…Ember Month Journey: Which Road Is Safe?

by L.Chinedu Arizona-Ogwu

Nigeria has the largest road network in West Africa and the second largest south of the Sahara, with roughly 108,000 km of surfaced roads in 1990. The strategic location and size of Nigeria highways do results in four routes of the Trans-African Highway network using its national road system; the Trans-Sahara Highway to Algeria is almost complete but border security issues may hamper its use in the short term; the Trans-Sahelian Highway to Dakar is substantially complete and the Trans-West African Coastal Highway starts in Nigeria, connecting it westwards to Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire with feeder highways to landlocked Burkina Faso and Mali. When construction in Liberia and Sierra Leone is finished, the highway will continue 7 other ECOWAS nations further west. The Lagos-Mombasa Highway has been awaited for many decades to kick-start trade across the continent. It does provide improved highway links to neighbouring Cameroon but its continuation across DR Congo to East Africa is lacking, as are highways from Cameroon to Central Africa and Southern Africa which could boost trade within the continent.

The roads were designed in the colonial times to be broad and impressive. Most of the traffic in those days consisted of official cars tearing down those vast avenues at full speed, as if no one else existed. Even in the 1980’s, when quite a few ordinary people had acquired cars, the streets still looked empty. A traffic jam seemed an unimaginable thing. Since the 20th century, every fool in Nigeria has expressed his sense of liberation by purchasing an automobile – preferably a big, growling American, Japanese or German one. Suddenly Nigerian roads became crammed with cars, millions of them, crawling like legions of ants through every corner of the city, filling the air with choking smog and creating a constant background rumble. Yet each Nigerian man tries to drive according to the only example he knew in his youth: official cars. He tries to speed down the street, weaving between cars, potholes and pedestrians, as if he were on crucial state business. If a road is jammed, he might jump the curb and go racing down the sidewalk, scattering people to all sides as if they were peasants of Abacha days. If his car has an accident or breaks down – both very common occurrences – he will leave it sitting in the middle of the road, snarling traffic and creating mayhem, while he goes off to find a repairman.

When you add the Nigerian weather to this mix, the result can be total paralysis. During several big blizzards last month, some traffic jams lasted for 16 hours or more. I know a man who left his Trans Amadi (Port Harcourt) workplace at 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon and finally arrived at his suburban home Oyigbo , at 11 o’clock the next morning! I myself have sat in my car for 9 hours, trying to complete a journey that should normally take half an hour. Experts say the situation is one of the worst in the world, due to the combination of bad roads, ill-considered traffic rules and maniacal, idiotic drivers. I know what my South African readers are thinking: that Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town are just as bad. I used to think there could be nothing more chaotic than the thick gasoline fumes, careening three-wheeled vehicles and stampeding traffic of a big Indian city. Now I know there is. It is the total breakdown that has occurred in Lagos, where the streets are so choked with cars that normal mobility has become impossible. Thank goodness Abuja metro system still functions like clockwork, swiftly and efficiently transporting about 2-million people per day to most points of the city. But those commuters have also become crowded to the point of being dangerous, and experts say the military era system is exhausted and badly over-extended.

Poorly maintained roads in Nigeria are often cited as a cause for the country’s high rate of traffic fatalities. Nigeria’s bad roads aren’t just a matter of inconvenience. They also contribute to the country’s high accident and fatality rate. On average, 95 people die on Nigeria’s roads every day. That adds up to some 35,000 deaths per year — 10 times higher than in Great Britain, which has just as many drivers, but far better roads.

There have been cases when the heads of road-building projects deliberately overlooked the fact that deadlines are not met or that the necessary repairs are not completed or that safety standards are not met or that lane markings are not painted. We spend around 1 billion naira a year [$35 million] alone on road project. But the quality reflects the fact that we use whatever’s cheapest and so, after two months, the road signs have been smeared all over the road or they are simply no longer visible.

Nigeria’s traffic pandemonium is far beyond being just a nasty irritant. It is a creeping social, economic and environmental catastrophe that threatens to overwhelm Nigeria‘s capital cities, and drag it under. It may also be a looming political problem. Corruption is a hallmark of the construction business in Nigeria. But unlike in the western world, politicians know they must answer to their constituents, who will vote them out of office if public services — like roads — deteriorate to unacceptable levels.

Of recent the Lagos-Benin road has witnessed some poor-boy jobs being done by a construction company to make the road at least passable now that the dry season is approaching. For a road that breaks down every year due to heavy traffic; for a road that is the main link to Edo, Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Imo, Abia, Anambra, Enugu and Ebonyi states, the continuing neglect of this vital artery can no longer be excused. In view of the rather unstable nature of the subsoil between Ore and Benin, consideration should be given to constructing the entire road in concrete as is the case in other countries including Ghana. The time-honoured idea of road camps should be revived so that deteriorating sections can be quickly repaired. Awarding emergency contracts near Christmas time which also happens to coincide with the end of the financial year, does not seem to be a sustainable way of managing our bad roads. Contracts that are awarded at the end of a year are often abandoned in the New Year with no one bothering to ask questions.

Another problem besetting Nigerian roads is that they are not designed for expansion. As the volume of traffic increases, road construction should be seen to be keeping pace accordingly. The Lagos-Ibadan expressway, for instance, can do with further expansion. Corporate organisations should also assist in managing our roads as part of their social responsibility. For instance, right in front of Ewekoro cement factory, the road is hardly passable.

Government personnel remains the country’s most popular status in many decades, but I have often heard drivers cursing them furiously as they wait at roadside for his cortege to sweep past. If I were them, I’d worry about things like that.

The current annual budget for road repair and upkeep is due to double and supervised to work. More importantly, oversight over how those funds are spent should be assigned to independent monitoring agencies instead of to the contractors responsible for the work — as is currently the case. Road builders should be obliged to give a five-year guarantee on their work. For the future, the nation should plan to build a network of new roads to ease congestion and ensure revenue for their upkeep. Since decaying infrastructure is one of the deficiencies that the National Economic Empowerment Development Strategy (NEEDS) seeks to address, it became imperative the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA) should desist from patching the 32,000-kilometre federal roads network, and initiated a more substantial rehabilitation road maintenance method.

Good roads are a consequence of a normal democracy and the respect for human rights, and of the government’s responsibility towards society. Those are basic preconditions. As soon as we start to fulfill these criteria and start moving forward on these points, good roads will appear. It simply never happens that a corrupt, thieving government suddenly starts to deliver good roads, wonderful housing, and quality infrastructures. That just doesn’t happen.

The lack of maintenance of roads in Nigeria has become a public issue as Nigerians are daily lamenting failure of leadership in that aspect. Good roads are a basic component of good governance. Nigerians are routinely being put at risk everyday as a result of the failure of the state to provide adequate amenities for its citizens. All the authorities involved in road construction and maintenance should buckle down and do something to remove this blot on Nigeria ‘s image.

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