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THE RETURN OF TOLLGATES, FUEL TAX

By NBF News
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The plan by the Federal Government to re-introduce tollgates across the major highways in the country six years after they were dismantled, is clearly a policy somersault. Also, the plan by government to push through a 5 per cent road users charge, otherwise known as fuel tax, is one that will most likely cause a stir, if not outright protest from organized Labour.

On these two critical areas, making haste slowly should be the prescription, despite the desperation on the path of government to shore up its revenue base. This is in addition to other plans to concession some roads and bridges in the country to improve government's financial standing.

Hints of a possible return of tollgates and fuel tax on major highways was dropped recently by the chairman, Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA), Alhaji Abdulkadir Kure, at a press briefing in Lagos. According to him, the plans have become necessary to raise funds for road maintenance across the country. Government, he added, hopes to raise about N30bn annually through the fuel tax, to maintain the over 220,000 km of Federal roads in the country. He claimed that the decision to bring back toll collection on federal roads dismantled in 2004 by the administration of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, has already received the endorsement of 'stakeholders'.

We receive with surprise and curiosity these plans by the Federal Government as expressed by the FERMA chairman, Alhaji Kure.

Admittedly, tollgates are veritable tools for revenue generation for government. They also serve as security check-points and a source of employment generation. However, the decision to scrap them in the first place at taxpayers' expense speaks volumes of lack of financial prudence and insensitivity to both the socio-economic and security benefits which the tollgates had always served. It is a painful reminder that the present government controlled by the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), especially under Chief Obasanjo as president, made some critical decisions merely at the drop of a hat.

We recall that when the then president hastily ordered the dismantling of the tollgates with effect from January 1, 2004, following his imposition of a tax of N1.50k on every litre of fuel, the controversy it generated led to a strike spearheaded by organized Labour. Eventually, an Abuja High Court ordered suspension of the fuel tax. In retrospect, it was a case of putting the 'cart before the horse'. Why were the tollgates hastily demolished when the policy on fuel tax was not yet a fait accompli? It also exposed the flaws of a convoluted 'all - knowing' president, which Obasanjo personified.

We advise that this time around, the plan for a return of the tollgates should be well reasoned out to avoid another policy somersault, which seems to have become typical of our governments. While we welcome the possible return of the tollgates for the reason already advanced, we caution against the likely problems that a fuel tax might engender in our polity. For instance, its multiplier effect on the economy could trigger fresh fuel crisis.

Our present polity is too fragile to soak up any labour unrest.

The suggestion by the FERMA boss that government would be prepared to allow the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) monitor the collection of the proceeds and their utilization may resonate well on paper, but it does not answer all the niggling questions that such dues may raise. All in all, while we appreciate government's new measures as a means of generating additional revenue, these new plans should not be hastily implemented, to avoid any possible backlash.