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Halfway Scorecard : Roads, railways and inland waterways

Most of the roads in the country — both states and federal-owned — are virtual death traps. The roads are all features of wear and…

Most of the roads in the country — both states and federal-owned — are virtual death traps. The roads are all features of wear and tear, with carcasses of vehicles lining road shoulders, thereby indicating the many accidents that have claimed hundreds of lives and billions of naira worth of properties. The state of the railways is the most pathetic in the entire transport system. The growing demand for more economic activities has since necessitated a broader transportation system, culminating in inland waterways with the plan to dredge River Niger from its delta to Baro.

The Yar’adua administration is exactly halfway and Nigerians have been making various midterm assessment of it. How has the administration fared on the improvement and development of these carriageways according to the demands of the economy? Nigerians’ positive expectations of the Yar’adua government, as had always been the tradition during transitional stage between two administrations, gradually turned to grief and despair.

Nigerians have been watched since 2007 as the roads have continued to get more deplorable, claiming more hundreds of lives of their kith and kin. Most complained-about has been the Abuja-Abaji-Lokoja federal highway, and in a little bit lesser degree are Kano to Lagos; Yola-Gombe; and Lagos-Warri-Port Harcourt roads. The projects for the broadening of the carriageways of the Abuja-Abaji-Lokoja federal highway, and the fact that it is the major highway linking the South-west with the Federal Capital Territory and the North; Kano-Maiduguri and Lagos-Warri-Port Harcourt, which contracts were awarded by the Obasanjo administration, grounded to a halt shortly after commencement by the contractors due to the failure of the administration to provide them with mobilisation funds.

Most notable of these roads is the Abuja-Abaji-Lokoja road handled by three contractors, including Dantata and Sawoe and Bulletin construction firms.

However, a document by the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA) reveals that from 1999 to date, about N500 billion had been expended on the rehabilitation of about 3,500 kilometres of the 34,120 kilometres federal road network. This network has very little or nothing to account for this prodigious amount of funds. Numerous factors have contributed to the snail-pace speed in the rehabilitation of deplorable roads and construction of new ones. Some of the most notable of these factors are: the massiveness of the deplorable state of these infrastructures over the years as bequeathed to the Yar’adua administration, the transport sector, especially concerning the roads and railways, is regarded as the most appalling cesspit of the polity, consuming trillions of naira in the recent couple of decades, but accounting for just a very negligible percentage of the amount.

The complexity of the situation seems to have thrown the Yar’adua administration completely at sea over how and where to start; and, to some extent, the style of administration of the man-at-the-helm, a persona he was seen to have built for himself since his governorship period in Katsina State. This can, perhaps, explain why it has to take Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’adua a half of his four-year tenure to start providing funds for the rehabilitation and construction of roads.

This May, the Federal Government approved the release of N21 billion as payment to the companies handling 34 new road projects all over the country. This amount, according to the Minister of Works, Housing and Urban Development, Dr Hassan Mohammed Lawal, during the signing of the agreement with the 20 construction firms to handle the construction of the 34 roads, is part of the total N140 billion approved for the entire projects. This is said to be in addition to another 16 road projects to be spread all over the country at over N300 billion.

Considering the listing of efficient transportation system on the 7-point agenda of the Yar’adua administration, Nigerians also expected a comprehensive revamping of the railway system. The rail transportation, according to the Accountant-General of the Federation, consumed a total of N120 billion from 1999 to 2007 at an average of N13.8 billion yearly. In contrast, the railway system has remained the most deplorable in the transport sector. Against this very pathetic setting, Nigerians are expressing grave concern over how an administration which expressed commitment to revamping the rail system can succeed with a paltry N2.7 billion allocated in this year’s budget.

The Yar’adua administration has, however, succeeded in constructing the platform for the resuscitation of the 8.5 billion USD contract for railway modernisation, which was awarded by the Obasanjo administration to Chinese Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), but stopped by President Yar’adua immediately on assumption of office as a result of variations in the contractal term on the part of the Chinese firm.

Considering the need for a review of the counterpart funding arrangement between the FGN and the Chinese firm agreed upon at the initial signing of the contract, the Minister of Transport, Alhaji Ibrahim Isa Bio, while receiving the Chinese ambassador recently, assured that the FGN and CCECC would work out an alternative source of funding for the progress of the project which is said to be threatened by the current economic meltdown. The rail rehabilitation project, which is to be based on oil revenue, would now be based on the realities of the international oil market. The search for an alternative source of funding is necessitated by the fact that considering the current economic meltdown, the expected source of funding might, therefore, not be enough.

This scenario therefore portends great uncertainty for the project, an uncertainty made more appalling by the fact that N2.7 billion was provided for the rail system in this year’s budget. Unless the Nigerian government and the CCECC are able to find a reliable alternative funding system, it will not be Uhuru for the country’s railways. The country will, therefore, only continue to show a pathetic portrait of a comatose railway system with over 100-year-old 3,557 kilometres of narrow gauge tracks.

Against this setting, Nigerians themselves are expressing profound doubt over current policies and frameworks on revamping the railways, which seems to them more a myth than a reality.

To broaden the country’s transport system, the Obasanjo administration in 2007 awarded the contract for the dredging of the River Niger in phases from Baro in Niger State to Warri in Delta State at an estimated cost of N35 billion. The contractors could, however, not be mobilised to site due to the paucity of funds. The inland waterways provided the cheapest system of mass transportation before and after independence. It was the most reliable system in the transportation of goods during the colonial times.

The Federal Government, however, now seems prepared to provide the funds with its recent awarding of the dredging contract to six companies at N35 billion. The consultants, AIMS Consultant Nigeria Ltd, Royal Haskony, Dredging and Marine International, Empang Group and Jayuta International Ltd, to supervise the job for the government would be paid N1.2 billion each. The contract for the dredging of the River Niger went through several awarding systems since the administration of the late General Sani Abacha when the PTF first awarded it to six firms that were mobilised to site with just N3.5 billion.

If the government can see the dredging of the River Niger to its expected conclusion, it would have achieved a great feat in the infrastructure and transport sectors, thereby reducing the burden on the roads and the expected rail system. And Nigerians would remain ever grateful. In this midterm assessment, therefore, the Yar’adua administration cannot be said to have written an impressive score sheet of itself.

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