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NIGERIA: Insurgency Hampering Road Projects in Yobe-Borno Axis – Onolememen

Mr. Mike Oziegbe OnolememenMr. Mike Oziegbe Onolememen, an architect and professional construction manager of over 25 years cognate experience in the private and public sector, is the minister of works. In this interview with journalists, he spoke on the activities of his ministry, priority projects for 2014, the challenges of making Nigerian roads safe and motorable, why it took the Federal Government so long before deciding to do something concrete about the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and why some states are not reimbursed for fixing federal roads within their boundaries, among other issues. Tokunbo Adedoja was there
Let us start from the Benin-Shagamu Road. As far back as 1987, the road was being rehabilitated, almost 25 years down the line, we are still on that road. The Ore-Benin axis is now so bad. So when will that road be delivered?
Even if a road were to be completed today, immediately what we call routine maintenance on the road starts. There are always a number of activities, even on a good road because that is international best practice. But in the case of the Benin-Ore Road, at the time you mentioned, 1987, I was also living in Lagos, and I used the road quite often. There had been intermittent work on that road, and from the onset, those were just palliative repairs or if you like, maintenance works at the time. But precisely at about 2009, major rehabilitation contracts were awarded on that road and because the Ministry of Works had very paltry budgetary provisions, the contracts were segmented. In other words, the ministry’s policy at the time was to target the most impacted parts of the road. So it was like an ad hoc approach.
It was until 2011 when we came in that we decided to take a holistic look at the road and strategise to rehabilitate the entire stretch of that road from Benin up to Shagamu, and that has been ongoing. From time to time, we are also hampered, but one of the things we set out to do in 2011 when we came was to ensure that the subsisting contracts we inherited were quickly finished. The alignment you talked about from Benin to Ofosu were the sections we inherited, and we have since completed that. We also awarded another one from Ofosu to Ore, which has also been completed. Just before that was completed, as part of our desire to get the entire stretch rehabilitated, we awarded a third section of the road, which is from Ore to Ajebandele.
In fact, if you have travelled on that road in recent times, you would discover that it has been ongoing, and it is going on well. The final section of that road, which is from Ajebandele to Shagamu was introduced into our 2014 budget, which means the final stretch of the road will certainly be awarded this year, and by the time the third section is being completed, we estimate that the Ogun section, which used to be the very good part of the road that has now deteriorated, is the section four we want to award now and I want to assure you that the government, and President, is committed to commissioning the full alignment – that is from Benin to Shagamu, and we are doing everything in our power to ensure that is done.
Only this morning, the contractor working on the road, the Managing Director of RCC was with me and it was one of the projects we discussed on the ways and means to go about it, particularly the way we can guarantee sustainable funding of that last section, once it is awarded. I want to assure that government is very determined. Before now, paucity of funds was the problem, however since 2012, that project has also benefited from enhanced funding as a result of funds from the Subsidy Reinvestment Programme (SURE-P) funds. Because of those kind of funds, and some other funds we are trying to access, I want to assure you that the entire corridor would be rehabilitated because it is part of government’s desire.
The obvious problem of that stretch of the road is because it is a swampy area, that problem therefore has to do with the terrain. Now that you are rehabilitating it, what considerations have you taken to factor this terrain in?
One of the things we did when we came in was to tinker with the Highways Department because we believed that we needed to have a full-fledged department of geotechnics, materials and control. That road was a case in point and we had to re-evaluate the design of the pavement, and at the end of the laboratory experimentation we conducted on the nature of the soil in that particular alignment, we found out that in the area you described, there were stretches that had geotechnical problems that ordinary pavement design cannot address. We now came up with a new pavement design for those sections. This design took into cognizance the water level of the area. So, apart from the sub grade, we introduced and retained the crushed stone base part of the design, and we now introduced a macadam section of it, so as to be able to deal with the issue of underground water coming up, which you talked about. After the macadam, we now had the bitumen course and the base course, and this has taken care of the problem on that alignment. So, we can, with all certainty, now announce that the road will last longer than it has always been because we have been able to address that problem scientifically.
You have been mentioning the issue of funding, but we know that it is one to have budgetary allocations, it is another to have the funds released; even with the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway reconstruction, there have been questions about how much exactly it is going to cost, and when will the project be completed?
First of all, the issue of funding is germane. It is a major challenge because often times, budget provisions are made, but in terms of releases, the provisions are not matched. A point in case was last year when we had a budget of N141 billion for highway projects in the ministry, but at the end of the day, we received only N65 billion. Usually, that is always the problem, but what we have done differently this time around is that we have also been able to tap into non-budgetary sources of funds. One of the first things we did when we came on board in 2011 was to quickly institute a road sector reform committee in order to take a holistic look at our road sector and our road development programme, and look at how they could be properly carried out and funded in line with international best practices.
Although the recommendations of that committee, which includes the setting up of a Roads Authority and the creation of a road fund that can also help to fill the funding gap in road development projects and programme, we have since been implementing most of their recommendations by looking towards the private sector and other non-budgetary sources of finance for our road development projects. We are looking at private finance initiatives, enhanced collaboration with multilateral and development agencies around the world. A case in point is the Federal Road Development Project, where the World Bank had to put down about $330 million that has led to the effective rehabilitation of the Nigerian-Cameroon transport corridor from Enugu through Abakaliki to Mbok, through Ogoja Junction to Ikom and Mfam. That entire corridor was made possible by tapping the World Bank and Africa Development Bank funds. Also, last year, we were part of the President’s trip to China and we also hope that trip will also yield another $285 million into our road development programme.
Beyond that, since 2012 we have also been recipients of enhanced funding from the SURE P fund, and more importantly, we are also working with the private sector on some public private partnership scheme. The major one we are handling now in that respect is the Second Niger Bridge; the financial architecture has just been finalized, which is why we are preparing for the groundbreaking for the Second Niger Bridge in a couple of weeks from now.
Looking at the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, which you asked a pointed question on, that project is designed to cost N167 billion. If you recall, the project has been awarded to two contractors in two sections; Julius Berger Nigeria Ltd handling Section 1, from Lagos to Shagamu interchange and RCC Nigeria Ltd handling Section 2, from Shagamu interchange to Ibadan. The financial architecture we designed for that particular project remains the same as approved by the Federal Executive Council at the material time. What we said, was that the Federal Government was going to contribute about N50 billion into the common purse. From the 2014 budget alone, we are contributing N25 billion, and the final N25 billion, which will now form the total of the Federal Government commitment to the project will be part of the 2015 budget. But beyond that, the outstanding money, which total almost N120 billion is being raised through a private finance initiative and that was how the project was approved. The private finance initiative involves, as our fund arranger, the Infrastructure Bank, and of course, you have credible agencies like the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority, who are also part of the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for that. There are so many private sector agencies, including banks, and financial institutions that have already indicated their interest in putting this money down. We are finalizing on that, and that is how we are going to realise that project. It is part of tapping into private sector resources to implement critical infrastructure projects of government that are germane to running our nation’s economy. If you look at the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, it is a major economic arterial route. For government, doing that road is not just a social service, it is also an economic service, and because it is an economic route, it can benefit from private sector investment, and such investment can be recouped, even from the critical infrastructure itself. There is no going back on that; I visited the road project about two weeks ago, and we are making good progress. From the interaction I had with one of the contractors this morning, I want to assure you, they are upbeat that with the financial architecture we have in place, particularly the off budget sources, they could deliver that road in three years, as against the four years that was provided for in the budget, based on expected revenue from government.
In 2011, the President promised to work on the roads in Damaturu, we have been hearing that the Federal Government is doing nothing there. Rather, you have been working on Nguru Road instead of Damaturu, which the President promised. Then there is the Kotangora Sokoto route, which is very bad, and there are even complaints by the traditional rulers that the Federal Government has neglected them. Why are these roads not given attention?
First, let me say it is not true that we are not working on Damaturu Road. If you recall, one of the major flagship projects of the ministry is the dualisation of the Kano-Maiduguri Road, which traverses Kano, Jigawa, Bauchi, Yobe and Borno States. The section four of that road is entirely in Yobe, from Potiskum to Damaturu, while the section five is from Damaturu to Maiduguri. In fact, it was one of the projects I happened to have visited when the President came to Borno State. One of the major challenges we have had on that project is the insurgency in that part of the country.
Recently, I was going through our end of year report to see the progress we have recorded on most of the sections. The percentage of progress we recorded on the Abuja-Lokoja Road ought to be about the same percentage we should have recorded on the Kano-Maiduguri Road, but if you go there, you will see that we have recorded appreciable progress in the first three sections; that is sections one, two and three. But sections four and five, which borders on Yobe and Borno States have not been able to record as much success because of the level of insurgent activities in those particular alignments.
In fact, even for section two, we have had a case in which one of our contractors lost about eight foreign workers. It is no longer a secret that Setraco Nigeria Limited lost some foreign workers on that section. They were abducted, not even from the project site, but the insurgents broke into their camp office and residence, and abducted them from their flats. They have even shown video clips of two of them that have been murdered. The remaining six, we don’t even know what has happened to them up till now. It was quite demoralizing because the company making the most progress on that alignment had to stop. It took some time to sit them down, and talk to them before they eventually went back to site towards the end of last year and commenced construction work again. True, we are working on the Nguru Road like you said. It is, however, not true that we are not working on the Damaturu Road. They have since resumed work on both sections, both from Potiskum to Damaturu and from Damaturu to Maiduguri. The work is not progressing as much as we would want because different categories of staff of the construction companies are refusing to go there because of the activities of the insurgents in that part of the country. It is an unfortunate development, and it is our hope that the issue would be brought to rest soon. Once the security situation improves in that part of the country, we would be able to ramp up construction activities on those sections.
With the PPP you talk about, does it mean you are introducing toll gates on Lagos-Ibadan Expressway?
As a government, we have decided that it is only economical routes on which private sector resources have been deployed in completing those roads that we will reintroduce toll plazas, and the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway is one of them. Tolling is part of international best practice because when you borrow money from the private sector to do an infrastructure project, the project itself should pay back for that infrastructure. That is why we do the outline and final business case studies, which have all proved that the road is a viable road, and that based on the traffic flow on the road, the investors would be able to recoup their investments. Otherwise, the private sector won’t put money down on these roads. I think it is in line with international best practices, and it is one of the things we need to do in order to guarantee the sustainable maintenance of our federal highways across the country. And this is not new in Nigeria; even in those days, when the Nigerian government has had to use it funds to carry out major dual carriage way projects, at the end of the projects, they put in place toll plazas, at least to guarantee the maintenance of those roads, even if it was not geared towards recouping the investment. But I tell you, it was the governance structure that did not go very well. If it had been well administered, and those funds from those toll plazas were put into something similar to the road fund, which we are now trying to create, there would have been a pool of funds for the re-development of our federal highways. It was the lack of this pool of fund that led to the dilapidation we witnessed on the highways. It was so because the paltry budgetary provisions could not sustain the maintenance work on the highway, talk less of developing new alignments or expanding existing alignments.
So why did it take the Federal Government so long before eventually deciding to do something concrete about the road?
The Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, no doubt, is the most important arterial route in this country because first, it provides access to the two sea ports of Lagos, and it is common knowledge that 51 per cent of economic activities in Nigeria start and end in Lagos. For that reason alone, it is a major and an important dual carriageway, bringing people from all over Nigeria into Lagos. It was not as if it took government so long to do something concrete about the road. If you recall, in 2009, the Federal Government entered into partnership with a Nigerian company, Bi-Courtney, under the public private partnership for that road to be rehabilitated and expanded in accordance with the concession agreement at the time. Bi-Courtney was given the time to sort out itself and get it right on that road, because the government was also mindful of ensuring that the PPP experiment succeeds, so as to encourage others to come on board. But unfortunately, that was not to be
because at the time we came in, the concession agreement had virtually failed, but we also tried to revive it. We gave them enough time; six months, nine months and even one year, to at least encourage them to get it right. But it was clear to us at the end of about three years after that agreement was signed that the concessionaire was not in a position to actually implement the agreement. So government in its wisdom decided to take over the road, particularly as a result of the outcry from citizens over the daily carnage on the road, more importantly because there was no visible sign that something was being done on that road. In fact, I remember visiting that road when I just came on board, and the concessionaire at the time had made a presentation to me, alleging an asphalt plant to have been installed in Shagamu by the interchange. But I decided and requested to go to the site unceremoniously, and on getting there, there was nothing on ground. At that point, we knew that something was really amiss. Even after that, we also tried to encourage the concessionaire to see whether it could get it right. It literally went to various parts of the world, but nobody was willing to put money down, and they didn’t have the money. It was, therefore, clear to us at the time that they will not be able to handle the project, so government in its wisdom decided to terminate the concession.
Following the termination of the concession, government now decided to construct that road by taking the lead on it, and that is exactly what we are doing. You are aware that construction work has commenced on that site, and both sections are recording appreciable progress of work. If you look at the Lagos-Shagamu interchange section, you will discover that the contractor there is working on about 15-kilometre stretch of road diversion with rough asphalt so as to have the entire right of way open to itself for unfettered construction activities. That is the Julius Berger Nigeria Ltd section.
As for the Ibadan section, RCC is doing very well, and they have a different approach, which is also working, and they are moving faster than expected. So it is our hope that the two sections will be completed before the 48 months period. Like I said, the MD of the company working on the Ibadan section (RCC) actually confirmed to me today that having reviewed the work, they believe they will be able to complete it in 36 months.
Another problem is the issue of articulated vehicles carrying excess load plying our highways; the impact of their activities is such that even if a road is reconstructed now, within a few years, it will become dilapidated again. What are you doing about this?
We also believe that one of the banes of Nigerian roads is the excessive axle loading on the road. When the dual carriageways were first constructed during the military regimes that gave rise to the Shagari regime, we had toll plazas and weighbridges in place on some of those arterial routes. Unfortunately, with the demolition of the toll plazas at the time, all those facilities were lost. The issue of controlling axle loading on our roads was no more. We have also looked at it that one of the causes of the perennial failure of our roads apart from construction problems or soil conditions is the excessive axle loading on the road. We, therefore, decided in 2012 to begin a systematic programme to re-introduce weigh bridges on those roads. If you observe, on most of the roads, we have started the construction of weighbridges, and we are deploying them. We have almost concluded the first set, and we hope to put in place a proper governance structure for the implementation and usage of those weighbridges. We believe when that comes on stream, at least, we will be able to mitigate the effect of excessive axle loading on our roads. But beyond that, we have also started engaging the heavy users of the roads, mostly the cement companies, the iron billet companies, the bitumen companies and others. We are engaging them so as to find a way of controlling their loads in the factory. We believe that will remove a percentage of excessive axle loading on our roads. But we have also found out that there is collusion sometimes between drivers, such that even when they leave the factories with the normal weight, they stop somewhere and reload, thereby putting on additional weight. So we are also mapping out plans to check those excesses.
The issue of state and federal roads has been a sore point in the relationship between states and the Federal Government. In Lagos for instance, you will be passing through a road that is so bad, and the state would say it is so because it is a federal road; what is the level of collaboration, especially in the cities?
In terms of relationship between states and the Federal Government, the example of Lagos you gave is not typical. Don’t forget that Lagos was the capital of Nigeria for many years, and that is the state where the Federal Government has the highest number of roads. Remove federal roads from Lagos, what is left? Is it the Ikorodu Expressway, the Third Mainland Bridge, the Oworonshoki-Apapa Road, the Hebert Macaulay Road or the Marina Road. All those are federal roads, so you now find out that many of the major federal roads in Lagos have over the years been maintained. I give it to the Lagos State government; they also do their bit because it serves their people. When we had the Council of Works meeting in Lagos in 2012, one of our resolutions at that meeting is that we now want to create a radius around state capital or cities where federal roads traverse. Federal roads basically ought to connect one state to another, so we are now experimenting with the issue of creating by-passes so that we are not brought into the issue of urban alignment because it is not federal government responsibility to provide urban alignment that would provide access to buildings and businesses. The Federal Government doesn’t collect taxes from those people. So it is the state government that collects those taxes, so they should be able to fix those roads.
And if you look at the politics of state and federal roads, you will find out that particularly during the military regime, most of these roads were surrendered by state governments to the Federal Government. So the Federal Government reluctantly assumed ownership of some of them, and we know these roads in question. If you go into the Federal Highways Act, you will see the real federal roads because they are in the act. Legally speaking, any road that has not been gazetted as a federal road cannot really claim to be such because every federal road has a route number, and all the federal roads with route numbers are contained as appendices in the schedule under the Federal Highways Act of 1971.
You can imagine that even as late as the Abacha regime, so many roads were still being offloaded to the Federal Government. So the politics of state and federal roads is very dicey. But recently, one of the areas where we have had problems with the states has to do with following due process in carrying out repairs of federal roads by state governments. During the regime of the late President Yar’Adua, the Federal Government in its wisdom approved the guidelines for intervention by state governments on federal roads. And these guidelines are very clear; if you are a state government, you must write to the Federal Government, in fact to the President intimating him that you want to carry out repair of so and so road. Or you could write to the Minister of Works, who will in turn inform the President. The request is evaluated, and if the road is of economic significance, and it truly connects one state to the other, more often than not, it is recommended that the President gives approval for intervention by the state government. Once such approval is granted, all the procurement processes must be in line with the Public Procurement Act at the federal level. After award of the contract, staff of the Federal Ministry of Works domiciled in that state must be part of the supervision of that road. Once a state meets these guidelines, we, as federal, take responsibility for refund. But what you see is that most times, some state governors just wake up, and they give contracts without our knowledge and without following the guideline. They then go to the newspaper or electronic media to say the Federal Government owes them so much billions of naira.
It is akin to having a house, which you gave to a tenant. One day you travelled and returned and the tenant slams you with a hefty bill that he has done renovation in the house, and he wants you to refund N15 billion. How will you react if you have such a thing? Without your consent as the landlord, a tenant should not go into that kind of thing. We at the federal level also have a budget, and we need to plan for our road development. And if such a project is part of our plan, why not? There have been a number of state governments we have refunded money to in the past, like Ekiti State Government.
In November last year, about N8 billion was paid out to a number of state governments as refunds for roads repairs under this regime. So it is an ongoing thing, but this is for state governments that comply with the guidelines. If you investigate, many of the states crying foul in the request for monies are people who just did streets, urban alignments that have no bearing with the interstate traffic. These are the challenges; we are looking into the matter by engaging with the states, and we believe that we should be able to work together, once due process is followed based on the guidelines.
In terms of priorities in the 2014 budget, what projects would the ministry be focusing on?
Again, because of the kind of funds we have, we are being mindful that we should put our funds on very critical projects that we want to bring either to completion or achieve substantial progress on. First on the list is the Loko- Oweto Bridge, which was a bridge we started a little over one year ago and we have already reached about 36 per cent completion. It connects Loko in Nasarawa State to Oweto in Benue. That project, when completed, will reduce travel time from Abuja to the South-east by more than two and a half hours. So it is a very critical project, which will be an alternative for people going to the south because sometimes when we have problems on this Lokoja Bridge over the Niger, it is like the whole country is shut down. So this project is strategic because once completed, it will reduce the traffic on the Abuja-Lokoja Road. The second I mentioned earlier that in a few weeks, we will be breaking the ground for the Second Niger Bridge.
It is also a priority project we are pursuing this year because good enough for that project, the Federal government is just expected to contribute about 30 per cent of the sum, while the Julius Berger Consortium will be responsible for provision of 70 per cent. At the end of it, they will toll the bridge in order to recoup their funds, just like Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. So tolling will not be limited to Lagos-Ibadan. Also, by the time we apply the funds from the China Exim Bank on the dualisation of the Keffi-Makurdi to Nightmar in Enugu, we are also going to toll it to be able to recoup the funds and repay China Exim Bank because that is the new template. Then of course, we are going to complete the Abuja-Lokoja Road, which is a priority. The Benin-Ore Shagamu Road is also a priority, and of course the Lagos-Ibadan is a major priority. We want to drive the completion to a substantial level this year. Then there is the approach road to the Oweto Bridge, both on the Nasarawa and Benue sides, and the approach road to the Niger Bridge both on the Asaba and Onitsha side. Added to these, we will be ramping up work on the Kano-Maiduguri Expressway, the Onitsha-Enugu Expressway, and the Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway. In fact, we are actually going to concentrate on our major arterial routes – the one running from Sokoto to Tambuwal-Jega through Kebbi, and Kontagora in Niger State will be ramped up. The road from Mokwa to Bida, which we awarded last year through our collaboration with the World Bank, we will strive towards quickly finishing it. Also there is Akure-Ilesha on which we are also going to be ramping up work. The roads are so many, but out of over 200, we have been able to prioritise, we have not more than 20 critical roads we want to focus our lean resources on.
Still on the disagreements between the federal and state governments over refund for repairs of federal roads in states, would you advocate a review of the ownership structure of federal roads in states bearing in mind that you will also have to review the revenue allocation formula to give them more money to do the work?
Already, the National Council of Works has resolved that roads within five-kilometre radius of most cities would be offloaded to the state governments because they are urban roads, not interstate roads. It will interest you to note that the National Council of Works is made up of the Minister of Works, all the state commissioners of works in the 36 states and the FCT, as well as other critical stakeholders like the National Union of Road Transport Workers and others. We all reached that joint resolution as a way of dealing with this issue. Apart from those that fall within those categories, the Federal Government certainly intends to keep its mandate of providing interstate roads that traverse different states of the country. More than 80 per cent of vehicular traffic in Nigeria is on federal roads, irrespective of the state they transverse, so we, the federal, truly bear the brunt of carrying economic activities on our roads. I repeat, no state government comes near to that. Today we have about 60,000 kilometres of roads paved in bitumen; 35,000 kilometres of those belong to the Federal Government, and these account for about 80 per cent of economic activities in the country. Whereas the states jointly own about 30,000 kilometres, but most of them are not arterial roads. These state roads lead to hinterlands, and they are not really Grade A roads.

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