Nigeria's potholed roads among world's most deadly

AP News
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Posted: Dec 15, 2011 8:24 AM
Nigeria's potholed roads among world's most deadly

The tractor-trailer lay alongside the busy Nigeria expressway like a child's forgotten toy, its cargo of cosmetics smashed on the hot, uneven strip of asphalt road and its driver left bleeding with a head wound.

Burned-out metal carcasses of crashed minibuses and wrecked cars line the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, a rutted and potholed highway that connects two major cities in Africa's most populous nation.

Horns screeched from drivers waiting impatiently to pass, as those on the other side of the highway sped on without slowing for the axle-jarring bumps in the uneven lane.

Despite decades as an oil producer, Nigeria's roads remain neglected scenes of needless carnage. And despite the World Health Organization warning that Nigeria's traffic fatalities among the highest in the world, the deaths continue unabated.

"For now, it's a death trap," said Abdul-Azeez Ibraheem, a lecturer at Lagos State University who studied the traffic crashes.

Africa as a whole has one of the highest road traffic death rates in the world, the WHO's 2009 study determined. Nigeria saw more than 47,800 people killed in traffic crashes in 2007 alone, according to WHO statistics. That put it at No. 3 in the world in the number of fatalities, behind China and India.

Paved roads only constitute 15 percent of Nigeria's total road network, and crashes happen with a horrifying regularity.

Speeding buses crash head-on into each other on a seemingly daily basis, as drivers who often take stimulants and liquor rush along unsafe roads. Passengers are crammed onto benches welded to the floor of former delivery vans. And long-haul truckers lose control of gasoline tankers that can explode into hellish infernos.

Along the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, tow truck driver Muritala Adeniran, 54, said he's seen an "uncountable" number of crashes from the driver's seat of his old yellow-and-green Range Rover. The worst came several years ago as a fuel tanker overturned on the highway, its fuel draining down a hill and igniting, burning a line of waiting cars behind it.

Talking alongside the highway, he could only shake his head watching a speeding sedan pass, not slowing down despite the road being buckled into ruts from straining under the weight of overloaded semi-trucks.

"The roads are not good," Adeniran said in the local Yoruba language. "If vehicles pass, you see how the tires begin to wobble."

Nigeria's endemically corrupt federal police represent another danger on the road, mounting sudden checkpoints to extort money from drivers. In August 2010 and April of this year, trucks unable to stop plowed into waiting cars at two separate checkpoints, starting fires that killed more than 20 people in each instance.

The agency charged with monitoring roadways, the Federal Road Safety Corps, also faces allegations of accepting bribes to look away from dangerous vehicles and drivers plying highways. A corps spokesman refused to talk to The Associated Press about traffic crashes in the nation.

Another danger lurks from the motorcycles that race around Nigeria's cities and countryside, braying horns originally designed for semi-trucks. The bikes, known locally as "okadas," speed through crowded streets with little regard for traffic signals or other vehicles. Crashes remain all too common, as are serious injuries, as many onboard don't wear helmets.

Nigeria has about 106,000 miles (164,000 kilometers) of unpaved dirt or gravel roads, which wash out in the country's rainy season and make travel impossible.

While Nigeria earns billions of dollars a year from oil production, confusion over which roads remain a federal, state or local responsibility sometimes delay repairs, Ibraheem said. Corruption plays another major problem, as some road projects often get budgeted for each year without any actual work being done, he said.

Along the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Aliyu Mohammed, 37, looked over his wrecked tractor trailer and blamed the federal government for not maintaining the highway. He owned the truck and its cargo, which should have been on the way to Maiduguri, a city in the country's far northeast that's more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers).

In the past, it took two days to drive that distance, he said. Today, the journey can take five days.

"Without road, there is no life," Mohammed said. "We can't survive."

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Online:

Interactive World Health Organization map on traffic deaths: http://bit.ly/qClZzN

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.