When in April 2006, the Lagos State Government of Nigeria decided to enter into an agreement with the Lekki Concession Company (LCC) to reconstruct the 49.5-kilometre Lekki-Epe Expressway, it did not envisage the protest and kicking against the project by residents of the area, who are now in tears and pains as the burden of the road would be borne by them.
The LCC was to build the road under the Build Operate and Transfer (BOT), which meant that the company, after constructing the multi-billion naira road, would mount a toll gate on it, recoup its money and interest and then hand it back to the state government for management.
The company was given 30 years concession to manage the road and return it to government.
The aim of the project was to prepare ground for the emerging Lekki Free Trade Zone (LFTZ), whileÂ it was envisaged that in the nearest future, the Lekki area of Lagos State would be a haven of commerce and industry in the world because of the LFTZ, hence, the need to expand the expressway and build it to meet world standard.
After building the road, the LCC mounted a toll gate in readiness for the collection of fees from vehicles plying the expressway, while two others will also be mounted on the expressway.
The residents and others that will be using the road will have to pay for the service which, it was gathered, is second to none.
In preparation for the collection of tolls from users of the road, the LCC, had two weeks ago, begun a test run of the facility. Flyers were distributed to motorists, intimating them of the coming burden to be placed on them and why they must pay the toll. Although no specific amount had been given to be collected as toll,Â Â it is feared that on a road of that standard, the toll fee would range between N200 and N300.
Learning of plans by government to introduce payment of tolls on the road, residents of the area had engaged in a running battle with the state government since the beginning of this year.
Several meetings held with stakeholders in the area to let them know the importance of the road had proved abortive as they insisted that they would not pay any fee to use the road.
The residents considered collection of tolls as another burden to be placed on them. They also viewed that paying toll fees for 30 years would be too much a burden, hence the need to kick against the idea, but the LCC must recoup its money based on the agreement reached with government in 2006 before embarking on the project.
As it is now, it is not likely the residents of the area would be able to stop LCC from recouping the money it had invested in the project.
The outcry of the residents has now outweighed the usefulness of the road, which would certainly bring more development to the area and place it on world map due to the emerging LFTZ and the Eko Atlantic City.
Last week, the agitation of the residents reached its peak and employed a crude method by protesting vehemently against the collection of tolls in the area.
Knowing very well that Governor Babatunde Fashola would be making use of the road to commission the administrative block of the LFTZ, the protesters capitalised on the opportunity and trooped out en masse to protest the planned introduction of toll on the road.
For hours, traffic was brought to a standstill on the ever busy expressway as the protesters sang and chanted anti-toll fee slogans. Fashola, who was caught up in the traffic occasioned by the protest, was forced to address the protesters later on.
The protesters carried placards some of which read: â€œFashola, we know your hands are tied, but help us to fight these tyrants,â€ â€œLCC is here to rip us off,â€ Â â€œWe are being enslaved in our landâ€ and Â â€œRemove your gates from our roads and go,â€ among others, while they vowed to resist the state government and the concessionaires in their bid to impose toll on them.
â€œWe are not going to pay any amount on this road.Â We are having this protest to draw attention to this area, when the protest affects economic activities, people will realise what we can do when they start to collect money at the toll gates,â€ said Ismail Oladipupo, one of the protesters.
According to Mr. Bashiru Ahmed, â€œhow can we be paying at three gates? We reject any amount, even if it is N5. This is because any additional financial burden will tell on everything, from transport fare to the price of pepper, clothes, and everything. We reject this commercialisation in our area.â€
Spokesperson for the protesters, Mr. Adewale Sanni, said â€œthis is reckless, arrogant and provocative and we wonder who else LCC will respect or listen to if it can afford to ignore the governor and the House. LCC is part of the committee just as it has been invited by the House Committee in order to assist its finding. So, why the test run?
â€œThe governor has assured us that he would look into the matter and set up a committee on the issue. But he said that before, therefore, we were surprised that the tolling plan was on in spite of the opposition by the people. We feel his hands are tied. But the people will not be taken for granted.â€
According to him, the protest was a signal to the government which was laying claim to democratic credential to feel the pulse of the people and do what was right, adding that the issue remained that the concession programme was shrouded in secrecy and not transparent.
The convener of the forum, Mr. Adewale Sanni, told P.M. Metro that the protest was to test run the resistance process of the stakeholders to the arbitrary introduction of toll gates on the expressway.
Sanni said that the protest had become inevitable as the LCC had gone ahead to test run toll collection, saying that the decision to continue with the exercise, despite appeals by the stakeholders and traditional rulers, was an affront to the governor and the citizens.
â€œWe must come together to frustrate their desperation to extort us to the tune of N100 billion annually through their tolling and fencing arrangements. The governor should halt this open display of contempt by LCC if we are not to conclude that this is a conspiracy between the concessionaire and government.
â€œThe test run and the handbills directing motorists to pay at designated banks had contravened the pledge by Fashola to address the issue. We believe we have a responsive government but if it fails to heed our appeals, we will take our destiny in our hands and resist this extortion,â€ Sanni stated.
Another protester, Mrs. Kate Popoola, said the issue of toll should be reviewed by the concessionaire, adding that in as much as the issue was inevitable, because of the enormous resources spent on construction and maintenance of the facility, the LCC should reduce its charges.
After wading through the traffic, Fashola came face to face with the protesters who charged him to call the LCC to order, but the governor appealed to them for calm, saying that a committee had been set up to look into the issue, adding, â€œthis protest is not necessary. This is a commercial issue; donâ€™t turn it into a political issue. I donâ€™t think it is fair to paralyse this road; people are going to earn their livelihood, children are going to school.â€
The governor said that the success of the tolled Lekki-Epe expressway would attract more investors and bring prosperity to the area, while he called for understanding from the host communities, adding that his government embarked on the reconstruction of the road through toll concessioning as a precursor to the coastal road.
He told the protesters that the prosperity of the LFTZ and the Lekki-Epe area was tied to the success of the road.
â€œThe prosperity of this region depends on that road and how efficiently it works. If you want investors to come, we have to encourage that road to be built and other such roads in addition.
â€œIt must be mentioned that the success of the Lekki Free Trade Zone and its potential to be the biggest and most successful on the African continent depends on the transportation network that supports movement of goods and services in that area,â€ he said.
Fashola stated that although tolling was a novel idea in Nigeria, it had been employed across the globe to execute multi-million dollar projects with far reaching socio-economic gains.Â He added that in other jurisdictions, apart from Nigeria, it had worked as alternative to road development.