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After God, we should commend Buhari for preventing economy from crashing on us — Amaechi

By Bridget Chiedu Onochie
06 February 2022   |   4:15 am
I am from Port Harcourt. I should even be angry with you for complaining because we don’t have any. Itakpe-Delta is 80 per cent of the deal, remaining 20 per cent. What of those that do not have at all?

As the battle for 2023 Presidential seat intensifies, former governor of Rivers State and Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi, has kept mum over his interest. He told the ABUJA BUREAU CHIEF, BRIDGET CHIEDU ONOCHIE, while his teammates who jointly worked to bring President Muhammadu Buhari to power are jostling, he remains satisfied as the Minister for Transport. He also gave insight into the kind of leader he would want to succeed Buhari as well as the efforts of the government towards connecting Nigerian communities by rail transportation.

• ‘Connecting Communities By Rail Is Great Impetus For Economic Growth’

The Federal Government has restated its commitment to infrastructure development, a major aspect of that being railway. However, Nigerians keep expressing concerns over lack of connectivity in some railways. For instance, trains to Delta State take off from Itakpe, Lokoja, Kogi State. People expected it to take off from Abuja?
I am from Port Harcourt. I should even be angry with you for complaining because we don’t have any. Itakpe-Delta is 80 per cent of the deal, remaining 20 per cent. What of those that do not have at all?

Even the Abuja inter-city rail connection, which was commissioned before the last election, is yet to begin full operation…. What is the issue?
You people should pity the government. The process of acquiring rolling stock is not easy. Also, There is also a difference between the Federal Ministry of Transport and Federal Capital Territory Administration. That project was not Federal Ministry of Transport’s project.

…But it is an integrated system
The issue here is that the FCT government prefers to complete and commission its rail projects. Let me give you an example; we have started the process of purchasing the rolling stocks for the ones we are constructing now. But what the FCT does is to complete the project before they start looking for money to buy rolling stock. The problem is that they don’t have the money to buy rolling stock.

They don’t have the coaches, the locomotives to start running. So, they have to buy, and I heard it has arrived. The coaches would soon start functioning.

In our own case, we are envisaging that in two years, we should be able to finish Kaduna-Kano and Port Harcourt-Maiduguri railways. We are looking for loan. Once we get it, we will place order for locomotives. If you observe, when we commissioned Kaduna-Kano railway, it took us some weeks before we started running because we were waiting for the rolling stocks. Now, we have learnt our lessons. Before we commissioned Lagos-Ibadan, the rolling stocks were on ground. That is what they did not do. We have also started the process of purchasing rolling stocks for Port-Harcourt-Maiduguri, Lagos-Calabar, Kano-Maradi and Kano-Kaduna railways. By the time we are commissioning, we have specific rolling stocks that will run. So, as soon as we commission, we put commercial activities on the track.

To address the breaks in rail routes that you pointed out, the contract has been awarded for the Abuja-Itakpe railway for a long time. It should have been completed by now, but the Chinese contractor thought he was playing on our intelligence. He did not come for a contract. He said “Give me Public/Private Partnership (PPP.) We will bring the money, the company will borrow the money even though it is federal government guaranteed and I will give you back-to-back, the bank guarantee to protect the federal government guarantee. Then, we will run the company and pay back within 40 years. That way, your guarantee is protected.” We said: “Okay. Go and bring the back-to-back guarantee from your bank.” Till today, he has not been able to do it.

So, I am asking the meeting to get the federal government to cancel his PPP agreement, not contract. What he did was that he wanted to get the contract from behind without competition through PPP. So, where is the PPP? Now, he said, “No PPP, make it an LPC contract.” But LPC contract is different from procurement. PPP arrangement is not a contract because you are putting your money as investment. There is no where in the world that they have done PPP in railway, but this Chinese came and said he can do PPP. Maybe he thought that we would ask him to take sovereign guarantee without asking for a bank guarantee from him. What is killing him is that we asked for the bank guarantee. If we didn’t ask for it, he would have used our sovereign guarantee to get loan. So, we are saying that he cannot proceed until he gives us the bank guarantee, and for three, four years, he has not been able to produce it.

Most of the trouble we have in the country borders on perception. Most of these Chinese stratagem have even compounded the perception about the contracts and people keep wondering what has been delaying the projects…
Do you think there is money anywhere in the world? If you have, I will go with you to take the money. We are stuck with lots of our projects because we cannot get money. The Chinese are no longer funding. So, we are now pursuing money in Europe. And when I look at the money they are borrowing in other countries and compare with the one we have borrowed, the kind of comments by Nigerians will put you off. But I commend President Muhammadu Buhari for not listening to anybody. If he had listened to people, we would have been walking from Lagos to Ibadan. What informed President’s decision about Ibadan is the number of people that were dying from road accidents. The road carnage was high and he said, “Okay, with that kind of high level carnage, let me fix the road. Very soon, they will say it is the past government that started the project but, they will not remember that the past government awarded the project quite all right, but didn’t fund it. Typical of the President, we didn’t cancel the project. We retained the contractor and funded him. Now, they are about to finish the Lagos-Ibadan road just as we have finished the Lagos-Ibadan railway. So, you have an alternative; you can take railway, which is cheaper. But if you are a big man that doesn’t want to use taxi, you can use your car because the road is free.

The issue of mass transit system is one of the biggest problems in the country. What are your plans for this?
The federal government’s responsibility for transport is very small. The reason people see it as huge is because of railway and aviation. But aviation is out of federal government’s hand and then, Sea Port. The most important part of transportation – land transportation – has been put in the hands of state governors by the Constitution. If you have the opportunity of interviewing your state governors, ask them. I am going to Ogun State on February 12 to commission their transport masterplan. They are buying buses and a lot of things. From what the governor told me, if you are going from Ogun to Lagos, there are buses for you with air-condition and wi-fi. They are going to put buses at the railway that will take passengers into town. That is their business. That is what the governors ought to do. I am sure other governors have one form of transportation policy or the other among themselves. Our job is to make policies for land transportation and governors will implement.

People from your region are alleging that you have failed them by not attracting serious developmental projects to the region. Why is this so?
We have approved for Rivers State, a federal university and the construction will start this year. There is a rail transport from Itakpe to Delta State. Air transport from Abuja to Warri is N60, 000 but rail from Agbor or Warri to Itakpe is N2, 500. There is a bus or taxi for N3, 500 to Abuja in one and half hours. If you put the fairs together, that is N6, 000. For those who would have used plane, you have saved N54, 000. So, for those who do not like the President, he has put N54, 000 in your pockets. You don’t need to thank him. Yet, I have done nothing. That Agbor railway yard is the only and the biggest railway yard in Nigeria for now.

Also, the President has approved and awarded a contract from Lagos to Calabar. It is 90 per cent South-South route and it is worth $11.1billion; the costliest railway in Nigeria. What else do you want me to do? Port-Harcourt-Maiduguri railway will start this year.

It is likely to start by next month. The reason it has not started was because we are yet to get approval from the cabinet on who will supervise the contract. If the approval comes by early February, work will start. We don’t have the money but we are negotiating the loan. So, with the little we have paid the contractor, he will start the work pending when we get the loan. What is holding us on the Lagos-Calabar route is that we are trying to bring in a second contractor to assist the first one. Once we finish with that and they agree on some issues, before the end of the year, we will get the loan and they will start work.

So, if it is to assess me, don’t worry about that. I am not only a Nigerian, I am a politician. I know that everybody wants railway. We are not doing it because you want railway. Railway is not for passengers’ transportation. If you put railway from Abuja to Warri, what is the cargo level? That is the reason I said that the most important railway in Nigeria is the Lagos/Kano because of the freight it will convey. So, even if it will not be able to pay for itself, at least, it will contribute a bit. What will be the contribution from Abuja to Warri? The Seaport in Warri is a problem. We are planning to build a new one. Not many vessels are coming there. So, the sentiment of where we come from should be set aside while we look at the economic benefit of whatever we are constructing for Nigerians. We hardly think about Nigeria as a country. All of us – leaders and followers – only think about where we come from.

That brings us to the question of why you haven’t put your weight behind this East-West road that has become like…
I have no weight. So, there is no need asking why I have not put my weight. You ask questions that do not concern me. I am not the Minister of Niger Delta. How will I know what is happening in Niger Delta? What is my business?

You are from the Niger Delta and we know the value of your representation…
Why have you not asked (Godswill) Akpabio what is happening in the Niger Delta?

When we see him, we will ask him…
When I see him too, I will ask him. I am not the Minister of Niger Delta. I don’t know what their problems are but again, they are working. By September this year, you will see what will happen to a lot of our projects – Second Niger Bridge, Kano-Abuja, Lagos-Ibadan. There are so many roads that would be completed.

Also, from the promise made by Godswill Akpabio, we expect that he will also complete the remainder of East-West road. They have done a large chunk of the road. They have done the two lanes from Warri up to Patani. They have done the other lane up to Ikot-Ekpene or so. It is just one lane between Patani and Port-Harcourt that remains. The moment they do that one from Patani to Port-Harcourt, the road will be ready and he has promised to finish it before September this year.

By the way, Minister, it appears that as a Minister, you like to establish universities…
No. I like education, not universities.

But you are always talking about the university that is addressing one thing or the other. Even in Daura, there is a university that is addressing something, and also, the one you said would take off soon. Why is this administration not strengthening the existing universities instead of establishing new ones?
I am not the Minister of Education. You are looking at me as if I am President Amaechi. How?

You have Maritime University in Delta State…
That is a different thing. These are specialised universities. In fact, when we created the Maritime University, our position was that NIMASA does not have the necessary power to establish university. There was no law backing it to establish university. So, we decided that the Federal Ministry of Education should take back the university and run it. Instead of doing that, they are making us to spend money. We are still spending on the Maritime University. But the ones we are establishing are essentially specialised universities. The one in Daura is to deal with railway technologies because if the Chinese dump these technologies on us and leave, and we cannot run and maintain them, we would be forced to call them back. So, we are saying, “Before you go, teach our children so that as they graduate, you take them back to the railway.”

Why are you not strengthening the existing universities around Kaduna and Katsina?
Again, I am not the Minister of Education. But I realised that transport technologies are not very strong in Nigeria. How many universities have that department in the country? So, we said: “You that is an expert in railway building, go to China, get us experts that will teach our children by establishing a university and qualifying them with a degree; run the university for five years, then, hand over to us, by which time you would have trained the young men up to Master degree level. Then, you can come back to teach the new ones while some of them will go for Ph.D and come back to teach others. The essence of establishing the university is to be able to train the manpower that we need in the maintenance and sustenance of the railway technology.

Let us talk about Apapa Ports. Since I started growing up, they have been talking about only two Ports…
That is because you are in the Southwest. Is there no Warri Port? It is functioning, just that it is now limited. It is limited because they are trying to rebuild it. If you see that railway, it ends up in the Sea Port. We are building a new Sea Port in Warri. The problem with it is that we are looking for a deep sea Port. Even the Tincan Island and Apapa Ports are not Sea Ports in the real sense of it. They are River Ports. They are not that deep – between 11 and 12 metres. The Ships they are building now are between 16 and 17 metres. We will be the first government to build a proper Sea Port in Nigeria.

And how far has it gone? Give us an update. You are the one supervising it…
We have said it would be ready in September. But from what I have seen, it can even be ready in June.
We know the role you played in bringing this government to power. Many of your colleagues who teamed up with you to shape that development are already declaring to run for President in 2023. You, Tinubu and Saraki played significant roles. Tinubu has declared,

Saraki is running around, what about you?
Clap for them. I am the Minister of Transport.

You are a politician and your party is zoning the chairmanship position to the…
They have not done any zoning. Let us wait for the party.

Politicians don’t wait for the party, they look ahead…
I am still waiting for the party.

That means you will still run…
100 metres? If it is 100 metres, join me every morning. I walk.

What we publish everyday favours your age bracket, that we need younger people as president…
You need younger people?

Yes. We need younger people…
I listened to Mo Ibrahim recently. He thoroughly abused all of us. He stated that this is one continent where a 90-year-old man in a wheel chair is seeking political office. But by the constitution, everybody is entitled to vie for political office. The only people who should not contest for Presidency are those below the age of 35.

But you are qualified. You have been a governor, Minister, kingmaker and now, it is the time. We have just one year and a few months. Leaders like you are declaring. Some have taken bold steps. When are you taking your own bold step?
I am a coward o. I don’t have bold steps. I am the Minister for Transportation. I am currently transporting people. That is what I am doing.

By May 2023, that will end…
When I finish, I will decide what to do.

What is your view about people jostling around?
I have expressed my view. I said they are entitled to jostle around.

Since you don’t want to be specific about your interest towards 2023 Presidency, what kind of a leader would you want to succeed Buhari?
For me, I just think that anybody who is coming, whether from PDP or APC, should continue from where President Buhari stops. What is making people to criticise Buhari is because he is trying to move the economy from rent culture economy where you come to my office and when you are leaving, I give you N50, 000. You will not ask me where I got it from. So, you go home and distribute the money, the money is used. But he said, “Let us provide the necessary things we can refer to as factors of production – there is infrastructure that will enable you facilitate development. Let us assume that you work in Abuja and reside in Agbor, if you take a train to Abuja, you can take the 6am train and by 8am, you are in Abuja. You don’t need to live in Abuja to be able to plan your trade in Abuja. What we have done is that we have reduced the cost of your doing business in Abuja by providing you the facility that will take you away from the house that you live in Agbor to come to Abuja. If we are not careful, Abuja will explode. People can now live in Kaduna and work in Abuja. There is train by 4 and 6 pm respectively. We are taking it forward from Kaduna to Kano. By the time we finish the Kaduna/Kano railway, people can also reside in Kano and come to work in Abuja. So, what he is doing is what you can refer to as creating the conducive atmosphere for business to thrive.

We are just moving from the rent culture economy where you get cash. Rather than build infrastructure, we give you cash then and you spend the cash. But the money is finishing, that is the reason you see poverty and insecurity. Nobody was born a bandit, a thief or Boko Haram. What causes people to steal or become bandits is the economy, the environment. If the environment denies one the opportunity to go to school, you cannot be employed and you don’t have money to feed, what happens? You will start looking for big men to return the money stolen from the government. So, that is why big men are not comfortable to drive anywhere because they are afraid of the poor people they denied their rights to exist.

If the next President comes and does not continue from there, and goes back to the rent culture, then the economy will collapse again. After thanking God, we should thank Buhari because the economy would have crashed on us. Some governors are giving out money meant for building schools and roads and the society is not asking. Nigerian elites are denying the masses the right to exist and the power to remove them does not rest in the police or army. It rests squarely on you.

The country made N5.5trillion revenue last year and spent about N4.2 trillion servicing debts, what we have left is N1.3 trillion. According to the budget for 2021, the nation needs to run on a total of N13.57 trillion. That means we need to borrow more. Nigerians are beginning to worry if all these borrowings won’t put us in trouble

No, you don’t have to borrow. That money for the servicing of loan is part of the N12 trillion. So, you need to deduct that. It is what remains. You look at what is coming in again, if it is deficit of N2, 3, 4 trillion, then you borrow. Other countries are borrowing but you people are fighting government. So, government is careful of how much it borrows. If you go to some countries, they are doing extremely well but all their projects are dependent on loan. The only place we are focusing on loan is railway and that is because you are frightening everybody. So, President has shut down loans.

The problem with Nigeria is not the loan. The problem is that we are not getting revenue. If we get revenue, we pay up our debts…
That is why we should be wary. If we are not getting revenue, then, we should be careful. But we are the cause. If Nigeria has diversified its economy from the beginning, who would be talking about loan. The major source of raising funds is through oil. So, the next President should focus on power and agriculture because these are the things that will help build the economy. If you focus on agriculture, you create jobs. You take a lot of people in the rural areas into agriculture. If they produce massively, then, we export. In fact, they should emphasize more on rice because the current rice we are producing is just enough for the Nigerian society.

So, if we continue massive production of rice, we produce enough for the Nigerian society and be able to export. When you export, you bring in foreign currencies. The reason we are not bringing in money is because we are importing rice, we are importing meat and we are importing fish. Until recently, we were importing eggs. So, tell me how we will get the money to pay.

You have talked extensively about Buhari’s government that he has done very well but has not been able to tackle insecurity. In the North now, they cannot practice agriculture the way they used to…
I have continued to tell the country that the solution to insecurity in the South-South is not the amnesty being granted them. Till today, breaking down of pipes still continues. The reason you are having insecurity in the magnitude you are having it is because over the years, the Nigerian elites have denied the poor facilities that will grow the economy and that which will create jobs for them.

Consistently, we have heard you say that the Ministry under your watch will be revamped to make Nigerians earn legitimate income. Tell us how?
Can you not see it? When I was in Port-Harcourt, all of you were praising me but shortly after I left, someone said I was a thief and everybody believed, forgetting that as a governor, my wife and I had no food to eat. Now, we are back in this government. Have you not used Lagos-Ibadan road? Is it not a fulfilment of that statement? Those farming or trading around that area can board the train and go for their businesses. We are going to employ thousands of people for that track. How else can I fulfil that statement?