When he was governor of Lagos State, Raji Fashola was notorious for collecting tolls. The joke used to be that if he constructed one foot of road, he would charge you for using it. So, when the news broke recently that he announced the return of tolls on Federal roads, some in my political orbit started to grumble. “Oh, this man will make us lose the election in 2019.” “Why do we want to add to the suffering of the common man now that we are getting ready for elections?” And so on and so forth.
But I am glad that we have someone who is not thinking about instantaneous, palliative measures that give us the sugar-effect of temporary joy and excitement which, in the long run, is inimical to our overall growth. We have someone who has not put dubious electoral victory ahead of service…functional and enlightened service…to the country.
When Obasanjo was about to leave office as military Head of State, he cut the tape to flag off the use of the Lagos-Ibadan expressway in 1978. Boy! Were Nigerians happy about that road! If you were going to any part of Nigeria from Lagos, you had to go through that expressway. Those going to the Middle Belt, the East and the South-South (we didn’t use the word “South-South” in 1978) would use the road up to Shagamu, take the right turn and continue their journey. Those going to the North would continue on to Ibadan until the expressway terminated at Ojoo. Prior to the construction of that expressway, the alternatives were to take the dangerously winding Shagamu – Ijebu-Ode-Lagos or the Abeokuta-Sango-Ota-Lagos routes. Either of these routes added three to four hours to your trip. But once Obasanjo opened the 115 kilometers Lagos-Ibadan express, it only took on average one hour to get from Ibadan to Lagos. It was not only faster, it was safer too. And it was good for your overall health and the health of your vehicle.
To pay for that road, Obasanjo’s regime did what was done in all civilized countries. It installed three toll gates – one at the Lagos end; one at the Shagamu interchange; and one at the Ibadan end. Certainly, a stretch of road that busy, that important to the economic well-being of the country should be able to pay for itself and have more than enough left for routine maintenance, given the high volume of traffic on it. I mean…every merchandized shipped into Nigeria by sea landed in Lagos. And if the merchandize was going to Nguru or Maiduguri or Port Harcourt, it went over that expressway. It was imperative that we maintained that road properly and expanded it as our population and economic grew. That was the natural order of planning followed by every forward-looking society where institutions exist as a continuum even when governments change.
But within a few years, the Lagos-Ibadan expressway fell apart. Small potholes that were not quickly fixed grew into manholes. A journey that normally took one hour now took three if you are lucky and four or five if you traveled when the churches along the route held their crusades. Rather than doing 100 km/hr., you are forced to slow down to a crawl, making you vulnerable to armed robbery attacks on the expressway. The beautiful road of 1978 had become a complete death trap and eye sore by 1995.
The government couldn’t do anything about it apart from the occasional patching of some of the gullies in the middle of it. Most of the funds collected as tolls never made it to government coffers because the toll collectors stole them. It was an open secret that every toll collector on that road owned a couple of houses built with proceeds of those toll booths. I heard of an Inspector in the police who quit the force to become a toll collector! It was that lucrative. Collectors, collaborating with their supervisors, of course, printed their own receipts and issued those to commuters. It was sad. You cannot understand how sad it was unless you knew one or two people who were killed on that road due to accidents caused, in part, by the terrible road condition.
Nigerians love the sound of free things. Everybody loves free things – free education; free electricity; free water; free TV and free transportation. We want good things of life but we don’t want to pay for it. But we all know that these things don’t come cheap and they have to be paid for. In countries where citizens have gotten used to paying for these services, the services have gotten better. Take education for example: Nowhere in the United States is tertiary education free. In some of the countries in the West (Britain and Germany for example) where you may get university education without paying out-of-pocket fees, there are all sorts of charges, levies, and taxes that the citizens have to pay. These things don’t come free at all.
Take electricity for another example: I don’t care how poor you are in Britain, America or Germany; you will pay your electricity bill. If you are late by five days or more in California, there is a punishing late-fee that comes with it. If you are late by more than one month in Maryland, your electricity supply will be disconnected. Of course, if you pay your bill on time, you may never experience electricity outage unless there is natural disaster like an earthquake or a tornado. But in Nigeria, we want uninterrupted supply of electricity, but we don’t want to pay for it. We watch our neighbor illegally tap electricity and we beg him to hook us up. We sabotage our own country. Then we complain about lack of electricity.
Our attitude of not wanting to pay for services is directly related to the ingrained corruption in our polity. Every Nigerian knows that the fees you pay at the passport office are stolen by Immigration officials. The ones you pay at the airports are stolen by airport officials. The fines you pay the FRSC officials don’t get to government purse. The money you pay the electricity company doesn’t get there. School authorities embezzle funds meant for the upkeep of the schools. Governors shave off huge chunks of the revenues accruing to the states, some of which are direct taxes citizens that have paid. So, people have (rightfully) lost confidence in the workability of the Nigerian system.
Nonetheless, I join all rational Nigerians in welcoming the re-introduction of tolls on our highways. In fact, we can start charging tolls on our bridges too. But I do so on the condition that government should first build great roads. By that, I mean roads wide enough for vehicles to ply safely, with lane markings that reflect at night and help keep drivers in their lanes; with effective road signs for all hazards, including dips, bends, steep hills, dangerous slopes, cattle and so on. I like to see speed limit signs appropriate for every section of the roads. I like to see FRSC officials patrol in automobiles and high-speed motorcycles and some static with speed traps. I like to see these FRSC officials equipped with Point of Sale (PoS) machines that can aid in their collection of fines on the spot. I like to see roving towing trucks for all sizes of vehicles so that we can quickly remove broken down vehicles before they cause accidents. I like to see rest stops where commuters can rest if they so wish. I like to see ambulance and fire fighter locations. And I like to see police stations at critical locations.
If you put these things in place, and you plug all the potential loopholes that toll collectors can use to steal, Nigerians will pay your toll fees. And they will do so with smiles. We are not animals. We love good things too. We may complain at first. But if we can see where our money is going, we will pay. Look at Ghana and its electricity problem. In 2013 and 2014, the entire country rationed electricity on a 12-on/12-off basis. One half of the country got electricity for 12 hours while the other went into darkness for 12 hours. They switched after 12 hours. But today, electricity is 99.9% stable across the country. I have not heard my generator in almost a year, save for when the maintenance guy services it. Yes, the cost of electricity went up by 400% and people cried. Some workers’ union even threatened demonstrations. But government embarked on an extensive sensitization campaign which helped douse tensions. Now nobody complains about the high cost of electricity because they know stable electricity costs money.
Ever since I started using the Ft. McHenry and Inner Harbor underwater tunnels in Baltimore, Maryland (in the U.S.) some 30 years ago, there had always been a fee. Nobody complains about it. If you are south of Baltimore and you want to go northward on your way to New York, your best bet is to use one of those tunnels. Pay the fee and save yourself about one hour wahala. If you are taking the I-95 from Baltimore to New York, you will pay tolls like five times. And the trip is just about four hours. If your flight lands at Dulles Airport in Virginia and you really want to get to Washington DC in less than one hour, your best bet is to get on RT 267. No other alternative gets you to DC in less than three hours.
In France, the use of most of the highways comes with tolls. Last summer, my wife and I hit no fewer than seven (7) toll booths on the French section (A4 HWY) of the four-hour drive from Kaiserslautern in Germany to Paris. In Austria, you are required to purchase Vignette/Sticker which must be affixed to the front of your vehicle in order to use their Autobahns (highways). We didn’t get one because we didn’t know and we were slapped with a 200 Euros fine.
So, you can see that Fashola is not pulling toll charges out of his buttocks. These are necessary charges if we want to pay for the roads and bridges we are building and maintain them to last forever. Remember that the Federal government invited some private entities to invest in partnerships for the purpose of raising funds to construct these new roads. Those private entities have to be paid somehow. Nigerians will pay. They don’t mind paying. But Nigerians know themselves and they know their leaders. The know their roguish leaders will steal the proceeds from these toll booths…unless government invests in foolproof measures to block them.