Govt’s use of engineering estimation has fueled corruption in projects, says Shonubi
Mr. Olayemi Shonubi is the new president of the Nigerian Institute of Quantity Surveyors (NIQS). He spoke to CHINEDUM UWAEGBULAM on the challenges being faced in their drive to curb corruption in the construction industry, ensure probity and accountability of public funds.
Quantity surveyors as construction and cost management professionals hold the key to stemming corruption in construction and infrastructure development projects in Nigeria. The problem remains and it appears the institute is unable to influence government to adopt new strategies to curb corruption.
The institute has not been quiet. One of Nigeria’s leaders once said that when you fight corruption, corruption fights back.
Those who are benefiting from proceeds of corruption will do whatever they can to ensure that the conduit pipe is not blocked, unfortunately, that is the situation our institute has found itself and not for lack of efforts at changing the prevailing scenario.
Globally, the basic and fundamental document used for procurement of construction and engineering projects is the Bill of Quantities (BOQ). But in Nigeria but for some inexplicable reasons, those who engage in corrupt practices have refused to allow BOQ, which is often and usually prepared by the quantity surveyors to be used as they don’t want our members to be involved in mega projects.
In most conditions of contracts, even by International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC) and other Engineering bodies abroad, reference is usually made to the BOQ as key amongst the standard documents governing the administration as well as management of construction and engineering projects.
However, in Nigeria, when you look at the capital projects, which the government budgets for every year, particularly engineering projects, most times, the procurements are done using Bill of Engineering Measurements and Estimation (BEME), as against the global standard of using BOQ.
BEME is what the government’s Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) have been using over the years and probably explains why Nigerians are not getting value for most of the engineering construction projects, even in buildings.
For instance, I came across a procurement document under the Nigeria Directorate of Employment (NDE) some years ago, they were planning to build bungalows as training centres for skill acquisition in all the six geo-political zones in the country and the document used for the procurement was BEME.
You will ask yourself, how much of engineering is in a bungalow construction that BEME had to be used? When we saw the anomaly, we caused the Quantity Surveyors Registration Board of Nigeria (QSRBN) to write the agency and they apologised and promised to correct it.
Our concern is that the government agencies building houses are still using that same document that has no basis for proper costing and evaluation. If you check our own BOQ, we have basis for the costing, it describes each work item in the BOQ following a standard method of measurement, so that the person pricing such item knows exactly what to do. These are some of the challenges that we have had and that probably explains why it appears that the problem seems unchallenged.
We have continued our advocacy with the Federal Government, during our visit to President Muhammadu Buhari about two years ago, we raised this issue. The government asked the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing to set up a committee to look at the problem and adopt global best practices. We are amazed that till now, the report and recommendations of the committee set up by the ministry are yet to see the light of the day.
Then you may ask why? If you go to the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing today, the engineers dominate most of the top management positions with only a few other construction professionals.
The system is the problem. There is a body called the National Council for Works, which crafts policies, which is adopted by the government to govern the construction sector. Now, that council is comprised of the ministers, commissioners, permanent secretaries and directors in all the ministries of works, both at the federal and state levels as well as heads of agencies and parastatals under them.
In the ministries, most of these directors and officials attending the meetings are mostly engineers, invariably when you come out with a policy and it goes against their interest, it is killed. That is the situation we have found ourselves.
We want the government to adopt global best practices and make use of BOQ, as the standard document for procurement in all projects as BEME is an aberration. We intend to continue our advocacy in the media; hold discussions with the executive and legislature on this.
Nigeria needs to spend N15 trillion yearly approximately, on infrastructure over the next 30 years to address the challenges and shortfalls in infrastructure development. What are your plans to ensure probity and accountability of public funds invested in infrastructure?
The present government to a certain extent has excelled, in my considered opinion, in the provision of infrastructure, particularly in raising the requisite finance for the projects. One of the creative ways they have gone about it is through the Presidential Infrastructure Development Fund (PIDF). Before PIDF came into being, it was difficult for most of the ministries, especially Ministry of Works and Housing to fund their capital budgets.
With the PIDF, it is easy as funds is warehoused, and government is able to get funding by raising the Sukuk bonds as well as Eurobonds. We also have the Infrastructure Corporation of Nigeria (InfraCo), which was recently launched jointly by the Central Bank of Nigeria, the African Finance Corporation (AFC), Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) and other organisations for projects financing.
In terms of getting finance to meet the shortfall, I think the government is on the right track, but needs to be supported in terms of ensuring that Nigerians get value from the projects. You should also realise that funds from InfraCo are not free money, they’re investing.
Most of the money they will use is from concessionary loans and bonds from international financial institutions, pension funds and local banks. So, this means, that funds raised have to be repaid and it is imperative that Nigerians, who will pay in future get value from the projects to be financed from the funds.
That’s where we intend to engage the government to ensure our members are hired and participate in the projects. The institute intends to set up a watchdog to also monitor these projects funded at every point in time, so that we will be able to inform and advice on the projects. We will also be soliciting the cooperation of the National Assembly to do that, hoping that we all get it right.
Do you foresee the private sector getting value for money invested in Family Homes Funds and how will your members take advantage of the emerging opportunities?
In one of the roundtables held by Family Homes Funds (FHF), I advised the management to engage stakeholders more. I’m not sure a lot of people are aware of what they’re doing and what they can do. Anybody hearing of the fund will think individuals can approach the organisation for money to finance their respective houses contrary to their mandate.
But the fund was set up to engage developers, people that will do social and affordable housing and not promoters of high-income housing. The interesting part of it is that they’re willing to support staffs of corporate organisations and associations that have cooperative societies to develop houses for the benefit of such staffers or members of the cooperatives.
It is a well thought out idea. I believe also that if the stakeholders in the private sector, including professionals are well engaged, there are opportunities to tap into.
With the rising inflation in the country, does NIQS subscribe to a systematic review of professional fees in the built environment to make for efficient and effective delivery of projects?
Yes, we support review of fees. It is not even the review of the fees that matters, but rather the willingness of the clients to pay. I always say this; an average Nigerian does not like to pay for intangible services, which is what most professionals provide. It is not something you can see. We need to re-educate ourselves. People should begin to appreciate services rendered by professionals.
QSRBN came up with a new scale of fees four years ago, which is under review now because of inflation in the country, but that scale of fees are not often recognised by most clients even government MDAs. Recently, there was a call to regulate the scale of fees and make it a professional misconduct to charge a fee lower than that contained in the QSRBN approved scale of fees.
However, some of us felt, being a commercial transaction between two parties; a third party cannot enforce it. There is nowhere commercial transactions between two consenting parties are regulated, unless some ethical or governance issues are involved. The scale of fees is advisory, that’s why the key issue is the willingness to pay. Even the current one we have, when it is presented, some clients’ feel that the fees are high, and they negotiate.
Unfortunately, the public sector is also guilty. They’re running away from paying the professional fees. They have stayed with the one approved over 30 years ago. We’re still trying to push them to understand why they should adopt the current scale of fees.
There must be a clear willingness by the employer to pay and then, we can start talking about the fees to meet current realities. There is no point to continue to review and at the end of the day, the people you’re taking these fees to would not accept it. Unfortunately, most times the services might have been rendered before sending the invoice.
Sometimes, you have younger professionals without overheads, who see what is being offered as a lifetime opportunity and accept them. We have those challenges, until we the professionals sit down with the younger ones and engage them on the need not to undercut their colleagues, such issues will still crop up.
Prices of building materials have skyrocketed in major markets and have impacted on house prices and rentals. Are you satisfied with the idea of using government resources to provide houses that only benefit the middle-classes? How do we build low-cost social housing for the poorest Nigerians?
It is only government that can engage in social housing. There are so many demands on the government from infrastructure development to demands from educational institutions and health. I believe that the coming on board of the FHF and National Mortgage Refinancing Company (NMRC) should help to cushion the housing crisis.
Part of the problem is that there are more people in the informal sector and we are yet to create a credit system, which will make it possible for them to access the mortgage funds available.
In developed countries, there is a system that is working over the years and our system was like that until early 80s, when the whole system collapsed. Then, it was easy for civil servants to obtain mortgage loans from the Federal Staff Housing Loans Board and be allocated homes. We need to find a way to rebuild and have people believe in the system and act responsibly.
It is so sad that sometimes, when you put people in position of authority rather for them to work for the greater good; they’re working for themselves and the whole system collapses. There is need for a synergy between the media, civil society groups and professional bodies to put government on its toes.
You have talked about the low number of quantity surveyors in the government Ministries, Department and Agencies (MDAs), which has created loopholes in evaluation of projects. What’s the institute doing to ensure construction projects are executed in line with international best practices?
Our challenge is that they always claim there is an embargo on employment, but we intend to engage them on this with a proposal for the engagement of the private firms as consultants to ensure that the right things are done. It is one of the things we will also engage the National and State Assemblies on, so that they should also have quantity surveyors as part of their team while performing their oversight functions on capital projects.
What is your agenda for the institute?
In conjunction with my colleagues in the newly elected National Executive Council, we intend to develop strategic plans for the growth and development of the profession. We plan to deepen the training on ethics so that our members perform their roles in the industry within the globally accepted code of ethical conduct.
We will seek to collaborate with other professional associations in the built environment in influencing government policies and laws that affect the industry.
Most importantly, we intend place the quantity surveyor in the minds of every Nigerian as the professional concerned with ensuring Value for Money (VfM) within the limit of scarce resources available as well as ensuring also that governments provide infrastructural projects that will add value to lives of the citizens.