‘Nigeria needs partnerships to drive roads development’
WITH Over 25,000 kilometres of roads now motorable in Nigeria and given the size of project portfolio in the Ministry of Works, the Minister of Works, Architect Mike Onolememen has explained that the Federal Government would require between N400 and N500 billion yearly if “Nigeria is to drive our projects the way we should embark on projects in this country.”
“I mean given the construction period for those projects if you wanted to actually implement a pragmatic cash flow that will enable us meet up with those construction projects, we should be able to have about N500 billion yearly for road construction. But the reality is that what we have is an average of N100 billion a year at least in the first three years I served here, on the average.
“However, that changed with the advent of SURE-P where four major arterial road projects were selected for dualisation: the Abuja-Lokoja Road, the Kano-Maiduguri Road and of course the rehabilitation of the Onitsha-Enugu Road and also the rehabilitation of Benin-Ore Road. Those four projects that I have just listed now had additional funding from the SURE-P. That brought to average for the Ministry to about N170 billion or there about for 2012 and 2013.”
The minister was impressed that the outgoing National Assembly has been cooperative because they have come to the realisation that not enough resources were being devoted to road construction when they had their conference on road infrastructure sometime in 2012. They actually called for a declaration of emergency on the state of our road sector at the time, considering the deplorable state of federal roads.
On Nigerian contractors and engineers, he explained that though he believes in them he, however, pointed out that “some of them are good, if you look at our books, some of them that operate here, a few of them compete favourably with the very best in the industry, the very best of the multi-nationals. But on the average so many of them I would say are not ready for business. Our little companies are, however, operating around one personality.
“I have challenged the Nigerian Society of Engineers to encourage their members to come together and form conglomerate so that they can better compete for projects with multinationals. But that is not happening right now. Nevertheless, there are few Nigerian companies that are doing well based on the report we get and progress of the jobs. We are very proud of them. There are also some that are not doing well. In fact as Minister of Works, I have had to terminate a few contracts because the contractors were not doing well. At least 90 per cent of them are local contractors and may be a little fraction of them are foreigners.”
While not trying to dismiss the abilities of Nigerian construction companies and contractors, he praised the Chinese who many believed may not deliver quality jobs. Onolememem disclosed that before most people never believed the Chinese to deliver quality jobs, but that is changing.
He claimed that the Chinese companies that do business with our ministry from, CCEC, CGC to CRCC do quality jobs on most of our project sites. “In fact, let me give you an example. In 2012, we gave out a project to a Chinese company for the Vandekya-Obudu Ranch road. The job was awarded November/December. I personally flagged off the project in January/February but by December 2013 the Chinese company had reached 90% completion. By the first quarter of 2014 they completed the job. On the same day, I flagged off two other projects being handled by Nigerians in the same Benue State, one of them till this moment is yet to attain 35% completion. That was why I said some Nigerians do well while some do not impress at all. MOULDS Nigeria limited is a wholly owned Nigerian company and they are doing very well. They have a number of projects in their portfolio with us. There was a project I challenged them to complete: the Otukpa-Oturkpo road. I gave them December last year and they completed it. So there are some Nigerian companies that can compete favourably with some multi-nationals. There are some multi-nationals who are also doing very well. But we are separating the boys from the men and that was why we terminated some jobs being handled by both foreign and local companies. We had cause to terminate contracts that are not being done well.”
He continued: “In fact, every day you have to attend to a whole lot of files coming from all the 184 project sites. Either as a project report or challenges on sites and you are expected to give directives as minister or to do one approval or the other. That is not to talk of the many unsolicited bids that come here. Everybody believes that the Ministry of Works is a gold mine that somebody can walk in and walk out a millionaire. I do not know if it was like that in the past, but not now. I try to educate people about that. So you find yourself busy and you need to be truly careful because every project file has financial implications. You go through the details and try to identify where the bones have been hidden so that you can uproot them. I have truly gone through a lot of files where pieces of bones were hidden. I had to identify them. In fact, the ministry staff know me; they know that I am not the kind of minister that just takes the file and just signs. You remember the one of the bridges in Lagos where billions were quoted and it was done with far less than what was quoted’’.
The minister also cleared the dust over the accusation that the Ministry of Works is not satisfying all parts of the country in sharing the funds for road network.
He said: “I think we need a better understanding of the federal road network before we can discuss the issue of funding the road network. There is no road that starts and ends in one section of the country because federal roads are arterial highways running from the north to the south, connecting a number of states across the country. There are three major arterial north-south roads. The first one is Arterial Road A1 which starts from Lagos Ports; it goes through Ibadan to Ilorin through Niger State: Jebba, Mokwa all the way to Kaduna. Then of course, from Kaduna it goes straight to Kano and all that and to the borders with Niger Republic. Then of course we have Arterial Road A2 which starts from Warri through Auchi-Okene-Lokoja-Abuja-Kaduna-Katsina up to the borders with Niger Republic. Then the route A3 also starts from Port Harcourt Ports and it goes from Port Harcourt to Enugu, Makurdi and it now veers off and links with Jos, then links with Abuja. But eventually it leads to Kano all the way to Maiduguri and all that. So these were three major arterial roads in the country. Then of course, we had the longitudinal ones that start from Shagamu and goes through Ore to Benin-City to Onitsha, Enugu, Abakaliki, Ogoja, Ikon and then it goes to the Cameroon.
“That’s one longitudinal road that we have. We also have another one that starts from Sokoto area to Katsina, Kano, Maiduguri to the Chad Republic.
“You also have the middle one that starts from Ilorin, Kabba , Obajana, Lokoja, Oturkpo and goes across till somewhere in Taraba State and that axis. So these are the major arterial roads in our country.
Then you also have a number of sub-roads connected to them. When you are talking about road development in Nigeria, you are looking at a big picture, so we don’t think about states when we are looking at Federal roads because federal roads lead from one state through several states to the end of Nigeria border and the reasons are not farfetched. During the colonial era, when these roads were first initiated and when they were delineated, the purpose was to transfer economic crops; cash crops from the hinterland to the seaports to enable the colonial masters ship them to their home countries. That was the basis. If you look at the development of rail lines, it was also the same way: the Western lines and the Eastern lines. That was what informed the development.
“As a Minister of Works, you could readily recall the state of these roads in 2011 when President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan assumed the reign of leadership of this country. The roads were in very deplorable conditions. For us, there was an urgency to recover the federal road network. When I was being sworn-in, the President did not mince words, he said to me: “The deplorable state of federal roads is unacceptable, you need to change the narrative of federal roads.
“ In fact, he made it clear that he was giving me the marching orders and that he was going to support me in that quest. But when I got here, I knew after going through my hand-over note here, I knew as a professional that something was terribly wrong with the state of our roads. From the point of view of a professional architect and construction management, I knew something was fundamentally wrong after going through the organogram of the Federal Ministry of Works and the hand-over notes. My problem was how do we reclaim the federal road network? It was so bad that every day I was being greeted by a front page photograph of one bad road or the other in different parts of the country. In almost all the newspapers, every day, you had the picture of Apapa-Oshodi Expressway, the Benin-Ore road, particularly the failed section where Nigerians were spending sleepless nights, were being splashed on the front pages of the national dailies. We had a problem of daily accidents on the Abuja-Lokoja road.
When you cross the River Niger in Onitsha, it was like you were in a war ravaged zone, you could not really move. I took personal trips early in the life of the administration to these hotspots. The very first place I visited was the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway to the ports, which was closely followed by a visit to the Lagos-Ibadan E xpressway.
“Then I visited the Niger Bridge at Onitsha, and from then on I drove to Owerri. I got back and drove from Onitsha to Enugu and I knew we were really in big trouble in this country.
Not only that, I also inherited major on-going dual carriage ways which were awarded by the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration. At the time I took over, work had literally stopped in all these projects like the dualisation of the Kano-Maiduguri road, the dualisation of the Abuja-Lokoja road, the dualisation of the Onitsha-Enugu road and the rehabilitation of the Benin-Ore road. The contractors had abandoned the sites so it was a very difficult situation at the time I took over. I recall that some of my colleagues at the Federal Executive Council, every Wednesday when we meet, some of them use to come to me and tell me: “I do not envy you at all, every day the pictures we see on the front pages of the newspapers are very discouraging.” Some of them would just tell me to do the little I can and move on. But, however, I was not that kind of person who will be intimidated by the kind of pictures that were being painted on federal roads. Rather, those ugly scenes and the deplorable roads for me were motivations to be difficult and excel at the Ministry of Works. What I did was to study the organogram and found that the structure of the Federal Ministry of Works was not geared towards effective project delivery. I will tell you why. I found out that we had one man who was the Director of Federal Highways who had responsibility for all federal roads across the country totalling about 35,000 kilometres.”
ON how he has been able to make the Ministry more effective in Service Delivery the Minister explains that “For one to be effective, you must be a superman. But I knew there were no supermen here. Something had to give in. I approached Mr. President and presented a memo and gave him the picture of what was on ground at the Federal Ministry of Works. I recommended that we needed to restructure the ministry and organise the place in such a way so that it can better deliver service to the people of Nigeria. The president gave his nod for me to do what I think is in the best interest of the Nigerian people. In doing that, I worked very closely with the president. During this period on a daily basis, I will report to the President, we will sit down to look at how we were going to create a new structure for the Ministry of Works. The then Head of Service, Prof. Afolabi, was part of this meeting, just the three of us, every day. That is why I tell people that Mr. President is a transformational president. He gave me audience daily and the three of us will sit down and start from where we stopped the previous day, it went on and on for more than 31 days. After all the meetings, the Project Department of the Ministry, which was just two Departments, we had two Directors for Planning and Design and the other for Construction and Rehabilitation. They were now broken down into twelve (12) Departments. Because of poor planning and design in this Ministry, government was wasting a lot of resources; there was no value for money. Then we had one Director of Highway, Construction and Rehabilitation. There was no way that the Director could effectively monitor all the projects in every nook and cranny of this country. We decided to create six directorates of the Highway Construction and Rehabilitation, one in each geo political zone and appointed a Director to man the zones in those areas. That made for better supervision in each zone because the Director at the time could now better connect with the projects that were on-going. Not one contractor, engineering company or representative writing some reports and brings it to you in Abuja, you sit down and just approve. More often than not, they were approving what they did not know. Because of the distance, there were a lot of sharp practices.
It was not possible for the Director to be everywhere but dissolving that into six directorates, it now brought the authority close to the theatre of construction and the Director was now able to effectively supervise and manage the projects that were going on in the zones. Not only that, I also created six Independent Ministerial Monitoring teams for each of the zones to also provide independent report and inform me on what the directorates were doing. In that case, I gave myself the opportunity to get independent opinion of what my engineers and directors were doing because the Independent Ministerial Monitoring Teams were populated only with people from the private sector who are engineers and very experienced. That provided the check and balance to the Ministry staff in those zones.
Now coming to planning and design, we know that we did not have good quality assurance at the Ministry because the Director of Planning and Design was the one person and he was just like a lord unto himself. Again he had no way of checking or doing anything in detail because he was also responsible for the management of right of way of the Ministry along the 35,000 kilometres of federal roads in the country. So we created the Department for Highway Design, Road, Highway Design and Bridges. By the time we came, so many things were not going right but beyond these, we also did the Public Private Partnership Unit in the Ministry and upgraded it to a full-fledged Department. We also upgraded the Material Geotechnical and Quality Control to a full department. This department is responsible for the three major laboratories we have: Niger-Kaduna, Lagos and Kuje-FCT.
So we now have a proper structure. We recognised authority with responsibility, many of the Ministry people who were dormant, people who had no responsibility were now given responsibilities and they rose to the occasion. Immediately it turned out that when we did this reorganisation, the Ministry was set for effective work delivery.
From then on, we now had to take a look at the on-going projects in the Ministry and they were so many we decided to prioritise the major arterial roads that Nigerians use every day. I am not talking about projects that start from nowhere and end nowhere. I mean real economic routes.
For instance, if you are talking about Lagos-Ibadan roads everybody knows what you are talking about or you are talking about Benin-Ore road , people also know what you are talking about. Or Onitsha-Enugu road, Enugu-Port Harcourt. So what we did with the projects we inherited, we now had to ensure that those that were abandoned and were important were brought back to life and made active. Whatever issues the project had, we went in and resolved then. If they were technical, we provided the technical solution, if they were financial; we tried to improve on the funding. The whole country was virtually turned into a huge construction site. Since then we have never looked back and that is why today we are singing a new song in the road sector.”
Accordingly, the Minister disclosed that when he assumed office at the Mabushi Head office of the Ministry, the Road Sector Development Team, RSDT was being handled by the collaboration between the World Bank and the Federal Ministry of Works. The major projects under that was the Nigeria-Cameroun highway facilitation project. Before I took over, the Ministry was barely able to access 5-7 per cent of the funds. When I came in and took over, by the end of 2012, when I was just one year in office, we had accessed over 37% of that fund because of better project delivery strategy. And by the end of 2013 we had hit about 80% utilisation. As we speak, I have completed the projects I inherited under that programme: the Enugu-Abakaliki road, the Abakaliki-Ogoja road, the Ogoja junction to Ikom road and Ikom to Mfom
Having completed that section of the road last year, I now started the outstanding corridors which are the Mokwa-Bida road and of course, the Akure-Ilesha road. Those projects were awarded between October-November 2013 and they properly commenced about January this year. Both projects have recorded about 65% completion. We are upbeat that by April next year we must have completed them and that will bring to an end the First Phase of the Federal Roads Development Projects.
Onolememen also disclosed that it may not be easy to put a figure because Government year in year out award contracts to the contractors who are mobilised to site. ‘They are paid some money and they go to site, but they are very clever. They do earth work, they bulldoze, they clear the place, they have a Borough pit, they bring the soil and fill the place and some of them do not even compact. By the time you have earthwork in place you are able to move large sums of money because it will be certificated. I now found out that when I came, I had so many files here for augmentation of road contracts. After going through the files, I realised that the basis of augmentation has been washed out by rain. It means that the earthwork that has been paid for the previous year, they will now tell you that it has been washed out and you start from square one. You have to make allowance for additional earthwork and all that. If you understand road construction, it is one of the areas the contractors use to go for the kill. So I sat down and called all my Directors for a meeting and I said: look Mr. President frowns seriously at augmentation requirement from the Federal Ministry of Works and that I have been mandated to do something about it. As a matter of policy, I will no longer accept any request for augmentation particularly those that seek to augment a project cost as a result of this issue of washout. I followed it up with a policy that earthwork will now be protected if not it will not be included in interim certification for contractors. The implication of that policy is that if you like do the entire earthwork in the world, if it is not protected I will no longer approve payment for them. Of course it jolted the contractors and even some of the engineers. The contractors protested. Some of the engineers joined them; they were prodding them to keep protesting. But of course I would not listen. They tried to gain the ears of certain quarters. They thought they could be helped. Even some of them went to the National Assembly. But I explained to the Committee on Works of the National Assembly. They saw reason with what I was trying to do to bring discipline into the business of road construction in Nigeria and to also save hard earned tax payers money, help use the little resources available to government to deliver services for the people of this country. They (contractors) resisted but I stood my ground on that. At a point, I had to threaten them; if they feel they could no longer stick to that policy they are free to leave the project. I use to joke with them that the Chinese were waiting and I will be very willing to give it to the Chinese who have accepted the new policy. When they saw that I was not bulging they accepted.
The minister who wants a total reformation of the road sector in this country says it should be fully reformed to be self-sustaining ‘because we cannot continue with the budgetary handout of the Federal Government to the Ministry. We have to ensure that we have in place a National Policy to follow projects through Public Private Partnership (PPP). And also to help in financing road projects that is obtainable all over the world. I am happy that we have started work on the reform, the Road Reform Bill, and the Federal Executive Council has approved them. I am aware they are being transmitted to the National Assembly now. Once they are passed, it will lay the foundation for the development and maintenance of roads in our country. That is my dream and I know that Nigeria by the grace of God, we will get there. In doing in some of our projects today, we are already implementing paradigm shift at the Federal Ministry of Works.
Today many of our projects are being executed through Private Public Partnership scheme. The Second Niger Bridge is being financed through the scheme; the Murtala Muhammed International Airport road in Lagos is now being financed through PPP. In fact, the ground breaking ceremony will be performed very soon. I am sure that in the next 31 days the successful concessioning will be completed for construction work. Then of course the Lagos-Ibadan express way through a private finance initiative handled by the Infrastructure Bank, then the Obajana -Kabba road is being financed/undertaken by the Dangote Industries in form of a private finance initiative which we have negotiated with them. We are talking with the Lafarge Group and they are willing to do same on some roads in Cross River State where they have the Unicem cement linking the Calabar-Itu-Ikot Ekpene road. And we are encouraging quite a number to key in. That precisely is the future of road development in Nigeria. That is the way our road development should go for sustainability.”