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Friday, April 19, 2024

“Where is the Alternate Road to the Wellington-Masiaka Road?” – Citizens Demand, Crying Down New Tollgate Rates

By Amin Kef (Ranger)

One of the issues that are heatedly discussed and debated in many quarters across the country today is the increase in the Wellington-Masiaka toll gate fees or rates as was recently disclosed by the Minister of Works and Public Assets, Dr. Denis Sandy. According to him, the new rates, as outlined below, will come into effect on March 1st, 2024.

  1. Kekeh: Increased by 200% from Le1 to Le3
    2. Taxi: Increased by 150% from Le2 to Le5
    3. Mini vans and Jeep: Increased by 150% from Le4 to Le10
    4. Light Vans/Poda Poda: Increased by 122% from Le18 to Le40
    5. Heavy Duty Vehicles: Increased by 282.5% from Le183 to Le700
    6. Fuel Tankers: Increased by 150% from Le100 to Le250.

Whatever justification that the Minister of Works and Public Assets had given and will continue to give for the increase, one thing that has undoubtedly become realistically certain is that a greater percentage of the citizenry is totally and vehemently against what they consider and have termed “a diabolically insensitive” decision by the SLPP led Government, led by President Julius Maada Bio, to inflict more suffering on the impoverished masses. Some have gone to the extent of describing it as even a gross insult to the conscience and integrity of Sierra Leoneans. They lamented that amidst the gruelling economic hardship that many are presently going through, with skyrocketing prices hitting hard especially with regards basic foodstuffs, the Government, through the Works Minister, did not either think twice or even hesitate to come up with the increase in the Tollgate rates.

According to expressed views monitored so far, it is obvious that the increase will have concomitant effects on transportation fares as well as on the prices of food items. In simple economics terms many concerned citizens lamentably intimated this medium that the new toll fees paid will obviously be factored in transportation fares charged for persons and goods. They further posited that transport fares charged by commercial drivers will definitely be increased and farmers will have to pay more to transport their goods to the market. The biggest fear is that with the Month of Ramadan fast approaching, starting next month March, prices of food items or ingredients are going to increase exponentially.

From what was gathered so far the signing of the Wellington-Masiaka toll gate agreement was contingent on the provision of an alternative route or road. This alternative route was already in existence and the expectation was for the Government of Sierra Leone, through the Sierra Leone Roads Authority (SLRA), to have facilitated the rapid upgrading of that road that goes as far as Masiaka.

The reason why it is important to mention this is because it should not be compulsory or mandatory, on the part of citizens, to use the Wellington-Masiaka toll gate road as they must have the free option of using any one of them. It must be noted that such is best practice in even advanced nations. However, from what was learnt progress on the upgrading work of  the alternate route or road (Old Road), by SLRA, was deliberately slowed down as a calculated ploy to force all vehicles to use the Wellington –Masiaka Toll Gate Road, an act which in its entirety has been described as very unfair and insincere to the people of Sierra Leone.

It could be recalled that from the 18th August, 2017 when payment commenced for the use of the Tool Gate Road, with three toll stations at Hastings, Songo and Masiaka, the implementation was in fact not fair as the road was not even well constructed which according to the agreement was to be a four-lane dual carriageway but that has not been even delivered or actualized.

Some have even questioned  CRSG’s proper rolling out of  its Corporate Social Responsibility  saying the company has not done much in that direction. Others say what the company claims to have done so far is very insignificant  to development compared to the  colossal revenue collected over the years, on a daily basis.

It must be noted that on November 23, 2023, the National Consortium on Public Accountability in a Press Statement urged for the immediate review of the toll gate contract agreement between the Government of Sierra Leone and the China Railway Seventh Group (CRSG).
The consortium expressed dismay that the agreement places a disproportionate share of risks on the Sierra Leonean Government and citizens rather than being equitably shared.

It also emphasized the need for transparency, stability and clarity as well as criticizing the extension of the contractual period from 25 to 27 years, deeming it not in the best interest of the citizens.

Furthermore, the Consortium labelled the awarding of a no-bid contract to the Chinese State-owned construction firm, CRSG, for a substantial capital investment as inconsistent with the country’s procurement policies. They noted that the project wasn’t funded through a China Exim Bank preferential loan or other policy banks of China.

Additionally, they highlighted the absence of the actual investment returns within the loan period pointing out inconsistencies in the agreement’s financial analysis.

It ended up recommending for either rescinding or renegotiating the agreement, the disclosure of generated revenues, providing alternative roads to the toll gate, and transparently explaining the agreement to the public to avert chaos. So far no actions were taken by the Government.

The new tool gate rates are not welcomed, facing widespread criticism as they are considered to seriously worsen the already dire economic straits or challenges that many Sierra Leoneans are currently grappling with. They are collectively seen as an additional burden and seemingly no amount of justification will easily change that perspective.

It is believed that a tolling regime, given that the overall agreement is not exploitative, is good and is not averse to it. However, failure so far in providing an alternative road is deemed to be very unfair to Sierra Leoneans coupled with the lack of transparency in terms of revenue generated over the years and what to show with regards Corporate Social Responsibility. With an estimated 4,000 vehicles going through the three stations on a daily basis much in terms of revenue must really be accruing.

In the estimation of this news medium, this new or ugly development will not sit well for the SLPP Government from all the hue and cry that we have so far heard, especially among the grassroots. If it is not reviewed and allowed to take effect it will obviously, seriously and negatively dent the political image of the ruling SLPP Government.

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