On November 25, 2019, Minister of Transportation Rotimi Amaechi declared that—finally— the Lagos-Ibadan rail segment of the Lagos-Kano rail would open for business in April 2020.
Only the heavy sigh of relief of skeptical Nigerians prevented you from hearing the roar of applause.
But then last week, the minister was back at the microphone. His April date, he announced, offering no apology to any Nigerian, was an impossible promise.
But he did offer an explanation of sorts: “We have told you we will be out of this place latest April [but] we are no longer giving ourselves the time, the contractor now give [sic] us the time.”
In a different environment, Minister Amaechi would be fired (and I speak as a former supporter) because he doesn’t know what he is doing. But he cannot be fired.
The first reason is that the government of which he is a part is in such a ramshackle shape; it is a government only in form, not in substance or quality.
The second is that President Muhammadu Buhari is susceptible to both flattery and bribery.
On each of those counts, Amaechi had his president in his pocket the moment Buhari accepted the bribe of that Transportation University in Daura.
Remember: in Amaechi’s leaked “everybody-is-crying” audiotape of January 2019, the minister made it clear he wanted to establish a university in his hometown and would clear the way by first planting one in Buhari’s.
“I have already written to the governor of Katsina State and I don’t know why he has not replied to give us the land in Daura for a university in Daura,” he said. “The next university would be in my village. There is a popular saying while we were growing up, that charity begins at home. Will my own begin abroad?”
The old “this” for “that.” Quid pro quo.
In later months, Amaechi would try to sanitize bribing his principal, but it was too late. “Daura is in Nigeria, it is not in any other part of the world…” he explained. “I have no regret siting this university where I have sited it, it is not because I want to get any gain.”
He conveniently forgot the “the next university would be in my village part.”
But the story is bigger than one poor government or one increasingly ineffective Minister. The following is a quick primer.
The Lagos-Ibadan rail project was launched in March 2017 by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, on behalf of a government which was desperate to demonstrate a semblance of substance. Which was perhaps why, at that launch, officials and their collaborators were falling and frothing over each other at the microphone.
Mr. Osinbajo said the necessary funds were in place and affirmed that the “world class rail project that will not only be safe and convenient, but reliable and affordable,”would be completed in December 2018.
Added Amaechi: “On this very one, work will not only start, but it will be completed in record time.”
The then Lagos State governor, Akinwunmi Ambode,described the project as a “new dawn” in Nigerian transportation, stressing that it would enhance regional integration and growth.
Gbenga Ashafa, who chaired the Senate Committee on Land Transport, said the project would fulfil one of the APC’s promises, and engender at least 250,000 jobs.
At an inspection of the project that Amaechi undertook with his cabinet counterpart Lai Mohammed in May 2018, the ministers re-affirmed that the project would be completed as scheduled.
“One thing we achieved in today’s meeting is that the December (2018) date for the Lagos-Ibadan modern rail gauge is not negotiable,” Mohammed told journalists. “I am happy to say that the consultants, contractors and everybody involved have seen why it is important to make the deadline.”
Amaechi said the team reviewed the entire project all the way from the Apapa seaport in Lagos to the last station at Ibadan. “We are satisfied with the progress,” he declared. “There are hitches here and there, which we have found solutions to.”
He said that the track laying on the line would be completed by the end of May, pointing out that that process had already 123 kilometres.
“So, remaining 34 to 35km which they can cover in the next three weeks which they confirmed would be completed before the end of May,” Amaechi added.
At his December 12 inspection, in the heat of the presidential election campaign, the minister reiterated that the line would be completed in December 2018 and commissioned in January 2019.
No. Such. Thing. Happened.
And then came that election early in 2019, and the heart-thumping wait for a new cabinet. Amaechi was eventually reappointed to the same Transportation desk, and he resumed his loud inspections and louder declarations.
2019 came and went. But as the year ended, the minister made that November declaration that operations would commence in April 2020. That loud whistling sound you heard was the sigh of relief of 100 million incredulous people.
But again, that was until last week when Mr. Amaechi made his loudest announcement yet: he cannot deliver in April 2020, either!
The truth is that 2018 was never going to happen: No Nigerian government or office or official delivers a capital public project—even a toilet—particularly in two years.
And 2019, the third year of the Lagos-Ibadan rail, was another false prophecy, as was April 2020.
The reason is that is a game, and always was: Notice how Amaechi has always blamed the contractor,similar to Buhari perennially blaming PDP.
And while the minister blames the contractor, have you noticed that nothing is ever heard from them? Even the journalists that accompany him on these “inspections” never quote the contractor or even the terms of the contractor report the project beyond the minister’s words.
This is the nature of the Nigeria infrastructure game: a game in which the government awards a contract and then steps into the next room to declare that the funds allotted to it in its budget do not exist. This is how Nigeria has institutionalized cost and time overruns in every project, and officials report process and manipulation as achievement.
But CCECC does not appear ever to have contracted to finish the Lagos-Ibadan rail any earlier than mid-2020, let alone 2019, let alone 2018. Because it was only in February 2019 that it sub-contracted another company in China to supply diesel locomotives and coaches for the project“between Lagos and Ibadan which is under construction for opening in 2020.”
That explains CCECC’s silence through all of Amaechi’s screaming and posturing in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Otherwise, the government is entitled to certain means of redress, which it has never even suggested.
It is also important to remember that in mid-2016, China gave Nigeria tough new conditions for its loans, a caveat Nigerian officials carefully avoid in public.
In the concluding part of this piece next week, I will argue that it is a lack of will and not of any other resources which keeps Nigeria from accomplishing her infrastructure goals, and keeps others laughing at us.
[This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials].