Although a laudable project, issues of transparency and accountability should be addressed

More than a decade after the idea was first mooted, the Lagos-Calabar coastal road project has commenced in a blaze of controversy. The 700-kilometre highway project, designed to connect Lagos State to Cross River State, through the coastal states of Ogun, Ondo, Delta, Edo, Bayelsa, Rivers, and Akwa Ibom has high potential investment value. And it is expected to be delivered in eight years. However, there are questions surrounding the funding and bidding process, with claims that it lacks transparency.

The presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2023 general election, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, is leading the campaign. He has questioned the decision to award the contract to Gilbert Chagoury’s Hitech Construction Company Limited without meeting the minimum threshold of due procurement process of competitive bidding. Chagoury, Atiku also claimed, is a business associate of President Bola Tinubu. In a series of statements, the former vice president challenged the federal government to disclose the total cost of the highway project. He has also questioned the release of N1.06 trillion for the pilot phase, or six per cent of the project, which begins at Eko Atlantic and is expected to terminate at the Lekki Deep Sea Port. The former vice president estimates that, excluding the designed train tracks in the middle, the project would cost taxpayers a whopping N8 billion per kilometre.

In response, the Minister of Works, David Umahi has refuted allegations that the project bypassed the proper procurement process. He said the contract was awarded to Hitech because of their track record, and based on a counter-funding rather than Public-Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement as widely claimed. Umahi likened the coastal project to that of Abuja-Makurdi being handled by China Harbour, and the road project in Enugu State where the government is paying 50 per cent counterpart funding. Both, according to the former Ebonyi State governor, fall under Engineering, Procurement, Construction plus Finance, (EPC +) which necessitates equivalent funding from both the government and the contracting company.

However, Umahi has contradicted his earlier statement in September last year that Chagoury’s Hitech had the money to construct the highway, and that it would be PPP. Indeed, Hitech was to initially build, operate, and transfer back to the Nigerian government after years of tolling. Umahi claims that the type of infrastructure to be installed on the road would determine the cost, arguing rightly that coastal roads built on swampy areas are more expensive due to water challenges, soil condition and other engineering inputs. He put the cost of the ambitious project tentatively at N15 trillion, about N4 billion per kilometre, although he failed to be categorical about what the total figure would be.

There is no doubt that the coastal road is a laudable project. When completed, it will impact positively on the national economy particularly on the Lagos end. But Atiku is right to take the government to task on how a project earlier announced as PPP operating on BOT ended up being funded by the government. The Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) silence on the issue is also very telling. For a project of this magnitude, the BPP should play a critical role, especially with the claim by Umahi that it was approved by the Federal Executive Council where due process ought to have mattered.

Overall, the controversy over the Lagos-Calabar Road contract is beneficial. Everyone, no matter his status, should ensure that the right things are done, and government projects and spending must conform to minimum standards. As important as the project is, the issues of transparency and accountability raised by Atiku must be addressed in public interest.

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