Recently, Sahara Reporters published a story on the 3.7km road linking Idheze and Okpe-Isoko in Delta State. Though without a byline, the story draws from a somewhat wolf alarm raised by one of its associates, Amour Udemude, on his Facebook page earlier on same day.
It narrated that following a heavy downpour, a portion of the road was submerged by rain water and concluded that the contractor did a “shoddy job” and must have shortchanged his people with the cover of the state government for political patronage.
Even though Amour Udemude appears to many as a faceless Avatar, voices like his sometimes serve to challenge authorities to provide the best for the people, but he often negates the good cause by piling his criticisms with such political bias that betrays a haste to merely create disaffection even against well meaning intentions of leaders.
He set out to achieve this with the picture of only a small portion of the road, about 100m, that may have been flooded by the heavy rainfall and perhaps the high water level of the particular area, as against the rest stretch of the 3.7km road that was not affected and remained dry. Then he rubs it in by trying to intimidate dissenting expressions.
Notwithstanding, the issue he has raised can better be treated by elevating the conversation outside politics to provide deeper insight and understanding on the challenges of road construction, especially in the lower Niger Delta region of Nigeria.
In the first place, I have travelled the stretch of the road severally, first, years back as a taxi driver in my school days, and now as a full fledged community leaders and I can see the difference. Nothing in it suggests a shoddy job. It is a beautiful, well paved road rising about 6 inches above the ground, for a rural access road. Secondly, the people of Idheze and Okpe, and infact the entire Isoko nation, North and South, are happy for having it.
Thirdly, it is important to note that roads are graded or classified. Not all roads are of the same design, input and standard. The nature and investment on a major highway intra or interstate would often be different from a rural access road.
Fourthly, it is not unusual in various parts of the world to see portions of well paved roads covered by rain water after heavy downpour, especially in rainy seasons and in tropical regions.
We have seen such occurrences in various parts of Lagos, from the high brow Ikoyi, Parkview, Banana and Victoria Islands, to the new rich estates of Lekki Peninsula. We have also seen it in the United States even up to the door-mouth and pavements of the White House.
A few centimetres of water on road surface do not immediately render the road unmotorable as vehicles still move on them but if the downpour is so heavy as to impede movement then it should be clearly seen as an act of nature just like we have seen whole cities, including in the advanced world, displaced by flooding during heavy rains.
Even at that, with the slanting of the road edges, the flood waters also drain off back to their normal level within hours.
As a leader and, if we insist, friend of the Governor, Chief Ross Uredi should be credited for attracting the project to his people, and the contractor can only be accused of not doing a standard job if it is established that it did not comply with the job specification and if the required construction value for such specification was what was budgeted and awarded. For instance, did the project include the provision of water drainage and it was not so delivered?
In assessing road works, we must take cognisance of objective, design and budget. There have been many studies by professionals and experts on the peculiarities of road construction in the Niger Delta. They all affirm that the geomorphology presents low standing with the sea level; high water bed close to the surface; swampy and marshy grounds of weak soil with poor filtration that do not sufficiently absorb water or get easily soaked and saturated; flat plains in which water diversion is difficult to achieve given the density of many rivers, creeks, streams and lakes that also easily receive from the rising water levels of the Atlantic, especially under the current climate change. This means that the discharge point of drainages have to be well located such that it doesn’t end up providing more access for rising sea water into the inlands.
To achieve high standard roads, a lot of extra considerations have to come into the design of the roads with extra variables also in the construction cost. There has to be an excavation of about two feet of the weak subsoil to be refilled with stronger, sharper sand or granite to not only firm up the foundation but also allow for easy filtration of water. The surface level of the road also has to be raised to anywhere between 6 inches to two feet.This would mean between 20 to 30% extra on standard road construction cost.
To avoid the damaging effect of water on Asphalt in cases of clogging due to saturation, the solution being suggested today is the adoption of concrete materials which is adjudged more durable than asphalt but almost doubly more expensive.
The other option would be to design the roads as bridges from end to end like we have in the Lagos Third Mainland Bridge or Long Bridge.
The implication for all this is huger cost which remains even huger challenge for governments.
Some years back, the World Bank put the average cost of a standard one kilometer road in Nigeria at about N238m. If we use this standard cost on the 3.7km Idheze-Okpe Isoko road, it meets the mark most prudently.
In reality however, the cost of a kilometre of road in Nigeria is currently between N300m and N600m in the North which has dry and strong soil types, and between N1b and N1.5b, especially in South East and South South.
Without disputing the possibility of inflation of contract sums in some places, the high cost mostly derives from the unfriendly, marshy, swampy, erosion prone weak soil types, the cost of standard materials, civil engineering works, labour and growing price inflation.
For instance, unlike many industrialised nations where construction cost is low, Nigeria has huge deposit of bitumen for the production of Asphalt but it remains one of the huge components of our import. Then consider importation at the current rate of Naira to the dollar.
Also, if we are to excavate the weak subsoil to be refilled with stronger earth materials, we have to consider the proximity of the project site to the source of such materials to compute the extra cost in transportation. If water drainage is to be added in the design, it will also mean additional cost of between 10 to 15%.
The question would be: Being the cash cow of the nation, does the Niger Delta region not deserve such standard roads, irrespective of the cost? My answer is, the communities deserve even better. But, that can only be under a reviewed revenue generation and sharing arrangement that will provide sufficient funding to the governments of the region to adequately fund standard road constructions in the difficult terrain.
Until that happens, various governments of the region will always have to determine which roads to invest heavily on and which to construct as fair access for the movement of people, goods and services, these determined by if the road is a highway, the level of traffic and linkage to other economic activities and centres.
Given this reality and the foregoing analysis of need and variables of costs in road construction, and given the contract sum of N850m for the 3.7km Idheze-Okpe road in a low plain, riverine Niger Delta community, it should be obvious that it was conceived to provide just a fair access for the people, and understandably so, that the contract sum cannot be described as “whopping” and that, indeed, the contractor delivered sacrificially.
In Nigeria, the Federal Government has responsibility for about 17% of the roads. The states have 16% while the local and grassroots roads are about 67%. One of the biggest challenges is the insufficient funding of local governments to support road constructions and other critical infrastructures. It has been the lot of various state governments to intervene but, given the prevailing poor national economy and inappropriate revenue sharing formula, such interventions may not usually be up to the desired all desired measures.
It is worse for the South with a multiplicity of densely populated hinterland communities that all require access roads.
As an August 2020 Proshare research work put it, the big question for road construction in Nigeria is how to build roads to last at the lowest market-driven cost through “the economic choice between cheaper but less durable roads and costlier but longer lasting highways. Or optimizing road cost considerations over longer time frames on cost benefit basis. The answer will appear to be both.”
There has also been various suggestions on achieving standard roads. Experts agree that “the new normal requires that roads should be sufficiently durable, to last up to 20 and 25 years” but should also “provide cash inflows to create positve net present value” for private investors under PPP.
Unfortunately, the issue of road tolling remains a hard talk in our national discourse. I do not see how we can introduce toll gates to fund road construction and maintenance in the Niger Delta, given the social, political and security implications.
Another approach would be to design the roads with full complements but to be executed over a medium to long term period, say over five to ten years budgetary circles, depending on availability of funds.
While that may also be considerable, it has the risk of midway abandonment under the vagaries of our politics and policies. It also means the people have to wait, that is if they will have the patience, understanding and trust.
To put it simply, partial flooding on a small portion of the Idheze-Okpe Isoko link road resulting from heavy rainfall is like what happens in any part of the globe depending on the level of the road from the water bed, the economic rating, conception, design objective, budget and availability of funds.
Not all of the things we see are matters of corruption. For sure, Ross is a close associate of the Governor but Senator Okowa, rightly called Roadmaster, has demonstrated severally that he does not service his friendship by compromising on service to the people. He only will have to continue managing to apply insufficient revenue to provide fairly reasonable standard infrastructures across a multiplicity of communities, and several fiscal judgments go into the process.