Love or hate Babatunde Raji Fashola, former Lagos State Governor and current Minister of Works and Housing, you cannot take away two key traits that have eloquently defined his life: humility and simplicity – all rolled into one.
They stand him out from the crowd. His head is still hot with tons of ideas garnered from the numerous books on sundry topics he reads passionately even though he can hardly remember the last time he appeared before a judge as a lawyer. But that does not dissuade him from reading and reading about highway engineering and construction as if his life depends on it even as he keeps his very tight schedule as Nigeria’s Works and Housing Minister.
I have never sat under his tutelage or attended any event hosted by him either when he was the governor of Lagos State or when he first held sway as Nigeria’s Works, Housing and Power Minister, which ended last year when the power portfolio was excised from his ministry. But we ‘bumped’ into ourselves for the first time ever on Monday morning courtesy of a directive that I should accompany the ministerial team to inspect federal projects being undertaken in the South-South and the South-East geopolitical zones of the country.
I had already taken my seat in the small plane ferrying us-Dr. Luke Onyekayekah, a respected columnist with the Guardian, John Osadalor, an editor with Business Day and Mustapha Isah, the current President of Nigerian Guild of Editors-to Benin Airport and we were already enjoying our discussion on the state of the nation when Fashola sauntered in and took his seat quietly as the plane sliced off the early morning fog to Benin City Airport.
The flight was to run for 32 minutes and even before we could finish the sumptuous fruit juice and small chops presented to those who ‘cared for breakfast’ by the dark smart-looking waitress with faded blue nails, the aircraft had smashed into the runway and we alighted to the warm embrace of enthusiastic ministry officials, journalists and others all gearing up to take us to the Benin-Lokoja Highway, which was our first port of call as we began a five-day trip to inspect federal highways, national housing schemes and the 2nd Niger Bridge, a project that had before now raised the heartbeat of most Nigerians as to whether it is real or phantom given the number of years it had remained on the drawing board after it was awarded fanfare in 2012.
But Fashola ‘disappointed’ us right from the time we arrived the airport by engaging in series of ‘un- ministerial’ actions that most of his colleagues would deeply detest and abhor if they were to lead editors and journalists to anywhere in the country. First ‘misdemeanour’ unbecoming of a minister in Nigeria, Minister Fashola shunned the more comfortable Sports Utility Vehicle assigned to him and opted to ride with us on a Coaster bus with no special effects. Second ‘offence’, Fashola, who wore a long-sleeved Ankara shirt apparently made from one of the local shops in Abeokuta, sat in the bus as a ‘conductor, directing affairs from his end: telling the driver the best safety tactics to adopt, which way to go as if he was a native of the communities we were visiting and screaming at times whenever the driver seemed to miss his bearing. “Driver,” he said at one time, please ensure that everyone who is supposed to be in this bus is not left behind. Make sure that you count all the people before we move,” he counselled as the ‘passengers’ roared in ceaseless laughter.
Then, he cleared his throat and began to address us as if we had earlier given him our individual names before we started the journey. Behind his seat were the Ministry’s Director of Works, state and zonal controllers of works and aides, who were taking copious notes a directive as we stopped by to see the pace, quality and quantity of work on roads, federal secretariats and national housing project sites in the South-South and South-East.
“The purpose of this journey is not about self-validation,” the minister began his briefing as though he was not going to be able to say anything. “I want you to know what is happening in the road sector in Nigeria and to be able to see what we have done on each road, why we are doing that and what the challenges and potentials are so as to be able to enlighten Nigerians too.
“Too often, some people believe that there is an unlimited amount of money in the purse of the federal government that is not being used to build and rehabilitate roads. But the truth is that the money is not just there while various conditions continue to challenge the building and rehabilitation of roads at the same time. That is why the government picks some roads at one time and works on them based on the strategic importance, access to agricultural areas, ports, industry, educational institutions, social investment, fuel supply routes and other factors that may not be very obvious to all,” he said.
And, by the time he concluded the speech, Fashola had successfully taken the journalists through the history and economics of federal roads in the country and then zoomed in on the ones in the South-South, South-East we were going to inspect and what was responsible for the steady progress for some and stunted pace of work in others. By this time, we had landed on the Benin-Lokoja (Auchi-Okene), Auchi-Ehor section and Ehor-Benin section with a total of 128.32 kilometres which were all awarded on December 2012 and primed to be completed before the lifespan of the previous administration, which did not happen due to funding challenges.
The combined costs of the three sections of the road stand at N91.34 billion excluding the payment of compensation and resettlement of natives who have continuously come up with fresh demands on makeshift structures and crops, whose value is being computed by the Department of Lands for final settlement. But while the whole gamut of the road is being targeted for completion with better funding being drawn from SUKUUK Fund, the works minister is more concerned with ensuring that the most problematic spots on the road, which usually give travellers and natives a nightmare especially during the rainy season, are taken up and dealt with by the contractors even before any other segment is attended to while the sun still shines.
On the basis of that directive, a total of 21.57 kilometres of the Auchi-bound axis and 15.11 of the Okene-bound axis of the highway have been done up to binder course by the contractor-Mothercat between 2017 and now when the government started funding it better with SUKUUK cash. Although the contractor has done work said to be worth N12.6 billion, he has received payment to the tune of N3 billion. Similarly, Auchi-Ehor axis, which had two-lane single carriageway, is being expanded and provided with interchange bridges at Ewu and the cutting down of a deadly steep hill which had remained a major accident spot that had consistently claimed many lives before the intervention by the government.
The additional lanes awarded by the Buhari administration is to cater for the agricultural produce communities of Aviele, Egono, Agbede, Ihua/Jagbe, Ewu. Eko-Ewu, Irrua and Ekpoma town before terminating at Eguabor in Iruekpen. At the same time, the Ehor-Benin section of the road has been revised with additional lanes increasing its length from the initial 16 Kms to 47.4 Kms and the amount raised from N11.6 billion to N35.2 billion with provisions for bypasses, two pedestrian bridges, and two roundabouts to provide more safety and comfort for the people.
This has been well funded with the SUKUUK fund and the contractor has in response done well on the section. Although the work is yet to be completed, Fashola is thrilled by a few milestones recorded on the road. One of the things that excite him most is the successful cutting down of the ‘deadly Hill of Ewu’, which many of the natives now celebrate as a major victory over the incessant deaths that used to occur as motorists attempted to climb or descend the monstrous hill. “This was the spot that killed my uncle and prevented him from attending my matriculation many years ago when I was a young boy,” one of the journalists on the entourage told me. “We are from this state and we know this dangerous spot very well and we are happy that the Federal Government has finally taken action to cut it down and build it into a flat surface road. This is where the Chief Press Secretary to one of the South-South governors lost his live while trying to descend the hill some years ago,” another journalist lamented.
But watching the contractor on the site, Fashola nodded his head in apparent approval of the quality of work the company had done in that deadly spot, saying with ecstasy “Our first target of reducing deaths at this spot through the cutting down of the slippery steep hill at Ewu has been achieved and we have added another lane to the Benin-Ehor-Auchi-Lokoja Highway”.
The similar feat has been recorded by the contractor working on the Onitsha-Enugu Highway at the failed portion at Umunya, which was so bad during the last rainy season that some Nigerians recorded video of the deplorable condition of the road and used them to troll the government for abandoning them. The minister has made it compulsory for the contractor handling that part of the road to first rehabilitate that part before proceeding with the major construction. For that intervention, the contractor has accordingly arrested the rot and created a single lane for uninterrupted flow of traffic while working on a new lane to ensure that by the time the rainy season sets in there would be two functional lanes for traffic to flow and the pains of road users eliminated or substantially reduced.
Perhaps, of all the projects the minister inspected during his trip, none of them excited him more than the joy he felt with the realization that the contractors had reached a milestone with the successful erection of the first deck of the Second Niger Bridge, thereby gradually moving the project from a mere conceptual variable to a concrete reality that Nigerians can see, feel and touch after many decades of thinking and talking about it.
As Fashola and his team undertook a guided tour of the multi-million Naira project, I quickly posted the video to VanguardLive, our tv channel and many who are not in a position to visit the site and see for themselves screamed in utter disbelief that it could not be possible for the bridge to rise from the seabed to the deck just after the German firm had taken over the site on October 1, 2018. To some of those who had taken turns to attack the federal government over the perceived ‘deceit’ of Nigerians over the project, whose contract was awarded by the previous administration just before the 2011 elections, they were taken aback by the speed with which the contractor had performed in less than two years to turn a near-abandoned project to a landmark that is gradually changing the landscape, economic and social trajectory of the South East.
The Project Manager, Eng. Friedrich Wieser, who conducted the minister round the project including the 7Km access road to the bridge, which is currently being sand-filled, said that his company was happy to deploy over 1300 Nigerians and 425 equipment to handle the construction work, adding that with adequate funding, which is coming from the government of Nigeria, his company was ready to complete the decking of the first part of the bridge in September this year and begin work on the second land of the bridge.
According to Wieser, Julius Berger will finally hand over the 2nd Niger Bridge to the Nigerian government in February 2022, barely four years after moving into the site. Like a proud mother who has given birth to an abounding baby, Fashola was thrilled to have witnessed the historic partial completion of the first part of the deck of the long-awaited bridge under his ministry’s supervision and guidance.
An elated Fashola told journalists on tour with him that the Buhari administration was determined to complete the monumental project in February 2022, with a definite funding arrangement put in place by the federal government to ensure that there was no delay of any kind. “This is one project that President Muhammadu Buhari wants to see its early completion and we are mobilizing funds from all sources, including Nigeria’s money that was stolen and stashed away in foreign lands, to ensure that it becomes a reality,” the minister said. “I want to assure all Nigerians that given the economic and strategic importance of the bridge to the country and the states on the route, we are determined more than ever to ensure its early completion so that Nigerians can derive its full benefits,” Fashola added.
The Economics of federal highways and poverty reduction Although Fashola is eager to see to the early completion of all the projects being undertaken by the Works and Housing Ministry under him, he nevertheless pays serious attention to the economic side of the benefits which the projects are adding to the people and the rural economy of the communities where the projects are sited. The emphasis on the economy, according to him, is in line with the promise by President Muhammadu Buhari to lift no fewer than 100 million Nigerians out of poverty through the provision of projects to drive the rural economy.
“The president does not need to be physically present before he changes the story of the rural dwellers in Nigeria and neither does he need to move from village to village to take them out of poverty,” the minister explained. “But by approving and providing the funding for the construction of highways, major bridges, National Housing projects, federal secretariats, road network in federal universities, the president is actually spreading wealth and improving the living standards and economic power of Nigerians particularly those in the rural areas as most of the economic activities to support these multi-million projects take place in the rural areas of Nigeria and not the cities.
“As you can see the location and ownership of borrow pits and quarries are at the rural areas and not in the cities while the negotiation for the supply and payment for the sand and other construction materials are done by the local leaders who negotiate directly with the contractors and get their money without any encumbrance,” the minister pointed out. The minister’s eye on the impact of road construction across Nigeria by the federal government may aptly explain why he personally looks out for and mingles with petty traders who sell food, drinks and groceries around his project sites and jokingly interrogates them on how much they make on a daily basis by selling food to artisans working on those projects.
At all the locations where federal projects are going on, Fashola personally picks out petty traders and artisans and poses with them and shakes hands with them before leaving the locations. In Anambra State where one of the National Housing Schemes is ongoing, he engaged a woman who sells ‘mama put’ for N250 a plate and the trader, who was overwhelmed by the fact that she posed with a minister and took time to share ideas with him, confessed that she makes at least N5000 as profit at the end of each day’s transaction at the site where the husband also serves as a labourer.
At a similar housing site in Asaba, Delta State, the minister interacted with a group of artisans, who were working as masons and labourers. When the minister inquired from them their daily pay, the masons said they earned N4500 while the labourers confessed they go home daily with N3000. “We want you to thank President Muhammadu Buhari for us for giving us this means of livelihood but we need more jobs from him so as to help our families the more,” the itinerant workers told Fashola, who later posed with them as a mark of his identification with them.
Clearly, the enthusiasm to build and rehabilitate more roads across the country is alive and burning in the heart of the minister and his officials but a gamut of challenges far beyond the reach of the government all combine to deny them the leverage to do so. The major challenge is that all the ingredients needed to deliver good roads across the country are not readily available simultaneously because as could be seen across the land if the money is available, inclement weather coupled with ceaseless litigation by communities over land ownership and compensation for makeshift structures, shrines and totems would work against the system.
Despite these challenges, Fashola maintains a calm disposition to his work, praying that a time will come when all parts of Nigerian will have unhindered access to good roads and be able to enjoy the full benefits of the investments that the Buhari administration is making today in infrastructure. Roads do not last forever and we must bear in mind that the day we begin to use a road, it is actually depreciating from that moment and we need to continuously find ways and means of repairing and rehabilitating them in order not to fail us,” the minister said. Throughout the five-day journey that took us from Benin to Asaba, Port Harcourt, Owerri, Aba, Uyo, Ikot Ekpene, Calabar and Ugep, Fashola never failed to crack a joke that provided relief to the stress on the long trip and he never left his seat in the bus despite the many SUVs that he should have enjoyed as a minister of the federal republic of Nigeria.
But, surprisingly, he chose to ride in the bus with the people, enduring the ache in the process. From the time he was governor till date he remains a man of the people.
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