Roads continue to play the primary role as far as transport infrastructure in Nigeria is concerned and roads have a lasting impact on the economy and development, but the recent directive to introduce concrete technology has stalled ongoing projects, Damilola Aina writes

The insistence of the Minister of Works, Dave Umahi, to introduce reinforced concrete pavement roads, dumping the more popular asphalt road, has led to an abrupt stop of ongoing road projects in the country.

Findings show that contractors have either slowed down on construction works of ongoing projects or have left work sites owing to different reasons ranging from the unforeseen change in policy, lack of funds and a potential redesign of roads and pavements as directed by the minister.

Some of the ongoing federal highway projects that have slowed in work pace are the Abuja-Lokoja Road, Abuja-Kaduna-Zaria-Kano, East-West Road, Enugu-Port-Harcourt, Benin-Warri Road and Akure-Ado-Ekiti Road due to the redesign of pavements, concerns on flood-prone areas and other important infrastructure.

The list also includes Zaria-Funtua-Sokoto-Shema Road in Kaduna State and some parts in Gusau in Zamfara State, Mubi-Maiduguri and Bama-Konduga-Maiduguri Road in Adamawa and Borno states.

Right after his ministerial screening on August 1, 2023, at which he was asked to take a bow per Order 52 of the Senate Standing Orders, the minister announced his intent to build roads using concrete technology.

Umahi, in an interview with journalists, advocated concrete-constructed solutions which, he said, would last 50 years, as opposed to asphalt roads that last seven years. “Moreover, concrete is a maintenance-free technology and is inexpensive to construct, and it will last 50 years,” he promoted.

The former governor of Ebonyi state, an engineer practising since 1994, claimed concrete is key because it is durable enough to withstand all kinds of road stress. In contrast, he condemned the short lifecycles of roads across Nigeria. The average lifespan of roads across Nigeria is five to seven years.

He stated that the use of asphalt by some contractors is a source of funds depletion for the government and any contractor who is not ready to work with the concrete technology will have no jobs offered to them by the ministry.

Concrete roads

Cement technology, also known as “Rigid Pavement Technology” is a type of highway surface made by blending cement, sand, coarse aggregate, and water to form a mixture that is poured and compacted to form a durable, long-lasting surface.

This is followed by a concrete reinforcement cast with 8mm to10mm-high tensil (mash of wires) reinforcement bars over the stabilised base before the option of treating it with prime coat and asphaltic concrete.

Though the cost of this technology is highly debated compared to conventional construction methods, experts acknowledge that this method is better because it strengthens the load-bearing capacity of roads. Cement technology is one of the technologies used in the construction of airport runways, tarmac and places with heavy loads like machines and equipment.

Findings by our correspondent showed that in foreign countries, cement concrete roads are the fundamental type of arterials. Their share reaches 50 per cent in some European countries and 60 per cent in the United States of America, Germany and Norway while no other European country has as much as concrete roads being built as Poland.

As of 2022, the total length of federal government roads was 36,000 kilometres. Roads in asphaltic concrete made up around 24,000 kilometres of the total network, some 5,800 kilometres were made of gravel or earth while 6,000 kilometres were surface-dressed roads.

Technology

While experts don’t argue the benefits of the new technology, leading road construction companies bear the brunt of this decision. Industry experts who confided in our correspondent said the current situation is tough for all stakeholders considering the tough business environment.

According to them, construction companies have invested several millions of dollars in asphalt technology equipment and also imported bitumen and other raw materials running into billions of naira, adding that shifting to concrete technology at the current stages of the road projects will lead to millions of dollars in losses.

Officials also said the development would lead to new investments in equipment for the construction of roads with concrete technology, commencement of importation of cement due to the lack of domestic capacity to produce cement for roads and other building projects in Nigeria.

According to them, it will also lead to an increase in demand for forex for the importation of cement and steel and iron rods which will put more pressure on the naira, while also noting that it will lead to an increase in the cost of construction of road per kilometre.

Alleging a breach of contracts that could lead to huge losses on the part of the government, contractors are further bewildered that with the upsurge in the price of construction materials, the new directive has made it difficult to re-tender documents for variation of contracts.

According to a source familiar with the issue, contractors are very agitated over the issue as a result of the potential abandonment of equipment. The source stated that in the face of the current economic crunch, no contractors have the pool of funds to buy the concrete paver machine needed for this type of road, which currently costs 1.7 million euros or N1.7 billion in local currency.

The source said, “It is difficult to raise new funds to buy a concrete paver machine needed for this type of road. A unit of this machine currently costs 1.7m euros which is over N1.7bn in local currency and contractors are asking if the government is going to lend them money or support to buy the equipment needed. Contractors are business people but this kind of business is a big business and you can’t just change policy all of a sudden.

“You have to provide support for them and that is why they get advances sometimes. The contractors combine engineering with business and if a contractor knows that if he works and submits his invoice, he won’t be paid for six months, he has to provide for it with the money he would borrow from banks with interest rates and the rest. The current situation is tough because many of them borrowed money to do the job.”

Another source stated that the ministry may begin selective treatment of contractors who possess the right equipment for concrete, leaving the rest out in the cold to juggle contracts with state governments or other sectors.

Way forward

Commenting on the issue, engineering experts advocated the continued usage of both asphalt and concrete road design so as to allow a seamless dive into the preferred technology the minister wants, without business casualty.

An engineer, Akaninyene Ikopbo, who spoke in a telephone interview said, “It is a good thing to put forward technology but its introduction has its own pros and cons. Currently, there are some roads in Lagos that are being concreted which is good.

“But the basic thing is everything is based on costs and there must be no compromise because that can spoil the job. Most of our roads are bad because we compromise whether on asphalt or concrete.

“If you want to continue the use of asphalt, your drainage must be right because water is the greatest enemy of asphalt roads. Though you can tolerate that on concrete with time, it can’t be guaranteed. Our drainage must be right and well taken care of.

“There are many factors to consider before switching to concrete but the biggest question is, are we ready to do the needful? We have to encourage both, we have bitumen for asphalt likewise cement for concrete, so there is no one that is good enough. The country is importing bitumen because we are our own problem and until we make up our minds to do the right thing, things won’t change.

“Part of the problem that may occur with concrete roads is the steel. It has to be imported as we don’t have steel in Nigeria which is a factor of dollar on our economy. We may have policies without having a holistic view of how the economy will affect our project. We have to go back to the basics and start doing things right,”Ikopbo recommended.

On his part, a civil engineer and member of the Nigerian Society of Engineers, Ijirotimi Olarenwaju advised the government to consider making legislation to make concrete the only lawful method of road construction.

He said, “I think the Ministry of Work is in the best position to explain why. All I know is that there may be justification for all they are trying to do.

“You will notice that they are not thinking of using concrete roads in the northern part of the country. They are only thinking of it in the southern part because water has a major effect on asphalt roads especially the foundation of the road which is the laterite. Once this absolves water and you subject the road to loading, it fails quickly so maybe that is why they are thinking of putting these concrete roads or a combination of both concrete and asphalt, which is better.

“That is what they do in Europe though it is because of their weather. Also, they have done their research on it and that’s why it’s more popular over there. I expect the ministry to start working with the national assembly to put in legislation to support the move just like Russia did in 2017.”

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