Nigeria’s Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Raji Fashola, is one minister whose hands are full with strategic projects with far-reaching consequences for Nigeria and Nigerians.
Although he has the desire to construct more roads and housing projects, the challenges posed by inadequate funding and lockdown occasioned by the ravaging Covid-19 pandemic, held back the progress of work and caused some adjustments in the process.
But that notwithstanding, the Minister is optimistic that the ministry will still deliver on the legacy projects of the Buhari administration.
In this interview with Northern Region Editor, Soni Daniel, Fashola says serious progress is being made in both the road and housing sectors of the economy, pointing out that major roads in the Apapa Port corridor have been delivered but that the gridlock that continues to hamper movement there is beyond road construction but requires effective port management to abate.
In February this year, you directed top officials of the ministry of works and housing to ensure priority attention is given to bad portions of the nation’s highways that usually pose serious challenge to roads users during the rainy season. Would you say this directive has been carried out?
The reason we focus on those areas which I call bottleneck areas is because, notwithstanding the work that is being done on a national scale, when commuters experience difficulties in those areas, then that is the point of pain they express even when they have driven through 200 kilometres of motorable high quality roads before getting to that point of pain.
The good experience doesn’t matter anymore. So, we decided to focus on those areas and there are places like Lagos-Abeokuta, Ehor to Auchi of the Benin-Lokoja Highway, the Cham-Numan area of the Gombe-Yola Highway, the Odukpani area of the Calabar-Itu-Ikot Ekpene Highway etc. So, by and large, all our directives were given effect to but you must understand that government is a very slow burning fire and that everything we want to do is contingent also on what is being done by other departments like finance, budget, and parliamentary approval and so on.
But again, don’t forget that during the peak of the raining season, the economy had slowed down and we were also on a shutdown and not much movement took place around that because we had to save lives. As a result, all of our plans became subject to a much more serious of fighting a very horrific disease that was taking lives around the globe. But the good news is that some of these projects have been included in the SUKUK and as we are talking some of the contractors are returning to sites because the dry season has set in and people are beginning to see activities on the roads again.
But to what extent has the Covid-19 pandemic affected the operations of the Works and Housing Ministry since most of its activities involve physical human contacts?
As you know the pandemic stopped the whole world; not Nigeria alone. At one time, there was no movement across states in Nigeria. At some time, there was no movement across anywhere in China and the UK. Even now, the UK has just reopened after a second lockdown but Nigeria has not gone into a second lockdown. It was not a local but global problem. But once it was safe to do so, around May, we started testing the grounds.
To that extent the pandemic affected the number of people who could return to a project site, it affected the spacing and the number of hours they could work. But I want to say that doing so was better than doing no work at all.
Is it then possible that you will achieve any of the targets you set for the year 2020?
Yes, we are finishing roads and we are starting new ones and we are continuing with those we did not finish. It is natural that if you have an unforeseen event, it is only logical that it would affect your programme. But the beautiful thing is that if you have a plan, you would be better placed than another who had no plan at all. So, because we had a plan and an unforeseen event like life-threatening disease comes against you, you only have to adjust your plan. In that circumstance, some things can be missed, some things can be regained, and some time may be allowed in the process and so on.
Even as we speak, international trade has not resumed at full blast as countries are unable to move in materials and import certain equipment in order to carry on with their normal construction and building projects as they would want. As a result of the global dynamics, so many things have affected the construction industry like exchange rates which have forced the CBN to churn out new policies which we did not foresee, which are affecting supplies to our sector and other sectors and as a result everybody has to adjust to the new regime. So, these are the logically expected consequences of an unforeseen event.
It therefore follows that you may have to throw up new projects across the country in the new fiscal year
Well, if you listened to the President’s budget speech, his emphasis was on continuation and completion as we are getting into the Legacy Era of the administration. As a result, our ordinary wish is that there should be no new projects but unfortunately the process of budgeting involves not only executive but also legislative proposals. As a result, most of what you would see as new projects come from the parliament.
What is really the problem with Federal roads in Benue State? Is it lack of money or materials to repair federal roads there?
You know a group of retired Generals from Benue came to see us and asked us to build a road that leads to a particular area. But as is the case, whenever we see this type of request, I showed to them the number of projects we are doing in that state but they confessed that they were aware of the number of road projects the Federal Government was handling in the state but that they wanted a road that comes directly to their own community.
Somebody came to see me from Adamawa and also complained about roads in the state and when I began to list the roads we are doing in that state, he told me clearly he wanted a road to his own area. So, when those people from Benue came I told them that we wanted to complete the roads we are currently building in that state and put them to use since we don’t have unlimited resources to start new ones.
But I also suggested to them that since we had already submitted our road projects budget to the National Assembly there was nothing much we could do to accommodate new projects but that if they felt so strongly that we should start new projects without completing the ongoing ones in the state they could approach their elected representatives for further action. That was all that happened between us. But how they chose to represent what I said I cannot take responsibility for what. I only take responsibility for what I said to them.
But the Federal Controller of Works says there no fewer than 17 ongoing federal projects in the state: true or false sir?
It is true. Some of them are: Loko-Oweto is linking Benue and Nasarawa states, the same thing for Ibi Bridge linking Benue and Taraba and we have finished the Oshegbero Road that links the bridge on Loko-Oweto side on the Oweto side and we are now working on the Nasarawa side. Is this not in Benue?
Then the Gboko-Makurdi Road that links them to the East is ongoing and we are sourcing for funds to pay the contractors to finish the road. Is this not in Benue? No administration finishes everything no matter how long it stays. We will do the best we can, complete as much as we can and move on. When the President’s tenure ends in 2023 we go and another team will take it from there because government is a continuum.
The gridlock in Apapa has continued to attract public commentary and controversy. What is being done to put a permanent solution to this chaos around the Apapa Port area?
Three years ago, I met with all the stakeholders in a town hall meeting. They included truck drivers, owners, port operators and the concession owners. At that time the stakeholders told me clearly that even if the road is completed and we don’t solve the administration problem at the port the problem of the gridlock would persist. That is what they said.
But what is holding up the road project sir?
No, just understand the explanation first. What is holding up the road is that we re-awarded it to be done with concrete and I can say that nobody has rebuilt this road in the way the Buhari administration is doing it.
If you go to the road now, you would see that the main carriageway, which is three-lane each of 37 kilometres from Port entrance to Tin Can has been completed. The section between Tin Can and Mile 2, which was built with asphalt which has now failed, has been awarded so that we do everything with concrete. From Mile 2 to Oworonshoki on the main carriageway has been completed.
So, it is not a road problem anymore beyond that point between Tin Can and Mile 2, which we left at that time because it was still in good condition though it was built with asphalt. We have now decided to use concrete to build everything. We have finished Liverpool Road with concrete, which had totally collapsed. We have finished Wharf Road with concrete also. So, it is still a road project?
But people must remember that that port was built around 1920 when our population was not this big, when our economy was not this large and when we did not have a large number of importers and exporters. It is 100 years since the port was built. There was an expansion from Apapa when they built the Tin Can Island Port in 1975-76. That was the first port expansion and there has been no expansion since then. This road that you are talking about Apapa-Oshodi was part of the port expansion. It was not there before 1976.
Right now, the Federal Government is undertaking a rail project to the port and the port is no longer being run by the government but has been concessioned to a private sector operation while the NPA is only the regulator representing the government. If you want to do business in the port and there is no scanner to clear your container you have to wait for them to do it manually and while that happens the next truck must wait. That is not a road problem.
That is why the government is planning a single window to handle this thing seamlessly. Essentially, we have outgrown those ports and that is why we are building the Lekki Port. We are living on an infrastructure that is more than 40 years old. In the 70s Nigeria’s GDP was barely $50 billion but it is now $400+ billion using the same system.
A lot of work is being done to make things work better and faster at the port. There are also human elements who try to frustrate these efforts to make things work better but the truth is that the persistent gridlock is less of a road problem.
When can Nigerians have access to affordable and functional houses?
We are doing many things to ensure the availability of houses for Nigerians. Housing means different things to different people because some want to buy government built house, others want government land. Others want to buy from the private sector with only government certificate of occupancy. Many want a mortgage from the Federal Mortgage Bank.
For that reason, we have issued mortgage loans in excess of N50 billion since I became minister. We also issue rent-to own homes loans because housing is not all about ownership but also about rental. The key thing is shelter. We are intervening in all these phases. The National Housing Programme we are undertaking nationwide is in different stages of completion: some have been finished, painted and ready; some are being roofed, plastered, while in others the electrical and water installations are being done.
But who controls land? It is not the Federal Government and for that reason, whatever we are doing is a small contribution to the national demand for houses and you must then factor in state governments efforts in housing development in order to meet the housing aspiration of Nigerians.
But the notion that the federal government is going to build enough houses for everyone to just come and take must be erased because people don’t want the same thing: some want land, some need loans while others want government built houses and so on. But even in spite of what the state and federal government can do, the real bulwark lies with the private sector. How many developers are building for the public?
No government can build houses for everybody at the same time. No government works like that anywhere. If the federal government was to build like that then it must begin to take land from everybody. And, nobody wants that. We must understand this. To make housing affordable and available, it must be a combination of federal, state and the private sector effort.
In the last few years something is working. The policy is working because the private sector is working hard to deliver houses for those who really need them. The federal government through the FMB of Nigeria is financing estate development through Real Estate Development Loans. There are about 25,000 units at different levels of construction and completion.
But like I said, it is not only ownership but also ownership and rental to provide shelter for Nigerians. It is also important to appeal to people to be more realistic. Those who impose three years rent on houses should learn to reduce that and make it affordable to people who are in real need of houses to move in.
As we are building houses, owners are dying as new children are born. How do we ensure that we reduce the number of empty houses? There are a lot of empty houses. The solution is not just building new houses but making optimal use of available houses in the country. And, in terms of housing, the intention is to house every household in Nigeria instead of every individual. It may interest one to know that the average household in Nigeria is 40 million with some form of ownership and rental.
I keep saying that the problem is that the housing shortages are in the urban and not in the rural areas of Nigeria. We must understand the problem so as to be able to prescribe the right solution.
The problem is not the shortage of houses alone but the shortage of houses in the urban centres where the need is. So, prescribing millions of houses is recommending wrong diagnoses. Hundreds and thousands of houses may be required in Nigeria’s urban centres like Lagos, Ibadan, Abuja, Kano, Umuahia, Enugu, Kaduna etc but they may not find off takers in less populated cities where there are already empty houses. Even in Abuja and other urban cities, there are a lot of empty houses. If the owners can bring down the prices of their houses and charge for shorter periods, the houses can be taken up as they finish building.
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