Rethinking Roads in Nigeria

Jan 18, 2018|Martha Sambe

Nigeria’s road network, the system of roads which connects the entire country, stretches to 193,200km. Of this, barely 28,980km (15%) is paved. Compared to 80% in Malaysia and 13% in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Malaysia are ranked as the 27th, 32nd and 66th largest countries in the world by landmass. Though the data is inconclusive, one would imagine that larger countries would have more roads – and more paved roads. What data does show is that 12 out 18 countries with 100% paved roads have landmasses less than the size of Malaysia (329,750 km2 ).

There are many consequences of a poor road network, the most grievous being the danger it poses to human lives. In July 2017 alone, 13 people died from car accidents each day, with over 1,200 vehicles involved in accidents during the month. While numerous causal factors are at play, frequent road travellers would finger the deplorable state of Nigerian roads as chief among them. 

And beyond the health hazards, the poor quality of Nigerian roads acts as a stumbling block to development in the country. 


The Not Silk Road

A World Bank assessment showed that road users bear the true cost of poor road maintenance. Essentially, bad roads mean that drivers spend more on their cars and road users spend more on transport fares. Transporting goods across the country also becomes more expensive, contributing to Nigeria's long-term inflation problem. The effect is lower consumption of goods and services, especially in rural areas; and with a little over 50% of the population situated in rural areas, the effect on trade cannot be favourable.   

So, increased investment in paving and maintaining roads would help mitigate high transport costs and pass through to lower prices in the economy, particularly in hard-to-reach rural areas. A World Bank working paper points to this precise effect, showing that by upgrading the primary road network connecting major cities, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa can increase regional trade by $250 billion in 5 years. 


Poverty & Social Exclusion

Many rural areas are already hard to reach because they are far away from central cities and state capitals. Such areas risk being cut off because of the distance needed to cover to reach them, and also because the roads leading to these areas are not paved and so making it much harder to access them. Consequently, these areas have challenges and limitations in getting essential goods, commodities, and services delivered to them. The difficulty in accessing these areas also reduces their chances for commercialisation and industrialisation.

Two extreme examples come via the populations in Koma Hills, Adamawa State and the Jibu in Taraba State. Both groups are excluded from society such that they are living as primitive people. We know that developing rural roads could have impacts across different dimensions of poverty: in Madagascar, lower transport costs resulted in increased household income; and in China, rural areas saw increases in per capita consumption as a result of increased road investments which opened rural areas to domestic and international markets.


Invest Bad Roads Away, Or Not

It is difficult to estimate how much Federal and State governments have invested in Nigeria's roads. A quick look at the 2018 Budget suggests that the FG plans to spend at least ₦295 billion on road construction, expansion, and maintenance. You may recall that last year, the FG raised a debut sovereign Sukuk of ₦100 billion to fund the construction and rehabilitation of 25 high-impact roads across the country. However, deserved scepticism of government spending – or the ‘Nigerian factor’ – encourages questions about the release of these funds and whether or not they will be used for the proposed projects.

Interestingly, government spending will not be enough.

The World Economic Forum has highlighted approaches to addressing challenges in developing road networks. These policy strategies ought to complement financial investments. Price instruments such as taxes (e.g. toll gate fees) and subsidies (reduction in the cost of public transport) can be effective in influencing consumer behaviour, depending on the desired outcomes. With taxes, the revenues generated can be used to fund road maintenance, whereas subsidies are effective at decongesting roads. Of course, these approaches, if implemented, will be met resistance by road users. However, we ultimately stand to benefit the most, assuming that the revenues generated will be used efficiently. 


Road Ahead

With only 15% of its roads paved, Nigeria has a lot of ground to cover here. The adverse effect of poor roads on human lives would rightfully continue to command attention, but we must be wise to the long run development costs of bad roads. Monetary investments are necessary, especially given the massive deficit of paved roads, but moving forward, Nigeria needs to employ other policy strategies that can ensure quality roads so that our lives are not otherwise wasted on these roads.


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