Highway Robbery: Unjustified Toll Hikes and the Lack of Transparency

by Sierraeye

As Sierra Leoneans, we often pride ourselves on our resilience in the face of adversity. Yet, there are times when the burdens imposed upon us test the limits of our endurance. The recent announcement of toll road fee increases, scheduled to take effect from March 1, 2024, is one such burden that demands our collective attention and condemnation. With the revised toll rates, applicable at all three toll gates (Hastings, Songo, and Masiaka), Keke riders will now be charged Le3, Taxis Le5, SUVs, Pickup Jeeps and Minibuses Le10, Small and Light Vans Le40, Heavy-Duty Vehicles Le700 and Fuel Tankers Le250. The increases range from 122% to 282%.

The toll road project, initiated under the auspices of the previous administration, was ostensibly aimed at rehabilitating and widening the Wellington-Masiaka Highway. For years, it was touted as a symbol of progress and development. However, despite the exorbitant toll fees imposed upon our citizens, the tangible benefits of this project remain elusive at best.

Instead of witnessing tangible infrastructural development, our citizens are confronted with the stark reality of a road project that remains largely undeveloped. Although all of what was promised has not yet been completed, yet the cost has soared and commuters are unjustly burdened with multiple toll charges.

Unlike in more developed regions where governments prioritize reducing hardships by providing alternative routes, Sierra Leoneans are left with no such recourse. The Wellington-Masiaka Road is the solitary artery connecting the capital, Freetown, to all provincial district towns and villages, including the Western Area Rural District. Consequently, citizens are coerced into utilizing the toll road, irrespective of their preferences or financial capacities.

The economic repercussions of these fee hikes will be profound, amplifying the financial strain on ordinary citizens. Drivers will inevitably pass on these increases to commuters, while the costs of transporting goods to and from the provinces will cascade down to the general consumer. The cost of transport and food will most certainly increase. These tolls serve as stark reminders of the economic hardships imposed upon our people, many of whom struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis.

The lack of transparency surrounding the toll road project exacerbates the injustice of this fee increase. Despite repeated calls for accountability, government agencies have consistently failed to provide satisfactory answers regarding the utilization of toll revenue. Basic questions remain unanswered: Where is the traffic data? Has there been any audit of the vehicles plying the route and the amount collected since toll collection began in 2016/2017? What was the original loan amount provided by CRSG? This glaring lack of transparency not only erodes public trust but also perpetuates a culture of impunity within our government, leaving citizens without the necessary information to assess the fairness and legitimacy of these toll increases.

Furthermore, the decision to increase toll fees, ostensibly justified by contractual agreements with China Railway Sixth Group (CRSG), highlights the inherent flaws within our political system. While the government may cite currency fluctuations and road degradation as justification for these increases, the reality is that our citizens bear the brunt of these burdens.

In a series of tweets on February 13th, minority leader in parliament Hon Abdul Kargbo tweeted “Any alteration on the toll fees without reverting to parliament is unlawful. These fees were debated and passed by the 4th parliament. Therefore, the minister doesn’t have the right to alter these fees without the approval of parliament. We are a nation of law.” On the same day he tweeted again saying, “The opposition in Parliament has served on the clerk’s office a notice of question for the minister of transport. He is to answer before parliament, questions relating to the change of price from Nle 5 to Nle 10, and the restriction of registered vehicles and kekes.” This stance underscores not only the lack of transparency surrounding the deal but reflect a deep-seated concern regarding the opacity surrounding the decision-making process behind the increases in the toll fee.

We must demand transparency and accountability in all matters pertaining to public funds. The arbitrary toll increases announced are not only detrimental to the economic well-being of our citizens but also highlight the urgent need for equitable and reasonable solutions that prioritize the welfare of all Sierra Leoneans. Yes, we have to pay for development but any increase in toll fees must be proportionate and justifiable, not burdensome and exploitative. Things are hard economically for most citizens. Our resilience in the face of adversity must be met with resolute action to safeguard the rights and well-being of every citizen.

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