Emmanuel Majebi, Daily Times of Nigeria, Apr. 7
If you ever have the misfortune of travelling on our inter and intra city roads then you would really know the meaning of the word: “Pain”. It is a pity that not all the cities of Nigeria have airports so that we can avoid all the pains of road travel nor is every Nigerian indeed wealthy enough to avoid travelling by road! Even a one-hour journey by road leaves you with a weary soul. Out of the myriad of hardships on our roads in Nigeria I intend to talk about just a few so that I would not bore or frighten you to death. May be some of our imperial excellencies in Abuja may read this piece and it would along with very many other cries from the long suffering Nigerians galvanise them into doing something about the huge problem if it so pleases them so to do.
A friend of mine recently had a very vibrant argument with me over the outcome of the last presidential election. He was of the opinion that the elections were massively rigged and that General Buhari actually won the elections hands down whilst I was of the opinion that there was no way the General could have defeated this incumbent and that his theory of rigging amounted to sour grapes. After our argument and as we were about to leave he fired a parting shot which I have over the days continued to chew over. He said the elections in Nigeria apart from being rigged were never fought on issues but on sentiments. He said if only on the issue of road development, Buhari ought to have trounced Obasanjo in view of the excellent performance of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) under him in rehabilitating roads in all corners of the country put side by side with the woeful performance of the Obasanjo regime, in this regard, after four years in government. I recently had the misfortune of travelling by road to my village a few weeks ago, a journey I had not undertaken in the last three years or thereabout. The last time I made this journey the roads were still excellent, the roads used to be quite bad in the years gone by and then PTF came to be and the journey from Lagos to my village became quite a pleasure. The roads were so good that sometimes I would go and come back twice in a week! As at the last time I travelled home before this very last trip, the rot was beginning to set in; a few naughty potholes here and there and when I raised the matter with a pal who should know, he told us that the Federal Government really had the intentions to make all our roads an Eldorado with the establishment of a road maintenance agency, but since the legislators were then locked in a battle with the President, they were frustrating all his efforts in that direction and as such we should persevere as things would soon be okay. I made my enquiries with much concern as an ardent supporter of the President and his party who really wanted to see them succeed and it was beginning to seem to me that if infrastructure like roads were good under the military then it should even be better under democracy. After the last journey I made I was dumbfounded. Things had deteriorated much more. The road was full of craters now, no longer pot holes. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for your car. And after a seven-hour journey from Lagos to my village it was as if one had been put through a grinder. The same journey, which I could afford to make twice in a week, just a few years back! The annoying part of these murderous roads is that there were officials at designated tollgates, collecting tolls for the use of these murderous roads. They collect millions of naira everyday from helpless road users and yet you have to travel over craters and potholes to get to your destination. The recent scrapping of the tollgates has still not answered the question of what happened to the millions that were collected at those tollgates over the years? Just the other day I took a trip to Edo State and the state of the Lagos-Benin Expressway is best described as something that would give you a horrible nightmare just thinking about it. It is like a scene taken out of a horror movie. And this is supposed to be the major road link between the Western and Eastern regions of the country; two heavy commercial regions of the country; where billions of naira trading activities take place every year. How are the people encouraged to do their business on treacherous roads like these? It is really a big shame on a country like Nigeria.
The worst one is the intra-city roads. A recent trip took me to Abuja and I couldn’t believe that this Abuja was the same one that just a few short years back, used to be noted for tarmac — like roads where one could literarily drive with his eyes close! The city too has now caught the bug of pothole infestation on its roads. Go to any major city in Nigeria today and you would find yourself asking, are our governments asleep? Does the governor or the President not drive on this road everyday? I was in Uyo recently and negotiating the Uyo roads was like driving a safari rally course. In fact, if you pluck out any regular driver of these Uyo roads he would fit in perfectly into the Paris — Dakar rally like fish water. Come over to Lagos and you would see the worst of intracity roads. Victoria Island, which is supposed to be a highbrow area, is now a ghetto, no thanks to the state of the roads! Driving on Adeola Odeku is akin to driving through a jungle path! The road was abandoned a few weeks before the general elections and the popular “gist” in Victoria Island was that they were using all the money for re-election campaigns so the road was abandoned! A few days ago however, we began to see some slow work going on Adeola Odeku and we hope it would not be abandoned again! We can’t afford to heave a sigh of relief until they complete the work, because in Nigeria it is never over until it is over.
THE LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENTS: — If you think that the bad roads in Nigeria are a worry for intra and inter city commuters then you have not yet reckoned with the law enforcement agents on the roads. They are like pests on the road. On my recent journey I counted about 50 (Yes! I was really counting) checkpoints between Lagos and Lokoja. There were mobile ones, there were stationary ones and the ones that suddenly pop out nowhere and force you from a traveling speed of about 120 kmph to a shuddering halt with all the risk of accident that accompany such unplanned sudden stops! It is simply nauseating. Like every noble idea in Nigeria, the idea of putting law enforcement agents on our roads has been grossly abused. The idea of having law enforcement agents on our roads was as a direct reaction to the increase of activities of robbers on our roads and Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief when these law enforcement agents were first put on our roads. Even initially when they began to harass innocent users we could still tolerate them, because it was a choice between them and the robbers and the choice was obvious!!
But it seems that things have since gotten out of hand. There is no Nigerian alive today that has not had or heard of one or two more nasty experiences with the law enforcement agents on our roads and only God knows when and how this menace would be solved. The irony of the whole matter is that we are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea on this matter: If we complain too loudly they would be withdrawn from the roads and the robbers will take over again. But I think it is time the authorities found a middle road between the two evil options. It is so ridiculous that these checkpoints are at times less than 2 kilometers apart. I consider myself to be a very law abiding citizen and I try as much as possible to cooperate with the law enforcement agents whenever they stop me, but some of them are downright mischievous and from the moment they stop you, you know that their intention for stopping you goes far beyond just law enforcement matters!
THE TAX COLLECTORS: — If you think that the law enforcement agents were a menace then you need to encounter the numerous thugs employed by our various local governments as so called tax enforcers on our major roads especially in the Southern part of this country. The worst set of them are those employed by the Oredo Local Government in Edo State, I think they are simply giving that state a bad name and the government should curb their activities. To day that they are no better than legalized armed robbers would be putting the matter very lightly. They operate in gangs of between 8 and 10 and mount roadblocks on very bad patches on the road where you have no option but to slow down. Their tools of trade include cudgels, cutlasses and spiked planks, which they use to deflate your tyres if you dared to challenge their authority. How this menace crept into our national life is something that is difficult to trace but I think it gained much potency during the days of Abacha when every bad thing in Nigeria including tyranny became turbo charged. The sad part is that rather than become better and more civil, they have even gained more potency under the civilian government because I suspect that a lot of them could be political thugs who have connection with party hierarchy and believe that they are thus above the law.
These thugs are put on the road to collect so-called mobile advert levies and other sundry indeterminable levies from company cars. By some warped pseudo-legislative wizardry the local governments in Nigeria suddenly decided that for a company car to carry the said company’s logo, amounts to mobile advertisement and a tax had to be charged on this so-called advertisement. (Don’t ask me why a local government should tax a company for advertising its services). And the best way to enforce this warped legislation is to put thugs on the roads to throw nailed planks at people’s cars just because they have committed the crime of driving branded vehicles. Never mind the fact that many state high courts have decided loud and clear that a company merely putting a logo on its cars without adding any other thing cannot be said to be advertising within the provision of the relevant laws, but then again this is Nigeria the most lawless democracy in the world! Even the federal government does not obey court orders so how do you expect thugs to do so?
The worst part is that in spite of the fact that the Joint Revenue Committee of all Local Governments in Nigeria had come together and agreed on the list of levies which once paid in one local government area, would save you from nationwide harassment for driving a company car, these thugs have still managed to find a way to harass you even after you have paid for this approved list of levies.
We were recently in Edo State and after we showed them the evidence of having paid for all the approved levies, they said there was one we had not paid for, a locally invented levy called “road tax”, which was supposed to be about N15,000. Why should I pay road tax in Oredo Local Government just because I drive past the place once in an entire year? Moreover, the road on which we were being waylaid was a federal government road which Oredo Local Government contributed no kobo in repairing or maintaining. All explanations that we had paid what we were supposed to pay fell on the deaf ears of these thugs and at one point, they were really getting physical with us and threatening to vandalise our car for not “cooperating”! All these in the name of collecting mobile advert tax?
Even when your car is not branded but is new and looks likely to be owned by a company, they still stop you and demand for your particulars to verify if a company owns the car. If it is, they cajole you into paying all those numerous levies in spite of the fact that even the so-called mobile advert is not on your are and if it is really a private car, they tell you that you have to pay a so-called radio tax. My God, how did we descend to this state of anarchy? Paying tax because a radio was fixed in my car? Where do private citizens (not law enforcement agents, derive the legal right to stop people on the highway and harass them over radio tax and other dubious levies). What stops robbers from posing as local government tax officers and robbing people? Do the authorities know about all these things or are they simply leaving us to the mercy of these thugs?
THE HOODLUMS: — As the economic situation of the country deteriorates, so do social miscreants increase. One of the greatest threats on Nigerian roads today are robbers. The media is replete with gory tales of robbers raiding road travelers and disposing them of goods and cash and at times their lives. Even in places like the North where issue of highway robbery used to be unheard of, it is now the order of the day. The multimillion naira questions is where are the law enforcement agents, what is the use of all those numerous checkpoints if they cannot check these robberies or at least apprehend them after the fact?
Government should be able to equip our law enforcement agents in such a way that they can effectively police our roads. A situation where a band of robbers would waylay a luxury bus in broad daylight and carry out a passenger to looting for several minutes without any law enforcement agent coming to the rescue is a sight that leaves one numb with fear. A lot of people have come up with what they think the problem with our law enforcement people are and these problems range from poor remuneration, poor equipment, poor welfare and utter neglect by the authorities, which leads to low moral. I do not disagree with all the above stated problems as militating factors to the proper functioning of our law enforcement people, but to more the most important ingredients that is absent in our law enforcement people is lack of commitment to work. With commitment to work, even all the other inadequacies can be managed. With lack of commitment to work, even if you give them all that they need to work with and they are not committed, the work will still not get done. The way I see our law enforcement officers carry out their duty on the highways I wonder if they can ever protect us. They are only interested in “wetin you carry” and I keep wondering if many criminals do not actually stroll through the eye of the needle just because they are “carrying the right thing” to offer at he numerous checkpoints. Even when they are given patrol cars, they do not patrol with it but use them to mount checkpoints; such that all that a clever crook on our roads has to do is to find out where the roadblocks are, move away from them and begin operations. It has been said by many security experts that the only efficient Police Force is a mobile one that has modern communication gadgets, not a Police Force bugged down at checkpoints. Between one checkpoint and another, a lot of crime can be carried out and all the crook needs to do to drive safely past the next checkpoint after he completes his operation is a few naira.
The greatest irony of this whole tragedy on our roads is that the federal government keeps wasting millions in the name of encouraging tourism. I always shake my head and ask myself, who in his right senses would undertake a tourist trip under all these circumstances? Who would get the tourist first? Is it the potholes, craters, law enforcement officers, tax collectors or hoodlums? Even for us Nigerians (I for one), engage in bouts of prayers before we venture to set out on any journey on our roads; so I wonder which foreign person would leave his country to come and tour these hazardous roads. As for the quest for foreign investment, I would love to see a foreigner who swallows our call to come and invest, arrive here establish a company and on his first trip out of his base in a company car carrying his company’s logo go through what we recently went through in the hands of the thugs of Oredo Local Government and see if the man would not pack up and run back to his country immediately. If we are at all serious with these quests for true democracy and quest to encourage tourism and foreign investment, then we must begin to address these problems; moreover the citizens of Nigeria living in a democracy deserve to travel around the country in peace without all these hassles!