In this interview with Damilola Aina, the Managing Director/CEO of the Federal Road Maintenance Agency, Nurudeen Rafindadi, discusses the deplorable conditions of federal roads and the prospect of alternative funding for road infrastructure.
Nigerians mostly blame the Federal Road Maintenance Agency for the deplorable state of roads across the country. Why is the agency not living up to the desired expectation?
First of all, FERMA is charged with the responsibility of monitoring and maintaining federal roads only. Monitoring and maintaining are one aspect of our job while the federal road is another aspect. The primary mandate of the agency is to periodically maintain roads that are alive, not dead.
Nowadays, when people see any bad road in state municipals or rural communities or even private estates, they ask what Ferma is doing, but they don’t know it is not our job. We are also not mandated to repair roads that have expired or exceeded their life cycle. For example, the Abuja-Kaduna Road was constructed in 1990 and it is currently 31 years old. Ideally, this road should be rehabilitated after 15 years and this means taking the entire surface, reconstructing and relaying the asphalt, which make the roads durable for another 10-15 years.
But if we maintain a section today, the next section will be damaged by tomorrow. This will put a dent on the work done and people will ask what Ferma is doing since they saw us reconstructing the other sections.
I must add that rehabilitation, reconstruction or construction of new roads is not our job. We are mandated to conduct routine and periodic maintenance so as to make our roads last longer.
The situation we are in today is that 80 per cent of 36,000-kilometer federal roads need complete repairs because they were built on or before 1999 and have exceeded their life cycles.
The problem of trying to maintain roads that have exceeded their life spans is that you spend more and more every year to keep them motorable. Secondly, it doesn’t last long as you have to patch up, especially after every rainy season. All of these don’t make our job reflect well and they make people say we don’t know what we are doing.
Recently, I spoke to a past governor and he asked why I was doing a job that tarnishes my image. When I explained, he advised me to proffer solutions and not allow the job to tarnish my image. But if we don’t salvage the situation, we won’t have motorable roads in Nigeria and it will affect our economy.
Why does it take the agency so much time to fix bad roads and how often are road monitoring and maintenance conducted?
It is generally understood that there was a backlog of damage and this was the reason why the agency was created in 2002. We started with a backlog of repairs and the early years were to clear the backlog and we have never gotten out of that situation. As long as you are dealing with the majority of roads that are expired, you can’t get out of that situation. On the flip side, good roads that should be taken care of will suffer and also deteriorate, leaving us in a confused state about what next to do.
For instance, Onitsha to Owerri Road is a federal highway and dual carriage road. It is a shame it could be abandoned and not monitored, which is because we had more serious damage elsewhere and focused our attention there, which made the road deteriorate.
The serious damage has made us abandon our primary duty, according to the law. So, we didn’t start with routine and periodic maintenance.
There is a directive that we should dedicate a certain amount of our budget, no matter how small, to attend to our roads before they go bad instead of attending to bad roads after they have gone bad. But we are overwhelmed by the instances of unmotorable roads that needs urgent attention and this won’t end.
To your question, we conduct routine maintenance in every state of the federation through our FERMA state offices in cooperation with other stakeholders. Currently, we have 38 state offices which are coordinated by our zonal offices. We have a public works department that goes out periodically to assess the state of our roads. Bad roads are compiled and sent to the ministry so that allocation can be given to them in our annual budget and we can repair them immediately before they become un-motorable.
How cooperative are the state governments in relation to the security of personnel and other logistics?
We need the cooperation of state governments and other relevant stakeholders. The land we need to build roads belongs to states so they are needed in each of our conversations. We go through the necessary process of getting the necessary documentation and in most cases, they help us. Also, roads have a lasting impact on the state in terms of economy, and development. If we don’t have cooperation with the state government, it won’t be possible. The governors also come here to plead for assistance concerning certain roads and we do our best to help them.
Road is the most important infrastructure and development you can give to any community. There is no political office holder who doesn’t have a one-kilometre road in his constituency that, if he constructs, will make him look good in the eyes of the people.
It is a very difficult task and if you do well, you get praise but if the roads get really bad the criticisms will come. During the rainy season, I sometimes sleep with one eye closed because you don’t know where the next emergency call will come from. We are available in really difficult areas of the country.
By the way, we also have excellent cooperation with the police, army and other security operatives. I remember when the former Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, told me that there are places we go where the only signs of government we can see are the army and FERMA. We have an excellent relationship with them.
All of these boil down to the value of roads. It is the most important asset any community has because it is what connects a place to the rest of the world.
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Does this mean the agency has recorded no casualty from kidnapping?
We have had very few cases. I can’t tell you we have not had cases of kidnapping of our workers because I have also had to pay ransoms but we still have the backing of our security operatives and host communities. The solution to banditry is if the communities can get themselves together. These bandits are not superhuman beings and can be defeated.
The cost of building roads is deemed too expensive. How really expensive are Nigerian roads?
The only transport infrastructure that is working today in Nigeria is road, even though we have five types of transport systems: roads, rail, air, water and pipelines. Out of these five, only road is working. It carries almost 90 per cent of our economic activities like goods, services, cargo and people. Some people say there are no roads in Nigeria. The roads are not existent because if you take the entire gross domestic product of Nigeria, our roads carry 90 per cent of it. They are the arteries that make the blood flow through the economy.
Also, some people like to scandalise the cost of roads. Everywhere in the world, roads are very expensive things to build and they should be expensive when you consider the things they do.
Recently, NNPC said there are 68 million litres of petroleum products that are shipped across the country daily and that is about N11bn worth of goods plying our roads every day. The pipelines are not working. If they are, it will less stress on our roads.
In fact, the whole story about transmission through the pipelines is important as they are currently shut and to change this requires a whole lot of work. We have depots with pipelines all across the country but they are not working so we have to take tankers from Lagos to Maiduguri. These tankers load 30,000 litres and 60,000 tonnes, but our roads were not designed for that. When they are damaged, people don’t blame the trucks, they blame the roads.
FERMA will get N25bn for capital in the 2023 budget and that is just two days of the value of petrol our roads carry every day. If roads were a person, I would say that person is being maltreated.
The agencies and ministry overseeing this are not being treated fairly in budget allocation even though it is clear the federal budget can’t adequately provide for all our needs.
It is true that rails are coming, but it has not lifted the burdens on the roads. A single train can take 100 wagons of petrol but today we have 500 tankers crossing Niger State every day to bridge the gap between the South and the North. There is a place where you will see over 500 tankers loaded with fuel. Yet, the road is bad.
It is funny when people become scandalous with the cost of constructing roads. To properly sustain our roads, an equivalent of N2 trillion or N3 trillion is needed every year. It is time to be realistic.
What are the prospects of alternative sources for funding road projects?
I am expecting that one day we gather at a round table and come to realise that roads are economic assets that can also generate revenue. There are roads in Nigeria that can build, sustain themselves and even make money for other less viable roads. Any road that takes 25,000 vehicles in traffic can be of economic value. What is done in other countries is that they take a route corridor and section out to the road contractor. He builds the road and runs it for a certain number of years. This will enable him to make his money back because it is a 24-hour economy. This will also solve employment issues.
But for us to have toll gates, we need a law to be passed so it can be implemented. There are people locally and internationally who would want to invest in Nigerian roads but we need to have the law in place as an investor is interested in how to get in and the way out.
There are also technicalities that would be worked on in order to achieve this. More than 40 per cent of our viable roads can generate revenue for the government.
This will also need some political will to pull this off. Nigerians will pay anything just to have the comfort. They just don’t want to be short-changed. People will tolerate at least five toll gates between Abuja and Kano as long as the toll gates will enable them to get to their destinations on time. I have met Nigerians who say, ‘why not repair these roads and put the toll gate, we will pay.’
What challenges have you experienced in office and how can they be resolved?
We have challenges regarding the nature of the work, misuse of roads and inadequate funding. We also have a running problem in FERMA and that is the adequate number of staff.
We have maintained the same number of staff in the last 10 years, not the same staff because people come and go. The last time recruitment was done was in 2012 and people have been leaving the service.
In 2019, we wanted to recruit 700 staff but it was reduced to 300. This was fewer than the number of people who had left the service. There is a cadre of staff – our supervisors. A number of them were employed in 1990 and by next year, they will be leaving the service on account of age and we can’t recruit. If this continues, in the next 12 months, particularly the gap of 500 middle-level cadre, our work will begin to deteriorate.
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