Nigeria at Independence: An assessment of our transport policy

By Ships&Ports
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It would have been best to assess the 57 years of Nigeria’s independence. So much has happened in our 57 years as an independent nation; we have fought a civil war, moved from parliamentary system of government to presidential system. We have tasted the tyranny of military rule and have had to fight to restore democracy. We have made progress as a country although we still struggle with entrenching those tenets that bind a true nation. A lot has also happened between 2016 and 2017. In the last one year of our journey, we experienced recession for the first time in 25years and came out of it without really doing anything.

There are many areas of our national life that will be interesting to assess. But major concern here will be the transportation sector, with particular attention to road transportation. Nigerian transportation system comprises road, water, air, and rail. The predominant are arguably road and air transportation. Interestingly, the now unpopular rail transportation was probably the most popular at independence. Goods were moved across the country via railway; and it was also the means for individuals to move from one part of the country to another. Some of the existing rails in the country were actually built during the colonial era. Water transportation in Nigeria is practically non-existent. Nigeria has 8,600 km of inland waterways but largely unexplored. Water transportation is mostly embraced in the Niger-Delta region because of the topographic peculiarities of the region. Essentially, the water and rail transportation rank low in Nigeria’s 57 years of independence.

Air transportation in Nigeria is growing, albeit slowly. With 30 airports across different States of the federation, air transportation continues to gain public acceptance. According to the National Bureau of Statistics no fewer than 15,232, 597 air travellers used Nigerian airports in 2016 compared to about 173,000 in 1970 based on a World Bank data. Gone are the days when local flights were characterised by crashes and accidents that scared many people from using flights for domestic travels. In spite of the growth in the sector, the aviation industry is still faced with many challenges that are mitigating the materialisation of its full potential.

The most prevalent transportation in Nigeria is road. With over 200,000km, road transportation accounts for more than 90% of the 3% contribution of the transportation sector to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the economy. Sadly, road transportation has practically replaced the rail system in the movement of goods and heavy machineries. While the country fails to develop the other sectors of transportation, the roads are burdened with over utilisation. As a result of the pressure on the roads, they are quick to deterioration. To compound the trouble, Nigerian roads are largely characterised by ineffective road network, absence of national road transport planners and managers, inefficient traffic management, and bad maintenance culture. For a city like Lagos that was recently described by Forbes as one of the worst cities for drivers, traffic jam is a normal experience for commuters as a result of bad road network, narrow roads, and the display of insanity by some motorists.

The situation in Lagos is further compounded by the Apapa Port. As a result of the failure of rail and water transportation, most imported goods are transported to other parts of the country via the roads. Products for export are also transported to the port via road. This sets truck drivers on the road with other users at the same time. For two weeks now, there has been a sickening logjam stretching from the Apapa to other parts of the city. In fact, the situation has graduated from a mere traffic jam into a depressing nightmare. The truck drivers who many often blame for this nightmare are actually the worst hit. Roadsides and drainages have been converted to toilets with different shades of waste from the human body.

The situation in Apapa is not a peculiar case; virtually all the entry points into the ports in Nigeria are confronted with decrepit roads. Again, bad roads are not peculiar to the ports; it has become a natural attribute of Nigerian roads. The President, Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN), Engr. Kashim A. Ali, once said that 70% of the roads in Nigeria are bad. According to him, “there are about 200,000km of roads in Nigeria, and 36,000km belongs to the federal government and of the latter, only about 30% are in good condition. The shares of the States and Local governments are in terribly worse conditions.”

The effect of this situation is increase in road accident, high rate of highway robbery, increase in vehicle breakdown, and increase in health challenges. According to Federal Road Safety Commission, narrow roads, bad roads and multiple sharp bends are obvious features on the nation’s road network. These attributes “make overtaking a risky and dangerous venture’’, which is a leading cause of road accident in the country. Some highways, such as the Benin-Lagos expressway, have become notorious for highway robbery which is often aided by the decrepit state of sections of the highways.

Every President and Minister of Works/Transport promises to fix the roads upon assumption of office. This rhetoric is often repeated at every budget presentation, yet not much seems to have changed. In his 2016 independence speech, President Muhammadu Buhari indicated that the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing had received a total of NGN197.5b to resume work on 12 roads, which he listed in the speech. He also stated that “other major highways are in the queue for rehabilitation or new construction.” The hope is that these roads would be completed before the expiration of the current term.

Nevertheless, the problem with Nigeria road transportation is not primarily the state of the roads. There are many structural and fundamental problems with the current operation. At the last National Economic Council (NEC) meeting, the governors of the 36 States asked the federal government to grant them control over some of the federal roads in their States. Their argument is that it will allow for better maintenance of the roads to the benefit of Nigerians. This appears logically sound since the governors are assumed to be closer to the people. However, the challenge is the ability of the States to adequately manage the roads. If most of the States have been unable to provide good state roads, where is the guarantee that they will be able to garner the resources required for the maintenance of the federal roads? The same States owe workers salaries and have been largely unable to meet up with their obligations. The federal government had to provide bailout funds for many of these governors to pay salaries.

Road construction and maintenance requires huge financing, which the governors have not shown sufficient capacity to handle. The Infrastructure Construction Regulatory Commission, ICRC, which provides a financing arrangement from banks, is a good option in this regard. However, any type financing provided by consortium of banks is a form of loan that has to be paid back in some way.

To that extent, solution to road transportation lies in Public-Private-Partnership. The government obviously cannot singlehandedly address the road challenges in the country. It requires the support of the private sector to meet the expectations of the people. Lagos State is a typical example of how effective PPP can be in road construction and maintenance. There are diverse options that the government can also explore in the PPP arrangement. The first unsuccessful attempt at PPP was the Lagos-Ibadan expressway concession to Bi-Courtney, which was later revoked by the federal government. The failed arrangement does not completely defeats the benefit of PPP. Nigerians will be ready to pay toll so long as the roads are good and appealing. In the same vein, the government can encourage companies to construct roads for tax holiday. This is why the Dangote tax-for-road deal is a step in the direction regardless of the many inconsistencies in the deal. PPP will be a beneficial option if it is done with maximum sincerity.

Finally, even if all the roads in the country are well managed, our transportation problems cannot be solved so long as road transportation is responsible for 90% of movement in the country. There is need to strategically diversify our transportation system in order to grow other sectors of transportation. The government needs to implement the Cabotage Law in order to encourage local investment and ownership of ships for domestic maritime business. This will significantly improve water transportation and reduce reliance on road transportation. The rail system in the country needs complete revitalisation. An effective and well-connected rail system will drastically decongest the roads of trucks and other heavy duties. We seem to be moving slowly in this direction.

As we celebrate independence and look towards more years as a nation, it behoves on present leadership to adequately plan for the future of the nation. Effective transportation is essential to economic growth and industrialisation. If we desire to be a great nation, then we must fix our transportation system.