives you a graphic picture of why we are where we are.

The Kano-Maiduguri Road you referred to was not awarded by the Sani Abacha administration. The dualisation was awarded by former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2006. Unfortunately, if you look at the history, between 2006 and 2009, you will find out that there was no much progress on the road. In some sections, we couldn't even pay compensation and the contractor did not have access to site.

A case point in is the Kano to Wudil section. It was when we came on board that we paid compensation before we were able to open the right of way to the contractor to commence  work. But for the SURE P enhanced funding, that road would have been still far from the level we have achieved.

You talked about the increased capacity of FERMA, but the impact of that capacity has not been felt because, as we speak, some of the best federal roads, including the Benin-Asaba  Road are going bad, and nothing is being done to arrest the situation; shouldn't we just toll all federal highways to generate money for their maintenance? Federal Government cannot have such a policy to charge tolls on all federal roads for very obvious reasons. Government itself has a social responsibility to the people. A road network serves two purposes, first as an artery to support economic activities, like hauling tons of cement, iron billets, bitumen and other different articles.

These are strictly economic activities; a road is expected to also serve social activities, that is for social and national integration among different sections of the country, so government has that responsibility, and as such cannot toll every road. However, we also believe that what  government is doing by establishing tolls on all roads on which private sector funds have been expended is a good way of arresting some of these problems.

I say so because if we are able to get the arterial routes right, and they are now able to fend for themselves and pay for their own maintenance, government resources will be freer to handle those other road projects that have social impacts in terms of national integration.

The issue of state and federal roads has been a sore point in the relationship between states and the Federal Government. In Lagos for instance, you will be passing through a road that is so bad, and the state would say it is so because it is a federal road; what is the level of collaboration, especially in the cities? In terms of relationship between states and the Federal Government, the example of Lagos you gave is  not typical. Don't forget that Lagos was the capital of Nigeria for many years, and that is the state where the Federal Government has the highest number of roads. Remove federal roads from Lagos, what is left?

Is it the Ikorodu Expressway, the Third Mainland Bridge, the Oworoshoki-Apapa  Road,  Hebert Macaulay Road or  Marina Road?  All these are federal roads, so you now find out that many of the major federal roads in Lagos have over the years been maintained. I give it to the Lagos State government; they also do their bit because it serves their people.

When we had the Council of Works meeting in Lagos in 2012, one of our resolutions at that meeting is that we now want to create a radiusaround state capital or cities where federal roads traverse. Federal roads basically ought to connect one state to another, so we are now experimenting with the issue of creating by-passes so that we are not brought into the issue of urban alignment because it is not  Federal Government's responsibility to provide urban alignment that would provide access to building and businesses.

The Federal Government doesn't collect taxes from those people. So it is the state government that collects those taxes, so they should be able to fix those roads. And if you look at the politics of state and federal roads, you will find out that particularly during the military regime, most of these roads were surrendered by state governments to the Federal Government. So the Federal Government reluctantly assumed ownership of some of them, and we know these roads in question.

If you go into the Federal Highways Act, you will see the real federal roads because they are there. Legally speaking, any road that has not been gazetted as a federal road cannot really claim to be such because every federal road has a route number, and all the federal roads with route numbers are contained as appendixes in the schedule under the Federal Highways Act of 1971.

During the regime of the late President Yar'Adua, the Federal Government in its wisdom approved the guidelines for intervention by state governments on federal roads. And these guidelines are very clear; if you are a state government, you must write to the Federal Government,  in fact to the President telling him that you want to carry out repair of so and so road. Or you could write to the Minister of Works, who will, in turn, inform the President.

The request is evaluated, and if the road is of economic significance, and it truly connects one state to the other, more often than not, it is recommended that the President gives approval for intervention by the state government.

Once such approval is granted, all the procurement processes must be in line with the Public Procurement Act at the federal level. After award of the contract, staff of the Federal Ministry of Works domiciled in that state must be part of the supervision of the project. Once a state meets these guidelines, we, as federal take responsibility for refund.

But what you see is that, most times, some state governors just wake up, and they give contracts without our knowledge and without following the guidelines. They then go to the  media to say the Federal Government owes them so much billions of naira. It is akin to having a house which you gave to a tenant; one day you travelled and returned and the tenant slams you with a hefty bill that he has done renovation in the house, and he wants you to refund N15 billion. How will you react?

Without your consent as the landlord, a tenant should not go into that kind of thing. We at the federal level also have a budget, and we need to plan for our road development. And if such a project is part of our plan, why not? There have been a number of state governments we have refunded money to in the past, like Ekiti State Government.

In November last year, about N8billion was paid out to a number of state governments  as refund for roads repairs under this regime. So it is an ongoing thing, but this is for state governments that comply with the guidelines. If you investigate, many of the states crying foul in the request for money  are people who just did streets, urban alignments that have no bearing with the interstate traffic.

These are the challenges; we are looking into the matter by engaging with the states, and we believe that we should be able to work together, once due process is followed based on the guidelines.

In terms of priorities in the 2014 budget, what projects would the ministry be focusing on? Again, because of the kind of funds we have, we are being mindful that we should put our funds on very critical projects that we want to bring either to completion or achieve substantial progress on. First on the list is the local Oweto Bridge which was a bridge we started a little over one year ago and we have already reached about 36 percent completion.

It connects Loko in Nasarawa  State to Oweto in Benue; that project, when completed,  will reduce travel time from Abuja to the South-east by more than two and a half hours. So it is a very critical project, which will be an alternative for people going to the South because, sometimes, when we have problems on  Lokoja Bridge over the Niger, it is like the whole country is shut down.

So this project is strategic because, once completed, it will reduce the traffic on the Abuja-Lokoja Road. The second, I mentioned earlier that in a few weeks, we will be breaking the ground for the Second Niger Bridge. It is also a priority project we are pursuing this year because good enough for that project, the Federal Government is just expected to contribute about 30 percent of the sum, while the Julius Berger Consortium will be responsible for  the provision of 70 percent.

At the end of it, they will toll the bridge in order to recoup their funds, just like Lagos Ibadan Expressway. So tolling will not be limited to Lagos-Ibadan. Also, by the time we apply the funds from the China Exim Bank on the dualisation of the Keffi-Makurdi to Nightmar in Enugu, we are also going to toll it to be able to recoup the funds and repay China Exim Bank because that is the new template. Then, of course, we are going to complete  Abuja-Lokoja  Road, which is a priority.

Benin-Ore Shagamu Road is also a priority, and, of course, Lagos-Ibadan is a major priority. We want to drive the completion to a substantial level this year.  Added to these, we will be ramping up work on the Kano-Maiduguri Expressway, the Onitsha-Enugu Expressway, and the Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway. In fact, we are  going to concentrate on our major arterial routes; the one running from Sokoto to Tambuwal-Jega through Kebbi, and Kotangora in Niger State will be ramped up.

The road from Mokwa to Bida, which we awarded last through our collaboration with the World Bank, we will strive towards  finishing it. Also there is Akure-Ilesha on which we are also going to be ramping up work. The roads are so many, but, out of over 200, we have been able to prioritise, we have not more than 20 critical roads we want to focus our lean resources on.

Still on the disagreements between the federal and state governments over refund for repairs of federal roads, would you advocate a review of the ownership structure of federal roads in states bearing in mind that if you do  that you will also have to review the revenue allocation formula to give them more money to do the work? Already, the National Council on  Works has resolved that roads within 5km radius of most cities would be offloaded to the state governments because they are urban roads, not interstate roads. It will interest you to note that the National Council on  Works is made up of the Minister of Works, all the state commissioners for works in the 36 states and the FCT, as well as other critical stakeholders like the National Union of Road Transport Workers.

We all reached that joint resolution as a way of dealing with this issue. Apart from those that fall within those categories, the Federal Government certainly intends to keep its mandate of providing  roads that traverse different states of the country. More than 80 percent of vehicular traffic in Nigeria are on federal roads, irrespective of the state they transverse, so we the federal truly bear the brunt of carrying economic activities on our roads. I repeat, no state government comes near to that.

Today, we have about 60,000km of roads paved in bitumen; 35,000km of those belong to the Federal Government, and these account for  about 80 percent of economic activities in the country. Whereas the states jointly own about 30,000km,  most of them are not arterial roads. These state roads lead to hinterlands, and they are not really Grade A roads.

Is your ministry involved in any holistic approach to infrastructure like rail, and water transport to reduce the over reliance on roads? Clearly, the ministry is involved in this holistic approach;  in fact, during the preparation of the national integrated infrastructure master plan, I chaired the committee on transportation, and we talked about inter-modal transportation  because that holds the key to dealing with the issue of maintenance and reducing the cost of maintenance.

Like the government is doing now, if our rail transportation is brought back and fully stabilized, most of the heavy loads  will be off the road. And if those categories of haulage items are off our roads,  the roads will last longer. Before now, our roads were designed to last for 25 years, but the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway we are constructing now, we have tinkered with some of the materials and the pavement design that will guarantee the road lasts for up to 50 years.

For instance we have introduced the use of improved bitumen on the road, that is polymer bitumen to which certain additives are added before putting the asphalt. And that is to eliminate instances of rotten (destruction of the asphalt layer on the road. The quality of asphalt we are using now is not bad, but it is designed to carry axle load of not more than 40 tons.

So if we are able to check excessive axle loading, the road will last for a minimum of 25 years. But, today, what do we have? 60 to 80 ton trucks on our roads, and, when they pass, they leave a permanent mark, which is called rotting.

Recently we did a joint experiment involving Julius Berger and RCC in a German laboratory, and we found that with the new pavement design and improved bitumen we are using, even when you have 2,000 of those heavy trucks going through the road, it does not leave permanent marks. That was why we specified that material for the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. Vanguard