As part of a nationwide inspection of Nigerian roads, works and housing minister Babatunde Fashola last week embarked on a two-day assessment of five ongoing highway projects in Niger State. Demola Ojo reports
You can tell that works and housing minister, Babtunde Fashola, is irritated by the description of Nigerian roads as “deplorable” by some commentators. “I don’t know where we got it from,” he said as the tour bus moved smoothly along Abuja-Kaduna expressway on its way to Dikko junction, Niger State.
“I’ve checked the meaning of the word and I think you should. But I want you to observe. We’ve been driving for 32 minutes now. Have we entered any pothole?” he asked his co-travellers. The answer was a unanimous no.
He nodded in affirmation. “You will drive eighty to a hundred kilometres and you will get to a section that has failed. And if you navigate that section, you will continue your journey.”
These are failures of previous decades and will therefore take some time to be remedied, he stated.
About an hour earlier, officials of the federal ministry of works and housing along with select media personnel across print and TV gathered at the headquarters of the ministry the morning of Monday, January 27, in preparation for the trip.
A few minutes past nine, the former Lagos State governor arrived and got into a coaster bus, signalling the commencement of the planned two-day tour of Niger State, Nigeria’s largest by area.
The tour was to assess the state of the roads in Niger, which as the minister revealed, are strategic to Nigeria’s national development plan. They are important in linking the southwest to the north-central part of the country, and the north-central to the northwest.
Niger hosts several NNPC depots for distribution of fuel across the country, has a river port in Baro, and three dams that generate electricity.
Prior to the journey, an aide to the governor had mentally prepared this writer on the gruelling schedule to be expected. Fashola had embarked on similar inspections during the first term of President Muhammadu Buhari’s government, when he traversed the six geo-political zones of the country to take stock of the state of roads across thirty six states.
On this occasion, he wanted to see firsthand the progress made in five ongoing projects: The dualisation of Suleja-Minna Road (Phase I and II); the reconstruction of Bida Lapai-Lambata road; the rehabilitation of Agaie-Katcha-Baro road; the dualisation of Jebba-Mokwa-Bokani Junction road in Kwara and Niger states; and the rehabilitation of New Bussa – Kaiama road, which also connects Niger and Kwara.
Setting the Pace
“Good morning everyone,” the minister said as the bus eased out of the ministry of works headquarters. “Driver, maximum of 100 kilometres per hour,” he instructed.
The bus had 18 passengers including the director, highways construction and rehabilitation, Yemi Oguntominiyi, some aides of the minister, a few journalists and a photographer. Joining later at Dikko junction was the federal controller of works/engineer’s representative in Niger State, Engr. Felix Umeh.
A row of seats at the back had coolers with food and drinks, an indication that this would be a continuous drive barring inspection stops and refuelling.
On the minister’s convoy was a lead vehicle (no blaring sirens), another bus conveying TV crews, an SUV and a pickup with security personnel. A Federal Road Safety Corps pickup joined as we crossed into Niger State.
The party proceeded in silence for much of the drive outside Abuja. until the minister turned on his seat to chat with the journalists seated behind him.
“If you don’t understand what we are dealing with, it will be difficult for you to tell the people what’s really happening.
“I would want you to pay more attention to other things apart from the road, like the economy of road construction. People don’t understand why it takes so long to build a road.”
First he explained the organisational structure of the ministry. In each state, there is a controller, who reports to a zonal director, who then reports to him.
“When I hear people say ‘go and tour all the roads,’ I just laugh. It betrays complete ignorance of the size of the undertaking, and even the necessity for it, because somebody is employed in each state to do that job.”
But that hasn’t stopped Fashola from taking on the challenge, with the federal government responsible for 32,000 kilometres of roads.
He continues, “To be sure, I have done that tour. I travelled the 36 states. I did 12 hours every day in these buses when I took office, to go and see what I was appointed to manage. I’ve seen it. And every month, I get reports on every road.”
As the journey proceeded, the education shifted to the economic benefits of road construction. From Nigeria’s quarterly GDP reports, there has been an upsurge in mining, a sector that has picked up in the last four years. This is due mainly to construction undertaken by the works ministry, as well as the ministry of transportation which is in charge of rail.
“The Apapa-Oshodi expressway under construction by Dangote is a cement concrete road, but you still need laterite to build the base. It was about halfway done when we went on inspection on the 28th of December. But as at that day, 5,000 trucks of laterite had been used. That’s a 32 kilometre road.
“So imagine Lagos-Ibadan expressway which is 118 kilometres, Abuja to Kano which is 360 kilometres… so you understand how much mining is going on,” Fashola said.
The benefits also extend to manufacturing and labour. One of the first questions Fashola asked at each construction site was the number of people employed.
“The first place to feel recession is the service sector and it is the last sector to pick up. That sector is now picking up,” he revealed.
He explained that construction companies don’t stockpile cement, iron rods and other materials. They order after they have been paid. That’s when the mine owner starts to mine. It is then transported to site.
“So when you hear some of us in government say that the economy is heading in the right direction, it’s because we know this. It won’t happen in one night,” Fashola insisted.
Citing the US and the UK as examples, he reiterated that serious governments across the world commit first to infrastructure, “…because it’s the key driver. Once you build, you employ people.”
Another reason for the slow pace in the execution of projects is the issue of compensation. Oftentimes, newly constructed roads have to pass through somebody’s land. Some of the claims are outrageous though.
“Until you resolve some of these issues, you can’t do anything. These are the things we deal with almost on a daily basis,” Fashola explained.
Fashola is obviously concerned about complaints from the public regarding the state of roads. He is particular about what he believes is the dissonance between perception and reality, and would rather a more optimistic outlook as work gathers pace. From all indications though, his task is not getting any easier.
Paucity of Funds
It was apparent after visits to different sites and listening to the contractors that funding of these projects is a major issue. The contractors kept appealing for money to execute. The contractor at New Bussa, Gilmor Engineering, has actually moved to site without being paid, with the minister promising that he would get the money out.
Fashola explained as we set out to check another project. “The concerns of Nigeria over borrowing are legitimate concerns. However, it is necessary for infrastructure. Nigeria is not yet the prosperous country that it’s on its way to be.”
According to Fashola, many countries have been affected by a global economic downtown, but some have been able to deal with it better because of the state of their infrastructure.
“A country’s wealth is also measured by the quality of its infrastructure,” he explained.
Paolo Canpanella, the project manager of Salini Nigeria Ltd, the contractor responsible for the Suleja-Minna dualisation project, didn’t take long to appeal for funds when the minister stopped by to inspect.
“We’re in the dry season so we have to push harder,” he said. On the whole, N32 billion has been budgeted for the project. “If we get it approved, we finish in three years. We know this road is important and we want to finish it fast,” he said.
He mentioned a few other challenges. “We have logistical challenges with the locals.” This had to do with compensation. He also complained about truck drivers.
“We have hundreds of trucks breaking down. On Saturday, it took me 30 minutes to get here. Today, it took me just five, obviously because you are here.”
Back in the bus, Fashola spoke further on the destruction of roads by trucks.
“Failures of the roads could be due to weather, but most especially it is abuse. Vehicles are being overloaded beyond the 46 tonne limit. Some people are doing 90 tonnes. That’s law enforcement. That’s not under us.
“We need weighbridges and we’re working on that. But we think it’s more effective to enforce at the point of loading; the ports and the petrol stations.”
The commissioner for works, Niger State, Engr Ibrahim Panti, who was also part of the inspection party, assured that the menace of truck drivers will be curbed. “I have spoken to the local government chairman and he has assured there will be alternative parking for them.”
As the inspection proceeded further, the minister encountered firsthand just how much of a problem the trucks pose. There were sections of newly laid asphalt that were already being degraded as they reacted to petroleum products leaking from the parked trucks.
He stopped to address the truck drivers personally, letting them know the damage they were doing. He got the commissioner of works to interpret, while also listening to some of their complaints.
“I give one week for the truck drivers to leave this place or we get law enforcement to move them,” Fashola said. He made sure to enlighten the drivers how they stand to gain when the road is done.
A few of them were unruly. “Do you want us to stop the road? You can’t be violating the law and start giving us conditions. You move first, then we can address any issues you may have.” Immediately, there was calm.
It is safe to say that parts of the trip passed through bad patches of road. In some cases, they were long stretches. For Fashola though, it is important not to lose sight of the good in the face of the bad.
“When persons of influence and authority say things, a lot of people don’t even check, but take it as truth. Perhaps, they don’t know how it affects national consciousness.”
Continuing he said, “News is no longer local but international. If an investor wants to put money somewhere, will he put his money in a country that says ‘nothing is working’ or one that says ‘we’re working on it?’ This is about fairly and accurately reporting our country.”
Boundless Energy, Optimism
An observation during the site inspections is the enthusiasm Fashola brings to his work, which is matched by his stamina and athleticism. He bounded in and out of the bus with ease and walked at a brisk pace, with almost everyone else struggling to catch up.
He also knows the environment well, and acted as tour guide on numerous occasions, pointing out places of interest and sharing from his fount of knowledge.
In the previous dispensation, he was also minister of power, and tours such as these incorporated visits to power infrastructure.
“This state has three power plants: Kainji, Jebba and Shiroro, and a new one at Zungeru is being built, all because of the River Niger.”
Fashola is just as fascinated by agriculture, and spoke extensively about the seemingly unending rice fields flanking the expressway. He is optimistic about Nigeria’s potential and wants more people to share and act on that optimism.
As we zoomed through the countryside, he peered out of the window. ”These are yam farms. That is mango just growing in the wild. See cashew… People don’t understand how blessed this country is. By the time this agriculture thing catches fire, it will be bigger than Nollywood and music combined, internationally.”
At a point, he asked the convoy to stop for the drone videographer to take panoramic footage from above.
He also took pictures intermittently with his phone as the journey trudged on, morning giving way to afternoon and then nightfall. And still the trip continued, with only one stop to refuel.
An inescapable observation was just how many trucks ply these roads. At the risk of exaggeration, the truck to car ratio seemed to be around seven to three.
Looking into the future, the minister sees brighter days ahead. The strides being made in the transportation sector where numerous rail projects are taking shape will have a knock-on effect on the lifespan of Nigerian roads, as they would be relieved of the burden of bearing cargo.
By the time we got to New Bussa where we were to spend the night, it was well past nine at night. More than 12 hours on the road, both good and bad.
The minister was still a bundle of energy, engaging in conversation, and painting a picture of a soon to be prosperous country when things are finally in place. In his estimation, it is important to know that progress is being made, slowly but surely.
The second day followed a similar pattern to the first, only this time there was a national housing site inspection in Minna.
Before his ministerial assignment, Fashola had been to a few states across the country primarily because of his law practice and also to play football, a favourite pastime. On some other occasions, it was for political rallies. Most of those trips were by air, with the final leg by road.
“…But nothing as extensive as what we did in 2016, driving 12 hours every day through the 36 states. They’ve been eye-opening, interactive and they better shaped my understanding of the assets that Nigeria has; its people, topography and diversity.
“We’ve done repeat spot tours after that. Some of these states I’ve visited three to four times, but every state at least once. At that time, apart from roads, we also toured housing projects and power assets monthly. It’s a continuing educative process,” he said.
The focus of many Nigerians is however on the roads. Truth be told, the numbers don’t paint a good picture. Going through a brief of the projects we toured, many have very low completion percentages. Some have used up the projected time and are no closer to being completed.
Phase One of the Suleja-Lambatta-Minna has the highest completion rate of 74 per cent but it was awarded in 2010 and was supposed to be completed in 2013. The New Bussa-Kaima road is barely one per cent.
Meanwhile, the allocations for each project in the 2020 budget fall well below the payments recommended. It all points to projects that will take years to complete if funding is not improved.
Unfortunately for Fashola, there is the erroneous belief among many citizens that Nigeria is a rich country but the truth is, it is struggling to fund its infrastructure.
It is admirable that the minister displays an optimistic outlook in the face of his daunting task. If the projects in Niger are indicative of what is going on around the country, a lot of patience would be needed to see the fruits of his labour.
There is a caveat though: the plans are in place, the ball set rolling and the contractors on ground are working within the limits of the funds made available. With increased funding, work will gather pace.
It is no wonder then, that Fashola – probably more than any other minister – sees the need for borrowing to fund the country’s infrastructural projects.
Thirty-six hours after we set out on this tour, we finally approached the take-off point in Abuja, well past nine on Tuesday night.
Fashola bade farewell, bounded out of the bus and changed cars, as he switched focus to preparing for the next day’s Federal Executive Council meeting, while leaving his co-travellers wondering where he draws his reserves of energy – and optimism – from.