By Ochereome Nnanna
TODAY, I am taking a brief recess from discussing issues of primordial nature foisted on us by the medieval-minded government of President Muhammadu Buhari, the leader who has nothing to offer other than to take us back to our dark, better-forgotten past. I am relieved to dwell on a vital issue of national development today: the FG/Dangote tax-for-road deal.
Recently, the over-laden Minister for Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, disclosed that the Federal Government has handed over the 35-kilometre Apapa-Oworonshoki ten-lane express road to the Dangote Group to reconstruct using concrete and cement. In exchange, the Federal Government will grant Dangote a ten-year tax holiday.
This is obviously another step being taken by the Buhari regime to shift more responsibility for the construction and management of public facilities to the private sector. Apart from the express road, Dangote, Flour Mills and the Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA, are also involved in helping to reconstruct some major internal roads within Apapa, which have been for long-neglected both by the Federal and Lagos State Governments, despite the fact that the Apapa ports are the nation’s foremost cash-cow, after oil from the Niger Delta. It is a great irony of this embattled country that we cannot even maintain the sources through which our national treasury is kept afloat.
Several issues arise from this matter. Let me start by applauding this step, in principle. The Dangote Group is one of the most destructive users of Nigerian roads. Its thousands of trucks which haul its various (usually heavy) products such as cement, sugar, salt, flour and others from one end of the country to the other are everywhere. I believe the Dangote Group owes Nigeria much more than the tax it pays to the government. Its foray into construction, using concrete as a new technology to create roads that are cheaper, faster to complete, far more durable than asphalt and hardly develop potholes, is a good way of giving back to a country that virtually spoon-feeds its operations to emerge as a world-class conglomerate. With the successful completion of its pilot scheme, the 24-kilometre Itori-Ibeshe road in Ogun State leading to one of its main cement industries, Dangote is eyeing road construction in three other states apart from Lagos: Kaduna, Bauchi and Kogi. I wonder when its attention will shift to the Eastern states which constitute a huge part of its market, apart from the destruction of its roads by cement-laden Dangote trucks.
Concrete has been scientifically and empirically proven to be a better and cheaper choice for road construction. Roads constructed by age grades in Abiriba using the concrete technology borrowed from some French-speaking countries in the late 1970s are serving the people till date. They were constructed manually by members of the age grades through direct labour; no need for “experts”. Because of the success of that experiment in my community, I have since been an ardent campaigner for a shift from asphalt/macadam to concrete, especially now that Nigeria has become self-sufficient in cement production.
Again, I endorse, in principle, the concession of the Apapa-Oworonshoki Express to a private developer. Coming at a time Nigeria has to depend mainly on external borrowing to pay salaries and build amenities, concessions like these are welcome. Again, I base my endorsement on the fact that this road leads to the Apapa Ports, where we generate the highest non-oil revenue for the nation. No effort should be spared to open that corridor for goods to move, rather than the current situation whereby it is blocked by large trucks due to bad roads and indiscipline among the truckers.
But I am worried over the processes that led to the choice of Dangote as the “man for the job”. Did it go through the due processes? Was there any competitive bidding which Dangote won? What were the valuation metrics that warranted a ten-year tax waiver, and how much is the tax worth? What proportion of the 35-kilometre Apapa-Oworonshoki express will Dangote reconstruct, in view of the fact that the Jonathan regime had already done a wonderful job on nearly half of it? Minister Fashola did not provide any of these details, which is very unfortunate. Fashola just rammed the project down our throats as though it was his private project.
As far as I am concerned, this project remains a proposal, until the due processes have been consummated. The reason is simple. The 10-year tax holiday granted Dangote is money belonging to the Federation. It does not belong to the APC Federal Government. The state governors have a say about whether or how it should be spent. They must approve the project before it can go ahead because they are part-owners of the money. They can consider the fact that the reconstruction of the Apapa-Oworonshoki corridor is a national imperative and give their blessing. They can also say no, and collect their share of the money for the use of their respective states.
Even the Federal Government’s share of this money does not belong to the Executive Branch. It cannot be touched unless the National Assembly approves it for that purpose. The Executive Branch has no power to touch any money belonging to the Federal Government unless the National Assembly has duly appropriated it for the specified purpose. To the best of my knowledge, that has not been done to the Dangote tax-for-road deal.
Buhari and his super-Minister, Fashola, should be politely reminded that we are in a democracy, not a civilian or military dictatorship where you wake up and give some knee-jerk orders. I support concrete for road construction in Nigeria, and I encourage Dangote and any other Nigerian firm to push for it since we have the comparative advantage in cement. But when it comes to giving out jobs and waivers, transparency and the due processes must be followed, to avert corruption-fed political patronage.