The Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, squelched hopes of early respite for the thousands of commuters plying the tortuous Lagos-Ibadan Expressway when he recently pronounced early 2022 as completion date for its ongoing rehabilitation. Buoyed up by the receipt of recovered stolen public funds specifically earmarked for its completion, the economically important highway, just like the Abuja-Kaduna Expressway and the Second Niger Bridge, is now planned for delivery “in the first quarter of 2022.” Given Nigeria’s busiest motorway’s chequered record of endless reconstruction and missed timelines, however, the new date is a disappointment.
Though the government had cited the addition of new features to the initial rehabilitation design – a good move – and poor funding for the past interminable delays, the propitious windfall arising from the return of $311.79 million out of the funds stolen by the late dictator, Sani Abacha, and facilitated by an agreement to use it for the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and two other projects, raised hopes of swift completion.
The expressway has suffered from many years of underfunding and poor maintenance. One problem holding back its comprehensive improvement is lack of economic vision. Nigeria has never demonstrated the ability to deliver strategic and complex engineering projects broadly to time and budget. Sadly, this new deadline fails to convey the expected urgency for the rehabilitation of the 127.6-kilometre highway that links Lagos, the nation’s commercial, industrial and maritime powerhouse, to the rest of the country. This appears inexplicable with new funding and as the country is borrowing furiously to slow down a headlong plunge into possibly its worst recession in the wake of a COVID-19-induced global contraction and the precarious prices of oil, its mainstay.
While the International Monetary Fund forecasts the economy to contract by -3.4 per cent this year, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, who heads the Economic Sustainability Committee, warned that job losses could eventually reach 39.4 million, a figure alarmingly higher than the 13 million layoffs feared by the United Nations. A country desperate to fight its way out of an economic hole of such magnitude should ordinarily accord utmost priority and speed to completing critical infrastructure to facilitate commerce and production.
Highways, along with other forms of transport, are the arteries through which an economy palpitates. Roads in particular, experts say, are, in a vast multi-terrain country like Nigeria, the cheapest to build and a convenient way of transporting goods and passengers, flexible and act as feeders to railways and water transport. A report on the United States’ National Highway System found that good, dependable road infrastructure boosts industry and employment, lowers production costs for businesses and improves public revenue.
First built in 1978 as the country’s first expressway with four lanes, lack of vision and rational maintenance culture has seen its expansion to only six lanes in about half of its length since then, while rehabilitation has been undertaken in fits and starts. The current programme started in 2013 with an elusive four-year timeline that has since turned travel on the road to a daily nightmare. The plan to expand it to a 10-lane super highway has remained a mirage.
The impact of its dilapidation as the main functional artery to Lagos and delays in delivery is enormous. Data by the National Bureau of Statistics show that Lagos ports account for 70 per cent of national cargo freight, over 65 per cent of industrial and commercial activities with 29 industrial estates cited by the Lagos Bureau of Statistics, and it overwhelmingly hosts national financial markets.
The Federal Government should rethink: some projects deserve uncommon priority and speed; this highway and the Apapa Ports link roads perfectly fit the bill. Over 10,000 vehicles, 60 per cent of them trucks, ply the highway daily, making it the country’s busiest, according to the Federal Road Safety Commission. When it identified expansion of the Suez Canal as a national priority to attract investment and create jobs, Egypt raised $8.5 billion and completed the project in a record 12 months and the World Economic Forum forecasts revenue there from of $13.5 billion by 2023. China built a 1,000-bed hospital in COVID-19-afflicted Wuhan city in 10 days. Under its novel infrastructure renewal programme, India boasts of building 27 kilometres of roads every day to link production centres, fight poverty and stimulate employment.
Recognising that roads are important for socio-economic development by providing access to resources, jobs and markets therefore and conscious of the need to climb out of economic contraction, the Federal Government should pull out all the stops and complete this road and others in record time. Modern road building technology is available to facilitate this and comfortably accommodate whatever additions and improvements.
Even at home, there are antecedents. Undaunted by critics and adjudging it to be central to its overall economic and social programme, the government of the old Western Region built Africa’s first television station at a hectic pace by 1959, and was followed within one year by the Eastern Region and the Northern Region three years later. The second runway of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja was completed in a record six weeks, given its acknowledged importance.
Apart from cutting interest rates, port reforms and other measures, the IMF recommends that critical infrastructure provision such as power, roads, railways and rural roads is essential to recovery and improving the ease of doing business.
This road has suffered too many missed deadlines with negative impact on the economy. The Abacha loot deal has erased the excuse of poor funding for it, the Abuja-Kaduna Expressway and the Second Niger Bridge that is reported to be 48 per cent completed. Similar urgency should be applied to the Apapa link roads from where over N1.5 trillion is generated annually and about N1 trillion is lost to business operators, according to the Shippers Association of Lagos State.
The government needs to urgently reconsider that 2022 timeline and mobilise the contractors to deliver the project qualitatively and in the shortest possible time.