Engineer Kabir Abdullahi, Fnse, is the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA), Abuja, he speaks on the numerous challenges facing the agency, the public misconception about FERMA, the role of the agency in the maintenance of federal roads across the country among other topical issues.
In this interview granted to the Economic Confidential, Abdullahi also spoke about the plan of government to build weigh bridge on major highways in order to check excessive pressure on the life of roads caused by overloaded vehicles. Excerpts:
- Let us into the activities of your agency vis-a-vis the challenges it has been facing since your assumption of office as the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer about a year ago.
First of all, let me brief you on the history of the agency. FERMA was established in November 2002 and started implementing its mandates in 2003. Since the early 60s roads has been constructed in the country but no adequate maintenance has been carried out on them. I joined the Federal Ministry of Works in the early 80s. And let me quickly point out that at that time there was a maintenance department which was responsible for the maintenance of federal roads, but the problem started when the money meant for maintenance was being diverted to construction. This development necessitated the reason why FERMA was established so that it can separate entity from the maintenance of federal roads. As at the time the agency was established, about 70 per cent of the federal roads were totally in very bad shape, therefore the agency had to engage in some repairs and also their maintenance. Of course, as you have said, the challenges are many. As I said earlier, when you are asked to maintain something and you met it collapsed, the first challenge is to try and put it in a fine shape before you start talking about maintenance. That was why when we came on board; we came up with two programmes.
- What are the programmes?
The first we called General Repairs (GP). This involved identifying as many failed federal roads as possible with a view to making them motorable. The second one was to select those roads that were totally collapsing with a view to recovering them. So, that is at least what we put in place. Always of course, it would interest you that the agency requires a lot of money but as you want to know, the agency as of now relies solely on budgetary allocations and to me, it is a great challenge.
- Hasn’t FERMA power to generate revenue?
It may interest you to know that in 2007, the act establishing FERMA was amended of which we had some leverage. We could also, generate revenue which we call our own levy, this is five per cent user charge. But up till now, we have not started realising that revenue. And we have also, what we called International Vehicle Transit Charge (IVTC). This of course means that the agency is supposed to have some powers on the border that is any vehicle coming from any country into Nigeria must pay certain levy. You may want to know that any vehicle going to countries like the Republic of Benin, Niger, Chad, Cameroon by road is expected to pay some levy as you enter into these countries. But here in Nigeria, we have not been charging this levy. Of course, as I told you the challenges are numerous.
- Could you name them?
The major challenge is that of inadequate funding. Another challenge we have is that I always frown at, is that of overloading. The problem we the Truck drivers as you are very much aware is that most of them do not keep to the specification by government on the weight of load they carry. Our roads are designed to take 30 tons of axial loading but most of these drivers today overload their vehicles upto even 40 tons or in some cases, 50 tons thereby over stretching the capacity of the roads. So, no matter how we maintain or repair our roads, so long as these truck drivers continue to overload their vehicles, the Federal Ministry of Works now is thinking of building some weigh bridges at least to make sure that the overloading is controlled.
- What are the other challenges FERMA copes with?
Another challenge is the way we Nigerians treat our roads as refuse dump. For instance, if you travel on our roads and you get to certain villages, you see them dumping refuse in the middle of the road and even on the shoulder of the road. So whenever it rains, the rain water would not flow properly because of the refuse that has been dumped on the road and of course will certainly cause problem for the road. Another challenge facing the agency is the problem being caused by these communication companies, who are found of cutting the roads while laying their cables. Unfortunately, after cutting the roads they don’t fix them back properly. So in a nutshell, those are the major problems facing the agency and we are trying our best to overcome them.
- You have reeled out the challenges facing the agency which seems enormous but how are you addressing these challenges, whether in the short or long run?
Of course, some of them have to be addressed in the short run while others would be addressed in the long run. Just like what I told you in terms of funding, we depend basically on budgetary allocation but with the amendment of the Act establishing the agency, we are pursuing if we can realise other ways of generating extra fund for the agency. Concerning the issue of overloading by these truck drivers, the Federal Ministry of Works is constructing weigh bridges to check this menace.
- FERMA has been criticised various by the public. What are your reactions to these criticisms?
Of course, it is a public assignment, so, once it is God that put me there, He will surely give me the wisdom to steer the ship of the agency. I would say without sounding immodest, that since I came on board, it has been so far, so good. I can say unequivocally, that since I came on board the public has been appreciating the little effort we are putting in making sure that Nigerian roads are motorable.
- So, how do you intend to take FERMA to the next level of efficiency and effectiveness?
As I told you, we have just started. Perhaps you may want to know that I am barely one year in office, but I can assure you, that we are on top of the situation and very soon, members of the public will further appreciate what we are doing to make Nigerian roads motorable. It will also interest you to know that all the work we are going to execute would meet international specifications and would have quality control as the underlining factor. Of course, we have what we call ‘rapid response’ which is through direct labour. In this year’s allocation, we have made provisions for the procurement of some equipments for the direct labour. So, we are on top of the situation and I am praying that during my tenure, FERMA would be taken to highest level.
- On the issue of direct labour, I remember that before you assumed office as the helmsman of the agency, direct labour was carried out in the zonal office in Lagos, but since you came on board, it seems that you have stopped it. Why did you do that?
No, I did not stop it. We are still doing it. That is why I told you that we are doing ‘rapid response’ which could be likened to direct labour. I could remember in 2009/2010 it was out team of direct labour that rescued Benin – Shagamu road. We have many roads now that we are attending to through direct labour. Of course as I told you, no matter how good your intension may be, without enough equipment, one may be handicapped. But the beauty of the whole thing is that this year, we have incorporated into our budget fund to procure some equipments for the direct labour. And this means, that the direct labour programme would be pursued with vigour.
- Your intension has been drawn to the very bad state of federal roads in Nigeria, but you replied that FERMA has been up and doing, especially in Lagos. But some federal roads in Lagos are in terrible shape, for example, the Lagos – Abeokuta expressway. What is your agency doing about this road?
Thank you very much for this question. Since we came on board, we have been grappling with problem of inadequate funding. Let me tell you that as at last year, the Apapa – Oworonshoki expressway was very terrible, but as I speak to you now, the roads are in very good condition. Also, the Lagos – Badagry road is in good shape. If you go to Ijora Causeway, you will discover it is motorable. Infact, look at the Third Mainland bridge how we did it. It may interest you to know that the State Governor, Baba Tunde Fashola, commended the agency for a job well done.
- Still, you have not addressed the issue of Lagos – Abeokuta expressway which is in a very bad shape. Every day motorists go through pains and tension while travelling on that road. Should we believe the bad portions on that road are beyond the scope of FERMA?
No, I can assure you that because of the terrible condition of the road, we need to do something very quickly. But let me say it unequivocally here that there are some roads that need to be constructed entirely or rehabilitated. In that case, it is not our responsibility but that of Federal Ministry of Works (Highway department). To speak on the Lagos – Abeokuta expressway, of course the agency would carry out palliative work in order to make it motorable. But once the road has collapsed totally, then it is beyond the scope of the agency’s mandate.
- To a layman who does not understand the operation, mandate and limitation of your agency, the assumption is that FERMA is not living up to its responsibility. How do you correct this misconception about the agency or the bad image given it?
Of course, we are working within our mandate. For the avoidance of doubt, we are a maintenance agency, anything beyond that is within the purview of the Federal Ministry of Works. It is for the Ministry of Works to construct roads and handover to FERMA for the normal routine maintenance. So, let me use this medium to disabuse the minds of the general public that FERMA is responsible for the construction of roads. No, Our mandate does not include the construction of roads, but we are responsible for the maintenance of roads. No more, no less.
- When the direct labour initiative first started, it was done on a bi-monthly basis. I don’t know whether you are looking at a situation where it can be reintroduced on a regular basis?
My own idea of direct labour is based on a daily basis response because whenever there is any problem on the road, if the Federal Roads Maintenance Engineer (FRME) writes a proposal, I always ensure that money is released for the job. So it is not only on a monthly basis but it is done everyday. Since I came on board I made a point of duty that is there is a problem, I don’t have to wait till the end of the month before I address such a problem. It is a regular programme. It may interest you to know, that we release money every week to address the problem that we encounter according to the peculiarity of such a problem. In a nutshell, we do direct labour everyday.
- From your submission so far, it appears that the agency is underfunded. So, how do you intend to get out of this problem?
Of course, I have been saying it.
- What exactly are you looking at as a minimum to take agency to the next level?
There was a time I had a programme in South Africa where I presented a paper. I said that at least, we did analysis; we sat down and come to the conclusion that we need nothing less than N120billion (minimum) to ensure that we are able to maintain federal roads nationwide. It is no longer news that we are underfunded.
- One could say without mincing words, that this paucity of funds could be responsible for the recent ineffectiveness of the agency?
Of course, but despite that, at least, we are trying our best within our limitations.
- Since you came on board, there has been a remarkable improvement on some federal roads in Lagos such as Gbagada-Oworonshoki Expressway, Lagos-Badagry road. Can you promise that in the not too distant future, FERMA is going to do something on some other terrible federal roads in Lagos like the Lagos – Airport road and the Lagos – Abeokuta Expressway?
On the Lagos – Airport road, I can tell you that we are working on it. If you see the shoulder work, there is work going on in it. It is being handled by PW. Some times this year, I was there to see things for myself and the shoulder (then) had gone down but now, if you go there now, you will notice an improvement not only on the shoulder but also on any critical failed section of the road. As I speak to you, work is going on there. I was there again last month to ascertain the level of work and I can tell you that I am satisfied with the level of work there.
- Can you beat your chest and say that FERMA has been up and doing in the discharge of its duties not only in Lagos but in six geo-political zones of the country?
Of course, that is what I have been saying all along. Go to any part of the country, you will surely feel our presence. We are doing our best within our available resources. We are praying to government to increase allocation to the agency so that we can cover more areas. Let me say it here without sounding immodest that the public has started appreciating the little efforts that we are putting in ensuring that Nigerian roads are motorable. Let me quickly chip in this. There was a time we attended a public hearing in the National Assembly. To my dismay and without any prompting, the Speaker, Dimeji Bankole said he could not conclude his speech without commending FERMA. His words: “without FERMA, Nigerians would have parked their vehicles.” You are free to verify this statement. I am not exaggerating. So let me say it once again that since I came on board, we have taken FERMA to the next level. We are doing our best but I call on the public to cooperate with the agency in achieving its mandate. By so doing, FERMA will certainly move on to the next level.
- How do you intend to sustain this tempo? I hope it is not a flash in the pan?
God willing, we will continue. In fact, we want to do more than that we are doing at present. But I appeal to the people to cooperate with us in order to be able to carry out our mandate.