On the Federal Roads Authority
It is commendable that the National Assembly and the Executive branch of government are now working together for the establishment of a Road Fund and Federal Roads Authority (FRA). Towards this goal, the Senate has held a public hearing and the address by Senator Kabiru Gaya, Chairman, Senate Committee on Works, on that occasion showed his familiarity with past efforts to set up this essential road agency since 1971.
This long journey needs to be concluded quickly to provide the only permanent solution to the nagging problem of funding roads in Nigeria. The executive, of course, ought to have been at the vanguard of this effort but the legislature, having picked up the gauntlet, should not only be commended but also encouraged. In order to have a law that captures it all on road infrastructure and funding, the present effort must encapsulate the contents of the Executive Bill once sent to the National Assembly as well as the contents of the Wey/Usman/Oyegun 1972 Report currently in the archives of the Ministry of Works.
The Bill in the Senate entails a repeal of the law setting up Federal Roads Maintenance Agency, but the current Works Minister, Babatunde Fashola spoke passionately for retaining it, stressing that it has evolved into a brand. Of course, due regard for continuity in policy would have prevented such an unnecessary controversy.
A reference to history will justify the merging of the Federal Highways Department with the maintenance agency. The FERMA initiative took off with a workshop in Abeokuta in 1993, organised by the Nigerian Institute of Transport Technology, involving the World Bank, the Federal Government and the organised private sector. This led to the Government Policy Document (in 1997) named Road Vision 2000 which set up the Steering Committee charged with the responsibility to “mid-wife” a National Road Fund and a National Road Board.
It produced a Draft Decree in 1998 but it was not enacted by the Abdulsalami Abubakar regime which deferred it to the “incoming” civilian administration of then President-elect Olusegun Obasanjo, who in turn vowed to set it up within his first 100 days in office. However, then Minister of Works, Tony Anenih advised against it. At that time, given the bad state of federal roads nationwide, maintenance was to be the first priority of the proposed Road Agency. Therefore, the Obasanjo administration excised the Maintenance part of the Draft Law and established FERMA. From the outset, the first Board of FERMA, headed by Guy Otobo, which was faced with the challenge of funding would have been solved by the Road Fund.
Now, the current Minister of Works, Babatunde Fashola, therefore, needs to play a more active role in making the establishment of the Federal Roads Authority a major project of his tenure and of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. From the 1971 Federal Highways Act and subsequent amendments, Nigeria has had many laws enacted on roads, more than on any other transport mode! Setting up the Federal Roads Authority necessarily entails revisiting all existing laws on federal roads and the minister should tap on the experience of his political party’s chairman, John-Odigie Oyegun, on this matter.
Although there are many highways agencies near and far, the United States Federal Highways Administration that has always served as a model should be looked at very closely.
By supporting this plan and seeing to its actualisation, Fasola would be breaking from the style of his (civilian) predecessors who did not whole-heartedly support the idea of the FRA, while in office.
In 2013, Mike Onolememen raised hopes but he did not drive the process vigorously enough to have compelled the National Assembly to act on an Executive Bill initiated by President Umaru Yar’Adua since 2009. Earlier, when another minister decided to remove all the toll gates on federal highways in 2004, he was advised not to do so but he ignored the wise counsel. Tolling is part of the matrix of sources for the National Road Fund. It also includes a road user contribution on fuel consumed, concessions on road corridors and subventions from government. The regular flow of money from tolls would give confidence to financial institutions to offer long-term financing for roads. Concerns of leakages in these may be wide-spread but technology is already being deployed to improve efficiency.
In keeping with the best practices on road administration worldwide, Nigeria must, therefore, establish the Federal Roads Authority. The country must act quickly and convene a National Highways Conference whose agenda must include reviewing classification of roads in Nigeria, based on routes taken over by the Federal Government in 1974, from the 12 states at the time. It is also time to look into materials for road construction. The Minister of Science and Technology recently announced the results of a research by Nigeria Building and Road Research Institute on the wisdom in the use of cement for roads construction.
No doubt, failure to set up an appropriate road agency in Nigeria has retarded the nation’s progress and now is the time to put an end to this disservice.