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Babatunde Fashola, The Unabashed Lobbyist

Government is a continuum, it is often said. As such, nothing stops a new administration (and its officials) and from continuing with the policies and projects started by its predecessor, irrespective of party affiliation or ideology.

Indeed, this has become the norm in Nigeria where there is hardly any distinction between the two major political parties that have held sway since the inception of the Fourth Republic. One of the few programmes that make the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) distinct from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is the so-called Social Investment Programme that is yet to make any meaningful impact on Nigeria’s poorest.

But somehow and despite the glaring similarities between the APC and PDP, the incumbent Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, has made a case for the tenure elongation of the works minister.

Speaking last week at the unveiling of a compendium on proof of infrastructure delivery across Nigeria over a three-year period, Fashola, also known as the “Super Minister” because of the three portfolios rolled into one that he superintends, called for the extension of appointments of the works minister and critical directors in the ministry.

According to him, a four-year stint in office was too short to design, procure and implement road projects, among other critical infrastructure that fall under the purview of the ministry.

“Government cycles in the last 20 years have been fixed tenures of four years at a time, subject to how the electorate vote. Personnel changes are effected by retirement, deployment, opportunities and cabinet reshuffles. As a result, critical directors, permanent secretaries and ministers are turned over in a quest for efficiency.

In all, since 1952 to date, Nigeria has had 34 ministers of works and I am number 34 in a period of 67 years. This amounts to an average of a minister every 1.9 years. A further interrogation of the data of tenure shows that very few of them served for up to four years and above and the majority served a little over a year, which is barely enough time to design a road, not to mention undertaking the procurement and actually building the road,” Fashola, who serves at the pleasure of the president, stated.

He also called on the National Assembly to amend the Public Procurement Act, saying that the country’s procurement process must be urgent and compelling to national needs.

At first glance, Fashola’s argument may have appeared compelling, but to anyone with an inkling of how Nigerian politicians operate, it was also self-serving. Fashola, in just a few words, openly lobbied for the balkanisation of the power, works and housing ministry, and his retention as works minister. It will be foolhardy for anyone to think that Fashola was being altruistic and was arguing for future works ministers. Trust me, he does not care about anyone who holds the portfolio after him. His brazen lobbying to influence his retention in office was all about “me, myself and I”.

In my candid opinion, however, I do not believe that the “super minister” deserves another stint in office. Fashola, who as Lagos State governor, was once considered the poster boy of the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and later the APC, has been anything but effective in delivering on his mandate as the power, works and housing minister. In the power sector, the minister has failed abysmally.

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He has spent an inordinate amount of time feeding Nigerians with alternative facts on actual power generation and transmission capacity available in the country, fighting and trading blame with power sector operators, awarding contracts to transform the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) from one that should be focused on rural projects to one that is fixated on urban electrification projects, has failed to convince President Muhammadu Buhari as petroleum minister to resolve gas constraint issues by facilitating and attracting investments in new gas delivery projects as well as pipeline infrastructure for the 10 national integrated power projects (NIPPs) inherited from the Goodluck Jonathan administration, lacks the political will to wholly reform the Transmission Company of Nigeria (operator of the transmission grid) and push for the implementation of cost-reflective tariffs to make the power sector attractive to investors, and has meddled in the independence of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC).

Fashola, who once said fixing the power sector was not rocket science and was quoted to have said that any serious government could fix the sector in six months (which he has repeatedly denied), has not added a single landmark initiative or legacy project in the Nigerian Electricity Supply Industry (NESI) that one can point to.

Even when he boasts that we now generate 7,000MW of electricity and can transmit same, the performance of the transmission grid, which has attained a maximum peak of 5,375MW but records system failure every other week, completely contradicts his claim.

Even NERC, on its website, puts Nigeria’s current transmission wheeling capacity at 5,300MW which is higher than the average operational generation capacity of 3,879MW but is far below the total installed generation capacity of 12,522MW. The so-called transmission wheeling capacity of 7,500MW is termed theoretical by NERC.

In the housing sector, Fashola has not fared better in the three years plus that he’s been minister. He has not delivered a single housing project in any of the 34 states where his ministry was allocated land by the state governments to build mass housing estates. If truth be told, the housing ministry may have outlived its uses and perhaps should be scrapped all together.

Instead the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), which has successfully executed quite a few housing projects under public-private partnership initiatives, should be empowered to take over housing deliver nationwide. If the federal government is serious about trimming costs and improving efficiency, this is one small but certain step of achieving this deliverable.

In the area of works, Fashola will also be hard pressed to mention any major road project that he has started and completed as minister. He inherited quite a few roads and bridges from the Jonathan government such as the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, the Second River Niger Bridge, Onitsha-Enugu expressway, dualisation of the Obajana junction to Benin section, Gombe-Numan road, to mention a few, but none has reached 70% completion to date.

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To be fair, if one has to factor inflation and the naira devaluation between 2014 and 2017, most of the contracts would have had to go through cost variations and subsequent rounds of tedious procurement processes to reflect the new cost of the projects. However, the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) is not entirely to blame for the delays experienced in the execution and completion of all federal government projects in the country.

In a circular issued in January 2016 by the then Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Babachir Lawal, he reminded all ministers and heads of parastatals that they were all statutorily required to prepare and submit their procurement records for the 2015 financial year not later than three months after the end of the financial year to the BPP as stipulated under the Public Procurement Act.

He went further to add: “If all MDAs immediately commence the implementation of procurement activities and comply with procedures and time-lines laid down in the Act, the process for the award of most contracts would have been concluded by early 2016, thereby providing the platform for full implementation of the 2016 budget by the federal government.” Had they heeded this circular, Fashola would have had no reason to grumble about the statutory bureaucratic bottlenecks inherent in public procurement.

It is instructive that even though this circular was issued before the passage of the 2016 budget, with its inflation and exchange rate assumptions, it was an administrative call to arms for the MDAs to commence and conclude their procurement processes in a timely manner.

It was also premised on the notion that a lot of the projects included in yearly budgets by the executive are not necessarily new but are rolled over from the preceding year, even after the National Assembly may have shaved off or added a few billions of naira from some of the projects. What this further implies is that projects that are carried over into a new budget cycle, especially those in the 2018 budget when the official/interbank exchange rate had stabilized at N305-6 to the dollar, do not have to go through procurement for a second or third time.

Even if we were to review budgetary allocations vis-à-vis the actual amount released and cash-backed, information on the website of the Budget Office of the Federation shows that Fashola’s power, works and housing ministry consistently got the lion share of budgetary allocations, releases and cash-backing between 2016 and September 2018 for capital projects.

In the 2016 budget, his ministry was allocated N442.964 billion but actually got N307.411 billion which was cashed-backed 100%. Of the N307.411 billion, Fashola utilised 97.1% of the cash released to his ministry. In the 2017 budget, the power, works and housing ministry was allocated N553.713 billion but actually got N336.577 billion which again was 100% cash-backed, but utilised 80.1% or N269.581 billion of the funds released to the ministry.

While the third quarter implementation report for the 2018 budget shows that Fashola’s ministry was allocated N682.959 billion, of which a measly N122.184 billion was released and cash-backed and only 37% of the amount utilised. But add to this the first and second tranches of the N100 billion Sukuk Infrastructure Bond that have been released to Fashola, that should give Nigerians an inkling of the funds that were made available to his ministry between 2018 and 2019.

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From all indications, Fashola has not lived up to his billing. Like most Nigerians, Buhari was hoodwinked by his modest accomplishments in Lagos where the state assembly, like other state assemblies, acts as a rubber stamp for the executive and contracts are awarded without due process.

 

But the reality is that in eight years in office, Fashola, who only built a few unremarkable independent power plants but left the state in darkness, who patched and constructed a few roads but left the bulk of inner city streets in a state of disrepair, who built a few ramp bridges and a costly toll bridge between Ikoyi and Lekki but could not commence the Fourth Mainland Bridge, who claimed to have upgraded the water infrastructure works but left 99% of Lagosians without access to pipe-borne water, and who left behind the education and health sectors begging for attention, was never the right man for the job at the power, works and housing ministry. Another four years in office will not make any difference.

What the country needs at this juncture is a minister with the vision and political will to reform the way public infrastructure is funded. Like many politicians before him, Fashola’s preference is to sit tight, embark on contract/cost variations so that palms can be greased, and contracts awarded.

This is a vicious, financially debilitating cycle with no end in sight and leaves the country with a litany of uncompleted projects. A surer bet and more cost effective way of saving the billions that are deployed in infrastructure projects with nothing to show for it, is to appoint a minister who is desirous of attracting private sector investors and or contractors willing to provide performance bonds and funding for projects that are backed by sovereign guarantees. In the event that they fail to deliver on the infrastructure projects, it is the investors that would lose the shirts off their backs by way of forfeiture of the performance bond.

With that uppermost on their minds, very few investors will fail to deliver. But more importantly, this will be a win, win for Nigerians and government, which will have more funds at its disposal to spend on social infrastructure projects.

By Ijeoma Nwogwugwu

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