Muhammadu Buhari

In the early morning of January 1, millions of Nigerians listened to President Muhammadu Buhari as he delivered his annual New Year address. Since then, the broadcast, which outlined various ongoing and new development initiatives by the federal government, has elicited various responses from the citizens. Abimbola Akosile examines the address and its implications for national growth

Many citizens couldn’t believe it. A President, known by some for his military rigidity, Spartan discipline, taciturn nature and aloofness, was empathising with Nigerians on their suffering and hardship, and all these on national television!

From his mien, one could almost feel PMB’s pain for what millions of his countrymen went through in 2017 and are still going through in the earliest days of the New Year 2018. These include persistent fuel scarcity despite official assurances, sporadic improvement in electricity supply; high cost of food prices despite agricultural boom in 2017, and costly medicare.

Some cynics have asserted that the address contains mere words which do not assuage the pains of suffering citizens; while on the other hand, some listeners and analysts believe this is the first time the president has been this expressive or sympathetic to the conditions of the masses, having survived a near-death experience himself as a result of his recent medical challenges.

To a third group, the January 1 address can only lead to a better year ahead if the federal government maintains or increases the tempo of development in the outlined vital sectors of the economy and the society.

Pivotal Change

At the beginning of the address, the President said, “This year (2018) promises to be pivotal in our quest for change. Unfortunately, I am saddened to acknowledge that for many these Christmas and New Year holidays have been anything but merry and happy. Instead of showing love, companionship and charity, some of our compatriots chose this period to inflict severe hardship on us all by creating unnecessary fuel scarcity across the country”.

He said this situation was unacceptable given that NNPC had taken measures to ensure availability at all depots, and expressed determination to get to the root of “this collective blackmail of all Nigerians and ensure that whichever groups are behind this manipulated hardship will be prevented from doing so again.”

According to the visibly-angry President, “such unpatriotism will not divert the administration from the course we have set ourselves. Our government’s watchword and policy thrust is change. We must change our way of doing things or we will stagnate and be left behind in the race to lift our people out of poverty and into prosperity”. He spoke as if he meant his words and that can only spell a hard time ahead for the economic saboteurs who feel no pity when inflicting pain on their fellow citizens in the name of profit.

Infrastructural Deficit

Here, President Buhari said, “My address to fellow Nigerians this morning is devoted mainly to informing you about the intense efforts this administration is putting to address our country’s huge infrastructural deficit. We are going to make significant in-roads in advancing road, rail and power projects across the country.

“The Ministry of Power, Works and Housing is one of the drivers of this Government’s commitment to renew and increase Nigeria’s stock of infrastructure in order to achieve global economic competitiveness as targeted under the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan”, he added.

Fortunately, the rail, road and power sectors fall under the same Ministry and this is headed by a man who was one of those who made Lagos State the success story it is today, in terms of economic and infrastructural potential and revenue generation.

Many would argue that the concerned minister appears overwhelmed by the scale of work in the three sectors, but with the federal government’s support and full backing, 2018 may well turn out to be a watershed year in the history of this country.

Railway Linkages

With regards to railways, the President said, “we have set ourselves ambitious targets. Already in construction stage is the Lagos-Kano Standard Gauge Railway. The line should reach Ibadan from Lagos by the end of this year and will carry two million passengers per year and five million tonnes of cargo will be transported every year giving a substantial boost to the country’s economy.

“Construction of the Kano – Kaduna segment is expected to commence this year and reach Kaduna by the end of 2019. By the end of 2021 the two ends will be joined so that we will have standard gauge railway across the main North-South trading route. The Abuja – Kaduna route will be boosted by additional rolling stock next Thursday (January 4 – today) and will be able to handle one million commuters annually.

“At the same time I have approved and negotiations will be concluded in the first part of this year for the Port Harcourt – Maiduguri line covering Aba, Owerri, Umuahia, Enugu, Awka, Abakaliki, Makurdi, Lafia, Jos, Bauchi, Gombe, Yola and Damaturu. The Abuja – Itakpe line will go through Baro and terminate in Warri with construction of a new seaport at Warri.

“Negotiations are also advanced for the construction of other railway lines, firstly from Kano to Maradi in Niger Republic passing through Kazaure, Daura, Katsina, Jibiato Maradi; and secondly, Lagos to Calabar the ‘Coastal Rail’ through Ore, Benin, Agbor, Asaba, Onitsha, Sapele, Ughelli, Warri, Yenagoa, Otuoke, Port Harcourt, Aba, Uyo and Calabar. In the next few years, all these Nigerian cities will be linked by functional modern rail systems, giving enormous boost to the social and economic life of our people.

“With respect to the Abuja Capital Light Rail, progress has reached 98% completion, as at 64% completion when we assumed office. Only test runs remain before start of operations. This train service will stimulate economic activities in the Federal Capital and provide residents with an efficient and safe transportation system. Twelve railway sub-stations around the capital over a 45.2 kilometre route will serve as a catalyst and a pull factor to the economy of the area. The Light Rail System will reduce traffic congestion and carbon emission in line with the administration’s policy on climate change”, PMB added.

To many Nigerians, including this reporter, this focus on rail transportation is long overdue and can only bode well for the economy and this administration. Most developed countries of the world have strong and efficient rail networks and systems which convey commuters and other workers from work areas in business districts and economic centres to their homes in the suburbs and hinterland, and Nigeria shouldn’t be an exception.

It will also promote urban de-agglomeration where the rural areas will benefit from urban spread, as experienced in Lagos metropolis, and where quick and efficient rail transport coupled with public utilities and basic amenities would help check urban-rural migration and ensure development in the hinterland. Nigeria needs a good rail transport network to boost the economy and the President’s address is spot-on concerning this vital development indicator.

Economic Revival

In his address, the President also recalled that “it was not until last year that we got out of the economic recession into which the country had fallen, as a consequence of past unsustainable economic policies which projected short-term illusory growth. The government is slowly stabilising the economy.

“In order to change the steady and steep decline we adopted the more sustainable policies and programmes captured in the Economic Recovery Plan. Diversification efforts have resulted in improved output particularly in agriculture and solid minerals sectors. The relative exchange rate stability has improved manufacturing sector performance. We have got to get used to discipline and direction in economic management. The days of business as usual are numbered,” he added.

Although many believe the blame game by the current administration on past governments has gone stale, the fact remains that Nigeria is paying for past economic mismanagement. However, as the President has asserted that the “days of business as usual are numbered”, he has to back that up with the right sanctions that would deter the corrupt officials and potential economic saboteurs.

Rice Importation

On the issue of agriculture, the President said, “Two years ago I appealed to people to go back to the land. I am highly gratified that agriculture has picked up, contributing to the government’s effort to re-structure the economy. Rice imports will stop this year. Local rice, fresher and more nutritious will be on our dishes from now on.

“By the same token, I am today appealing to enterprising Nigerians with ideas and unemployed graduates and other able-bodied and literate men and women with ideas not to just sit and wait for employment from the government or the Organised Private Sector. Great nations are built by enterprising people who turn their hands to anything that circumstances dictate”, he added.

PMB’s comment on rice importation stopping this year has elicited a lot of reactions, both positive and negative; given some Nigerians’ penchant for costly, imported, polished rice from South-east Asia. However, some local rice brands are not only very proteinous, but also of very high quality.

If the government can check rice smuggling at the nation’s porous land borders and also lead by example in patronage and consumption of local rice varieties, then a stop in the importation of the nation’s staple food product and a corresponding rise in production of local varieties is possible, with its direct impact on agricultural development and employment.

PMB’s charge to unemployed Nigerians to be innovative and productive is already in force as millions of citizens are marketing their innate talents and skills in service delivery especially in the agricultural sector. That is why the informal sector is fast outstripping the formal sector in terms of income and employment generation and consequent development progress.

Roads Overhaul

The President, in his address, said, “Management of the Federal Road Maintenance Agency (FERMA) has been reconstituted and has been charged with a 12-week rapid intervention in road repairs to cover all the geo-political zones. Government is undertaking repairs and maintenance of 44 roads within the six geo-political zones.”

According to him, “Twenty-five major highways will be funded under the N100 billion SUKUK facility. Each geo-political zone will benefit by an equal amount of N16.67 billion.

“The following major highways are to receive special attention: Oyo – Ogbomosho; Ofusu – Ore – Ajebandele – Shagamu; Yenagoa Road Junction – Kolo Otuoke – Bayelsa Palm; Enugu – Part Harcourt Dual Carriage Way; Onitsha – Enugu Expressway; Kaduna Eastern Bypass; dualisation of Kano – Maiduguri Road; dualisation of Abuja – Lokoja – Benin Road, and dualisation of Suleja – Minna Road”, PMB said.

“In addition, Government has approved work to start on the re-construction of Abuja – Kaduna – Zaria – Kano road, which is in a state of disrepair. Work will soon start and is expected to be completed in 2019,” he added.

This special attention on road networks will surely help the condition of roads nationwide, and when this is combined with the impact of an improved rail system, mobility of labour would be easier across the nation, with enhanced commerce and access to the market. The positive ripple effect of this on national development can only be imagined.

Power Boost

The President continued, “More Nigerians across the country are experiencing improved power supply to their homes and businesses. However, power remains a concern to this government because too many people still do not have regular and reliable supply. The Payment Assurance Guarantee Scheme, which started in January 2016, has enabled the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trader to raise so far N701 billion to assure Generation Companies of at least 80% payment for any power delivered to the national grid.

“Consequently, generation has now reached 7,000MW. On December 8, 2017 the country achieved 5,155MW of power delivered to consumers, the highest level ever recorded. Several moribund projects have been revived. Repairs of Afam Power Station added 110MW in 2017 and another 240MW will be added this year through a private investment partnership. Katsina Power Project is now being tested and producing 10MW of power from wind for the first time in Nigeria. It should be fully operational this year.

“The Zungeru 700MW Hydroelectric Power Project, stalled by court cases is due for completion in 2019. The transmission and other requirements to operate the 30MW Gurara Phase 1 Hydroelectric Plant, the 40MW Kashinbilla Hydroelectric Plant and the 215 MW Kaduna Gas/LPG/Diesel Power Plant will also be completed this year.

“A landmark project, Mambilla Hydroelectric Power Project is at last taking off. This project has been on the drawing Board for 40 years, but now the engineering, procurement and construction contract for the 3,050MW project has been agreed with a Chinese joint venture company with a financing commitment from the government of China. Completion is targeted for 2023,” he disclosed.

“The Transmission Company of Nigeria can now distribute all the 7,000MW that can be generated. TCN and the Niger Delta Holding Company have added 1,950 MVA of 330 down to 132KV transformer capacity of 10 transmission stations and 2,930MVA of 132 down to 33KV transformer capacity of 42 sub-stations including Ikot Ekpene, Aba, Alagbon, Ajah, Ejigbo, Funtua and Zaria.​ This administration is working with the privatised distribution companies to overcome the continuing challenges of distribution. These massive public works should spearhead the recovery and lead millions back to employment”, PMB added.

Regular power supply for heavy, medium, small and even cottage industries is an essential ingredient for the development of any nation. Egypt has more than 24,700MW of installed generation capacity and 99 per cent of the population has access to electricity, according to Wikipedia.

South Africa also has 34,000MW of electricity to meet current demand and the figure is growing year by year. For Nigeria to take its place among the industrialised economies of Africa and the world, power generation and distribution are crucial. The President’s address is an eye-opener but there is still a long way to go beyond the new record 7,000MW he mentioned.

Ensuring Security

The President said, “Before I conclude my address, I must reassure my fellow citizens that security of life and property is still top of our government’s agenda. We have since beaten Boko Haram. Isolated attacks still occur, but even the best-policed countries cannot prevent determined criminals from committing terrible acts of terror as we have seen during the past years in Europe, Asia, Middle East, elsewhere in Africa and in America.

“Our government remains determined to protect all Nigerians in line with our election pledge and promises. On behalf of all Nigerians let me offer our thanks to the Armed forces, the Police, other para-military forces and traditional authorities who are working round the clock to ensure that you and I go about our normal business in reasonable safety. Terrorism and urban crimes are world-wide phenomena and our security forces are continuously adapting their responses to changing threats.

“With regard to rampant cases of kidnappings, we are taking immediate short-term measures to combat this new evil creeping into our societies. Tighter police methods and swift and severe punishment for those proved to be engaged in kidnapping are on the way.

“With respect to Niger Delta, Government is still engaging responsible leadership of the Communities to help in identifying and addressing genuine grievances of the region. Our clean-up programme in collaboration with the United Nations is making satisfactory progress. I am grateful to all the Governors and other Political & Community leaders of the Niger Delta States for their part in bringing relative peace to the areas”, he added.

PMB also expressed his heartfelt thanks to “all Nigerians who prayed for me during my illness last year. I feel deeply humbled by your prayers and good wishes and I am more determined than ever to serve you to the best of my ability.”

For development to thrive in any country, peace and security are basic pre-requisites. And if these can be ensured in the course of this year, foreign investors will bring in their funds to help develop the economy, and the resourceful citizens would be free to go anywhere around the country and practice their trades and craft to contribute to national development.

The presidential address is like a breath of fresh air to long-suffering citizens. And although the issues of official corruption and looting and the speedier realisation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals are recurrent and pending, if the various projects by the federal government are benchmarked, monitored and evaluated by all stakeholders, Nigeria may well enjoy one of her best periods of development this year.