Nigeria untangles its snarled highways in bid to expand and rehabilitate its road network
Recognising the value of a properly functioning and safe road network, Africa’s most populous country is upgrading and expanding its expressways – despite some difficult and dangerous bumps along the way.
The morning drive out of Abuja to inspect progress on the construction of a section of the highway towards Keffi, a medium-sized town to the east of Nigeria’s capital, is a major undertaking.
A convoy of buses and luxury minibuses set out the day after the seventh edition of the Africa Road Builders Trophy-Babacar Ndiaye Inaugural Conference to see how the building of the road was going.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s officials hosted the conference earlier this month, as the trophy was conferred on him last year for the progress his country has been making in constructing roads that are safer to drive on.
Anyone who has been introduced to Nigeria via Lagos will tell you that Abuja’s roads are a joy to travel on – much less congested, with tree-lined boulevards in places around the city centre. There is a 10-lane highway between the airport and the CBD, which are about 40km apart.
In Abuja, it is possible to attend a meeting on the other side of town in the morning and be back by lunchtime. In Lagos, the gridlocks can mean a day’s worth of travel both ways.
It’s on the outskirts of Abuja, though, that traffic is less than free-flowing. Some of the highways are narrow and old. In some places, markets come right up to the road, limiting the space even further. In one settlement, a number of men lined up for Friday prayers on the roadside, using part of the road surface too.
The field visit out of Abuja – with local politicians, officials, contractors and journalists – was accompanied by a host of police officers and masked soldiers on the back of trucks, wielding sticks with which they clubbed slow traffic out of the way and onto the dusty highway shoulder.
“Tell him to build roads!” shouted a frustrated driver caught up in a traffic jam worsened by the convoy.
In places where the traffic had come to a standstill, the convoy slipped off onto the shoulder, meant for construction vehicles. The buses tilted at precarious angles, but the risk of coming to a standstill was apparently greater than the risk of an accident: the convoy’s human cargo would all fetch a handsome ransom if kidnapped.
It felt like we travelled at breakneck speed along the road, which was in varying stages of construction. But a search afterwards on Google maps revealed that we had travelled only about 50km in two hours, making it apparent why the roads need to be upgraded.
“By the time this project is completed, travel time would be drastically reduced,” said Mu’azu Jaji Sambo, the minister of state for works and housing, “and time is money”.
The project alone employs 1,000 people from the surrounding communities and, in total, 220km of highway will be overhauled. It’s taken some negotiations to keep the communities happy, as the construction has been affecting people’s movement and businesses.
Information boards at the bridge just outside the town of Keffi where the convoy stopped for the inspection, lunch and a media briefing, displayed the constructor’s name, China Harbour Engineering Company, and technical information about the project’s progress. Red carpets were laid out on the bridge and a canopy was set up to provide shade.
For the sake of the cameras, however, the media conference happened in the sun, where it was about 36°C.
“[The project] is funded by a loan from the China Eximbank with counterpart funding by Nigeria,” Sambo said. “China Eximbank is providing 85% of the costs of the project, and Nigeria is providing the balance of 15%.” It is one of more than 17 loans from the bank to Nigeria since 2002, totalling $6.5-billion.
The road will be tolled at the end of the project, Sambo said.
This money would go towards helping to pay back this loan, which has to be serviced by 2037, and thereafter the toll roads “will still earn revenue, and that revenue will be deployed to take care of socioeconomic issues affecting the people, like health, education, water, sanitation, and what have you. The socioeconomic benefits of this project [are] massive,” Sambo said.
Toll roads aren’t always popular in Nigeria, and there is a storm brewing in Lagos around the planned resumption of tolling on the Lekki-Ikoyi Link Bridge in mid-April. The toll plazas were closed in October 2020 after the #EndSARS protests against police brutality, which unleashed a deadly response from police on the young protesters.
Some also question whether the money collected at toll plazas actually reaches the public coffers.
Other than roads, Buhari’s administration has been encouraging the building of housing, airports, and reviving sectors such as agriculture and mining, Sambo said. This was in an effort to move the economy away from oil, which has been the mainstay of the economy thus far.
The project was meant to be finished in three years, but it was recently extended by 12 months – to April next year – because of delays caused by, among other things, community grievances. The road construction has disrupted their businesses and worsened traffic jams.
There is also the security of the contractors. The threat of criminals when you travel out of Abuja was again highlighted last month when bandits attacked a train en route from Abuja to Kaduna, killing more than half a dozen people and apparently kidnapping about 168.
“The government has made available soldiers to help,” one of the contractors said. The cost of these, however, is for the contractor’s own account.
So work must go on, also for the benefit of the region. Nigeria’s expressways form part of a transcontinental network, aimed at improving the transport of goods and stimulating trade under the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement.
Plans for the network go back a long time. The Trans Africa Highway Programme was launched in 1971 and sought to connect the whole of Africa through nine highways, covering an aggregate distance of 56,683km.
Babatunde Fashola, the minister of works and housing, on behalf of Buhari, told the conference that the African Development Bank (AfDB) has been helping with major projects, such as the Mfum-Bamenda Bridge between Nigeria and Cameroon, and it has funded feasibility studies and other work on some of the highways.
Nationwide, there is “over 13,000km of road and bridge construction, expansion and rehabilitation”.
“They have been a major boost for the growth of our economy,” Fashiola said, “keeping people at work, driving a supply value chain, stimulating productivities at quarries, cement factories, steel factories, and the petroleum sectors for lubricants, fuel and bitumen.”
The Babacar Ndiaye Trophy is named after the president of the AfDB from 1985 to 1995 and sponsored by the current president, Akinwumi Adesina.
The awarding is organised by Acturoutes, an information platform on infrastructure and roads in Africa.
At the Abuja conference, Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan was announced as this year’s recipient of the trophy for her “personal leadership” in her government’s investment in extending transport infrastructure. The AfDB has provided $290-million to Tanzania for the revitalisation of its road, rail and air transport.
Hassan will receive the prize on the sidelines of the AfDB’s next annual meetings in May in Accra, Ghana, and Tanzania will be hosting next year’s conference. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.