SATURDAY POLITY

Long before Boko Haram came to disrupt the North-east, the ecological and environmental threats posed by the receding Lake Chad had always been there. With over 90 per cent of its storage capacity gone, the North-east, which is greatly dependent on the lake, has been further impoverished, Suleiman Adamu, Water resources Minister Tells Stanley Nkwazema his worries, and why the federal government/international community must be focused on replenishing the lake

Is the federal government sincere about replenishing Lake Chad?

I do not agree that nothing is happening in Lake Chad. The situation in Lake Chad is a natural phenomenon. It was not man made but because, over the years, we were not alert as a country or as a region. We were not very much alert to the ecological and environmental threats that were bedeviling that region up to the point when this insurgency or the Boko Haram came in to further destabilise the little activity that was left. That region has the worst poverty indices in the world. What has happened has happened. There is desertification, climate change, the lake is receding and at one point, lost its storage capacity by more than 90%. This administration is ready to tackle this issue. We have been giving Lake Chad the desired attention.

Can the so called attention be sustained?

Let me confess to you that as far back as 2007, on one of President Buhari’s electioneering campaign trips, I happened to be in the same vehicle with him, I was his Special Assistant at that time and while we were discussing, one of the first things he said was that if he ever won the Presidency of this country, he would want to tackle this issues of replenishing Lake Chad. That was long before Boko Haram started. He had this in mind and was very passionate about it. Less than 30 minutes after I was sworn in, the President called me to his office and said , ‘there is a feasibility study that was done on Lake Chad get hold of it and start working on it.’ That was how I set about working on the issue.

The President has done more than any other president on the Lake Chad Basin Commission in bringing the attention of the World to the issue of the lake. He spoke at the conference of parties on Climate Change in Paris in 2016. I was with him and he made a passionate appeal. At every International engagement, he always made the point openly and privately about the need for the world to look at this Lake Chad issue because it had become not just an environmental issue but also a security issue. Thirteen months after I came into office, we signed an MoU with the Chinese company, to update the Lake Chad study that was funded by Nigeria around 2005 during the Obasanjo administration. Nigeria committed $5 million to it but when the report was submitted in 2012, it was adopted in principle although there were some technical issues that the Lake Chad Basin Commission was worried about. Because of this, nothing much was done to proceed on the next stage of the report which was to do a detailed feasibility study. After signing the MoU, it gingered some additional work  and thereafter, we went on to plan an International Conference held February this year in Abuja. Five heads of state were in attendance, with over 1,200 participants. It took the world by storm because the International media focused on it. The whole purpose of that conference, was to bring to World attention the issue of Lake Chad/Boko Haram and make the world understand that it was not just an insurgency, but that there was a root cause for the shrinking of the Lake Chad and to have a consensus that we should not allow the lake to shrink and go into extinction.

Secondly, we wanted to get an international consensus on the best way to prevent the lake from going into extinction. There was indeed a consensus at that conference that Inter-basin transfer from the Congo basin into the lake is the best option available and there was an Abuja declaration to that effect. We are taking this mater up before the African Union, we are trying to make it a Pan African issue just like the way we had the AU adopt the Green Wall project, we also want a similar thing to happen to lake chad. Recently, I was at an International Water Conference in  Tajikistan and I raised the same issue. Wherever we go we bring the draw of the World because and we were able to successfully argue in the case of Lake Chad and Nigeria that the issue of lake is one of the main things that is causing migration and problems between herders and farmers.

Also, the loss of opportunities caused by the receding Lake Chad is causing our young people to travel across the Sahara into Europe, and Europe and the Western World must pay attention to this issue of receding Lake Chad. After the Conference, we got the Government of Italy to commit 1.5 million Euros to help in concluding the feasibility study through an Italian Company, Bonefeca, who were the ones that originally came with the idea of inter- basin transfer. They called it Trans Aqua Project. The Italian Government is very much interested and we believe that with the Government of Italy, we can have more access to getting the Western World and developed countries to assist. Just recently, President Macron of France visited Nigeria and President Buhari made a very strong statement again about the Lake Chad. Macron took it very seriously. Even while he was at the Netherlands for the ICC Anniversary, he had audience with the government of that country and they promised to assist.

There is also the climate adaptation/climate resilient action plan that has been going on which people don’t know about because we have ecological and environmental projects alongside empowerment projects being implemented by the World Bank and the African Development Bank which Nigeria is also making contributions in terms of counterpart funding as well as other members of the LCBDC countries. UNESCO is also involved and doing a lot of things. The Biotech project was launched for Lake Chad and of Course during the COP 22, about 900 million Euro action plan was launched by the World Bank of which about $200 million has been committed to that intervention programme. A whole lot is going on. Just to caution that this is a very big region. This used to be a very large lake, 25,000 Square Kilometres, years ago, with 40 million population and whatever we are doing, we are looking at the long term. It is very difficult to see the result in the short term but in the long term, we are looking at medium and long term. We thank God that the security situation is improving because without adequate security, things that need to be done would be impossible to execute. We also have the Chad basin Development Commission under my Ministry and we have quite a lot of intervention programmes in Agriculture and water resources projects currently going on there.

Tell us about the committee you set up River Basins?

As early as February 2016, I set up a committee to look at issues in the River Basin and help develop a blueprint to turn them around  which was successfully done Since March 2016, we have implemented almost every recommendation that was put in by the committee. We now have engineers, agric experts or water resources experts as CEOs of these rivers basins and also restored extension services to them so that they can support farmers adequately. Their budgets were scrutinised thoroughly so that only projects that have relevance to water resources, irrigation and agriculture in general are included. Of course, we are still suffering from injection of non-core mandate projects by members of the National Assembly but we are trying very hard to control that. Generally, I think a lot has been done and we have restored confidence into the system. Now they have been mandated to develop four years strategic action plans and every year they are required to submit a report. Years back, river basins were operating like Island on their own but now they know we are ensuring stricter monitoring of their activities, engaging them in quarterly meetings where they come and report on what they are doing. The Ministry has strengthened the Department of River Basins Inspectorate and Monitoring. Now, it is a technical department to monitor not only administrative but technical issues.

How have you been able to instill discipline into your ministry’s budget?

Right from time, apart from the general guidelines provided by the Budget Ministry, I also provide my own guidelines to make sure that the budget is in line with the priorities of this administration and every department has to justify its budget. We have tried to control frivolities like purchase of vehicles unnecessarily. Everything that is in the budget has to be justified and if I am not satisfied that there is value in what is being proposed we jettison it. It is not only the ministry; every agency has to bring its budget to my table. We have been doing that in the last two years so that we also ensure that they are in line with their core mandate. Interestingly, what usually happens is that when the budget returns from the National Assembly, it becomes something else. A lot of projects are injected that are not really our mandate. For instance, I can’t see any reason the Ministry of Water resources will have anything to do with purchase of Keke NAPEP or sewing machines. Sometimes, we prioritise our projects during appropriation without any recourse and without any dialogue; then, you see money for projects taken out and without you being asked to defend that issue. These sometimes cripple our efforts.

Again when I came in, I was getting a lot of letters from people. I inherited N89 billion liabilities and letters were coming from people appealing to the Minister that they have worked since 2010 and not been paid. So, I now caused the Ministry and agencies to put a budget for liabilities so that we can offset verified ones.

Is the scrapping of Gurara Water Management Agency really Justifiable?

For several reasons I can say it is justifiable. The tradition has always been that all dam projects when completed; even when it is being executed by the ministry, should be handed over to the river basins. About 30 – 40 years ago, it was never the business of the Ministry to award contracts for dams and irrigation facilities. It was the responsibilities of the River Basins but over time sometime happened and most of the key projects are now being implemented by the Ministry. But at the conclusion of such projects, they are supposed to be handed over to the river basins for operations and management. Interestingly, when Gurara was finished, there was an unusual arrangement that an agency should be formed to manage it when it should be under the control of Upper Niger River Basin Authority. An agency was created at a time when the federal government is saying that there are too many agencies. So, there was no logic behind the agency in the first place. Right from the first day when they came to brief me, I felt it was a very bad idea having that agency. Luckily there was no law backing it but they were having budgetary provisions, then over time as I was thinking over what to do with the agency, there was a massive violation of the procurement act by the Director that was in charge and we had to send him packing. He was suspended and the case is with the EFCC. For me, that was the last stroke and in any case this agency doesn’t have a legal backing and a duplication of efforts and now it has become a cesspool of fraud and I cannot accept it. Luckily all the staff were deployed from the Ministries, Agencies and Departments of government and they were asked to go back and we handed it over to the  Basin Authority.