By Owei Lakemfa
There is a tradition in Nigeria to pay for services not rendered. Electricity companies refuse to provide pre-paid metres and bill you while supplying darkness. You are made to pay multiple taxes similar to ransom because it is a hostage situation. Apart from spending the petro-dollars, internally generated revenue and foreign loans, our government is ever in need of more money. Don’t ask me what it is used for; I am a patriot. For this, we are made to pay tax on virtually everything, including communication tax, cash withdrawal tax, cash deposit tax, stamp duty on bank account, stamp duty on POS transaction and higher Value-Added- Tax for Tax-Devalued-Life.
I don’t complain because all hands must be on deck to support our leaders. It is therefore with all due respect and humility, I want to gently remind the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria that it is being misinformed on the issue of tollgates which it wants to re-introduce across the country as one more avenue to raise funds for spending.
First, let me thank God Almighty that humans do not need to pay for oxygen otherwise, 95 percent of us would have expired due to inability to pay. Given trade liberalisation, it would have been a willing-sellers-willing-buyers-market.
It is not that the technology of tollgates or the civilization of tolling roads are new to us. Previous governments had erected tollgates for scores of years. They were being multiplied so much that at a point, we started praying that the Nigerian government does not erect tollgates on the road to heaven. We feared that if it did, most of us won’t be able to travel to Heaven’s Gate and answer our names when called to account for our sojourn on earth. Subsequently, we Nigerian sinners would not have the opportunity of pleading mitigation for our earthly misdeeds. In that case, the road to purgatory or hell would have been an expressway.
In fact, we started paying toll gates when government, through the Federal Ministry of Works, was the collector, and the money realised used to maintain the roads and even build new ones. That was before it was ‘privatised’ and the huge sums collected ‘entered voice mail’.
Tollgates were abolished and pulled down by the democratic government of President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2004 when it entered into a sacred agreement with “We, The People of Nigeria”. After the return to civilian rule, Obasanjo had in 2000 increased the price of fuel from N20 to N30 per litre before being forced by street protests to reduce it to N22. Sixteen months later, he increased it to N26. Then on June 20, 2003, he moved it to N42. The Nigerian people rejected this arbitrary increase and battled the government in the streets. He sent in armed security forces who killed at least 16 Nigerians.
On that occasion, even as the government denied anybody was killed, I got conveyed, the body of a young man, Abdulazeez Tunde Andoyi of 10, Leigh Street, Off Ojuelegba Street, Lagos to the Barracks Police Station. He had been shot twice by policemen led by Deputy Superintendent of Police, Ukadike Anamazobi. The Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, had to provide proof of the murders to a Senate Committee chaired by the late Senator David Brigidi, before the government admitted to the shootings.
Then the Obasanjo administration came up with the policy of a road tax of N1.50 in every litre of fuel Nigerians purchase. Government announced a policy in which increased prices of petroleum products automatically included the road tax; so Nigerians were no longer required to pay tolls on roads. With this, government abolished toll on roads and knocked down tollgates in the country.
Like the unwritten British constitution, this was an unwritten law, or better put: a covenant between government and the people. So our Works and Housing Minister, Babatunde Raji Fashola, BRF, a very brilliant Senior Advocate of Nigeria was right when in trying to justify the re-introduction of tollgates argued that: “There is no reason why we cannot toll, there is no reason. There was a policy of government to abolish tolls or, as it were, dismantle toll plazas, but there is no law that prohibits tolling in Nigeria today.”
Excellent! There is no law; but there is a subsisting understanding between the people the government. A Gentleman Agreement needs no law to be respected. In the 15 years that policy has been in place, government has increased fuel price a number of times. The last was by the Buhari administration in 2016 which moved it from N87 to N145.
So the issue is one of honour not crass legalism. In any case, even if government were to upturn such a sacred pact, does simple courtesy not demand it consults the people?
The constitution guarantees Nigerians the right to movement. However, that right is abridged by bandits and very bad roads that lengthen travel time, damage vehicles and cause accidents. Government should not worsen this by erecting tollgates across roads in the country. Imagine travelling at night and queuing to pay toll, only to discover that the tollgate is under the control of kidnappers!
Even if government decrees more taxes as it does quite frequently, in the case of tollgates, should it not at least put many roads in good condition before erecting them?
With our roads in a worse state than under Obasanjo and government ceding part-control of the highways to highway robbers, kidnappers and bandits, imposing plethora of taxes, like the reintroduction of tollgates, amounts to double jeopardy.
Our roads are in a very deplorable state, so it is contradictory for a government that says it is pro-people, to decide that the brightest idea is to toll roads that damage vehicles and lives. It is no different from its culture of testing and certifying vehicles for roadworthiness, to run on non-car worthy roads. I have heard some justification for the reintroduction of tollgates like those who argue that Nigerians engage in unnecessary travels like attending social parties; so if they cannot pay toll, they should sit at home. I am sure the Buhari administration is too smart to share in such stupidity.
The President frequently reiterates that his administration will not add to the burden of Nigerians, but his government multiplies the tax burden on Nigerians without the dividends of democracy. As the world knows, I am a great supporter of President Buhari, but Leo Tolstoy’s quotation continues to ring in my head: “I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible….except by getting off his back.”