Igbo Roads As a Metaphor

by Ejike Okpa II

In a country where practice does not make perfect, one wonders how long it will take for Nigeria to realize its potentials.

In America, there is this saying: “Been There, Done That; Let’s do something different.” In Nigeria the refrain appears to be: “that’s the way it’s done; Let’s keep on doing it.”

Often times, people get excited about government awarding contracts for road construction. This is normally temporary euphoria because, months after the announcement, the road is not constructed. When done at all, the roads are washed away after a season. And what happens thereafter? Another government comes along and awards the same contract.

It has not always been done this way. When Nigeria started building road networks in the 1950s, they took steps to ensure the longevity of the roads. They complemented the projects with the Public Works Department (PWD) units in the Eastern Region. These units, stationed along major highways, assumed responsibility for regular maintenance and occasional preventive repairs. As a toddler going to school, I came in contact with this unit along the old Enugu – PH federal road that passes through my village, down the road from my father’s compound. The unit was taken over by invading federal soldiers during the Civil War and destroyed.

Years later, I came to realize that colonial road construction took the art and science of real engineering into consideration. One of the critical factors taken into account was how to ensure the longevity of the road. Today, at the end of the war and with local engineers co-opted into road construction, Nigerians have been receiving poorly built roads. As with most things Nigerian, there have been many excuses for the trend. It is either that the Federal Government does not budget enough to build durable roads or that military and political adventurers line their pockets and defraud the treasury rather than execute the contracts faithfully.

There are people ready to swear that Nigerian contractors see the entire contract sum as profit that must be retained! They point out that while roads built by construction giants such as Gorvanti, MCC, Taylor Woodrow, etc, have survived, the ones built by South East locals such as FGN Okoye, FFBC Nwankwo, Angus, Nwankwu, OC Gravel, Ferdinand Enterprises, Hardel and Enic [Iwuanyanwu’s infamous and now near comatose firm] have all been washed away. It makes one wander.

Igbos have an advantage in maximizing the value of capital development projects such as road because of the shortness of distance in Igboland. It would take about 500 kilometers of roads to connect the main Igbo-speaking capital cities of Awka-Enugu-Abakaliki-Umuahia-Owerri. As a matter of fact, to build a ring road that connects the five states would require dualising the road from Enugu-Abakaliki-Umuahia-Owerri-Onitsha to join the Onitsha-Enugu Federal Highway. If the Federal Government makes good its promise to dualise the Onitsha Owerri road, the job would be further halved!

Assuming that these capital cities are linked in a loop, Igbos states can easily have their major roads built for less than $100 million. And if and when well built, it would last for at least 20 years before any major contract is awarded for repairs, realignment and or widening. One feels a bit nostalgic about this because it is cheaper to build in Nigeria, as government does not have to get into right of way acquisitions. Even when it does, owners of acquired land for road projects have limited opportunities of stopping the project. This is quite unlike the US where right of way issues, eminent domain, relocation, impact studies, alternative route studies, community involvement and active citizen participations, etc, can delay and add cost to a road project.

It is disheartening that in Nigeria, local contractors appear not to learn the art of road building and construction. They tend to simply grade the surface, compact and pour tar on it. There is hardly consideration for varying soil conditions, erosion control, embankment, retention, stabilizing, with the result that the road that is celebrated today is gone tomorrow. Part of the problem is that they adopt low local standards, which makes it possible to construct a 5-10 mile stretch for half a million dollars.

Nigeria needs to rethink its mobility and transportation projects such as roads. A lot of idle time is wasted on Nigeria roads. The distance from Enugu to Lagos is about 355 miles but it takes a day to make such journey. If a major multinational elect to have Nigeria as a hub for distribution, it will lose money because of delays on the road. Nigeria is not being considered, despite its huge marketing potentials, mainly because of its poor roads.

What is the way out? The federal government might consider creating a separate Transportation Commission that determines standards for road construction. It might then select for each state one federally certified contractor with surety, bonds and capacities to build all major federal road networks within that state. Having multiplicity of road construction companies that do not have the capacity, capability and know-how will not help both short and long term needs and expectations of Nigerians who desire fast moving and reasonably well built network of roads.

The state governments as a matter of policy must not be involved in the award of contracts for road construction. The reason is that it takes many years to conceive, design, plan and actually build roads. And since these governments hardly last more than four years, they mess things up when they shelve an existing plan in favor of their cronies or for purposes of kick backs.

In other words, road building should be a federal program separate from each state budget. In the US, the Federal Highways Administration administers the interstate freeways and highways while actual road building is carried out by each state Department of Transportation [DOT]. Highway construction and maintenance are partly funded through taxes on gasoline and other allocations made by the federal government to states that adopt such public safety standards as federal recommended speed limits, air quality standards, design and use of certain materials, etc. States that do not want to go along with federal recommendations forgo the allocation and thereby fund their highway projects from local state resources. There is an opportunity cost.

By going this route, Nigeria will ensure that road construction becomes a continuous process and that there are only well qualified companies [partly public owned] that are awarded contracts. To ensure that citizens insist on quality roads, government should introduce ownership structure in each state whereby the citizens of that state own shares in the construction company and have a say in how they handle projects.

Since poorly built roads affect growth and development, involving and encouraging citizens’ participation will address some concerns and improve output. In US, one will not find a California based road construction company building roads in Texas. Locally based state firms do most local road contractions – territorial integrity is well and alive and is respected when it comes to publicly funded and tax payer supported projects. In this way, citizens get to see who is using their resources and create job opportunities as well.

Multinational corporations are looking for large population with reasonable low labor cost where they can relocate some of their operations. Nigeria is being overlooked because it is not doing well on matters such as mobility and accessibility. Nigeria road construction and road maintenance culture is clearly a matter of urgent national interest, as well as of national security.

State governors are not equipped to handle major capital development projects because their planning and delivery is politicized. However, since ‘Been There Keep Doing That‘, is a license to remain unimproved and undeveloped, the country celebrates its penchant for lack of vision.

Practice for sure does not make PERFECT in Nigeria. Therefore, Nigeria needs to try something different.

Ejike Okpa, II lives in Dallas and is an economic development expert. He chairs the International Trade Committee of the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce [oldest African American Chamber of Commerce in US] as well as vice chair of its Board. He ran for Mayor in the City of Dallas General Election in May 2003 and finished third out of a five person candidates. Later Dallas Morning News editorialized his run for the office in an editorial and characterized him as an ‘Up and Comer’ someone with unusual perspective on issues and very thoughtful. By this political, Mr. Okpa is first naturalized Nigerian-American to run for mayor of a major US city. Mr. Okpa has participated in trade missions to several African and central American countries and is an active participant in business the civic and community sectors of the Dallas. He is a graduate of the Dallas Police Citizens Academy Class of 17 and Dallas FBI Citizens Program second class.

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1 comment

stanleycues June 2, 2006 - 12:25 am

u're good. pls i would want u to discuss on this topic 4 me and send 2 my email box ' THE STUDY OF HIGHWAY DEVELOPMENT IN AWKA CAPITAL TERRITORY ' with reference to the existing roads.


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