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What Buhari doesn’t want to hear about roads — Fashola

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•Says states are free to take over federal roads in their domains
•Lists what FG considers before road repairs, construction
•Clears air on said 17 million housing deficit

By Soni Daniel, Northern Region Editor

Works and Housing Minister, Babatunde Fashola, is obsessed with how to rehabilitate all the federal highways in Nigeria and build new ones to make all parts of Nigeria accessible and reduce the pains that Nigerians encounter as a result of deplorable roads.

However, while the desire to achieve that target remains very strong, the resources to do so remains limited, thereby making it difficult for the attainment of set target in road delivery.

In this interview, the Minister expresses optimism that with improved funding from other sources that the government is now exploring, the construction and delivery of more roads across Nigeria will be achieved in line with the agenda of the administration.

Given the funding situation of Nigeria you appear handicapped and cannot therefore determine the deadline within which any federal road will be completed because your ministry cannot fund such roads.

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I will like to see things from the positive side. When you look at what we started with in 2015 when we were inaugurated as ministers, we inherited a budget from the outgoing administration, so the amount of money in that year’s budget for all the Nigerian roads was just N19 billion. Now we have roads costing N40billion, N80 billion, $2 billion and the fact that we can even start those kinds of roads means that we are making progress.

This year for instance, the approved budget for federal roads is N275 billion, which is a major leap from the N19 billion we inherited in 2015 and we hope to make the best of it going forward. But don’t forget that that is not all the resources that we have for roads. We have SUKUUK fund which is principally for 28 out of over 500+ road contracts we are doing. We also have the Presidential Infrastructure Development Fund, which is also a form of Public Private Partnership, PPP, which covers big-ticket items like the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the Second Niger Bridge, Abuja-Kano, the East-West Road which is under the Ministry of Niger Delta, the Mambilla Project, which is under the Ministry of Power. So we have moved forward from where we started and so that is part of the change that we talked about.

Again, perhaps the other side of the positive is that on all our project sites thousands of jobs are being created directly and indirectly for Nigerians and giving them hope and lifting them out of poverty in the process. You can see from all the places we visited that our projects have effectively succeeded in providing more infrastructure, getting people to work, redistributing wealth through such jobs as supply, services, labour, fabrication, welding, mason etc.

Beyond highways, we are overhauling and building internal roads in 44 universities. We have completed 22 of them and we will start commissioning them soon. Some highways are also being completed. We have sections of the Kano-Maiduguri Highway, which is 560km, completed. We have completed a greater stretch of the Sokoto-Jega-Tambuwal Road. In fact, what is left now is just about 30 + kilometres.

If funding poses a challenge to the federal government in road construction, why then does the government not allow states to construct federal roads in their domains?

If you don’t have the full understanding you won’t understand why this is so. After the civil war, during the period of national reconstruction, the federal government took over a couple of roads that were state roads and that explains why federal government now has a lot of roads. But apart from that if you look at the constitution, we have three levels of government, federal, state and local governments, each level of government has its roads. The trunk A roads which are roads that connect states are federal roads.

No state government has the required resources to build the roads today. Now the fact that in the past those roads were not attended to especially some of them that have become urbanised like the Aba-Owerri Road, like the Lagos-Badagry Road, some governors cannot understandably ignore the sufferings of their people in those urban but federal roads. Ideally, those roads should become state roads. I have therefore made a proposal to the National Economic Council that any governor who is interested in rebuilding any federal road in their states should come and take those roads back but I haven’t seen any request.

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Across the country, there are also state roads where state governments have the primary responsibility to build and maintain. They need to work on them because these are roads that connect their local government areas and roads that connect each ward to the other, which are the largest in number of the 200,000 kilometres of roads in the country. If we may ask, have the governors addressed their state and local government roads? And the issue is that if they have not solved their own problem why do they need to take on the problem of another level of government when they cannot even finance them?

Right now, many states have intervened on federal roads in their states. I did same when I was governor of Lagos State. My predecessor Governor Tinubu intervened, and my successor too intervened. And even as we are coming into Calabar today, we saw an intervention by the state. So a lot of debts have been accumulated against the federal government in the process.

President Buhari, like some of his predecessors, agreed to pay but he is the first one who has taken a holistic approach to sort out the debt said to have been incurred by states doing federal roads in their domains and the amount is said to be more than half of a trillion Naira. That is one of the debts the country is paying back right now through the issuance of promissory notes to the states so that we will pay the debt. So if you see our debt profile as a country, this is a part of the debts we are paying. The debt management office can give you more on the breakdown.

It was with this reality and the limited national resources that the government now decided to halt further construction of federal roads by states until the huge debts are settled by the government. The government simply asked states to take as much as it can pay back but asked them not to incur more debts for the government on account of refund of money for road construction. The situation now is that any state that wants to construct federal roads must first obtain the approval of the government and must build it to the certified standards.

As it is now, there is no state in the country where there is no federal road that is being built or about to be completed all in a bid to process access and comfort for all Nigerians. The overriding principle is to complete what we are doing at hand before taking on new projects instead of taking up so many projects that our resources cannot support.

Why is the federal government paying so much in compensation and litigation over land for federal projects when we were made to understand that under the Land Use Act, all lands belong to the government?

It is actually the states that control the land.  And, so if we want to build any road in any state, it is the state that should acquire the land, pay compensation to the owners and hand over to the federal government to undertake the project. But for some strange reasons, the practice I met in the ministry is that the federal government that is not an acquiring authority is the one paying for the compensation. And as you have noted, the claims for compensation have become quite huge and we are also seeing abuse.

The painful practice now is that immediately some communities and individuals get to know that the federal government has approved some roads to be built, they quickly move to create some avoidable challenges by going to court to file for various forms of claims on land and property just to force the federal government to get more money for roads being built for the common use of all Nigerians. But happily we have discussed it at FEC and the position of the government is that the state should acquire, pay compensations if they want us to do the roads because we cannot carry those costs, so we are right there.

Throughout our visit you warned the contractors that challenging portions of all the federal highways should be ready before the rainy season. Is that possible?

I recognised that one of the critical reasons that government exists is to solve problems and so my mandate as delegated from the president who has the mandate of Nigerian delegated to the ministry of works with regards to roads is to solve as many of the problems of the roads as we possibly can. So it starts first with making sure the roads are motorable through regular maintenance by the Federal Road Maintenance Agency, FERMA or by construction through the ministry. Also positioning of directional signs, lane marking and generally giving it a better driving experience, help to reduce travel time, save lives and also drive the economy.  This is because in spite of all the work that is going on, the publicity that we get during bad weather obviates the progress that we make.

So  my message to all our officials and contractors is that apart from solving all the challenges of compensation, court cases, supply of materials, let’s be strategic in our approach, let’s be more success-driven. We must prepare for ember months when people are going for Christmas, when more people are travelling. We must also prepare ahead for the rainy season so that it does not catch us by surprise.

What informs the choice of roads being constructed or rehabilitated by the Federal Government?

Most of the federal roads that are in bad shape today like the Enugu-Port Harcourt were constructed many decades ago and have not had any major intervention apart from a few from the PTF while most of them have outlived their lifespan and design capacity. Some of them can no longer carry the kind of traffic and load they were meant to carry and therefore need urgent rehabilitation, expansion and upgrade to meet with the contemporary challenges.

The other consideration is our realisation that some of these roads had been awarded by previous governments but they were not adequately funded and were abandoned at various stages. President Muhammadu Buhari does not want to hear any story of road abandonment since he believes that government is a continuum and that the roads belong to the Nigerian people. He has therefore directed that we must complete such roads for the interests of Nigerians.

For example, the Bodo-Bonny Road in Rivers State was awarded three times but the contractor was never mobilised to the site because he was not paid but this government is funding it as an inherited project.

We also inherited the Enugu-Port Harcourt, Enugu-Onitsha highway and we are working on them just as we are working on the Lagos-Ibadan Highway, which was concessioned, cancelled, faced many litigations but the government moved in and resolved the issues and took over the work which is now progressing steadily so as to provide roads for the people.

The Second Niger Bridge was supposed to be a PPP project but nothing really happened. So we didn’t say we want to go and do third Niger Bridge but insisted on mobilising funds to ensure that that critical infrastructure is completed so that Nigerians can use it irrespective of which government started it. We in the ministry have a responsibility under the agreed Economic Recovery and Growth Plan to take the economy out of recession.

One of the things we must do is reduce the cost of doing business, develop agriculture, help the farmer move his goods to the market in cheap and efficient way, create energy stability for the country, we have areas in the country with ageing pipelines that make it necessary for us to move fuel by tanker and the road must be good in order to do so.

For instance, there are about four major depots in Niger State which are critical for supplying fuel. There is Ikorodu-Shagamu leading to Mosimi, critical for discharging and supplying fuel. There is a major depot in Benin that uses the Benin-Ore and Okene-Auchi road, so those are the considerations for choosing the roads. We also have consideration for roads that pass through the major agricultural areas producing food for the nation and we have to ensure that the roads are in good state all season.

There are roads that provide access to major industries with construction materials sourced from such areas. There are roads that go to critical educational institutions and they must be done to provide access to those institutions.

There are also roads that carry heavy traffic daily and they must be put in good motorable shape. Among these are: Abuja-Kaduna, Lagos-Ibadan, Second Niger Bridge, they are strategic roads. So Sokoto-Tambuwal-Jega, Katsina-Kano are major agricultural belts; Enugu-Onitsha major agricultural belt, from Ebonyi all the way, yams, rice, vegetables.

There is another road we are doing between  Nasarawa and Benue states across the River Niger, which will drastically reduce journey time from there to the federal capital. Even now that we haven’t fully connected it, we are already seeing the price of yam coming through that area dropping substantially.

One thing is important; when the president said he wants to lift 100 million people out of poverty he is not going to see all of them one by one. So I think all of us must help to define what that poverty means; it means many things. It means loss of disposable income by avoidable causes. Why should any Nigerian spend four hours to do a 2-hour journey?.

So the day your road is fixed the president has lifted you out of poverty because he is saving you that time you have been wasting before. If there was no road to your house and we build one, the value of your house increases, the rent you collect  gets better, the asset value if you want to use that property to take a loan, would have appreciated and then the quality of your life changes.

In all the areas we are building or rehabilitating roads, it is a fact that the people who own land there, are reaping between 30-40% capital appreciation of the value of their land. That is money that government won’t take from them. Then the people who own quarries are doing more business, the money is moving to the rural areas. The money also goes to the rural area and the people who own the quarries also work there.

Then when those assets are completed, they will become part of Nigeria’s stock of infrastructure. When they are ranking poverty among nations, it is not necessarily how much money is in the hand of people, it is the quality of their life, how they live and work with predictability.

How do you intend to bridge the 17 million housing deficiency that Nigerian is said to be grappling with since you are also handling the Housing portfolio and currently constructing some houses in 34 out of the 36 states?

There are so many things rolled into that and the first is the number you quoted, so many people have ascribed it to so many people but all the people they have ascribed it to have denied it. If you cannot measure a problem you cannot manage it. So those figures don’t exist and we should stop believing the most negative data about ourselves unless it is proven empirically.

Let us for the want of argument do something. Housing and shelter are global problems but they are much more replicated in urban centres because urbanisation has become more rapid in the last 50-60years in the history of human civilisation. This is because more people have moved to the urban centres and that is why this infrastructure programme is very beneficial for slowing down rural-urban migration because we are taking money to the rural areas. The construction work we are doing in the states nationwide is to keep more people in those places from moving to the cities. That is the first step to provide more houses for Nigerians.

In the United States of America they properly name their Housing Ministry as Housing and Urban Development Department or even an urban department. Clearly, housing problem is an urban problem not a rural problem and that is how I understand it. It is just as traffic is an urban problem because there is no traffic in the village; there are no refuse heaps in the village; so why should housing shortage then proliferate in the village? Every town I go I take photographs and I see empty houses, all over Nigeria. So, how real is this shortage? Then, how many people have left their 5-bedroom houses in the villages to stay in one-room apartment in the cities? So has the 17 million data they are talking about factored in the empty houses? So, first of all, what we are doing at the ministry now is to try and conduct a survey in two of the most populated states in the each geopolitical zones while we are waiting for the national census because it is the census that will really tell us the true picture of Nigeria’s housing situation and not guesswork.

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We are currently building houses in 34 states of the country on five hectares of land donated to us by the states and we are doing a demonstration scheme to help us to test for acceptability and affordability before we roll out more houses for Nigerians.  But that is only what the ministry is doing; we have parastatals such as the Federal Mortgage Bank and the Federal Housing Authority which are also doing some schemes aimed at providing more houses for Nigerians. The FMB is funding housing construction and housing acquisition mortgages. It is therefore funding both developers and buyers.

We have the FHA that is also building. With all of this effort, we are going into cooperative housing on a massive scale. We should have started the launch in February but we moved it to March, we are launching it in the six geopolitical zones.

We want to use cooperatives they way they work in transport, in farm settlements, in markets so that a cluster of people who have a shared interest can go and acquire their land, bring the title, register as a cooperative, design what  they want to build and get their houses done with minimal bottleneck.

That way, it is not the government building for the beneficiaries but merely aiding the people to design and build the houses of their choice.

Such people who need the support to build their houses must first get their state government to give them approval so that they would not turn round to say it is a slum and then begin to demolish later. When that is done, the FMB  will provide them with development loans just as it gives to estate developers to build and own their houses.

This scheme will soon be rolled out since we have shared the idea with the National Council on Lands and Housing, which is a meeting of Minister and commissioners of lands and housing and they have approved the proposal all in a bid to increase housing stock in Nigeria.

There is affordability issue in empty houses and there is acceptability issue in empty houses; so if you don’t involve the stakeholders and you just go and build a house, they will come and say it is fine but I cannot afford it or I can afford it but it is too small or I can afford it but it is too big.

Vanguard

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