FERMA: Poor funding, poor road maintenance – Punch

A confession by the Federal Road Maintenance Agency that it has been unable to access N64 billion of its statutory funding exposes anew our poor maintenance culture. Nurudeen Rafindadi, FERMA’s Managing Director, lamented that a percentage of petroleum products sale proceeds earmarked for the agency had not been forthcoming, thereby constraining its ability to fulfil its mandate of maintaining federal roads. FERMA’s role is limited to repair and rehabilitation, not construction. It was created to ensure fast response to road damage by bypassing the red tape of the ministry.  With most federal highways in disrepair, the Federal Government should either effectively fund FERMA or scrap it.

Established for the sole duty of maintaining federal highways, especially quick rehabilitation of failed and bad portions of highways, FERMA has sadly, since it took off in 2003, failed to realise the objective of making all federal roads usable all year round. Apart from initial take-off hitches, successive heads of the agency have identified poor funding as its major handicap. Rafindadi disclosed that less than half of its approved N32 billion capital budget for fiscal 2018 was released to it. A House of Representatives committee in November 2016 found that the N10 billion approved for road maintenance projects for that year was not released two months to the end of that year. Underscoring the unseriousness of the government towards road maintenance, it cut the Works ministry’s proposed N100 billion demand for capital projects for 2016 to a meagre N11 billion, in a year that was initially to see substantial work begin on the proposed Second Niger Bridge, while the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway rehabilitation was and is still underway.

More lamentable in Rafindadi’s strident complaint is that the N64 billion in question is statutory; funds accruable from sources specifically legislated to make FERMA solvent. The FERMA Act of 2002 was amended in 2007 to provide, among others, that a percentage of user pump price of petrol and diesel will accrue to FERMA and to states’ road maintenance agencies; as well as accruals from international vehicles transit charge. This is to supplement the grants, subventions, monies from road concessions, aid and proceeds from federal toll gates. Similar specific taxes and levies are imposed by Brazil, Canada, China, Israel, South Africa and Ghana to maintain highways.

It is bad that the government fails to fund FERMA, which took over the functions of the works department of the Federal Ministry of Works; it is doubly worrying that funds collected by tax authorities and by law, earmarked for FERMA, are not remitted to it.  As roads deteriorate, they become exponentially more expensive to repair.  Yet, Nigeria’s roads are not only inadequate; they are in a terrible shape, epitomising the ugliness of dilapidated national infrastructure. Of Nigeria’s 195,000 kilometres of roads, says the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission, 135,000 km are un-tarred; 32,000 km of the total are federal roads; 31,000km are owned by the state governments and the rest by the local governments. The World Bank says only about 30,000 km of all roads in Nigeria are actually paved.

But road infrastructure, according to World Highways, makes a crucial contribution to economic development and growth; provides access to employment, social, health and educational services; helps fight poverty and stimulates social development. The world’s top economies have large, well-maintained road networks, with the United States leading. China’s arrival as a superpower is advertised by its frenetic highway construction. Brazil has the fourth largest network with two million kilometres, 200,000 km of which are paved, following a deliberate programme of road investment launched in the 1960s to attract foreign investment.

The World Economic Forum says “roads are the arteries through which the economy pulses.” Nigeria especially relies on road haulage by over 75 per cent, the Federal Road Safety Commission reported, and should therefore maintain its roads.  South Africa, our continental rival, has 750,014 km of roads, the 10th largest globally, with 158,124 km paved. To redress its crumbling network, Egypt in 2014 launched a programme to rehabilitate, renovate, expand and increase road infrastructure, according priority to economic routes.

Road maintenance is essential to preserve the road in its originally constructed condition, protect adjacent resources and user safety, and provide efficient, convenient travel along the route. Unfortunately, both the construction and maintenance of roads in the country fall far below the acceptable international standards.  Our roads lack proper drainage. But experts say good drainage keep water off and away from roads. A saturated road base is a weak roadbase. Surface water combined with traffic creates potholes and cracking. If improperly channelled, water will cause erosion and break down the edge of pavement. Maintenance, too, is often neglected or improperly performed resulting in rapid deterioration of the road and eventual failure from both climatic and vehicle use impacts. It follows that it is impossible to build and use a road that requires no maintenance.

Nigeria should get serious in fixing its roads. The economy needs infrastructure upkeep to promote growth. Everybody is paying for this: from the bent rims and broken springs of vehicles, to the high cost of transportation, to high level of insecurity and to the subtle cost of loss of foreign investment. While promoting investments in rail, water and air transport, efforts should be made to keep our roads passable.

President Muhammadu Buhari and whoever he appoints as Minister of Works should look into the FERMA case urgently; its new board led by Tunde Lemo, a former Central Bank of Nigeria Deputy Governor, should make the agency more nimble and efficient in the national interest. There should be full-time, year-round crews to fill potholes. With limited funds and a disinterested government, FERMA should refocus its efforts on making maximum impact. It should explore the direct labour route more often, which costs far less, rather than wait vainly for huge funds for major rehabilitation. Our roads require emergency action, especially those connecting major economic and revenue-generation centres; the government should, therefore, adequately fund and motivate FERMA.

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