By Ben Simon
ABUJA (AFP) – Countless kilometres of road, many fine factories and hundreds more projects exist only as dreams in Nigeria despite years of promises, so Kashim Ali faced serious scepticism over a recent announcement.
“There are people who come and say, ‘Is it real?'” said Ali, the government’s point man for a major light rail transit project in the capital Abuja.
Well, not yet. But there may be reason to hear him out this time.
Nigeria, which marked 52 years of independence from Britain on Monday and where huge amounts of oil wealth have been squandered through corruption, has a stack of some 12,000 abandoned public projects.
The deals, worth an estimated $50 billion (40 million euros), have sat idle for various, often indiscernible, reasons.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration has vowed to tackle this list and end the curse of unfinished projects, the kind of assertion that often draws laughter from weary Nigerians.
But in at least one case, Jonathan’s government has begun to move forward, recently taking steps toward delivering the Abuja light rail system and rescuing the $841-million dollar project that many residents had given up on.
Ali acknowledged that in the five years since the deal had been signed, residents had seen little progress, though a small amount of track has been laid, and “many people don’t believe” it will ever be built.
One question is whether the project’s momentum can continue, and if it can carry over to other projects in Nigeria, which is Africa’s most populous nation and largest oil producer, but has been unable to solve basic infrastructure needs, including steady electricity.
The Abuja rail project shows the frustrating pitfalls that often occur.
When Jonathan took over after his predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua died in 2010, he ordered all 12,000 unfinished contracts to be reviewed, hoping to salvage some, said Rowland Ataguba, a rail specialist who served on the Presidential Projects Assessment Committee set up to check the list.
That job was so large that the committee decided to select only a few key projects from the pile, with the Abuja rail project among them, Ataguba explained.
The transit system, if it is finished, could help alleviate Abuja’s terrible traffic congestion, particularly bad on the main routes into the city centre.
The project dates back to 2007, when former president Olusegun Obasanjo signed a deal with China that included the promise of a $500-million loan, with $341 million in matching funds from Nigeria to build it by 2011.
Yar’Adua, shortly after he replaced Obasanjo in 2007, suspended nearly all of the so-called “oil-for-infrastructure” projects that his predecessor signed with Beijing, including the Abuja light rail deal.
The contracts saw Chinese energy firms get preferential bidding on Nigerian oil blocks in exchange for support on major infrastructure projects.
Yar’Adua’s administration voiced concern that Nigeria had been short-changed, but the disputes between the two governments — hardly known for their transparency — were never definitively established.
But, this September 11, with a high-level delegation in Beijing, Nigeria announced the hurdles had been cleared.
“President Goodluck Jonathan is keeping his promise to Nigerians through these important projects. The light rail in Abuja will improve transportation for all residents,” Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said in a statement announcing the agreement with China’s state-controlled Exim Bank.
While the prospects for Abuja Light Rail may have just been boosted, Nigeria is still laden with thousands of contracts that theoretically could provide a needed service but which may still prove to be unsalvageable.
A jaw-dropping $46 billion has been sunk into the Ajaokuta Steel Company since construction on the plant in central Kogi state started in 1979, according to the PPAC’s report.
The Ajaokuta project has become emblematic of excessive government waste in Nigeria — one of the world’s most graft-ridden countries — in part because, after three decades, the plant has produced little steel.
In 2009, Yar’Adua’s administration hired a company to audit the Ajaokuta site.
The auditors of the disastrous project were themselves paid an inflated price of $4 million, when $2.5 million was the fair market rate, the report produced by Jonathan’s review committee said.
Transport director Ali acknowledged when it comes to government pledges, public scepticism “is normally quite high.”
But, he said, with the Chinese loan now in hand, the Abuja rail line could prove an exception and become the benchmark for urban transport in sub-Saharan Africa.
He said he is contemplating an event to stir up optimism among a cynical population.
“I am trying to do something, maybe during one of the holidays … Maybe we can carry children on one of the cars.