By Julius Spencer
I visited Nigeria a few months ago to see my daughter and her family who now reside in Lagos. This was my first visit in several years and I was very impressed at the transformation that has taken place and is still taking place in the city where I spent many holidays while studying at the University of Ibadan.
Lagos is much cleaner than it was then and new areas have been opened up as residential areas. New roads have been built and massive rehabilitation was ongoing on some old ones, including the Lagos – Ibadan Expressway. This road was where I got my first experience of a toll gate and this was in the 1980s. I have since been through toll gates in Europe and the USA and on my trip to Lagos, a new toll gate on a new road linking Ikeja and Victoria Island. This road was built by the Chinese and road and toll gate looked quite impressive. So knowing what the Chinese can do in construction and technology when they set their minds to it, I was expecting the Waterloo-Masiaka toll road to be quite impressive.
I recently had cause to use the toll road, and indeed the toll gates are quite impressive, but that’s the only thing one can say is impressive about the road. For those of you who don’t know, that road was originally built in the 1960s and has been rebuilt a couple of times since then.
Since I used the road through Regent, I only experienced the new road from Grafton and even though one can’t say it’s a first class road, it was quite nice. The approach to the toll gate is quite impressive and compares favourably to toll gates in other parts of the world. However, my disappointment started when the new road came to an abrupt end about a kilometre after leaving the toll gate and we were back on the old road. After a while we came upon the second toll gate and I began getting annoyed. By the time we got to the third toll gate, my annoyance had grown to real anger as I kept asking myself how any government that claims to have the interest of the people at heart could get into such an agreement.
I have heard someone trying to justify the need for a four-lane road with toll gates, claiming it will have significant economic benefits for the country. I cannot see what these benefits will be because the two-lane road was in quite good shape and only needed maintenance in some areas. The new road is simply an expansion of the current road and new areas are not being opened up by the road. Indeed, traffic can be heavy on the road at times, particularly if you are unlucky to find yourself stuck in a long line of vehicles behind a slow moving fuel tanker or wood lorry, but I wonder whether the time to be gained by drivers when the road is widened justifies making the widening a priority at this time.
As I drove along the road that day, several questions came to mind and I will share them with you. In the first place, is widening of the Waterloo-Masiaka road so critical to our national development that our government is willing to risk losing the support of the masses as a result of the price increases that are bound to occur when transportation costs rise as a direct consequence of toll fees? Could they not have gotten the Chinese to invest in something more earth shattering as far as national development is concerned? Something like a railway linking Freetown and the main provincial towns and cities would certainly have been much more beneficial to the country.
I also asked myself whether a detailed study was undertaken of vehicular traffic on the road prior to fixing toll fees. Does the government know how many of the various categories of vehicles use that route on a daily, weekly or monthly basis? How long will it take to generate the amount of money secured as a bank loan? Was any study done on the economic and social impact of the toll charges on the public? Does the government even care?
I cannot understand how the government will expect fuel tankers to pay toll charges of more than a million Leones for a return trip beyond Masiaka and not expect fuel prices in the provinces to increase with the corresponding increase in all prices that fuel price increases usually trigger. How can the government expect poda poda and taxi drivers to pay toll charges without increases in transport fares? Or is the government going to provide a subsidy for transport fares?
But the question that kept ringing in my mind was how can we be paying toll charges for a road that is less than 25% completed?
I wonder whether there is any other country in the world where the government will sign this kind of agreement. And to make matters worse, it took protests by citizens for ministers and parliamentarians to be included in the list of people to pay the toll charges. In other words, our government signed what in my view is a very bad agreement and then wants to place all the burden on ordinary people.
It seems to me that the toll road is one more example of a policy decision not based on proper research and analysis. I guess it is another one of those policies which “the President in his wisdom” has decided to implement. Since according to his ministers and other government officials, the President is the only one with wisdom and he has all the ideas, while all those around him are bereft of wisdom or ideas, on this “brilliant” idea of a toll road, there was no one around to sound a note of caution.
And before anyone starts accusing me of exaggerating the President’s wisdom, just reflect on the utterances of his ministers and all those around him and tell me whether there’s ever a time when one of them is making a public statement where the phrase “President in his wisdom” is not used copiously.