Na road be this?: Decay of Ota roads as a metaphor

Na road be this?: Decay of Ota roads as a metaphor

“We have lost lives (as a result of bad roads) and we are losing work hours on a daily basis. The cost of car repair is much, transport fare is also on the rise”

–Sola Afariogun, spokesperson for the protesters who blocked the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway, on Monday, The Punch, Tuesday, September 7, 2021.

For several hours last Monday, as the opening quote indicates, protesters mounted barricades on the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway in order to draw attention to the deplorable condition of the roads in Sango-Ota and its environs. A casual traveller to that vicinity will easily fish out the contrast between the factories, universities and the mega churches in that area and the road leading to Ota from several directions. On one occasion when this columnist went to examine a doctoral degree candidate at the Covenant University, Ota, I was quite struck by the overwhelming disparity between what came close to American suburbia on campus where almost everything worked and the stench of accumulated garbage outside of the campus. Of course, Ota is a smaller replica of the Nigerian story, a country with a plenitude of resources but whose people wallow in abysmal poverty and degrading quality of life.

Here is Ota, the location of a former President’s renowned farmhouse warehousing two private universities, Bells University of Technology and Covenant University. A town with one of the largest concentrations of industries in Nigeria, boasting of a huge market and strategically placed at the borderland between Nigeria and the Republic of Benin. Ota had and still possesses all the relevant features of a magnificent industrial suburbia which could have been employed, if there was genuine governance to ease the congestion of Lagos, create resplendent dwellings with lush greenery, produce jobs in droves and perhaps a knowledge economy, taking advantage of the educational institutions located within it. But that is the road not taken; because successive governments have failed to tap into its potential and to produce an upscale economy and society out of the shambles and decadence of its roads and ecology.

Typically, promises and promises have been made to transform Ota, but its citizens in the Ado-Odo Local Government Area are still waiting for a redemption of the promise, in particular the promise of upgrading the main highway connecting Ota with Lagos on the one hand, and with the rest of Ogun State on the other.

Last Monday’s demonstrations, led by angry youths and remarkably non-violent, was a result of unfulfilled expectations, entrenched governance failure and the lack of governmental presence in a town that could easily have become an economic giant. Recall for example that in October 2020, there was a demonstration about the neglect of Ota roads organised by youths under the hashtag #FixOtaroads. As with most things Nigerian, once the outburst subsided and the demonstrators went back to their roosts, everyone including the authorities that promised to address the situation seemingly forgot about the outrage and its underlying causes. Consequently, the roads deteriorated, occasioned more deaths while life continued as usual.

As an aside, how many of the promises made during the #EndSARS eruption of last year have been fulfilled? So, protest after protest, election after election, Ota roads and its eroding environment continue to exist pretty much as they have, a decade even two decades back.

In some other climes, a town with such great potential would not have been allowed to stagnate for that long, much less deteriorate so alarmingly. Part of the problem is the annulment of local governments and municipal authorities to the point where they have become completely ineffective or invisible. In several other countries, it is this smallest unit of government that oversees social services and draws up budgets for the uplift of roads. The states which have taken over the functions of local authorities without performing them are themselves fast disappearing into nominal economic entities, announcing themselves mainly by the pomp and circumstance around their principal officials but having little or nothing to show for their continued existence. This is an uncomfortable truth hard to swallow because the truth of the matter is many states in Nigeria are bigger and more populous than some of the countries on the European continent. However, they are hemmed in by the over-centralisation of power at the centre and a much lamented feeding-bottle federalism which has reduced them to perennial supplicants for handouts from an overbearing but ineffective centre. That is perhaps why the Governor of Ogun State, Prince Dapo Abiodun, could bemoan, recently, that part of the problems in Ota is the failure or the refusal by the Federal Government to cede some of the roads in Ota to both Lagos and Ogun governments for repair. Not minding that the two governors are in the same party with the ruling All Progressives Congress, there appears to be a power play that has prolonged the discomfiture of the inhabitants of Ota as well as travellers to that blighted suburbia.

Obviously, until intergovernmental relations rise beyond costly ego fights, a lot of opportunities for growth and transformation will continue to pass us by with the consequence that towns like Ota will continue to bear the brunt. One can raise the question that if governments -federal, state and local- make little or no impact, how about the private enterprises in that community? This itself may be an indictment as well as evidence of the paucity of social capital among our business elites. Before rushing to that conclusion, however, let me indicate that one of the more established private institutions in Ota had offered to upgrade some of the worst affected roads some years back. As the story was told, when the institution made an offer to the Local Government Council, it was told that the money for the repair should be paid to the local government which alone has the mandate to do the work. Given what is known about predatory raids on local government finances, the conversation broke down as the institution was not willing to take the risk of having its resources go down to a bottomless pit.

That anecdote compels the search for a better relationship between the private sector and the public as well as the imperative of extending the frontiers of public-private partnership to include such undertakings as required to uplift Ota. It is a paradox that a neighbourhood that has such prime industries should have its environment so degraded with its roads looking like hunters’ trails.

Whatever happens, we should avoid the scenario whereby a year or more after Monday’s protest, nothing would have been done about the nightmare that Ota roads have become. The current circumstance whereby politicians come round at election seasons to indulge in rhetoric of better lives without fulfilling them should no longer be allowed to continue. It undermines the essence of governance as a social contract between the governed and those elected to serve.

In all seriousness, the governors of Lagos and Ogun as well as the municipal authorities in the Ota neighbourhood and the chief executives of private organisations should put heads together on how best to redeem the shame and disrepair that have overtaken that town. It is time to reclaim Ota, described by one writer as a reincarnation of the old Oshodi, Lagos, from its persistent bedlam.

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