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Blame the government, not contractors

In January 2023, as time wound down on the Muhammadu Buhari administration, it approved a project plan under which, it said, nine roads totaling 1,347km…

In January 2023, as time wound down on the Muhammadu Buhari administration, it approved a project plan under which, it said, nine roads totaling 1,347km nationwide would be commissioned for 25 years.

The plan was described as the first phase of a Public-Partnership-Project scheme under the Highway Development and Maintenance Initiative (HDMI).

Remember: January 2023.  But the HDMI scheme began much earlier, in 2020, with a call for bids.  The preferred bidders were announced in April 2022, with the government approving nine of the 12 highways in January 2023.

The nine included the 195km Abuja-Lokoja highway.  (The Lokoja-Benin, about which I have written substantially, was deferred along with a few others for the second phase of the HDMI Project process.)

Keep in mind that in January 2023, the government approved an application of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) Limited to invest N1.9 trillion in the reconstruction of 44 federal roads under the NNPCL tax scheme.

The list of roads included at least the Abuja-Lokoja segment of the A2 highway.  The contractors involved were listed as CGC Nigeria, Mother Cat, Dantata and Sawoe, and RCC.  In May 2023, the government signed commercial contracts with the concessionaires.

In January 2024, under the new government, Mr Umahi set a March 2024 deadline for the roads to be handed over to the concessionaires.  According to the HDMI project profile of the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC), the concessionaire for the Abuja-Lokoja Road is Avia Infrastructure Services Limited (AISL).

Last week, in a meeting with the four construction contractors, Works Minister David Umahi threatened to terminate their contracts.

He sounded like a very angry man, describing a scandal without admitting there is a scandal: of contractors receiving contracts for which they lack capacity, and staying on a single project for 17 years, seeking contract variations.

Mr Umahi observed of the Abuja-Lokoja Road that the initial project cost was N121bn, before the administration of President Bola Tinubu, but had been reviewed to about N870bn.

“We demanded from the contractors to approve that they can do the job and they did but the arrogance of contractors in this country is very insulting. A country where the contractors are dictating what happens; in the Ministry of Works, many contractors have over 17 projects but they have no personnel and equipment to do it. They are just playing politics. Staying on jobs for 17 years and that is what is playing out.”

CGC Nigeria, Mother Cat, Dantata and Sawoe, and RCC have been involved with the Abuja-Benin City Road in various respects for most of the past two decades.  I have cited them in previous interventions on this subject.

If they are involved in any projects under the NNPCL tax scheme, it seems to be to be too soon for threats, given that the scheme is just one year old.  If the threats involve their work on the Abuja-Benin City segment in the past two decades, justice—not threats—is what is required.

The contract alleged to have been awarded during the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency has subsequently seen the succeeding governments of Umaru Yar’Adua, Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari, none of which recognized it.  Instead, as I explored here in ‘Does Dave Umahi Know Nigeria I,” they have awarded at least 10 separate contracts since then.

To simply berate contractors who have done so much damage for so long is not justice: they ought to be identified and prosecuted.

Similarly, to attack contractors who may have been extorted by government officials or by governments which failed to honour their contracts, or by governments which for their own purposes persisted in awarding new contracts without investigating or implementing the existing contracts is not justice, either.

That said, I repeat the obvious: the parlous state of Nigerian infrastructure, particularly roads, is a crime, and crimes are committed by people.  Principal among these are various Ministers of Works and officials of the Ministry.  I have already called on Mr Umahi, if anything is ever truly to change, to begin from his office.

Two weeks ago, for instance, I drew attention to the Bola Tinubu government’s institution of an app called Citizens’ Delivery Tracker,  to track public projects: the exact function as Eyemark, which his predecessor launched just months before it left office.

My comment: “It is another illustration of how parallel, multi-level, multi-year, multi-administration, uncoordinated, incoherent, incompetent chaos in planning, spending and execution has given Nigeria not simply the world’s worst infrastructure, but also the largest assemblage of uncompleted projects, including in rail, schools and hospitals.”

It is a good idea for the public to be armed to track projects, but what is the point if the same project is re-budgeted, and budgeted again by succeeding governments in indistinct sections and phases that are never completed?

But this is the mess that the federal government has made of infrastructure development in Nigeria.  No project appears genuinely designed for completion, let alone in the short term, and no project is important enough or limited enough to attract a clear completion schedule.

This is why I always remind people that when I write about the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the Lagos-Calabar Rail, the Abuja-Kano Road, or the Abuja-Benin City Road, it is simply a metaphor.  The same issues apply nationwide.

Our governments are built on guile and manipulation, not performance.  They lack as much commitment to service as they do to excellence.  It is why they contract and re-contract.  The contractor, recognizing that there is far more money in the game than in performance, invests in it.

Think about it: In 2012, Mr Jonathan, “distressed” because work on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway was taking too long, terminated the contract with Bi-Courtney, which had been on it for four years.  His government came to an end in 2015, but the work was not completed.

Mr. Buhari’s government ran the same scheme for the next eight years, into 2023, with the highway still not completed.

Sadly, the Tinubu administration continues the tradition, the tradition in which, everywhere, there are far more announcements of projects than projects completed.

This is partly why the 700km Lagos-Calabar Coastal Highway, which is now said to have replaced the Lagos-Calabar Rail which Buhari could not build, is a serious issue.

Defenders of the administration claim that the N15.6 trillion tab for the road alone, not the uncosted photo-trick rail in the middle of the 10-lane plan, is not an issue.  They say it will be completed in Tinubu’s eight years.

But if Umahi thinks that contractors playing games with contracts is an insult, governments playing politics with projects is a bigger insult.  How can anyone build a project around a re-election that has not even been contested, let alone won?

Why did Buhari fail so embarrassingly?  He was unprepared for the task of governance: those who wrote his words could not provide the skills or the heart required for governance as a serious project.

That spilled into the years, including project delivery throughout the country.  So far, and predictably, Renewed Hope is following the same path, providing little hope.

 

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