NIGERIA’s Minister for Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, says the strategic ministry has been able to provide critical infrastructure and houses across the country.
In an exclusive interview he granted Vanguard editorial quartet of Soni Daniel, Emmanuel Ujah, Johnbosco Agbakwuru and John Alechenu, the Minister maintains that through the works and housing sectors, the Federal Government has taken millions of Nigerians out of poverty and empowered them financially.
Nigerians are anxious people and they want to know.You have been here and I am sure by the grace of God next year will be a transition. This morning, you inaugurated the council for the registration of engineering in Nigeria COREN and you harped on professionalism, what has happened, why the emphasis on professionalism, is there any lapse noticed that has hindered work in the two ministries that you handle?
Look around and you will see that there is a compelling need for all professionals, in and out of government to raise our game and that is just all. So, in whatever sector where we have trained manpower, are we not asking for help? So is the training those people have different from our own training?
So I just think that when you go through all of these and the things we talked about this morning about professionalism, being the master of your game, master of your craft, about ethics, doing the right thing all the time not when it is convenient, about owning up to mistakes and learning from them, about being under pressure and never succumbing to pressure, no matter what the pressure is. Those are the underlying values of our professional demands, whether you are a football player, whether you are a lawyer, whether you are Nollywood actor, whether you are an engineer, whether you are a soldier, whether you are a judge, whether you are a minister, whatever you profess a profession, do it well, be the best at what you do.
You occupy two strategic ministries in Nigeria and having superintended over them for some years now, some people will like to know, what story you have. Is it a success story or what, where are we?
Well, I think again in the spirit of professionalism, let us also be accurate. I oversee one ministry with two areas of focus, housing and works, so let’s just be precise, it helps. So what do you want me to say?
What have you been able to do?
What have I been able to do? I have been able to do my work, I’ve been implementing the president’s mandate, the ministerial mandate that all of us signed in our second term and committing to improving the housing stock, as well as the quality and quantity of road transport infrastructure and I think that we have made progress. Our hardest critics concede that and this is evident in the conversations first, the conversations were that oh, we used to spend hours, in some instance days in 2015 and before, in certain road networks but the pain has eased largely across the nation and you will see as we are opening, handing over sections, commissioning across the states.
The commentary from the most important people, the users of the roads has been positive, even where we have not finished people are saying oh, I used to pass here for 4 hours, it is now 1 hour, I used to pass here 2 hours, it is now 45 minutes and this is dovetailing into policy because part of the policy promise was ease of doing business, so, it is maturing and it is being experienced and that is nationwide and this is an uncontestable reality.
But as you have said, let us be a bit more specific. You inherited some projects, which of them have you completed? And you have also initiated yours, which of them have been completed?
Okay, and I think we need to learn completion and project in its reality not in the way we imagine it. Let us take a road like the Kano to Maiduguri and let us use Enugu to Onitsha, let us use Lagos to Ibadan. Each of them is a project but inside of that project you have five different contracts. On Kano – Maiduguri, it is five hundred and fifty something kilometres of dual carriage way, so you have five different contracts.
Lagos-Ibadan is 127kms, you have two different contracts in one project. Enugu-Onitsha, I think it is about 100 and something or 200kms I can’t remember that one well, there are about four different contracts in it and four different contractors; so don’t conflate contracts with projects.
Second Niger Bridge for example is one project, but there is a road about twenty something kilometres on both sides, JB is building the main bridge but one side of the approach bridge has been given to JB approach road and the other side has been given to RCC, so we need to understand this.
So the contract for example for the Second Niger Bridge is essentially finished but the contract for the approach road is not completed, so, the project is not finished.
So on Kano-Maiduguri we’ve commissioned I think three sections, so three contracts, some of them spanning 100kms, 90kms have been completed, they are open and they are in use but project not yet finished. But the difference of those completed sections contracts is that people are already seeing the impact.
Zaria-Funtua to Sokoto is not finished but somebody called me two days ago and said thank your staff for us, this used to be a two hours journey, it is now 40minutes and we see that work is still going on; people called now and said oh, Lagos-Ibadan is not finished but we see they are doing lane marking and said I can go to Ibadan and come back, progress, so we are making progress, we are heading in the right direction.
Let me take you up on the first question that my colleague asked on your meeting this morning with COREN council. As you drive between Abuja and Lokoja, you will see that portions of the road even the particular lanes that are still yet to be finished, you will see that some of them are already breaking up and each time I drive on that road, I ask myself where is the problem coming from, is it because of supervision of the technocrats or what exactly is the problem that we have roads new and yet they are breaking up?
First of all I want to repeat what I hope you will help share. A road is a perishable asset; let us all just understand that. It is built to a specified designed life based on traffic studies, soil conditions and investigations, load predictions and you can say this road will last 25years, if it is well used and well maintained; the operative word well used not abused. And so you have seen me go out, tell people, don’t turn the side roads to mechanic workshop and pour oil, diesel, petrol because those things are solvents; so you spend money to design a road, you take laterite, you compact it, you add cement and cross stones to further compact it, you add the tar coat and then you put the asphalt to bind it together and then you now pour solvent on it, you start dissolving it, that is abuse.
But this one is not completed yet?
Just wait, that is one, there are so many, you asked what are the reasons, let’s be scientific. One of the things we’ve seen is also that there has been one standard of bitumen for the whole country when the climate condition in the whole country is not the same year round, so we are working with our research institutes now to review this.
This is one of the things that was done in Agric when the Buhari government came in, that you can’t be using one standard of fertilizer for the whole country.
So you have seen about two weeks ago in the UK heat, they can’t run their tracks, so those are things that we must apply knowledge, further research and that is professionalism. So we are going through all of these.
Third thing is axle load abuse. The prescribed axle load is already in existence, it is being violated, so there are many steps being taken to reinforce that. President has approved that all the loading stations from the ports to the tank farms must refuse to load any vehicle that is configured in excess of that. But while there have been some tractions in that sense, what we find is that in some places they load in compliance then they trans-ship outside to beat the regulation. So, if we design a bed for just two people to sleep and you put 20 people on it, what do you expect to happen to it, it will collapse, exactly.
Do you feel frustrated?
No, I don’t get frustrated.
So what can we do sir?
A: We are going to enforce the law. So you will see at Ojota we have done the weigh bridge there, it’s a process, we have to get back to the best that we can be; so people have just acted outside the rules. So I don’t feel frustrated, I know what we do first with our team is what is causing the problem? So, once you are professional, as I said we are the best at our game, what is causing it, let’s be scientific, let’s think.
So, we’ve seen all of the problems, mechanic abuse, axle load, there are remedies for it, begin to apply the prescription that is how scientists work, proper diagnosis then solution is precise. So I don’t feel frustrated.
Each time I see or hear about Itu road, I say when will I have the privilege of asking the minister. The road like many others or several others once it is raining season, it is a big issue. Can you give us an update on that road?
I can give you a lot, the contractor just left me now, to report the challenges he is facing about compensation. Now that is a road that was not awarded before this government came, so we awarded it. There was no funding for it, it was awarded. You don’t even want to go there. It has become my responsibility, don’t worry.
You know, once people are not professionals you see all of these things but it is my job to get it right; so we now have all the awards, we also now have the funding from NNPC but the community is now saying they want to make money, compensation for their own land.
The first thing to understand is that if that money is not used, we will divert it to another project. For me, people must be ready to sacrifice something in order to get something.
Nobody is coming to take your land away, we are saying let’s pass through that land so that we can relieve the pain you feel. So you want to keep the land, make money from it and still get a road?
Assuming that you can do that, that responsibility doesn’t lie with me; land use act said that it is the state governors that control the land, so I have written to the state governors, give us the right of way, pay your people compensation because it is the acquiring authority that pays compensation not the person who wants to use it by law. So if we don’t have the right of way, unfortunately we can’t make progress. Now we have the contractor, now we have the money, so those are the issues.
In the same south-south, Bayelsa governor told his people, go and give him the right of way so that we can get the this thing, go and do this so that I will pay compensation and sent his chief of staff to follow me to the place with the contractor and we are making progress there. In Kano Governor Ganduje said I have done enumeration, I will pay compensation.
On which particular project in Bayelsa sir?
Yenagoa-Kolo road. So, all of us need to get to the same page and these are the challenges of democracy, how to get consensus, how to get a working majority, how to get to an agreement that this is the right thing to do. Go to Calabar-Itu now and come and tell me the story. Is it better this year than last year, certainly because they are working there now?
Then you mentioned during raining season, that is the rain forest of Nigeria, those are the lungs of Nigeria, so it has a high water table, it rains most of the year.
So during bad weather what do you see across the world, when there is snow, or hurricane, who travels? So you should expect that during the raining season, it is the feelings during the raining season the same during the dry season, so it is not. So let us not speak in isolation, when there is bad weather transport logistics; air, sea, land, rail, are all affected adversely.
So you must help us also, when people are complaining, report it but point that, understand that it is bad weather. When it is December, we will start to have harmattan haze, you know what will happen, flights will start being cancelled, it is bad weather; it becomes more difficult in the rain forest.
How many Nigerians have benefited from the housing project from the ministry from the federal government under the FNPN and other interventions?
Nigerians that have benefited? There are thousands of them. First, the contractors, who won the contracts benefited, they got jobs, the workmen, their staffs that they used benefited, they got jobs, the sub contractors from whom they bought materials from such as cables, roofing sheets, reinforcement, paints, sanitary ware, plumbing, they benefited.
The vendors who supplied sustenance at the construction site every day, they benefited, some of the ultimate beneficiaries, the allottees are benefiting, contiguous land owners are benefiting because we are constructing, their properties values are going up, they are getting value; these are all the people that the president said Nigeria can take 100million people out of poverty but it doesn’t mean he has to come and put money in your hand, is by projects, policies, programmes and so those people will probably never meet him but they have taken value. The Super Eagles, waiting on the promise of 28 years, have benefited.
Nigerians now on the housing portal are closing out and benefiting. I was on NTA on Friday people were telling their own experience; so it is a continuing process, it is a continuing undertaking, in some cases we are in phase one, in some places we are in phase two, in some places we have finished phase three. The states have said come and take lands for phase four.
All of the indigenes in the 34 states where we’ve been building, are beneficiaries because the economy is local, we are not taking personnel there, the manpower is being locally sourced, the products are being locally bought. So you can’t buy timber from Lagos and use it in Kano for roofing, so this is how to see benefits.
What do you think or what do you suggest will be your blueprint to accelerate housing infrastructure development in the country?
I am in the 7th year of my administration, I can’t be having a blueprint at the end. I am at the season of completion and handing over. that is what I am. That is what I am seeing now, we are handing over, this is not the time for blueprint, it is the next minister that will bring blueprint when he is coming.
But you see, the long term vision, the national vision is affordable housing and affordable housing to be delivered by all of government and all of the people, as I said in my speech at the national council.
Imagine that you expect that a federal government that does not control land is the only one responsible for housing, it is not a realistic expectation but federal government will get land from the states, use its muscle. Federal government is also addressing housing from financing side, creating federal mortgage bank benefits, also creating policies rent to own.
But beyond that, it is not a Federal Government story, it is a Nigerian story. That is the story we should be talking about, where the states themselves are also building, so, we are not in competition with any state. If there is any competition at all, it is about how to make it better for the Nigerian people; so, the states must build and they are building. So, we must write that in.
Then, the private sector is the biggest supplier of housing in most economies across the world. So, the private sector is building and delivering housing, so the sequence of partnership is working, this is perhaps the time when the private sector has invested most in housing during the Buhari administration because every day you see adverts in paper, on TV, on radio and that is how it should be. So we are again heading in the right track, I have no fears at all in my mind about that.
But I keep saying, housing is not just about ownership, housing is also about rental. At the end of the day the common denominator is that the dignity of mankind is protected because he has shelter, whether you own, whether you rent, on the final day you take nothing away.
So, we must stop seeing this conversation as an ownership conversation alone and I am advocating that we consciously do something. Unfortunately that responsibility is at the state level, to reduce the pressure and the anxiety that comes with payment of rent.
I’ve seen people lose their values under pressure and out of anxiety. We have seen movies where when a landlord is coming, a parent is telling his child, tell the landlord I am not at home. It is a major challenge to us, but we haven’t risen to it as a people, when a parent begins to tell the child to lie in order to preserve shelter, we must do something about that and those properties don’t belong to government.
Yes, state governments can make legislation but you and I, who own the properties, when are we going to give our fellow citizens that relief and say come and pay me at the end of the month when you get you salary instead of two years rent in advance. So, we must see this picture completely.
You had the privilege of superintended over Nigeria’s commercial city, Lagos and now you have been given another opportunity, superintending over this ministry at a very critical stage where funding is drying up from so many sectors. We’ve had so much, inability of government to even collect tax, some say we are over taxed. How have you found these two situations? How has your experience here and Lagos have been like?
I don’t feel the frustration, fortunately. If I felt frustrated at anything I would probably have walked away. But I see the excitement, I see the challenge and I see the task to be better every day. Lagos is past, it is now history, it’s done. So, let’s stop looking in the rearview mirror and let’s stay where we are and tomorrow.
But this is what it is, 36 times of Lagos, yes. What was the longest road we built in Lagos? Lagos-Badagry 60kms; so you are now dealing with 127kms Lagos-Ibadan, 375kms of Abuja-Kano, traversing FCT, Niger, Kaduna, Kano state or Kano-Maiduguri traversing 5 states 560kms. So, you can tour one road in Lagos one day, it will probably take you two days if you are lucky, to inspect one road here, it’s a national enterprise, that is what I mean, it is bigger, the challenges are more complex, from states to states, from territory to territory, the diversity is extensive and also engaging.
So, I find it educative, I have learnt so much more about the country going round. I have gone the country now three times by road, from state to state. It is an immense privilege really, and to be one of the few of the 200 million nation people thereabouts, it is an immense privilege to serve and I do not take it for granted. It’s been educating for me. I know my country better than I did 7years ago. There were places I used to fly to and I thought that I knew it but having to drive there was a totally different thing.
Let me tell you this story, there was one day: I think in the first year, one senator was very angry with me, raised his voice and I asked him, have I offended you personally, I was meeting him for the first time, but when I went to his constituency and I saw the road, at that time in 2016. I just said, now I understand why this guy is agitated and that he was properly doing his work of representing his people. Now that used to be one of our gridlock points nationwide, Chan-Loma road, we have not finished but the gridlock has been moderated significantly.
I suspect that you may be having very serious challenge with contractors over rising cost of materials for buildings roads, housing; how are you coping with the demand for variations, that is one question? And recently you took us to the Second Niger Bridge and there and then we were told the commission is slated for October this year, is that still feasible given the changes in the cost of materials, disruptions, rainfall and all of that?
It’s unusual season with global inflation compounded by global supply chain network disruptions by the reasons you already know. But, don’t forget also that when contracts are awarded there are decent profit margins factored into it for the benefit of the contractor. So, our contractors have of course raised these issues. We know them, we know that, for example our provisions for variation in prices, didn’t contemplate this astronomic increases, so, it will be unreasonable in some cases to expect the contractor to go on and so in some places we are making adjustments increasing the provision for the variation of prices.
We are also telling the contractors, if you are planning to make 10 percent profit, you may be in a better position now to make 3 percent and move on to the next project that we can re-cost in today’s reality. Or we don’t want you laying off staffs, which will be the easiest thing that a contractor will do. But the hardest thing also for a contractor to do is to shut down his machines, he doesn’t want that to happen either.
So, they’ve been reasonable largely. We are having reasonable interactions. They have to give something, that is why I talked about people who want a road, who don’t want to contribute lands. Contractors are in some places saying okay, I will just try and finish this, I know there is no profit on this, if I can break even, pay my staffs, I will make my profit from the next project because they are also Nigerians. So, in these challenging times, everybody has to sacrifice something. All the answers can’t come from government alone, especially as it concerns revenue, there is trade-offs here.
If we have no economic business, everybody suffers, so, anything that we can get to do while this bad weather is blowing around, let’s continue to do it, so, that is it.
I didn’t tell you about commissioning in Second Niger Bridge, I told you about completion, so let’s be professional, so we stay with the same word that has the same meaning, so that we don’t misunderstand each other.
So, some things have moved, some things are on course and we told you for example that the bridge work will be completed I think in the first quarter of this year, that has happened. We told you that there was work to be done on the towers that has happened but at the date we expected that it will happen, so, you lose some.
We told you then that this weekly Monday sit-at-homes was costing us construction time. In a 52weeks year, that is 52 days of no work, so you have to factor all of these things in.
But, we are meeting, contractors still say they can do it before Christmas, they are moving parts everywhere, so for example you don’t know this, everything about that bridge doesn’t end here, we do all the technical, construction, certification, inspection but, we don’t keep the money, we don’t pay.
So, the recovered funds and some of the invested funds are with another agency of government, NSIA and so all of us have different bureaucracies, they have a board, we have a ministry and we must, up to last Saturday, our staffs were meeting on how to resolve all the problems and we are resolving them and so, we are still on course for end of year.
Again, of course, there are compensation issues everywhere. Raining season, level of water predictions have exceeded what we experienced but the contractor is optimistic that they will deliver.
You said the issue of compensation is delaying some of the works. Can we know the amount of compensation demands before you? And again it has not been El-Dorado as a matter of fact.
Who told you public service is El-Dorado?