Roads in Africa are a Threat to People and to Economic Growth
On July 1st this month, an oil tanker exploded in Central Benue state in Nigeria, killing nearly 50 people (including a pregnant woman) and injuring over 100, many of whom are in a critical condition. According to witnesses’ account, the tanker overturned as it tried to avoid potholes in Ahumba village. The vehicle began to leak and people nearby saw an opportunity to siphon fuel. A bus carrying 16 people was attempting to bypass the tanker and its exhaust scraped the tarmac, causing sparks. The tanker exploded and the incident damaged shops nearby and took away many lives.
This isn’t an isolated incident in Nigeria, far from it. Here are just a few anecdotes. In January 2019, 12 people were killed and scores critically injured in Cross River state after an oil tanker overturned. This time, the explosion was caused by an individual who brought an electric generator to the scene to steal fuel faster from the tanker. In April 2019, a fuel tanker exploded in Ibadan, killing two people and injuring many others. The same month, another tanker exploded in Gombe state, killing 12 people and putting many people in a critical condition. We certainly can’t forget the one that made international news in June 2018 when a fuel tanker exploded on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, killing many people and torching over 50 vehicles.
There’s many more, but you get the point.
Drivers’ negligence play a part in the accidents
There are other forms of accidents in Africa which are caused by drivers’ negligence, the terrible state of vehicles, and lousy road conditions. For example, on March 22nd of this year, over 60 people were killed in a gruesome accident in Ghana after a head-on collision between two buses. Again, there are many more cases, but this is a good illustration.
After learning about these accidents, some readers may get the impression that people are to be blamed for causing them, especially in the tanker explosion examples. Ill-advised people should know better to not go near an overturned tanker right? Right, I agree. It seems that although most Africans have seen WhatsApp videos that show charred bodies, the temptation of free fuel is irresistible once an overturned tanker leaks.
Also, it’s well-known that public transportation automobile owners neglect the maintenance of their vehicles. You only need to visit some cities in Africa. From Dakar to Yaoundé, all the way to Khartoum, you don’t have to try hard to see trucks that are missing headlights or the ones that rust has gotten the better of. Some of the vehicles should be off the roads altogether. Likewise, many drivers who are in violation of traffic and safety laws, have a preference for bribing police officers rather than fixing the trouble with their car.
Everyone is guilty
Nevertheless, it’s essential to consider the complexity of the road safety problem before hastily drawing a conclusion. While the population must assume its responsibility in the road accidents, the authorities are also accountable for these tragedies mainly because they possess the power of the law to force behavioral change in people. It’s possible to use this authority to positively change things because it’s been done before. In oil tanker accidents for example, police officers can be quickly dispatched to the scene to prevent people from stealing fuel and to clear the nearby shops and divert traffic until experts clean the spillage.
The prevalence of deadly road accidents in Africa is alarming. In fact, the rate of deadly road accidents is higher on the continent than anywhere else in the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO)¹, this rate is 26.6/100,000 in the region compared to Europe where the rate is 9.3/100,000. This is an interesting data given there are far more cars per person in regions that are more economically advanced than Africa.
There are many reasons for the frequency of these deadly accidents in Africa, but one is the state of the roads and the other is the inadequate enforcement of road safety regulations. They both cause serious human casualties and an even bigger economic cost.
Abysmal road networks & economic impact
The condition of roads in Africa are dreadful. Most roads on the continent aren’t paved and even the newly built ones quickly fall into a state of degradation either because they were poorly built or they are not properly maintained. In Ghana for example, the minister for Roads and Highways, Kwasi Amoako Atta, has said that only 23 percent of the roads network in the country is paved. This low percentage is not even accounting for paved roads that are in deplorable conditions. On many roads in Africa, some potholes look like they have stood the test of time.
The death toll and injuries resulting from accidents are awful and they represent a psychological trauma for survivors and bereaved family members. There’s however a much bigger economic impact which is at play, and this is more pertinent for the average citizen. It should be noted that roads are still the predominant mode of transportation in Africa, carrying at least 80 percent of goods and 90 percent of passengers. In this case, it should also be retained that high transport costs add 75 percent to the price of African goods. What this implies is that if we want to make life more affordable for Africans, we need to start building and fixing the roads.
Bad road conditions are a threat to the continent’s industrialization
In my article about the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), I mentioned how the agreement can help to industrialize the continent by helping to create regional value chains for manufacturing and industries. Nonetheless, a strong road network is critical in enabling supplies to quickly reach factories and for final products to reach the customer efficiently. Otherwise, many goods produced on the continent will still not be competitive against imported products. Currently, intra-Africa road networks are not reliable and roads linking cities to rural areas are even in a worst shape.
Railroads are quick and efficient in transporting people and goods and they can solve many of the problems aforementioned. Perhaps though, suggesting that leaders begin to exploit other modes of transportation is too much to ask if we haven’t been able to overcome the issues with roads. Things must change if stakeholders are serious about improving the lives of Africans. Building and fixing roads in Africa will certainly reduce the accident rate, but it will also contribute to improving the economic well-being of its people.
Inadequate enforcement of the law
The laxity of authorities in enforcing the law is also a leading cause of road accidents on the continent. If you inspect the laws which regulate road safety in Africa, they are generally satisfactory. However, it’s the execution of the laws which is the issue and this is mainly due to corruption. It’s still far too easy to corrupt police officers and other state agents in African countries.
For example, a driver may decide to give a “small something” to a police officer if he discovers a broken headlight during a traffic stop. Although the driver should be mindful to not attempt to corrupt an officer, the transaction only occurs if the officer accepts the bribe. In case the cop refuses the bribe and gives a fine, the driver will fix the light and this situation is unlikely to happen again. Enforcing road safety laws helps to prevent accidents and save thousands of lives in Africa every year.
Given the frequency of these horrific accidents, there’s a possibility that people have become desensitized to it all.
According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), every year road crashes are estimated to kill over 300,000 people in Africa. The actual number is much higher. This figure is mostly based on accidents recorded in urban areas (which aren’t always accurate) and projections are made for urban regions which aren’t accessible and where data is even sparser. Given the frequency of these horrific accidents, there’s a possibility that people have become desensitized to it all.
Another road accident somewhere in Africa, 20 people killed, it circulates the media for a short while, and life moves on. That’s fine, but we need to realize that whether you’re rich or poor, educated or not, being chauffeured in an expensive SUV or taking the public transportation, we all must employ the same roads every day and the roads don’t discriminate.
Finally, a person who dies in a senseless car accident that could be prevented, is too many. Let’s not wait for “a big man” to die in a road accident before closing the infrastructure gap in Africa.
 The World Health Organization. 2018. Global Status Report on Road Safety 2018