Fashola: The Choices before Us are Difficult

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MONDAY INTERVIEW 

The Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, recently briefed journalists on his stewardship in the past one year, during which he gave a sector-by-sector breakdown of the all activities under his supervision. He said given the limited resources at the disposal of government, he has been making difficult choices in the collective interest. Olawale Olaleye presents the excerpts:

Your appointment was hailed by many people as Minister of Power, Works and Housing.  What have you been doing in the last one year in meeting the expectations?

Our memories will recall that on the 11th November, 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR, concluded the process of constituting his cabinet by administering the oath of office on ministers. I was assigned to consolidate a newly merged ministry of Power Works and Housing, shortly after which I briefed members of the public and the press about our plans, in my maiden press briefing tagged “Setting the Agenda.”

While some of the assumptions may have altered somewhat about the timing of the budget, a budget was eventually signed into law on Friday 6th May 2016 (6 months ago) and we have set about implementing the budget of N260.082billion with the releases of N70billion made in June (for Quarter I) and N60billion made in October (for Quarter II). It is now exactly a year since we were sworn into office, and I believe it is an appropriate time to acquaint you with our progress of work.

Because the three ministries are involved, I will dwell on summaries in order to manage time, but from time to time, I will highlight some details whenever they are necessary to explain a point and to reinforce our commitment to remain accountable to you, our employers.

Starting with Works, how much have you done?

This ministry as we all know is responsible for civil works especially the construction of roads, bridges, buildings and other similar civil engineering undertakings. As I mentioned during my briefing on the agenda setting, we had inherited about 206 road projects already contracted out with outstanding completion costs in the region of N1.5 Trillion. Although the works ministry share of the 2016 appropriation was N260billion, which was a lot more than the 2015 budget of only N18billion that the last administration left, it is a drop in the ocean against the liabilities that were outstanding to contractors.

Our interactions with contractors showed that many of them had not been paid for an average of two to three years before we resumed, and this explained the stoppage of works, by the contractors, the layoff of workers, and consequently poor condition of many roads. With limited resources against liabilities, with debts already owed, we had to make difficult choices of deciding which of the 206 roads under contract we should start with, and how many. Our choices were informed by the realities of our economy and the size of our resources. We resolved that all roads are economic roads but that some were more urgent and more impactful than others.

So, our choices were determined by roads that carried the heaviest cargo, to allow farmers, businessman, industries and travelers move their goods and themselves across the country in order to drive productive activity. Secondly, we chose roads that support our energy sufficiency and put our resources in roads leading to and from petroleum tank farms so that we can move petro, diesel and kerosene across Nigeria. We also chose roads that led to and from our major sea and airports so that maritime business can go on, to drive the economy.

Therefore, we re-mobilised contractors back to work on roads across the six geo-political zones. Some important roads in this category are: The Port Harcourt-Aba Road, where mobilisation was delayed until Monday, 31st October because of rains, and the difficulty of establishing a works yard.

They are Sokoto-Tambuwal-Makera-Kontagara Road, where work is going on in Sokoto-Kebbi-Niger States; Ilorin-Jebba Road (Kwara State); Loko-Oweto Bridge (Nasarawa/Benue States); Shagamu- Ibadan (Oyo-Ogun State); Shagamu-Lagos (Lagos-Ogun State); Ogbomosho-Oko-Ilogbo-Osogbo (Oyo-Osun State); Funtua-Katsina (Katsina State); Wukari-Akwana (Taraba State); Abriba-Arochukwu-Ohafia (Abia State); Abuja-Lokoja-Airport (FCT/Kogi State); Oji-Achi-Obeagu-Mmaku-Awgu-Ndeaboh-Mpu-Okpanku (Enugu State); Ajase Ipo–Offa–Erinle–Osun State Boundary (Kwara      State); Ikot Ekpene Border-Aba –Owerri Dualisation and (Akwa Ibom/Abia and Imo States).

We also paid consultants, who are supervising these roads and had been denied payment for two to three years. This has helped to recover lost jobs, and put some money back in circulation, as part of a government strategy to build out of this recession. As I said during our first briefing, our short-term objectives are to complete uncompleted road contracts, restore motorability to as many roads as possible, improve journey times and reduce the cost of travel for commuters.

This has clearly started on the roads I have spoken about and the results will accrue as progress on the works improves over time and the roads are completed. In the medium to long term, we intend to cover more roads as our resources permit, and increase our maintenance capacity of road assets to ensure that we do not neglect our highways again in the manner we have done over the years to our collective detriment.

The first step to maintenance is to restore the authority of all the states controllers of works, to charge them to take responsibility for all federal roads within their states posting, and to bring up an annual budget that will be submitted to Parliament.

This will help us decentralise authority over road maintenance, vest responsibility on the people, who are on the ground and closer to the roads so that they can resurface damaged roads, clear over-grown vegetation, enforce axle-load compliance, install signs and lane marking and gradually restore our highways to contemporary quality.

What is to be expected in 2017 in the Works Ministry especially on roads construction?

Going forward, in 2017, we have developed proposals for the budget to intervene in critical roads in the six geo-political zones that lead to and from major food producing states, based on information supplied by the Ministry of Agriculture. We plan to do the same for states that produce minerals from mining activity, and for states, where we have strategic fuel depots. For decades, we have paid almost no attention to bridges built across the country as though they are indestructible. We are beginning to see erosion, stress, and in some cases, failures and near collapse in Kano (Tamburawa), Lagos (Ijora), Kogi (Lokoja) Ogun (Long bridge on Lagos-Ibadan) Kaduna (Jaji) and other places.

Although we have started some work in a few places, we have only about N2billion to work in the 2016 budget. We have nonetheless developed a three year plan to cover 42 bridges that will require about N277billion authorisation by parliament over the period. I must also point out that we received representation from parliamentarians about roads in their constituencies and from the monthly FRSC reports, all of which have been factored into our next three-year plan. How far we go, how much we get and how much we can do, now depends on how much money the country can get, and how much she gets approval to spend.

One of the problems in Nigeria is construction of poor quality roads which depreciate easily. Why is it difficult for us to construct roads that last 20 to 30 years in Nigeria?

 

Let’s understand one thing. Roads are depreciating assets. I think we have this notion that once we build a road, nothing will happen to it. Nothing can be further from the truth. Once you build a road and start driving on it, it starts to depreciate. It can be designed and built to last 20, 30 years. Whether it achieves its design life is a function of how you use it and whether you do the maintenance. So, if you build a road to carry maximum 30,000 tons and you are loading it with 100,000, then you have started killing the road at triple the depreciation rate.

I don’t think it is quite accurate to say that the roads were badly built. We don’t have the evidence of that as standing alone that these roads were badly built. Unless we sift the evidence of bad construction away from the prevalence of abuse, which clearly we all we know, can we then say that the roads were badly built? We are already under obligation in the ECOWAS sub-region to enforce axle load compliance. We will be taking some major steps in this area very soon.

That’s part of the reason for decentralisation and part of the works that controllers will be doing. They will be better able to monitor the development of their roads. There is no block-out of weighbridges. In fact, we have developed some new weighbridges. What we are looking at now is weighbridges are ineffective if we don’t have warehouses. We are looking now at people, who will manage those weighbridges by investing in warehouses and sign concession agreements with them. That is where we are now.

You once said you cannot build low income houses during your tenure as governor of Lagos, do you still maintain that stance as the Minister in charge of Housing?

About mass housing and low income earners, we need to be clear. I think I was clear. You were asking me about low cost housing when I was governor and I said ‘Give me low cost cement and give me low cost iron rods and tell me who will accept low cost labour to build at those sites because those are the inputs’. If you don’t have those inputs, can you do business whereby you buy a product for N10 and then you sell it for N5?

Assuming you succeeded, fine, but where is the sustainability? And perhaps that is one of the reasons we haven’t been able to build on a continuous basis. We build once in 20 years and then we forget about it. Sustainability is at the heart of any successful programme and if you can’t deliver sustainability, then, it is not successful. Mass housing is different from low-cost housing. They mean different things. We had a seminar, two workshops actually on affordable housing, local and foreign participants.

We couldn’t agree on the definition of affordable. The one definition that everybody agreed on was ‘It depends’ because somebody showed us a $5,000 accommodation, two bedrooms but toilet was outside. Is that what you want? It depends. What we are targeting is a group and that is why I said once we start building, we are going to verify what we have done because some of the initiatives of the past, we’ve studied all of them.

We have seen some of their strengths and some of their weaknesses. We are trying to overcome some of their weaknesses and build on their strengths. We are targeting the income group in the public service between level 8, 9 to 15 and 16 and those, who earn such income in the private sector. Those are the people who are most vulnerable.

That doesn’t mean that some of the engineers working for me don’t need houses but I am not building for them. Some of them may not even want government-built houses, they just want a site and service scheme. That is where we are going to later. Our affordability model may work, it may not work. If it doesn’t work, then we go back to our lab and see what we need to fix.

 

What happen to toll gates; are you still for it?

On toll gates, the law on tollgates is still there, the Federal Highway Act 1971 is still there. The question is ‘do we want toll gates?’ When we put a tollgate here in Lagos, I remember what some of us did. I remember somebody even put tomato paste on his face and sent it out that we had killed somebody for protesting over toll gate. And I know how many people went to court to say we can’t toll. So, we must decide what we want. It is not what I want because I am here to serve you. If there is a consensus that we want to pay toll, it will be news for investors.

The whole investment community watched that drama in Lagos and you think they will run back to that country?  Now, if the most ‘sophisticated part of the country’ fought a war so to speak, over a toll, what will happen to the less sophisticated part of the country? If you are an investor, will you go back there? That’s the message we sent out. I remember that shortly after the event, a Nigerian called me from the UK and he said he wanted to thank me. I said what for? He said for standing up for that toll plaza. I said but that’s my job.

He said ‘no, you did more than your job. I was trying to raise money for a project in Nigeria and immediately they heard about the toll protest, the investors said they want to wait and see what the government will do, whether it will defend those investors or not before we come’. Politicians meet at nights, investors have where they meet too and they talk.

As I said during the hearing on the Road Fund Bill and the Federal Road Maintenance Bill, the biggest challenges to investments are social and political. Political challenge is that we campaign with investments ‘If you vote for me, I will cancel this toll’.  When we make those campaign promises, it scares investors away. They won’t come. So, we must stop it if we want to see investments in our country. The social ones are the way we hold and cling to land.

Whenever any investment comes into any community, that is when they get a human rights lawyer to file an injunction to stop the construction when money has been spent, disbursement is ready or has been made, the project has a timeline of 48 months construction, they have started factoring the 49th month as operation, they are projecting that the project will break even in 70 months, then you go to court.  That’s what we do in Nigeria. I can tell you so many of the things we see in transmission.

For example, in Itu, they went to put shrine there to drive away the contractor. Those are social issues. You won’t get investors. There was one in which there was court case for two years; all sorts of things. You pay compensation to one, who says he is the owner. Immediately he collects his compensation, he disappears and then his brother will come, claming you paid the wrong person. That is why I keep saying these are not technical problems. They are man-made problems.