Babatunde Fashola: Comparing Elected and Appointed Public Officials is Misplaced

The pre-interview engagement was though short, it however gave some inkling it would be an incisive interaction, of course, with the Minister of Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, SAN. The confidence was one; speaking stricto sensu to the issues was another. His takes about public concerns have always been different and that’s what many believe, distinguishes him from the lot. From his stout defence of the Muhammadu Buhari administration to clearing the air of misgivings about his ministry and the need to start focusing on the states for “real developments” that directly affect the people, Fashola, in this two-hour interview with THISDAY, held his grounds for the stretch, but mindful of the challenges of the administration and what might have led them thus far. Excerpts:

As governor, your brand equity was very high and there was this consensus that you were the poster boy of your party then. Can you Compare your tenure as governor, which earned you accolades across board and the offices you’ve held afterwards, because people feel that at the federal level, you have not particularly done well, compared to your track record in Lagos? What is the challenge?

One thing you must accept is that the longer you stay in public office, the more enemies you make. Oftentimes, you see that the longer politicians or public servants last in public positions, staying popular becomes a very difficult thing. If we use numbers seriously, you will see that the honeymoon period that births a new leadership and popularity that comes with it, wanes as you begin to take decisions that affect the people’s lives.

Then the temptation to compare Lagos and Nigeria as alluring as it is, is not smart. 3000sq kilometres? I can cover it in two to three days – from Epe to Badagry to Ikorodu. But, even that, its nooks and crannies are still difficult to reach. Compare it with over 900,000 kilometres . Don’t also forget that as an appointed person, you have delegated authority and it’s different from being an elected person. And then, more importantly, the economic seasons have changed.

I was also governor at a time when we had some revenue windfalls from oil, which was trading at about $100 per barrel at that time, and we used our own little share of the allocations from the Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC) and we were also very aggressive with our Internally Generated Revenue (IGR). We also contracted debt against our IGR. So, the comparisons are not apposite; they are night and day. That said, of course, at this level, people expect certain things to happen. Then, of course, what were the longest routes in Lagos?

They were Lagos-Badagry, sixty-something kilometres; Ikorodu to Epe, sixty-something or forty-something kilometres, then, LASU-Iba road, about 27 kilometres. But here, we are dealing with four hundred and something kilometres from Tambuwal to Yauri to Kontagora and you are dealing with 570 kilometres from Maiduguri to Kano or 127 kilometres from Lagos to Ibadan and so on.

So, the dynamics are just different and then, of course, in parliament, you have 40 House of Assembly members to negotiate with, but you have 360 House of Representatives members to negotiate with here; you have109 senators.

Is that to say that the work is overwhelming at the federal level?

Again, I think it’s important to understand the role that a minister plays. With all thanks to those that once did a good job, as I always say, I do not take all the credit for what happened in Lagos. If I did, many people would say, no, I had a role to play. So, I must acknowledge them. All I can take responsibility for is what we didn’t do well. I will tell you, because I was the team leader. So, I think that we’ve acquitted ourselves very well. In spite of the fact that we can’t finish the work that Nigeria needs to do in one administration.

That’s the bottom line. If you look across the country today, roads that had become dormant, where contractors have moved away, we literally brought them back. Now, the real challenge is the construction time and the revenue challenges and governance is becoming more complex contrary to what people know. Using roads as a metaphor for discussion, I don’t know if people know that we have to enumerate communities to pay compensation before we can pass? I was in Akwanga in Nasarawa recently and those are some of the issues.

We have a post-assessment, post-visit report and the different departments involved. People don’t see that; they just want to see a road and I understand that. So, we just came back from Bauchi. The national council assessed some roads under construction and also our housing project. So recently, I was in Oyo State, from Ibadan and drove through Lagos, stopped at Lotto junction on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway. Now, we need to acquire massive land to construct the interchange; people have to move.

I can’t do that because as a minister, I don’t control land. So, I had to appeal to Governor Dapo Abiodun to meet me there, because under the land use act, he has responsibility over land. These are the exchanges that ultimately define when the result will come. The contractor is there and this is a road that is substantially well funded. Now, we have peoples’ issues. I was just reading a report from Governor Kayode Fayemi on environmental impact assessment for 46 kilometres for Ado-Akure road. The people in Ado-Ekiti can’t be bothered by this report. They just want to see a road. Before we can raise money, we have to enumerate all the communities there.

These are now the global governance standards for funding and this is the hallmark of democracy, getting people involved, even animal life, climatic conditions, we have to go through all that checklist. So, you have an environmental impact assessment that’s about 46 pages. People don’t know that this is going on. So we may look to them, to be slow but these are the hurdles we have to cross before we can get to the final place, where the rubber meets the road and where they like us to be. We want to be there, like yesterday.

But as governor, peoples’ issues were also there or weren’t they?

Yes, I was their governor. I was the one elected by them. Let us take another example. We had compensation issues on the Lekki Free Zone, when the Dangote group bought the land. It took one or two meetings and we resolved it. So, here in some places, we need to call some senators to go beg their people and to the benefit of some of them, we are seeing some results. I’m just giving you examples. I’m not giving you excuses. I’m giving you real life situations that we deal with.

Two days ago, I was talking to the Governor of Bayelsa, we have had extended correspondences and he was telling me that they’ve made progress for us in terms of compensation so that we could finish the Yenagoa-Otuoke-Kolo road, because it was stalled by compensation issues. So, this is going on across the country. That’s just one problem. In some other places, contractors can’t blast, because they don’t have access to dynamite to be able to blast the rock for quarry and that is a controlled substance even before we had these security challenges.

Now, it is even more controlled. So, again, people don’t know that I have to write to the National Security Adviser to say exempt these people and he has to exercise his own independent judgment to decide whether or not to approve. In some places, where they could get quarry to do their work, within 50 kilometres of the site; if that is a high-risk zone for blasting, they have to go as far as 400 kilometres. So, these are some of the things we are dealing with. We are also dealing with the realities of the economy. Some of these projects, many of them were inherited. So, they were awarded as far back as 2000. For instance, Lagos to Ota to Abeokuta was awarded in 2000. By the time I became minister, the contractor had left the site.

They were not funded. But during that period, we went to pay $12 billion for debt forgiveness. That’s a policy choice. By the time I became a minister, the rate had changed, so we had to renegotiate and re-award the contract. Now, it’s a N56 billion contract, but how much is in the budget? I don’t make the budget. We propose and what comes out finally is by the other arm of government, that’s what the constitution says. So, we have over N100 million for a N56 billion contract. Once the contractor sees that, the enthusiasm dies. We have managed to get some Sukuk funds of about N4 billion now. That has been spent, so the man is waiting.

Recently, you announced plans to re-introduce tolling on some federal roads. How far has the ministry gone with this plan? As a follow-up, during Obasanjo’s time when they abolished tolling, the government said then that tolling was already factored into the price of petrol we buy in filling stations. That there was no point charging another. So does this not amount to double taxation?

Let me start from the last one. In the series of exchanges that we’ve had because the purported income in lieu of toll was to have accrued to the Federal Road Maintenance Agency (FERMA), the agency has tried to operationalise that provision in the Act. We have asked the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and they have said there’s no such provision in their pricing template.

So, what it simply means is that at the time they were making all of these noises, what ought to have been done had not been done. We took up this matter last Thursday at the National Council on Works in Bauchi and I made it clear to all the commissioners from the states that look, NNPC has said this thing is not in our template. Which one of you is ready to step forward and go and impose that levy on the people in your state and everybody said, “This is a dead horse; let’s leave it. No need to flog it.” It is different from a toll fee, which is a user charge, because if you don’t use it, you don’t pay. We need to separate the two.

Now, yes, when we did a tolling policy and announced it, it caught a lot of attention. But the tolling policy is only a very small part of what we wanted to do. What we want to do actually is to see if we can really entice the private sector to take over some of our major highways. You know, oftentimes, we hear this PPP, and it looks easy and it sometimes appears to people on the outside that we don’t seem to know what we’re doing. But I am always quick to remind them that many of us in government today came from that sector, so we know that there’s no magic wand there.

But we know that some people can do some things if we put some things right. So, we launched a programme called the Highway Development Management Initiative (HDMI). That’s the programme. We have gazetted the entire Right-of-Way on 24 routes spread across the six geo-political zones. But we think 24 is heavy and the appetite and capacity of the private sector is limited and therefore, we said let’s do it in two phases and so, we started with 12 and in specifics, we issued a request. We issued a request for pre-qualification and we had 75 applicants and we have pre-qualified 18 companies.

Now, they can’t go about making financial proposals without a tolling policy, which will define for them what kind of vehicles can be tolled and what are the tolling rates. So, that was also a work-in-progress at the time. And where we are right now is that policy is now out with classified vehicles from six axle trucks, flat trucks to heavy duty buses, to light bosses to Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) to private cars and commercial vehicles – all of those are liable to pay tolls.

We have, as a matter of policy, said tricycles, bicycles, motorcycles, diplomatic and military and police and related stuff – ambulances – will be exempt from it. So, we think that those pre-qualified companies now will have a basis to now make plans. But, beyond tolls, there are other services around a highway that really for some time have been like unoccupied spaces if you like – advertising, trading on the highway. When you’re going to Benin-Ore or anywhere you are buying something by the roadside, all of these things can be organised into much more prolific businesses.

So, the concessionaire, who ultimately wins this, is the person we think can do these things. Then ambulance services, weigh bridge, vehicle towing services and so on and so forth. This is the kind of governance we expect, but the tolling is just a small part of it. Our highway is just about 45.7 metres from the centre line on each side, so we have about 100 metres and that is a space that can be put to very prolific use.

In December 2019, you told Nigerians that you were building 500 roads across the country. This is 2021, how many have you completed and inaugurated and what is the state of others?

Let me first explain to you, when you say inaugurate, how do you inaugurate a 500 kilometres road and at what end? You are comparing us to a state, where we build a 2-kilometre road, you will go and cut tape. It’s not the same.

Does it mean you now better appreciate the challenges of those you criticised when you were not a part of the federal government?
I criticised them not for not inaugurating roads, but for not building them. Things are relative. At a time, given what we know, the policies they pursued were different from the ones I would have pursued. For example, if I had $12 billion at the time, I would not have paid creditors; I would have invested it in my country’s economy, because what was the point of paying creditors only to borrow back? At that same time, UAE, Angola, and other oil-rich states invested the same resources.

Then, what did we do when the next windfall came after we paid the debt? By the time it came, Dubai had built a super-efficient airline, a functional city. What were the policy decisions then? The policy decisions were that, no, we don’t want to hurt the people. Keep the dollar at N120. Use oil resources to support consumption, exchange rate, and where was the money going? Shopping in Dubai mall. It’s all gone now.

Those were the things we criticised. You can use your revenues and your resources to do two things: defend your economy or defend your exchange rate. I will use it to defend my economy. So, I can point to what we did in Lagos with that prolific oil resource and our borrowings. You will see the Lekki bridge, you will see seven kilometres of rail, you will see road infrastructure. That’s investment when extraordinary income comes. That didn’t mean we were not borrowing, but as those things were kicking into life, each time you crossed that bridge, we were saving you 30 minutes from the other route. Time saved is money and we will accrue it back in taxes.

Property values went up, we saw land use charges coming back. So, those were the things I criticised. You see, I never believed and I don’t expect that the president should be inaugurating roads, that’s my own view and I’ve shared this view with President Buhari. Just penultimate week, I went to meet him and I showed him Obudu-Vandekier road, I showed him Sokoto to Kontagora, I showed him sections two and three of Kano-Maiduguri,which has almost 300 kilometres of completed, marked roads. So, I said look, I was recommending to him to allow me nominate my colleagues in the cabinet from those states just to go and do the ceremonial, because it seems as if some people will not believe that it’s finished, until we have that ceremony. But I am clear in my mind that the people, who are driving on that road know that it is completed and in December, we did a survey where people were moving – going home for Christmas or returning after, and the word that came back was that this place has been completed, they know.

So, those are some of the roads that have been completed, you see me going round the bridges that have been completed: the Loko-Oweto bridge, we finished the bridge; we have finished the road to Oshogbedo to Oweto, but the part that we have not finished is the Nassarawa-Loko link road of about 74 kilometres. That was the one you might have heard about two weeks ago. We asked FEC to allow us to limit the contract to just 10km for the main contractor, because it’s slow, so that the two other contractors, who have finished their own, can take up the remaining part of the 74km, which was approved.

But people are already driving through it because it saves you the journey from Otukpo to Abuja, which would have been six hours to three hours. You cut off Lafia completely and land in Keffi. The bridge to Cameroon is finished; the bridge to Ikom is finished; Kano-Maiduguri too. Where does the president want to stand in Maiduguri to talk to the people of Kano? So, what we’re trying to do now is to get the minister from Kano to deal with his section, the minister from Bauchi to deal with his own, minister from Yobe to deal with his side. There’s one that passes through Sambisa and it’s the one that’s most challenging.

And these now have fibre optics. Katsina Ala/Ogoja, Tambuwal, Sokoto, Niger, up to Yauri, there’s Uduma in Enugu State, linking Ebonyi, this is 40 kilometres. Just to make sense, on Lagos-Ibadan for example, when we are constructing, we don’t construct 100 kilometres at once. Sometimes, there’s a place where you have to relocate pipes. You have to relocate cables, gas lines, so we’ll close five kilometres. So, we can close this section and divert everybody to the other side. And when we finish the 5 kilometres, do you want us to come and inaugurate it?

So, across the aggregate of Lagos-Ibadan for example, we have done a cumulative of about 38 kilometres on section one before Shagamu and the total of that is 44km. We have done about 50 kilometres on the Ibadan bound, which is eighty-something, so we are almost 90 kilometres now, out of 127 kilometres and that’s why the journey time is reducing. But if you want us every 5 kilometres to come and then cut tape, of course, that will cause more traffic when we come.

In other climes, infrastructure lasts 20 years or more, but in Nigeria, roads begin to break down in two to three years after construction and there’s little or no attempt at constant maintenance until they become impassable. Why is this so?

I like the other climes. I tell people, first of all, what we have done in Nigeria for the last 30 years is the eighth wonder of the world. We have been moving petroleum products, moving agro produce, moving timber, moving construction materials by road and the economy has not given up. I dare any country in the world to try it, they will collapse and that speaks only to the resilience of these Nigerian people. It is not the right thing to do, so let’s be clear and that is why in the fullness of time, people will really appreciate the investment that “this bloody government” is now making in rail.

That is one thing that will keep the roads useful for a longer time. The tonnages we move by road, no country can move it by road, except Nigeria. There is no country that is our competitor that can try what we’re doing, just like we are the only ones who have a 1000-guest party. We are the miracle of the world. A friend of mine told me that he has never seen, where people can run, calculating money; these people are too skillful, and too talented. So, the rail is one key aspect. Then enforcement, law and order. The HDMI that I talked about is a way to bring back the concession of the road, so that it will relieve us of the burden on bureaucracy and all of that. All of these are going to converge. The president has issued a directive to the NNPC, Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and all the loading points to start enforcing weight compliance from the point of loading, so that we minimise the risk on the road.

NPA has some challenges with the ports operators, because the ports don’t belong to the government anymore; they have undergone concessions. So, we are having them recalibrate their trucks. Pouring oil on the roads by mechanics does not help our roads. Once water and those chemicals enter, they begin to dissolve the properties binding the road up. Once you put petrol or diesel, you are beginning to unbind and weaken the binding and that’s why the road begins to fail.

Some portions of the Obajana-Kabba road, the first concrete road in Nigeria built by the Dangote Group, are already showing signs they’re wearing out less than two years after its completion. Is there any arrangement with the group, which has now been awarded the Kabba-Omuo road for the maintenance of those roads?

I think it is wrong to say it’s showing signs of wearing. What happened was a section not under contract. Let me show you an example, Lagos-Ibadan is an example, we have two contractors in two sections, Abuja-Kano is in five sections and five different contractors. Obajana-Kabba, Dangote has about 50 or so kilometres and the portion they are building has no problem at all. There’s a portion, where there’s a box culvert, because of heavy rainfall, that culvert was built many years ago, when the road was originally built. The volume of water is now built due to climate change. We have the washout in Tegina, in Bauchi, in Owerri and we are responding as best as we can. Same way hurricanes and typhoons wash off roads overseas.

There are quite a number of Nigerians, who feel that the government is over-borrowing and that there’s no immediate evidence of what these monies are being spent on. You also hold the view that the Obasanjo government should have used the $12 billion he used to pay debts on infrastructure. Could you be more lucid on this?

These are policy choices. I don’t like this generalisation that we and them are the same. We are not the same. And these are some of the policy differences and so based on what we know, I would do things differently. So, anytime they come up with it, I say, let’s have a debate. I love the terrain of debate. When we were not borrowing, we had $12 billion but tell me the rail we built with it and that was before the windfall. Show me the Lekki bridges we built, the airports. None. And I say that if I was in government at that time, we would have deployed these monies into infrastructure.

Oil prices have gone down, yet, we are building Ikom bridge, building Cameroon bridge and I say we are different and better. Talking about borrowing, it is legitimate to express concern, but I think we must earnestly ask ourselves, all those professors of home economics, have they been in government before? Theory is different from the real deal where the rubber meets the road. The job is easier when someone else is doing it. So, we are in a place where our population is growing rapidly. We are living on infrastructure that was built about 30-40 years ago. We are now saying don’t tax too much, and at the same time, you are saying it takes two hours to get from office to school, because the road is bad. What do you want? America owes $23 trillion, most of it used in building infrastructure and military. Their defence budget in 2019 or so was $773 billion, but when you want to go on holiday, you go to America. So, who’s paying for that debt?

That’s what built all those super-structures. Dubai borrowed money from Abu Dhabi, because Abu Dhabi is richer. So, the Dubai tower you go and see is funded by some debts and some oil revenue. Then, we go there and take photographs. Until Buhari came, the only place you could enter train was in Dubai, America and other places abroad. But now, you can enter train from Lagos to Abeokuta and you say you don’t know? Before now, could you take a train from Abuja to Kano?

Yes, the reality is that they started that project, but the 15 per cent contribution that was supposed to have been paid wasn’t paid and oil was selling at $100 per barrel. We came to pay, when oil was low. All the state governors filed claims for all the roads they built. That was the time money was in plentiful supply. Federal left its roads and states were constructing them, including yours truly. This president came and paid the debt from his predecessors. Are you getting a sense of where the money is going? We met over $10 billion or so in debts. So, in order to achieve our own objective, we had to borrow or where was the money going to come from? Or we keep giving you excuses.

But, even your Economic Adviser, Prof. Doyin Salami recently raised the alarm that the borrowing was unsustainable?

That is why I said that it is legitimate to have a conversation around it. But there are choices that we have to make. Doyin is a very respected economist. He knows choices that are available, not like some home economics professors, because home economics is different from public finance. In home economics, you can cut off baked beans, cut off house-help, but in public finance, you can’t cut off labour, they are a given; you can’t cut off water supply to save money; you can’t stop moving refuse or cut security spending.

I am not saying you can’t have the argument. It’s compelling. But what are the alternatives? My parents’ generation trained in England and they were taught not to borrow. But they realised that in public finance, that thinking is not going to work. That’s what probably affected the generation of those who quickly rushed to pay debt. But by that time, the Europeans, who dominated the world economy, started seeing the necessity for debts, they say, let’s measure it against GDP, against revenue and we haven’t smelt the coffee? All of them are borrowing!

Can you tell us how the N100 billion Sukuk fund for road projects was utilised?

What we did with the Sukuk, our initial thought was to target the heavy traffic roads, about six and then use it on the A1-A4 roads. If we complete the entire length of A1-A4 , Nigeria will heave a huge sigh of relief. That’s the road from Lagos port to Sokoto, from Warri to Kano, from Calabar to Maiduguri and Port Harcourt to Yobe. But at the time, people said we wanted to use Sukuk to Islamise Nigeria, those were the odds we had to contend with. But we said irrespective of what happens, let’s divide the money into six and immediately we did that, each zone was left with N16 billion. Then they said Fashola wants to move all the money to the southwest because he’s from there.

We now had representative issues, like it’s not in my zone or state, but in the end we ended up with 25 roads for N100 billion and each road ended up getting just N4 billion. Last year, the Sukuk increased to N162 billion, but the number of roads have increased to 44.

The Lagos-Badagry road is a mess. That’s a piece of infrastructure that should be your legacy. Some senators recently visited and were alarmed.
When all of these alarms are being raised about roads in the twilight of a tenure, and in the imminence of the election, you must take them with a pinch of salt. Everybody suddenly now loves to be seen to be doing something. The question is, what did you do in the morning of the time? So, let’s go and look at Lagos-Badagry road. How much is in the budget. The constraint is money. Simple! No more or less, to start with. Now, again, let’s not forget, you know, I now look like the villain. So, let’s go back. At the time that oil was $100 and other times that I’ve talked about it, that road belongs to the federal government.

It’s me, this villain today, who came there as a governor that took on that road. Doesn’t that count for something? So, let me explain to you, as a governor, we didn’t have all of the resources but we did it up to FESTAC. Between FESTAC and the university, there were oil pipelines and NNPC said they had to relocate and that delayed, and I left. My successors have continued. But that’s only as far as they can go. Beyond LASU, all to the border, no action. So, the first contract ever awarded on that road by the federal government was awarded by me, the villain.

That’s where my heart is. There was no contract. Lagos State contract ended at Okoko. It’s me that said that’s not just a road in my state, but it’s an international corridor. It is the road that is the Lagos to Abidjan highway. There is an inter-ministerial committee of ministers from Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast. I am the chairman of that committee of ministers. I am not just proud of being a Nigerian, I am arrogant about it and how can I be chairing this meeting, and we are still looking for the World Bank fund and all? That I must award this road.

We awarded it and how much was in the budget. The contractor just came to me. He neededN18 billion to concentrate on that very difficult stretch, which was about 20 kilometres, because the border side was not that bad. Where am I going to find N18 billion? That’s the problem. So, you have to first give me the authority to borrow as minister. That’s the difference between being governor and being a minister. The ministry of budget has looked at everything. They have given every ministry an envelope and that is how much you can spend. As you begin to break them down, each representative would say no, it is too small, move this away. This is it.

I’ve said before, the biggest problem is consensus. So can we all have consensus? All those senators who made great speeches there, on the day, just put it there that they will put N18 billion in next year’s budget and then come see me in December whether we’ll perform or not. We put the road in Sukuk, but I told you it was N4 billion, so we are owing the contractor now. So he has stopped work.

So, all these borrowings, where’s the money going then?

It’s not enough and you’re saying it’s too much. There’s not enough and you shouldn’t deal with that in isolation. The countries that they said we looked like in the 70s: China, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Brazil; we looked like them, because we were investing in infrastructure. The Lagos airport was built for 400,000 passengers per annum, the Murtala Mohammed airport. But it is now processing 8 million. We stopped building. That’s the context in which it is not enough. We have left things undone for 30 years. We’re living on the old refineries, living on almost the same roads and bridges. So, it is not going to be enough unless we have extraordinary income.

What legacy projects would you like to be remembered for? The second Niger bridge and Lagos-Ibadan expressway are two of these important projects. Is there any chance that these legacy projects will be completed within the tenure of this administration?

Some of them will. Alhaji Jakande also made the mark at sub-national level. It has been a humbling privilege to serve at state and national level in a country of over 200 million people. Most remarkable for me is that it is an education every day. I learn more about this country every day and I wish I could take all Nigerians for them to see how truly beautiful our country is.

The second Niger bridge will be completed next year and the Lagos-Ibadan expressway should finish next year as well. We are dealing with the land issue to build the interchange. The Abuja-Kano road, the main carriage way we hope to finish in the first quarter of 2023 to make it passable. We are making progress on the Kano-Zaria section, an over 300 dual carriageway, Kaduna to Abuja and all. So, progress is being made. Those will be President Muhammadu Buhari’s legacy to Nigeria. For me, it is an immense privilege to have been entrusted with the responsibility to help him deliver on those commitments.

Recently, you disputed the data that claimed Nigeria had a 17 million housing deficit. From your vantage position as minister of housing, what is the annual housing deficit and what are the estimates you use in planning?

Until we have definitive reliable data, it will be difficult to give you those answers and this is taking a total view of everything. Do we have enough houses? Are there empty houses? And if we don’t do the very serious work of how many houses are empty, how many houses are occupied and we get the data, then, we are running a very, very difficult race. Then, we look at how many people own houses and how many people want houses to rent and to buy and how many people can fund it? That’s what defines the market for you before you start talking of a deficit. In my secondary school economics, there is something they used to call real demand as against a wish.

The market cannot plan for the wish. So, to give you a specific answer, first, we have commissioned a study of two survey companies and we told them to help us find the number of empty and unoccupied houses in the urban centres of Nigeria, because the housing problem is an urban problem; it’s not a rural problem. I’m clear about that. Even if I don’t know how many houses are needed, I know that it’s an urban problem, because most of the people, who you see looking for land, trying to buy or let a house in an urban centre, have shelter in their village, which is usually empty. So, let’s just understand that.

If we all accept what the United Nations has been telling us that the last 50 years have seen the most rapid urbanisation, then, we must understand that’s why the economics of demand for space and housing are outstripping supply in the urban centres. But it’s not absolutely outstripping, because then, there were uneconomic things happening. How can you own so much and there are so many empty spaces, and so I like to be scientific in my approach. But the government can only do so much at the centre, but the truth is that the government at the centre doesn’t control land. So, it’s the subnational governments. Again, I am looking at what they’re doing.

A couple of states are investing the way I did when I was governor. But more importantly, combine state and federal, there is much that we can do and that’s why I am so happy at this time, because I see the private sector is now pushing. Every day now, I’m seeing adverts for houses and they say we ‘ll give you a three-year plan. It means that our government has done something right, because this is the most busy and intense era of the private sector offering houses and offering land. So something is happening. And I think that we should leverage that as a government. And that’s why I’m saying what we should now be doing, apart from completing those houses which are models, is how we can use our fiscal and monetary policy levers to really help those, who have started this private sector property development to even do more.

Now to politics, many still wonder why you haven’t put together your own political structure despite your popularity as Lagos governor in those days?
Structure? I have my own structure. That’s all. Only I, know my structure.

Your party is fractured in Lagos, and in the journey to 2023, there are all sorts of forces at play. Where do you fit?
There’s no fracture, but as you said, there may be forces at play. That’s what happens in democracy. That’s the high wave of politicking.

But Lagos APC is particularly troubled, with different emerging interests?
You see trouble, I see dynamism. I see a request for recognition and participation and inclusion. That’s energy.

On a broader note, do you think your party has really met the expectations it built in 2015?
In terms of what we set out to do, we have done a lot of them. Of course, the only part I have issues with was that we did not moderate our realities from the beginning, and people genuinely felt and legitimately so, that oh, everything was just going to happen in a blaze. So, I think, managing expectations was something we should have done better, because people just thought we could just put up a light switch and life will be better. But the challenges we’re facing now, the investments we are making, the choices we are making, will lead to a better life, and even the president continues to say in our cabinet meetings that the results of all what we are doing will only really manifest after we have gone.

For example, if you look at the recession, it was foretold before we came. The minister managing the economy had said Nigeria was heading into recession, and she said it at the time we were earning $100 per barrel. So people who are now talking about growth, unemployment; at that time, all of you were writing about jobless growth. That’s what you were writing about. Those were the headlines. But the point is that when recession then kicked in, because we inherited it, it didn’t matter who won the 2015 election, what do you do?

We made our choices, and that’s why I say, we’ll come back to the debate about what options were open to the other side, given the track record. But it is the services sector that is first severely impacted by recession. And where recovery comes, it is the last to recover. So, if you look at this last GDP result, it was the services sector that was the driver. So, the economy is back on track. That’s the point I’m making. Economy is back on track, but we still need to sustain, we still need to expand, we need to make it more income yielding. Because if you also go and look at it, it is the non-oil sector that drove the economy. So, all of these debates about diversifying the economy, we have achieved it. The economy is now diversified. Growth is being driven by the non-oil sector, not by oil. Although oil is still the big FX, earner.

So, what the diversified economy needs to do now is, earn more revenue, and earn more forex. But the economy is diversified, infrastructure is being built, but the results will take time to form.

But your party has made a mess of the country, is it not more unsafe than it met it?

I dispute that. Again, all of these things are relative. And my experience with global, regional, and local security tells me that it’s always dynamic and fluid. So, who are the active age groups involved in crime today? What is that age bracket? When were they born? They were born about 20 years ago and we (this administration) were not here then. So, those who should have prepared for them didn’t prepare for them, but they are now our responsibility. We will look after them.

You see, we’re now trying to first clean up drugs. It’s a big problem. Some people think that when you talk about security, it is just guns, bows and arrows, no. So, there’s a lot involved. We must get rid of drugs, enhance jobs, law enforcement. And you know, these small things, those broken window theories that I have always talked about, that a house falls apart from the first crack, those cracks happened 19 years ago and we are now trying to rip those things apart, fix them and ensure that the house doesn’t fall apart. So, when we came in, the security challenges were in other parts of the country. So, those places that looked unsafe, when we started, are now safer. And so, the dynamics are different.

Really? But Nigerians can no longer travel safely by road…

I would have preferred for there to be no security issues in Nigeria, unfortunately, in all parts of the world this is the case, this is our reality. But, tell yourself one thing, there are some people whose livelihoods depend on the roads, they must be on the road and they are still going. If they leave the road, you won’t be able to come here. There will be no fuel, no food. Unfortunately, some of them are victims and it’s regrettable.

You are popular amongst a lot of people, and your name amongst others is being bandied about, do you have an interest in 2023?

You know what? I think Nigeria’s problems will be better dealt with if we all focus our attention on the right places and not the presidency. What is the appeal of the presidency? So, for me, given what I know and given what Nigerians seem to want and I addressed this in another forum; we are looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing. We were talking about the Jakande Housing Programme, it wasn’t the president who did it. A president can’t give you water, pack your refuse, give you foundational education, primary school, where you learn ‘A’ for apple. Federal government does not own one primary school, federal government does not own one primary healthcare centre.

Those of you who manage public communication must begin to bring us back home to where the real issues are. We have the impression that our president is all-powerful, go and read the constitution. We are conflicting his duties with his powers, and his responsibilities. He has powers to confirm, to appoint and all that, but he’s not all that powerful. He can’t pass his own budget on his own. So how much of his agenda can he achieve if he can’t guarantee what his budget will look like? Is it not the budget that defines the outcome?
So the presidency is overrated. There has been this single one-sided story, and this is one of the things I want to be addressing, as we go forward just to help Nigerians understand that the real deal is at the sub-national level. Be interested in who your governor is, be interested in who your local government chairman is, etc. When they come and tell you, we will do this, ask them how and who will pay.

You’ve been an advocate of the presidency coming to the south in 2023, and not just the south, the Southwest. But if you were to predicate your argument on equity, fairness and justice, why not the Southeast?

You know, again, people talk to me and then they look for headlines that will serve the newspaper, and I understand this, my father was a newspaper man in Daily Times. But you see, the statements that were even credited to me about the south, nobody can play it back; it was a headline.

People ask me about rotation, and I tell them that I’m a lawyer. The constitution does not talk about rotation. That’s the law. Yes, it talks about political parties. And it is parties that birth a constitution. The constitution is the agreement. And I also told them that look, if your agreement says that this is what you should do, then, go and follow your agreement. But I say that even agreements written may not be as important as the honour and so even if we just agree by word of mouth and it is not written. With all these raging north, raging south, let’s see how things go. You know, because I think the political environment itself is too charged now. One has to just leave it to the political parties.

This is a decision that the party has to take. I am not the administrator of the party. My opinion, one way or the other on this matter can only help to raise tension. When the party decides, then, we’ll see. But again, I tell you, we should focus more on the sub-national level, that’s where the game is. People don’t seem to understand that it is the states that run the federal government. It is only our constitution that insists that every state must have a minister. You’re not representing the federal government, you are representing your state in that government. The people who make all the laws vested in the federal government, the exclusive list, are they from Abuja?

But we seem to have forgotten that it is the states that are running the federal government. And there needs to be a real handshake between the governors of those states, and the representatives of those states. One of the things we used to do in my time was that we used to have quarterly retreats, where we brought federal legislators together with state legislators, and local government officers, and the party. So there is nothing you want in the federal government, that you can’t make happen if there’s consensus at the subnational level. When last did you see in our parliament that we are calculating numbers, the way the Democrats and Republicans do? Do we have the numbers for this vote?

Well, it is happening this way because we haven’t realised that we own this game. When you want to pass a constitutional amendment, it will go if you can get the numbers. Nobody can stop it, unless that person is acting in defiance of the law.

Let’s talk about the VAT issue. What is your view on this matter that has set the states against the federal government, given that your state, Lagos, is also heavily involved in this controversy?

My honest view is this: As head of a cabinet, I took the position that we should challenge the federal government then. But we invoked the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the court took the view that the federal Inland Revenue Service was the appropriate party. This is what Rivers has now taken up. But I must confess to you that, at the time, there were some things that I was not conscious of. And that is why you probably haven’t heard my voice on the matter in public, because some things have come out that I am learning.

As governor, I want revenue, but I’m not a tax expert. Now, the bolts and nuts of it, some of which were shared by your colleague, Simon Kolawole, and I think that it just shows very clearly that the literature on the administration of VAT itself is not something that is of common knowledge. So, there are some things that we need to be careful about. If the states, for example, win; are they ready to invest in the infrastructure that has been built by the federal government? Can all states do that quickly?

And you know that there is this part of the input and output in VAT. If you have control, but business is confused, are you richer? I think the bottom line of this is how do we get more revenue. If I had to advise them, I think that, again, it makes sense to say okay, look, how can we get more revenues, out of the deal? Let’s use the infrastructure, maybe FIRS takes less. And those are easier to negotiate than the fallout. Don’t forget that VAT is also an indirect tax. So the person who pays it, is not the person who remits it. Some people collect it and they don’t remit. So, if I were acting as an advisor to someone, I would say go to court, ask the court to tell you who you pay to.

I just think again that given what I said earlier, that the states own this government, they should sit down and agree; this is what we want, tell your legislators go and pass this law. If it involves amending the constitution, do so. If you can get the two-thirds, that’s all. This is not as complex as we are making it. The people who make those laws are representatives of states. So instead of fighting in court, a conference of 36 states with their Governors’ Forum and the legislators, can develop a consensus and say, this is the law we want. After all, what is President Buhari’s business? He is from only one state – Katsina.

What’s this difference between VAT and sales tax?

They are both consumption taxes. In some jurisdictions, not only do you charge sales tax, you still charge VAT, depending on the taxing appetite of the government of the area. If you go to some other jurisdictions, when you even buy water or carbonated drinks, there’s federal tax on it, there’s state tax and there’s local tax on it immediately. So, I think if the states articulate the issues, because as I said, there’s a danger. In this place, for example, there’s federal VAT, that people do not avert their minds to.

I obviously did not avert my mind to it at the time. So, in my ministry of works alone, we spent over N200 billion last year, paying contractors and 7 per cent of that was VAT. So if states want to keep their own, federal wants to keep its own, because in the end, we may not all be as rich as we think we can be.

Basically, are you for the contending parties to sit down and negotiate?

Yes, you see, at the end of the day, I was a champion for revenue formula change to give more revenues to the sub-nationals and is consistent with what I have been saying, because that’s where the real game is. When you have disaster, you have this, we see it all over the world, what does president do? He will come in a helicopter three days after to commiserate. He will shake hands with you and leave, but whether those people will sleep or not is none of his business. It’s the governor.

Your view on the PIA vis-a-vis the call for an increase in the 3 per cent for host communities?

First of all, I haven’t read the law. But it’s from the position that there was nothing for the host communities before. Anything that moves forward is progress and you are entitled to ask for more. That’s just it. It’s a continuing process. The quest for a better life is infinite. This has come. Use it and let’s see, okay, if they have more they will do more. But use this one first.

What’s your take on the enactment of laws against open grazing in the south and what do you think is the solution to the farmers/herders’ issue?
It’s not my position to openly comment on how one person in public service does his job, but let me just make this point that there is not enough water in the world. There’s not enough water in the world. There are very revealing stats. If you google water conflict, what you will find is scary. It’s already creating conflicts in many parts of the world and it’s not going to stop. We need to understand that as a part of the problem. You see, the cows that you are talking about are cousins of the wilder buffalo, the antelopes. In the wild, they just keep going, because they’re not domesticated.

Elephants must drink water not less than once in three days otherwise, they will just die. So in the wild, when they are going to look for water, who stops them? Because we have now domesticated them, you think you have control over them? Cows must drink about 20 to 40 litres of water a day and you need to know this. If it doesn’t find, it won’t stop moving, because it’s an existential issue, it is going to die. We have to understand this. My sense is, what is the cause of conflict? Animals owned by ‘A’ looking for water.

You think that those people push them to a particular place? No, it is the other way around. The animal is going, because that’s how his cousins have always gone. How do we avoid the conflict? Where can we put water? Where can we put grazing? Whether it’s a ranch or whatever, yes, it was fine when it was not creating conflict and was not a source of conflict, but it is also an outdated mode of breeding. So all of this noise is not necessary.

What is necessary is to act. I am enthused when I hear that some states are beginning to build ranches. In the same way that some states are also beginning to pass laws. I think they all want to do the same thing, choosing different tools. That’s my sense of it. We need to think really deeply about how to avoid conflict. Ranching or anti-open grazing, there are so many other tools. I think the point to take from there is if you go back to the very early months of President Buhari, he kept complaining about the Lake Chad basin. So he got it; he saw it.

What is it like working with President Buhari?

Interesting! He’s a very shy and reserved person. Very, very shy. If he feels comfortable around you, you will get very humorous wisecracks even in self-mockery. But if he’s not comfortable around you, you can sit down there for seven hours and he won’t say anything. It is his natural self, his military discipline. Look, you saw him at the convention, it wasn’t that he was in a comfortable place. But all his opponents went home to sleep, but he sat down there all night. That’s the man for you.

I mean, the jokes he cracks in FEC sometimes or when you see him on a one-on-one basis. He has given me a lot of support in my ministry and as far as work is concerned, yes. Okay I miss, for example, Ramadan with him. One of the things he says when he invites us for breakfast is that if God did not make this thing compulsory, he wouldn’t do it. He will tell you that he loves to eat four or five times a day, but they say he must do it, so he has done it. He loves his food. One day, I saw him eating during the campaign and I asked, so you eat? He said, “I love food, don’t be deceived by my skinny frame.” Unfortunately, everybody cannot get to interact with him; everybody can’t get to see him.

We can only judge him by what we perceive, by what he does and that’s the burden of every leader. You want to be in every home, but you can’t be. The president set for me an agenda in 2015, when he appointed me and said, “look, I have four priorities in your ministry: Lagos-Ibadan, Second Niger Bridge, Abuja-Kano and Ilorin-Jebba and want to do those projects and hopefully complete them. I hear some of them have court cases. Being a lawyer in the ministry and everything and your experience, go and look at it, and come and tell me what we can do to get those projects off the ground.

“Any other thing you want to do in that ministry, I am going to trust your judgment. You have done infrastructure in Lagos, so I trust you to know what you’re doing.” Since then, he has never interfered. So, yeah, he has never called me to say, “My friend is coming, give him a contract”. So, delegation like that is helpful, and the support and the trust.

You have been governor of Lagos and now a minister. Some of the criticisms that come your way, do you feel misunderstood, angry or feel you have been unfairly assessed?

When I took public office, one of the things I learnt was that you can only choose who your friends will be, but you cannot choose who you will serve. You will serve the entire public, whether you like them or you don’t. If their documents reach you, they must get justice before you, whether they like you or not. That’s my creed. When people criticise me, it actually inspires and challenges me. What it tells me first is that if you don’t believe in my ability to do it, you won’t be asking me to and that’s what I tell my team that people asking us to do more trust that we can do it.

I won’t ask someone, who I know cannot iron, to iron my clothes. It’s a measure of trust. I won’t ask someone, who cannot drive to drive me. Those who asked us for service, first of all, it’s an honour to be asked. That we are not quick enough, that comes with the territory and we will explain. But anger for me is not a strategy, because there’s no room in my body for anger. Once I am done here, you say your own, I say my own, I go to sleep and forget and then start looking forward to the new day.

There is this assumption that the president has a liking for you. That if he had his way, he would have made you his running mate in 2015, save for the Muslim-Muslim ticket controversy. Is that true?

Well, maybe tomorrow he will tell me whether he has a special liking for me, but I know that he has treated me and other ministers with a lot of decency. He’s a very decent man and in some sense, the courtesy. I have never seen him angry, I can’t say the same thing for myself. In some difficult working environment, I have raised my voice to some of my colleagues in cabinet meetings (as governor), but President Buhari has never raised his voice to anyone of us in six years in spite of the difficulties and you have to respect that.

In conversations, you just know how passionate he is. He will tell you that if we can fix infrastructure, viz. roads, rail, power, optic fibre to work, the ports, that Nigerians will get on with their lives and not cry too much about who is there, because their lives will be better. That’s his clear conviction and that’s why it will be seen, perhaps, that those who are involved in infrastructure appear to be the ones who get visible, because the government is woven around that from day one.

He set an expansionary programme, 30 per cent capital from 15 per cent. And if you look at the economic plan, you will see that infrastructure is one of the levers and the truth is that no government does everything.

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