The federal government has finally indicated that toll gates would return to many federal roads.
The decision obviously followed the terrible decay and neglect that have made many federal roads all over the country impassable. According to the Minister of Works, Housing and Power, Babatunde Fashola, the government intends to borrow money to fix the roads, and then toll them. This decision was inevitable, some have argued, in order to guarantee the maintenance of the roads on completion.
There is unlikely to be any significant opposition to the tolling of federal roads, given the excruciating hardship road users endure. What is imponderable, however, is the back and forth of decision-making in Nigeria. Ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo woke up one morning as president and demolished all toll gates in the country, arguing that they had become unnecessary because of the fuel price increase he was proposing in which a road tax was embedded. It was clear he strived to present a fait accompli on the country. But the drastic step failed to accomplish its purpose once the labour unions successfully haggled a lower fuel price.
It is significant that the demolition of the old toll gates took place in the midst of a national debate on fuel price hikes and the relevance of toll gates that had admittedly become a cesspit of corruption at the time. Till today, the same federal government has still not institutionalised the right culture of debate. Opponents of controversial public policies are sometimes cast in the mould of enemies of the state, while sycophancy is encouraged, lauded and even rewarded. It is important for the public to interrogate public policies, encourage robust debates, and force the government to open its books and calculations for the public to appreciate the pros and the cons of its vaunted policies and measures.
It is not enough for the government to speak generally of funding the reconstruction of the roads and tolling them, how they hope to achieve these goals must be adequately spelt out. The public will not buy a pig in a poke. In addition, if toll gates are to be constructed all over again, it must be spelt out what they would cost, which roads would host them, and what the toll fares would be. If the policies are retrogressive, the public must have the last say.