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Physical or environmental infrastructure?

The word “infrastructure” is the buzz word for Nigerian leaders these days. State governors extort more taxes from impoverished citizens...

The word “infrastructure” is the buzz word for Nigerian leaders these days. State governors extort more taxes from impoverished citizens in the name of providing infrastructure, and the Federal Executive Council embarks on unrestrained borrowing for the same reason. Nigerians aren’t impressed because their experience shows that in our country, “infrastructure” is synonymous with white elephant projects, inflated contracts and treasury looting. All bridges, roads, airports or railways built in Nigeria cost several times the amount spent on similar projects in other parts of the world.

Successive governments have plunged the nation into unjustifiable and unbearable debt under the guise of providing “infrastructure” of little value to the nation. Billions have been squandered commissioning airports to which no aircraft flies, new stadium in which no sports are played, new roads leading to the villages of political leaders, and economically unviable railway lines to other countries. Add to this the billions which routinely disappear financing all manner of new government offices which do nothing to improve service delivery, and new State Government House complexes which do not impact upon the lives of the people, not to talk of all the abandoned white elephant projects littering the nation.

In Nigeria, the nature of the infrastructure being built is not based on any national development plan, but rather upon the whims and caprices of those holding office. Environmentalists point out quite correctly that Nigeria’s biggest problem isn’t lack of physical infrastructure but the degradation of the environment, and lack of an insightful environmental protection policy. Even as growing mountains of used plastics litter everywhere, forest reserves are being depleted, refuse dumps are occupying spaces where vegetation once flourished, ground water is being polluted by chemicals from mining and oil drilling, open gutters are spreading diseases and as pending ecological disaster faces the nation, governments, at all levels, focus on creating more physical rather than environmental infrastructure.

The trend needs to be reversed. The World Health Organisation predicts that if urgent action is not taken over environmental degradation, then by 2050, underdeveloped nations like Nigeria will experience cancers appearing in many forms, and an increased death rate in which people will die younger and painfully. Government’s excessive borrowing to construct undefined physical infrastructure, without a policy for urgent environmental protection and restoration begs the question; what type of nation do they envision for the future? Is their a plan to make a country of beautiful architectural masterpieces surrounded by stinking gutters, waste dumped everywhere, routine urban flooding and widespread communicable diseases?

Our political leaders must stop deceiving themselves. Their policies will never lead to a situation in which one day Nigeria will look like the United States of America (USA) or the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They do not seem to understand that the pristine environment of developed nations is far more important to them than their architectural masterpieces.  Infrastructures such as roads, dams and architectural edifices which the nation lacks the capacity to construct or maintain by itself create air and water pollution that increases over time and for which the nation has made no plans to ameliorate.

The current political leadership fails to appreciate the bigger picture and can’t seem to get their heads around the fact that a clean environment which everybody benefits from is far more important than architectural edifices which only a few will enjoy. In all their budgeting of trillions they appear totally unconcerned about the shabbiness, filth, squalor, and stench in the country. All their talk about infrastructure never includes modern decent low cost housing estates, or implementing modern efficient waste disposal and environmental infrastructural systems. Political scientists generally agree that the idea of the state as an instrument for people’s development isn’t the Nigerian way of doing things; it’s a western concept.

If Nigeria is to truly change, no government policy should be above scrutiny, yet this administration takes umbrage over anyone raising questions about their continuous borrowing in pursuit of an unrealisable dream of creating a “developed” nation with a devastated environment! Wherever there is conflict between the desires of rulers and the wishes of the electorate, government simply reigns insults on its detractors and ignores public opinion altogether. Nigerian leaders must learn to stop disparaging public opinion. When they were made leaders, they were given the responsibility to improve the lives and welfare of the people in all ramifications. Sadly, while the rest of the world increasingly prioritises environmental issues, the opposite is the case in Nigeria. Recent revelations in the manner in which government intends to finance its lopsided infrastructure development programme illustrate that they care little about public opinion or constitutionalism. Oversight by the National Assembly has been by-passed through award of contracts to major companies under a tax credit scheme. Corporations like the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) are being asked to build roads rather than pay tax to the Federation Account. This is of course could be called a sharp practice because the money in the Federation Account doesn’t belong solely to the federal government. According to the revenue allocation formula, only 52.68 per cent of the money is theirs while 26.72% belongs to the state governments and 20.60 per cent to local governments. Legal experts have pointed out that none of the companies awarded road contracts under this scheme was registered as a construction company with the Corporate Affairs Commission. As far as the NNPC contract goes, the amount is three times the size of the company’s paid-up share capital, and more than double the entire budget of all the states in Nigeria except Lagos. Disappointment has been expressed over the fact that comparison of the contracts awarded shows the southern region has only 288 kilometres of roads while the North has five times as many (1,479km). The current attempts to turn a united Nigeria into a developed nation by building physical infrastructure without first having an agreed national development plan, governing according to constitutionalism and solving the problems of environmental degradation have little hope of eventually succeeding.

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