Sunday, January 21, 2024
[email protected]
Harrisburg, PA, USA

used to visit Nigeria yearly before the pandemic. I observed that roadways that were just constructed the previous year, basically start crumbling as soon as they are done. And once the rainy season sets in, deterioration began.

The government blames the contractors who they say cut corners by using inferior materials. The contractors, on the other hand, blame the government for not appropriating enough money for road construction. They also blame the government for failure to pay them on time for work done. With everybody blaming everybody, it is difficult for any pragmatic solutions to be developed for summarily dealing with this endemic problem.

I agree that both contractors and the government share the blame. I will quickly examine where and how each party has contributed to this anomaly.

Our contractors lack the sense of pride that patriotic citizens in progressive climes have. I am talking about the type of pride that motivates contractors to construct the best roads they possibly can as a legacy for which they would be remembered. Greed and avarice motivate some contractors. They see their contracts as an opportunity to get their share of the "national cake." They cut corners; they use inferior materials; they use unqualified or inexperienced personnel and end up delivering inferior roads that begin to crumble as fast as they are built. They sacrifice quality and good name on the altar of profit maximization!

For a road project to be durable, during construction, the soil must be properly compacted. This means using compaction equipment to roll over and tamp the soil over and over until the soil becomes very densified. Then the soil is covered with aggregates (called graded aggregate subbase). The aggregates must also be compacted to a certain level of densification. Then asphalt is placed on top and compacted also. For a more durable roadway, two or three levels of asphalt are placed and then a seal coal is placed on top to keep moisture from seeping into the subbase. The fact that the roadways crumble as quickly as they are built tells me that the contractors are either using substandard materials or not doing what I said about compaction.

The government, on the other hand, sometimes fails to thoroughly screen contractors to get well qualified ones. A contractor without the requisite resources, by way of equipment and manpower, would never do a good job.

Also, the government sometimes awards contracts for construction of new roads without contingency plans for maintenance. I will digress a little bit here to provide an insight into some of the reasons why roads deteriorate:

Vehicles put stress and strain on road surfaces because of their weight and motion. Over time, cracks develop on the roadway and if not patched, water starts seeping into the soil below the roadway through the cracks. The water leads to weakening and deterioration of the soil below. Eventually, the cracks become big potholes and with time, the road crumbles.

The second reason is that sometimes the soil under the roadway is not adequately compacted or densified. It therefore fails to develop sufficient strength to withstand and sustain the loads of vehicles traveling over the roadway. Poor soil compaction leads to soil settlement which in turn cause the road surface to cave in prematurely.

Furthermore, the use of inferior materials for road pavement contributes to premature pavement failure. Asphalt is made up of constituents like small stones called aggregates and tar. For the asphalt to do its job, the constituents must be mixed in the right proportions otherwise asphalt would easily buckle under the pressure of vehicle tires and what we call “impact loading”.

One of the biggest reasons for premature road failure is absence of proper drainage and slopping of the road. All roads must be designed and constructed to assure that after rains, there will be no standing water on top of the roadway. The road must be slopped to channel water away from the road transversely or longitudinally. On the side of the road, there must be drainage gutters to take the storm water away from the roadway. Many a time, these are lacking. So, when it rains, water pools on depressed spots. The longer the pooled water stays, the more it weakens the asphalt surface. Eventually, it finds hair cracks and penetrates through the asphalt into the ground(subbase). There, it weakens the soil underneath and settlement begins. From small pothole, it expands into big potholes and eventually creates a crater.

The government should establish road maintenance crews trained to recognize, evaluate, and patch cracks once they appear. They should be patrolling major roads about two times a week and potholes or cracks detected should promptly be patched. Patching cracks early would prevent water from seeping into the soil underneath. Potholes are like cancer, if detected and patched early, there is a better chance of rescuing the road!

For any road construction project to be executed well, the government must have independent construction inspectors as overseers of the contractors. Construction inspectors have three major responsibilities: they review the work done by the contractor to ensure that it is done according to the engineering plans and specifications; they physically test samples of the materials used for construction (like soil, concrete, and asphalt) to ensure that they are not inferior. They also prepare daily reports showing all work done by the contractor. If the Inspector determines that the contractor has done a shoddy job, cut corners, or used inferior materials, he could recommend that payment NOT be made.

We must employ qualified construction inspectors who are fearless but professional, they must have integrity and be beyond reproach. They must be well paid to avert the temptation of corruption. They must also be severely disciplined if corruption is proven against them to deter potential offenders.

It should be made clear to all contractors at the outset that project abandonment would lead to permanent exclusion from bidding on future contracts. Up till a little while ago, it seemed as though a contractor could easily abandon a project and just walk away without serious repercussions.

Contractors should be made to warrantee that after construction of a road, if the road deteriorates before a specified number of years, the contractor would make repairs at his own cost or be barred from ever bidding on government contracts.

We need to establish a construction ethics committee staffed by men and women of integrity who would have the authority to hear complaints against contractors and against government workers also. If a government worker demands bribe from a contractor, that contractor can take the case to the ethics committee without fear of reprisals. Also, if contractors detect unfairness in the award of contracts, they can take it to the committee.

Finally, some contractors have complained that sometimes they are owed as much as 4 months! How would they get money to pay their workers, pay for rented equipment etc? This practice of non-payment leads to low morale and hence poor work and project abandonment and must be stopped.

There are many other things we could do to ensure good roads in Nigeria. I do not claim to have captured them all, but these would be good starters.

Alfred Uzokwe is an architect and an engineer registered to practice in the states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Washington DC. He directs the work of engineers and architects in an agency. Alfred has authored two books- Surviving in Biafra- The Story of the Nigerian Civil War and his second book is called Nigeria- Contemporary Commentaries and Essays. He plays music at his leisure.

Author of the books- 1. Nigeria: Contemporary Commentaries and Essays

2. Surviving in Biafra: The Story of the Nigerian Civil War