For three consecutive days, the Minister of Power, Works and Housing and former Lagos State governor, Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola, crisscrossed the six states in the South-south geo-political zone, assessing the state of the roads and monitoring progress reports both in the works and the housing sectors. Olawale Olaleye reports
“If you noticed, for the first 20 minutes, I wasn’t talking to anyone. I was trying to locate myself on the map for a clearer picture of what I’d studied of the roads. With this job, you must get your geography right. I haven’t been here before, but I had studied the map and seen these locations. So, I was just making sure that what I studied on the map is the same as I go through the locations,” said Mr. Babatunde Fashola, Minister of Power, Works and Housing as he got off his tour bus for a short break at Odukpani junction, bordering Cross River and Akwa Ibom States, after the first five hours of driving around.
With attention to details and practical thoroughness on the job, a confident Fashola approaches his job with such dexterity that could only attest to the fact that he is indeed a policymaker and administrator. He refuses to be seen as superhuman but certain he would deliver on his assignments with minimum expectations, not because it is automatic but because he has been able to identify that the core of the problems standing in his way at the ministry are human-related. And if it is that, “then we are on our way,” he was quick to say.
Six states in three days on the roads – Nigerian roads – was no fun but a grueling experience, not because the roads are completely bad but the discomfort of sitting for hours in the bus. Save for the amity that characterised the mood on the bus, it was no less a very tough call. With state and regional controllers of Works and Housing as well as his personal staff on board, Fashola wanted to personally see firsthand, the roads and also monitor the progress reports.
He specifically wanted to see the abandoned roads, those still under construction and those that require being re-awarded for whatever reasons. Besides, he was of the view that once contractors know that there is a minister, who does not mind the pains that comes with periodic monitoring of progress on the sites, they would sit up and do their work, for as long as they are being mobilised.
Takeoff point was Calabar, in Cross River State, on Thursday, February 16. Ordinarily, what the minister does is to visit the construction sites first and then, pays a courtesy call on the governors of each state, where he presents them with progress report and also sues for collaboration between the states and the federal government agents in the state.
But that approach varied on this particular trip, especially for reasons of time management. So, the Calabar tour started with a courtesy call on the governor, Prof. Ben Ayade, who was however represented by his deputy, Prof. Evara Esu. The minister reiterated to Professor Esu that either the ministry or its representatives is not in competition with the state government but to help them achieve their set objectives within the frame work of the constitution.
The Controller of works in the state shed light on the things the ministry was doing in the state. He told the gathering of state executives and works ministry that the state had benefitted immensely from the federal government. He said about four major projects were ongoing in the state and also acknowledged that the state government had been cooperative in the overall interest of the people.
But the deputy governor, who almost disputed some of the claims by the controller, commended Fashola and described him as powerful super minister, in whom the government and people of Cross River believed. He said the minister deserved the appointment if his record of hard work, integrity and fairness in Lagos was anything to go by. He urged the minister to check out the facts reeled out by the controller as he was not comfortable with some of his claims, and that he would have preferred that the minister had gone round before paying a courtesy call.
While complaining about lack of federal government presence in the state, he expressed confidence that with Fashola in the all-important ministry, all would be well. He said the minister should leave the “Fashola Signature” in Cross River the way he did in Lagos, saying: “We are happy you are there and we have faith in you,” he said.
At 11am, the courtesy call at the Cross River Government House was over and Fashola’s convoy left straight to inspect the roads already scheduled. The roads include the Calabar-Ikom-Ogoja road, sections one and two; Calabar-Ugep-Katsina Ala road in Benue/Cross River State and Calabar-Odupkani junction-Itu road, which is under procurement.
At each of the stops, Fashola met with the contractors, all of whom were ready for him with details of the progress report. A majority of the contractors in this axis complained about funding but were willing to remain on site for as long as they get funded. The minister promised regular mobilization and in some instances, promised to make up for deficit in some of the advancement given by the previous government.
From here, the convoy left for Akwa Ibom State. On his way to the state, the minister took notice of some destruction of property that lined up the two sides of the road over alleged boundary disputes between communities in the state, by a place called Itu. From his reaction, the sight of the destruction worried Fashola and hoped government had intervened.
Arriving Uyo, the capital city, the minister left straight for the government house, but like Cross River, met with the deputy governor of the state, Mr. Moses Frank Ekpo. Here, the deputy governor was also said to have complained about the state of federal roads in the state (as journalists were not allowed in) and was hopeful the minister would make a big difference. The meeting didn’t take long and from here, the minister retired for the day.
On day two, Friday, February 17, the minister started his day early, but it was almost ruined by the attitudinal disposition of the officials of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC), for constantly blairing their siren, which unfortunately wasn’t Fashola’s style since his days as governor in Lagos. The minister immediately called their boss and complained about their “indiscipline on the road and harassment of other road users.” That was resolved as the minister wanted to move through the towns and cities unnoticed. The tour continued.
The first port of call was the inspection of Umuahia-Ikot Ekpene road in Akwa Ibom, and from there, left for Ikot Ekpene-Aba- Port Harcourt road in Akwa Ibom State before leaving for Enugu-Port Harcourt road, all undergoing rehabilitation. However, the minister made a dramatic stop at Umuokpo road in Obingwa local government area of Abia State, bordering Akwa Ibom.
The road was in total decrepit and was said to have constituted huge nuisance for many years. It was as a result of this that a resident, one Chief Micah Ohajuoke, stepped up to the minister and told him the history of the road and how it had cut them off from the adjoining communities. The minister promised the road would be attended to and immediately appointed the man, the unofficial staff to help monitor the progress on the road the moment work starts. They exchanged telephone numbers and the minister left.
At the end of this phase of the tour, the minister spoke on the need to continually emphasise the importance of infrastructure to the lives of the people, adding that infrastructure is not an end but a means to an end. According to him, the road to recovery from recession and job creation is infrastructure building and improvement.
A majority of the contractors also spoke on how the construction works have so far had positive effects on the economy, especially in the region of employment, all of whom are working with them on site in different capacity like labourers, laboratory staff and site engineer among others.
Bayelsa State was the next to visit and straight to the Governor’s office. Governor Seriake Dickson was personally on hand to receive the minister and his team and the state was the most organised to receive the entourage of the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing.
After the state’s controllers of Works and Housing laid the template on what has been going on in the state, Fashola took off from there. The minister told the governor that federal projects in the state had not been funded over the years but assured them that the President Muhammadu Buhari government was determined to get the projects going and connect them to the contiguous states. “We will take control of the budget and ensure that funding is upheld,” he assured the governor.
While responding, Dickson, who is known for always talking his way through, didn’t mince words about selling the state to the minister and his team. “Until you have visited Bayelsa, you haven’t quite visited the Niger Delta because all the issues are present here,” he said. The governor, who officially welcomed the minister on his first visit ever to the state, said “If there is any minister I’d love to bring here, it is you. You did well in Lagos and we have confidence in you with experience and track record.
“We are hopeful that some of these issues will be addressed. The federal government has no footprint here. The whole of Bayelsa is below the sea level and it costs so much to build here. We are available for collaboration. Nigeria left Bayelsa behind; Nigeria left Niger Delta behind and we’ll need to cooperate to get it back,” he said, adding that the three senatorial roads in the state are its main challenge.
“I am looking forward to working with you closely on power to see how we can convert our abundant gas resources to power. The state has a lot of housing issues. There’s huge housing deficit. We will give the controller all necessary supports and hold regular meetings to resolve all outstanding issues. We are looking forward to working closely with you. You have our support and we’ll collaborate with you. Together we have the capacity to conquer.”
Immediately after the meeting, Fashola inspected the construction of Yenegoa-Okaki-Kolo road and continued the journey to River State, Government House, where the Deputy Governor, Mrs. Ipalibo Banigo, had been waiting since the afternoon for the minister, who however arrived in town with his team at about 8.18pm from Bayelsa.
Since a template had been created already on the courtesy calls, Fashola immediately cut to the chase soon after the both the controllers of Works and Housing gave their progress reports. The minister reiterated the need for government to work closely with the controllers because “they are our ambassadors here. They are to support and not compete with you. We are committed to the development and growth of this state.
“The controllers are our ambassadors and I plead that necessary courtesies be extended to them,” he reiterated, even as he asked for a waiver in the processes for the lands to be acquired for building the federal government affordable houses and a reduction in the cost payable, so that the project can break even, “otherwise the cost will be passed on to the people.”
He spoke on the East West road already taken over by the ministry of Niger Delta through the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) but added that: “We are concerned and determined to intervene too.”
He described power as very defining to the economies of the states but had remained a major challenge. “This is the time for everyone to come together. The issue of safety and security in the Niger Delta should be given more attention for development to fully return to the Niger Delta,” he added.
On her part, the Rivers State Deputy Governor, recalled that the Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo was around a few days before the minister came and that after meeting with Governor Nyesome Wike, the governor expressed his resolve to work with the federal government. “We’ve always guarded federal assets here,” she said, adding that there had not been cases of vandalism of federal assets in the state, an affirmation of that assertion.
“It’s our duty that our people get the service they deserve from the federal government; it’s our responsibility to ensure safety and security of the place and people,” she said, noting for the record that “We have taken notes of all that you have put across. We’ll always work closely with the controllers too.”
On the issue of land and the request for waiver as well as reduction in the cost payable by the federal government, she bluntly said “We’ve not had very pleasant experience in time past but we will look into this request again.” On this note, the day two tour ended as the minister and his team retired for the day.
Day three and the final phase of the tour started with an inspection of the construction of the Bodo-Bonny road with bridge across the Opobo channel in Rivers State. It is the only bridge linking Bonny Island to the people of Ogoni and by extension, the rest of the country. Unfortunately, has not been completed, despite the importance of the place which is the heartland of gas production by the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG). Yet, goods and persons are conveyed either through the waters or by choppers.
The minister was particularly unhappy about the state of the construction, saying stories of abandoned projects were the order of the day during the period the nation had money. “What we inherited was an abandoned car but we will get it to start.”
Although a single lane bridge, which was abandoned by the previous government in spite of its importance to the country, Fashola contended that “any forward-looking government must be able to conceive projects beyond the tenure of their administration. A single lane bridge may not be ideal anymore for this place, and so, while we continue with this, we are also considering expansion. But this project is important because once this bridge is done, expansion will come, businesses will spring up, industries will rise and life will generally return to this place.”
Suffice it to say that the minister spoke about how Senator Magnus Abe, representing Rivers South East on the platform of the All progressives Congress (APC), had consistently disturbed and drew his attention to a majority of the roads, not just in his senatorial district but across the state.
Fashola left the site of the Bodo-Bonny Bridge immediately for Kiama, Delta State border, from where he headed straight to the Warri-Sapele emergency repairs. He also inspected the dualisation of the Sapele-Ewu road (Section 1) and Sapele-Agbor, both of which are being done by CGC. But Fashola could not stop by at the Government House for a courtesy call as both the governor, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa and his deputy, Kingsley Otuaro were not in town, apparently on duties outside the state.
Fashola was however met on the site of the Sapele-Ewu-Agbor road by Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, an old classmate of his, who took the project very seriously and pledged support to work with the minister on the successful completion of the road. But the minister also hinted that it was Hon. Halims Agoda, who first brought the state of the road to his attention, with Omo-Agege following up, albeit in collective interest.
The minister promised some of the youths who had come to the site to protest the state of the road that it was already a done deal, especially with his friend now assigned as the unofficial monitoring agent for the road. He said the social and economic importance of the road was not lost on him and would ensure that it was brought back to shape. The road was kicked off for construction in 2014 by the Goodluck Jonathan administration, apparently for election purposes but left in its decrepit state immediately the PDP lost.
Departing Asaba, the minister headed straight to his final port of call, Edo State, where he inspected the ongoing dualisation of the Lokoja-Benin road, Section IV and the Ehor-Benin road being handled by RCC Nigeria Limited. It was while on the site of the construction that the state’s deputy governor, Comrade Philip Shaibu came around and met with the minister. There, the deputy governor did further briefing on the road that was already nearing completion, while the minister pledged consistent and necessary support for the benefit of the people.
Shaibu also asked to take the minister to a section of the road that had almost caved in as a result of erosion. The place had already been cordoned off. But the minister, after seeing the frightening sight and the danger it posed, immediately called for urgent intervention “because this is an emergency”. From the scene, he left for the airport, where he finally returned to base in Abuja. But while riding on the bus together, the deputy governor made him to speak to the governor, Godwin Obaseki, to acknowledge his presence in the state, with a promise by the minister to come back sometime soon.
In all, there were so many takeaways from the tour, but two actually stand out as profound. One, for 16 years, the PDP whose governors are complaining of no federal presence in their respective states was in power. Not only that, it was an era the nation had a lot of money to play around with yet with nothing to show for it.
It is therefore a sad irony that the governors had the temerity to complain to an APC government that is barely two years in office of lack of federal presence. That’s a lesson, of course, for the voting population on the need to make a wise choice whenever there are crucial elections.
The second outstanding takeaway is that, like a majority of the people had acknowledged, there is a minister in the person of Fashola in whom they all have unflinching confidence would deliver. Not one person doubted the fact that in spite of the challenges the nation generally faces at this time of the hard biting recession that Fashola would perform by living true to type as an accomplished administrator.
This was however given fillip to by a majority of staff of the ministry who hinted that it was the first time a minister would take up such a tiring task, even when they all concurred that it was the only way to ascertaining the facts on the ground. Some of the controllers who spoke off-the-record said the closest they have had was a minister randomly visiting a construction site of interest and perhaps, not too far from there is another federal government project he would be persuaded to visit.
Evidently, the tour had also afforded Fashola to see and assess some of the controllers in the different states. There is no doubting the fact that from the interactions witnessed on the bus, some controllers are going to lose their jobs, if not outright but redeployed. They displayed poor knowledge of their states as well as a very bad understanding of the dimensions of the jobs under their care.
Imagine a controller describing a distance of about three kilometres as 700 meters? That was too elementary to be condoned by anyone. What about a controller that was not interested in a court case that had stalled the progress work on a certain road because he thought it was not within his purview? Some do not even know the names of the areas the roads are sited.
Certainly, the trip was an eye-opener and would go a long way to help the minister properly navigate the works in his three-in-one ministry with respect to the challenges therein. There is no doubt that it was a tiring driving experience that ran late into the nights each day of the tour, Fashola did not even show signs that he was tired. Although completely grey-headed, the minister boasted such energy that would compete with a 20-year old. Importantly, he is determined to succeed on his assignment, notwithstanding the man-made obstacles on his way.