By Soni Daniel, Northern Region Editor
Let me start with a Caveat: Don’t ever start an argument with this tall and brilliant man if you’re not well armed with the facts of the matter you want to take him on!
I won’t forget in a hurry that fierce argument between me and Babatunde Raji Fashola, Nigeria’s current Minister of Works and Housing. Fashola is a tough and brilliant guy-you can’t take that from him. He remains resolute and unrelenting on matters and issues he believes in. But one thing that boldly defines him till date is his profound humility and calmness even in the face of provocation and above all, a boundless respect for people-younger, older and peers.
Again, Fashola is a keen listener: He doesn’t seek to disrupt anyone’s view point no matter how wrong it may be. But he works tirelessly to bring in his own perspective on any issue and makes you see nothing better than his point of view in the end.
Smart, quietly disarming, calm but disruptive at times and unassuming but forceful with facts, BRF, is a man you can only beat to submission with superior facts and arguments. He nonetheless remains very calm and calculative at all times.
Right! It is already in the public domain that Mr. BRF is a workaholic but not many are aware of the fact that he is also a book worm. He reads; reads and just keeps reading books whether from Nigeria or abroad and watches major news and information channels that have news about people, events and places around the globe. Many have come to describe BRF as an egg head with an unceasing quest for knowledge acquisition despite his daunting task of fixing Nigeria’s broken road and housing infrastructure. But he doesn’t seem to be complaining about combining his work with a relentless pursuit of knowledge.
The last time I was on tour with the minister to some key federal highways and project sites in the South East and South South, BRF reading one huge book that looked like a chopping board with the title Double Down, written by Antoinette Clarke and T. Clarke-Stone. He was reading the book while conducting the Coaster bus that ferried his directors, highway engineers and other top officials of the FMWH as well as a team of journalists to the different job sites his ministry is supervising and it was really fun seeing the man at his best as he showed seriousness, cracked jokes and issued stern warnings to workers and contractors as the journey progressed.
But on December 11, 2020, I drove myself to his office in Mabushi to keep an appointment which had been arranged with him in order to follow up on what his ministry had possibly accomplished based on the February 2020 directive he issued to officials to ensure that notorious spots in the country that usually give headaches to Nigerian road users during the rainy season be given priority attention during the dry season.
I did not spend any time before his Media Specialist, Hakeem Bello, ushered me into BRF’s vast office strewn with striking photos of bridges, roads and ongoing federal projects across the country and I sat face to face again with this tall, left-handed and grey haired man, who looked straight into my face after offering me a chair and a normative welcome. There was no need for handshake in keeping with the ongoing Covid-19 protocols and there was no way that could have been achieved given the fact that the minister uses a glass separate himself from visitors as part of his Covid-19 preventive measures.
Of all the issues, which I wanted BRF to talk about; my major interest was on when Nigeria will be self sufficient in housing supply and when the citizens can enjoy affordable houses as a right. I also questioned the minister on why many federal roads in Benue and Adamawa were said to be ‘abandoned’ by his critics.
He was his real self as he fired back at me, drawing my attention to facts and figures to back up his assertion that the Buhari administration has done perhaps more than any other president in terms of building and rehabilitating federal roads and constructing new houses for Nigerians.
But I missed my path and sheepishly played into his hand: And, he wasted no time in demystifying me like a fish out of the water: Sir, what would it cost the government if it devotes money in a year to build and complete just 100 million houses sine it is claimed that we are 200 million in this country? I threw that innocuous question at BRF.
At that point he adjusted his seat and began to scratch his head. Then, the answer began to roll in like a steady stream of water flowing through a small hill. “That would be a chaos of some sort,” he began, and cleared his throat apparently to fine-tune his position. “And, do you know the amount of money that would cost,” he challenged me. “Some hundreds of billions,” I replied. “No, it is in trillions of Naira,” the minister thundered and I felt flustered. He was right; I was wrong!
And, he came again with another question! Can you just imagine the quantum quantity of cement, rods, windows, doors, stones and other building materials that would be required for such huge number of houses? Fashola queried me. For him, what most Nigerians describe as housing shortage is not the unavailability of enough houses for Nigerians but the improper use of and management of available houses to accommodate those who really need the houses in the urban centres of Nigeria where the shortage is dire. While agreeing that there is need to build more houses in the country for the citizens, Fashola argues that no government can simultaneously build and supply all the houses required by the populace.
Hear him: “I keep saying that the problem is that the housing shortages are in the urban and not in the rural areas of Nigeria. We must understand the problem so as to be able to prescribe the right solution. The problem is not the shortage of houses alone but the shortage of houses in the urban centres where the need is.
“So, prescribing millions of houses is recommending wrong diagnoses. Hundreds and thousands of houses may be required in Nigeria’s urban centres like Lagos, Ibadan, Abuja, Kano, Umuahia, Enugu, Kaduna etc but they may not find off- takers in less populated cities where there are already empty houses.
“Even in Abuja and other urban cities, there are a lot of empty houses. If the owners can bring down the prices of their houses and charge for shorter periods, the houses can be taken up as they finish building.”
The minister also spoke on the effort the ministry has been making lately to make more houses available to those who really need them. He said: “In the last few years something is working. The National Housing policy is working because the private sector is working hard to deliver houses for those who really need them. The federal government through the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria is financing estate development through Real Estate Development Loans. There are about 25,000 units at different levels of construction and completion.
“We are doing many things to ensure the availability of houses for Nigerians. Housing means different things to different people because some want to buy government built house, others want government land. Others want to buy from the private sector with only government certificate of occupancy.
“Many want a mortgage from the Federal Mortgage Bank. For that reason, we have issued mortgage loans in excess of N50 billion since I became minister. We also issue rent-to own homes loans because housing is not all about ownership but also about rental. The key thing is shelter,” Fashola pointed out.
Fashola’s head is perhaps working like a well programmed machine. Sampler: Ask him about the condition of any federal road in Nigeria and he would be ever ready to tell you the current state of the road with proper pronunciation of the local names, state of completion, what is missing on the road and what needs to be done and when. I used to lump BRF among those officious ministers who cannot remember anything about their ministries and parastatals unless a permanent secretary or director ‘brings up’ a file and churns out the needed information until I began to take him on many issues related to his ministry and agencies and he shone brilliantly on every subject matter put to him.
During the interaction, BRF drew my attention too to the claim by some powerful leaders of two states in the North who approached and pleaded with him to construct federal roads to their respective communities in Benue and Adamawa states. But he quickly brought out a list of ongoing roads projects being undertaken by the federal government in the two states and waited for their reactions. And, the reactions came in a very shocking form: “Mr. Minister, we all know that the federal government is working very hard to make our roads better but we want you to ensure that the roads come directly to our own communities. If they roads don’t reach our communities it would still appear as if there are no federal roads in this state,” the minister quoted the powerful leaders as saying during a meeting with him.
A case of enlightened self interest one would say. And, that has become the norm across the country in recent years leading to misplaced diversion of federal roads, railways and airports to unviable places, towns and villages in recent years.
But Fashola stood his grounds and said capital No to the leaders but assured that the roads under construction would be completed based on agreed contractual terms for the overall use of the people.
But I discovered during my interaction with BRF that one key issue is holding him back from performing the wonders he would have wanted to present as the Minister for Works and Housing: Cash! Indeed, his drive and desire to construct new roads and build more houses for Nigerians are very active, but the means to do so and on time is hugely lacking, leading those who may not understand the wide gap between resources and leadership to accuse the office of not doing much.
But the truth remains: BRF is working his heart out to fix our roads and give us shelter. What Nigerians need to give him and the administration is the understanding of the issues at play and how to navigate around them in order to produce the required results.
How and when that is done, remains the issue at stake but BRF the Great teacher remains undaunted!