Babatunde Raji Fashola, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), is seen by many as a super minister, as superintends the three critical ministries of Power, Works and Housing, unlike most of his colleagues who oversee only a ministry. Therefore, the former governor of Lagos State has always been in the eye of the storm essentially because of the strategic nature of his three ministries.
In this interview with Sunday Sun, he opened up on the challenges he has had to grapple with, how he has improved the three critical ministries, the vision of Buhari administration and the difference between his time as governor and now as minister.
You been here for over three years, you were a governor for eight years; what has been your experience?
Well, I haven’t been here for three years. I have been here for two years, seven months and 15 days.
It is like you are counting your days in office?
That’s the only asset I have – time. I keep measuring it every day.
That is to say you work with time?
Seriously, that’s a fact and accurately I was sworn-in in November 2015. It’s not yet three years that I’ve been here. Our government was elected and has been in office for just a little over three years. But I think the point to note also is that the roles of ministers are clearly different from the roles of governors. What you get to do in three years is not the same thing as what you get to do over eight years. There is a planning period, there is consultation period and also a team-building period. All of us who work in the new government have come from different backgrounds. Some are former governors like myself; some have never been in government. Some have come as former commissioners; some as legislators; some came from the executive arms. Some have never worked in government before; I have worked in government, but never worked in the Federal Government before – we became a team and we needed time to get to know each other – our strengths and weaknesses. As I often say, “if you can give quality time to a football team to blend, you must give time to a government team to also blend.” As we get to know each other, we also get to know our partners, like those in the parliament. We have 109 senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives – we have to work together. You would see that from the first to the second and to the third year, the government is getting stronger. It is still not up to what you get when compared with what you do in eight years.
But under two years in Lagos, you asserted yourself and many were yearning for you to come back based on what they saw you achieved. Why is it not so this time around?
I am surprised to hear that. You didn’t give that impression on my second year at that time, you made me feel there were certain things I had not done; until the last day, you kept me on my toes. I have things done even after eight years, so, I think the point to make here is that there is a planning period and if you ask me where I am, I think unarguably, we have improved upon what we met and this is debatable. There is no argument about that. Can we run faster? Yes. We want to run faster, but it is not right to compare eight years to three years. It is not also right to compare the role of a governor
with that of a minister, who is part of a larger team under a government.
Is there anything slowing you down from running faster? We all know there is misunderstanding between the executive and the legislature and it seems things are not getting better.
You think things are not getting better? I can tell you that our relationship with them is getting better and I am the one eating the pudding. I know how it tasted when we came in 2016 and I know how it tastes now. I can tell you that because in relationship building, there is nothing slowing me down in that sense. In the sense of expectation, people expect everything to happen as quickly as possible. We want to see that done; I am just coming back from Kano; we are going to build a 375KM road; everybody wants it done like yesterday. The construction period is three years. So, it has to be done one meter at a time until it becomes a kilometer, until it becomes 10KM, until it becomes 375KM. If you put all your money there today, you won’t create a road. That’s what we are dealing with. It is one at a time. We are moving as fast as our resources and government processes, as fast as human relationship allows us to move. This is a democracy and, therefore, you need to build consensus; consensus about what is priority; so what is priority for the national government may not be priority for the parliamentarian, who wants to do something different in his constituency. Can you work without him? No! You need him. So, how do you persuade him to come to your side? Then, there are procurement processes; you want transparency; you want accountability. We must follow those processes. We must advertise. We must go through Bureau of Public Procurement. These are all the laws. You must respect the laws. If you break any law, it is not a defense that you’ve wanted to do good.
Can you be specific on some of the challenges you are facing currently?
Those are challenges that any government has to face all over the world. You just saw in Heathrow, Britain, they just voted after 14 or 16 years to do a third runway for the Heathrow Airport. Because every time they want to do it, they go to the parliament, some people would say no, this is the first time and they must have the majority. Since 2002, that is 16 years. That is the oldest democracy in the world. To build a runway it took them 16 years to agree.
We saw the concessioning of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway to Bi-Courtney. It was later withdrawn and given to Julius Berger. What is really the grouse against Bi-Courtney?
I think that if you want to know why it was
withdrawn, you would have to ask those who managed the government and those who took the decision to terminate the contract at the time. What I can tell you is that there has been a termination because the contract was not moving as perhaps expected and that termination was done I think in 2012, five or six years after the contract was signed. No significant funding had come into the project at the time, in terms of actual cost. And I would like to stop there because the matter is in court and that termination is being challenged.
Some of the interventions, which we used to see FERMA executing in many parts of the country seem to have disappeared. Some of the roads are collapsing and nobody is actually doing anything to fix them. Why is it so?
(Cuts in) Which road is collapsing?
Across the country.
Across the country?
That is not the experience I have. I have driven across this country and my experience is that people see improved attention to the roads – that’s what I hear. I don’t know what you have heard. I have driven around. I have interacted with those who use the roads. Transporters, NUPENG, Petroleum Tankers Drivers, Nigerian Association of Road Transport Owners (NARTO), their experience is different. I have interacted with contractors; their experience as regards to funding is different. So, I think if we don’t agree on the facts, we can’t have a conversation. Have we covered all the routes? No. Don’t forget also that we came into government at a time when Nigeria’s major source of income, oil, dropped. There was a time it reached $117 per barrel. It dropped to about $38 per barrel. We inherited debt, unpaid contractors for years. One of my contractors just told me that for the first time in 10 years, he was not owing money to his bank. This is what has changed. We are covering more distance with less resources, we are covering more distances. We just reported a N1.6trillion capital expenditure spent in the 2017 budget. At the time we were earning much more than this ($100 per barrel), we didn’t spend half a trillion on capital expenditure. That’s why when people ask me what has changed, it is that we are doing more with less.
The delivery time is another thing entirely; and if you know how construction works, you would understand the synergy between construction and the diversification of the economy. Every time you pay a contractor, the first person he pays is his sub-contractor to supply quarry, sand, rocks and construction materials like lat- erites. That has to be produced – cubic meter by cubic meter, then it has to be transported to quarry plant and mixed with concrete – and that’s what creates the ecosystem of employment – mining, transportation, labour, supply, as well as the food chain for labourers – women, vendors, and so on and so forth. That’s why I say undebatably, we have improved things from where there were. Have we finished all the roads? No, and we are not building two kilometer roads. We are building roads that span 200km to 400km, roads that connect states and they won’t be built over night.
So, you can confidently say that in two and a half years, this government has done far better than what the previous administration did in five years, in terms of road construction?
We have made things better than what we met. I don’t want to talk about the past government. I want to talk about what we met. We have improved upon what we met, and don’t take my word for it. Go to Enugu-Port Harcourt, and stop any commuter there – ask him what is his experience on the section we have completed. He will tell you his journey time has improved even though we haven’t finished the work. Go to Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and ask the commuter there; he will tell you work is going on, there is a diversion, but the journey from Lagos to Ibadan is taking fewer hours than it took three years ago. Go to Kano-Maiduguri or Benin-Okene or Ilorin-Jebba.
What has actually happened? Is it as a result of lack of funds that has made this government not to intervene in the East-West Road, which the Niger-Delta Ministry has been struggling to do?
The government has intervened. I have travelled to the East-West Road from the Akwa Ibom/Calabar side to the Bayelsa side right through to the Benin-Warri side. The major parts that are not completed suffered largely from violence and militancy in the area, where contractors had to abandon the site. There are also problems of lack of funding, but on a pound-for-pound basis, if you analyze that route, at least, close to 70 per cent of it has been largely built. I must also note that people were also trading on the road. I have driven the entire length of the road. I know what I am talking about. A committee of EXCOs, including my ministry just stormed the road re- cently, and if you hear from Minister of Niger Delta and Minister of Transport, they will re-echo exactly what I am telling you. The government is determined to complete that road, and we need to secure the peace so that contractors can work. We also need to get the money; it was challenged by lack of funding and also challenged in some places by security.
Apart from funds, have the plans of the government been in any way slowed down by insecurity in some parts of the country?
Oh yes! We have problems in places where contractors are threatened; contractors are robbed and in some places contractors are kidnapped. The truth is that wherever you have insecurity, development is also affected. You can’t run away from that. That is why the government continues to pursue security as a top agenda. That was why security was a top campaign agenda for this government. So that economic development and prosperity can follow. So, all of us must also learn that we have a bigger interest and bigger stake in ensuring peace for our collective wellbeing because it is in an era of peace that development is rapid.
Which part of the country is insecurity much more prevalent?
The security challenges are global. Every country has security challenge. Let’s just deal with that first. In terms of prevalence, we get reports from all parts of the country. We get from the South-West, the Niger-Delta, the North-West, we get from the North-East and the North-Central; different reasons, but what we do is that we work with the security agents to ensure that we can get the contractors back to site.
Going from Abuja to Lagos, motorists are often confused on the roads to take because they are all in bad shape. Why has it been difficult to fix some of the roads, yet the government is patting itself on the back that it has made many roads better?
Which roads are you talking about? Kabba to Ikole in Kogi and Ekiti states, the road is not passable? I don’t think you are correct. The road from Kabba to Ikole is a very old road. Our priority right now is to re-establish the connectivity from Lagos to Sokoto. That’s why you would see work going on now in Lagos-Ibadan, Oyo-Ogbomosho and Ilorin-Jebba. We are going to award Jebba-Mokwa and you would see work coming from the Northern parts of the country – from Sokoto-Tambuwal- Jega – all the way down and if you have any doubt, there is the map of the roads right behind you; all of the projects; progress of work; this is our transmission map. That’s the transport map. So, we are trying to reconnect. I think the best way to explain this to you is this: we earned for almost 10 years an average of $100 per barrel and at some time, it exceeded that. We didn’t invest it on infrastructure. You were the ones who were reporting then that the capital expenditure side of the budget was only 15 per cent. Was that not your report? You were the ones who were reporting then that although the economy was growing at seven per cent, there were no jobs. It is because we were not investing in infrastructure. The growth was fueled by oil. What were other countries doing with their oil money? Russia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, were investing it in stadia, in airports, airlines, tall buildings and towers. If you lose an opportunity of 10 years, do you want to regain it in two and half
years? First of all, you’ve lost the resources – it’s gone and you also lost the time. We are trying to reset the clock, even to get money to do those projects; we met contractors who haven’t been paid for five years. And we came around at a time when the revenue has gone below 50 per cent of what it used to be. We also met debts. So, this change is not a big bang theory. It is going to be a process, one after the other. So, what have we done? Works that haven’t been done for three, four, five years because there was no funding, we’ve raised Sukkuk; we are funding 25 routes across the major six geo-political zones with N100 billion. We just went to flag off Abuja-Kaduna-Zaria-Kano road today, under a ‘Presidential Infrastructural Development Fund’ and that will include the second Niger Bridge and also the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. So, for the first time the president has created a fund to guarantee that those three projects will never stop until they are finished. This kind of commitment to infrastructure wasn’t there three years ago.
What is the situation with the Second Niger Bridge?
The contractor of the Second Niger Bridge, Julius Berger Plc, is on site; they are working on the foundations and the piling. I visited the place about four weeks ago and the reports were published in the media. What remains to conclude now is a revision of the project costs because project costs have changed. Because at the time the costs were agreed, the exchange rate, market costs for cement and iron rods were not what they are today. Secondly, at the time the project even started under the last administration, they didn’t include the road connectivity from Asaba to the bridge and from Onitsha to the bridge. They just awarded the bridge. It was when I came that we finished the design and we are waiting for the BPP approval of the pricing and the scope to take it to Federal Executive Council and add it to the existing projects. Contractors are working.
How long are we going to wait for BPP? During your recent tour of the South-East where you visited the Niger Bridge, the Director of Highways said a memo has been sent to the BPP. How long are we going to wait?
Don’t ask me that question. Go and ask BPP. I do my work and BPP does its work.
The director also said that N210 billion would be required to work on the main road. How is your ministry going to source for the funds?
I have just told you that there is now a Presidential Infrastructure Development Fund to cover those three projects: Lagos-Ibadan; Second Niger Bridge and Abuja-Kaduna-Kano Highway. Because those are not covered under the budget scope.
What informed the decision of government to fund it directly?
Simply because there was a private sector initiative and it didn’t work. That’s where we started this conversation. Bi-Courtney; they are in court. The people of Nigeria don’t want to hear that you are in court; they want to see a road being built.
Before now, the Second Niger Bridge used to be seen as a South- East project. It was not until newsmen started reporting the other side of it that people came to know that it has an international dimension. Why was it at that level?
Go and ask the people who were in charge. I can’t account for what you did. I can only explain what I am doing. Because I understand and it depends on who is making the commentaries. I understand the Second Niger Bridge as a critical expansion of connectivity for a link across the River Niger. So, it is a link between the East and West of Nigeria, and in the same way that the Loko-Owetto Bridge is the link between the North and South of Nigeria across the River Benue. As we are finishing the Loko-Owetto Bridge, we are starting the Ibbi Bridge.
Are you in agreement with the perception by many that successive administrations have used Niger Bridge to play politics?
I think the point to make is an ideology. I used to belong to a party in opposition. When the party in government then came with a message, it came with a message called ‘stomach infrastructure’. But we said that we will do real infrastructure. President Buhari is very clear in his mind, how defining real infrastructure is – to liberate Nigeria, to deliver prosperity to the people of this country, and that is why he is approving the Sukkuk Funds; he is approving the infrastructure development fund and that is why he is approving all other initiatives to ensure that we can fund Nigeria’s infrastructure. So, those people can account for what they did. Okay, but I think that good infrastructure is good politics, but you have to deliver it. If we can deliver it, then it has political mileage because then people can understand why they voted for a particular government. There are parts of Nigeria that I drive across and they look to me to say please, tell the President our roads have been bad for 15 years, I ask them, “why were you voting for the people who kept it bad?” Because that is the power of the vote – to change your own lives by entrusting it to somebody who keeps a promise. That for me is what democracy should be.
There have been clamour to have federal roads abolished. Is there any merit in the campaign?
I think the point first to understand is that we are a Federal Republic. We have adopted a federal arrangement to manage our affairs. So, there is a Federal Government that has constitutional authority. The Federal Government is not just a busy body on the highway. The constitution actually says that it should take care of certain types of roads – the arterial roads which link states. All the other roads are roads that are managed by states and local governments. You will find the same thing in Brazil, a Federal Republic as you would find in America, a Federal Republic. You may not find it with such clear dimensions or dichotomies in the United Kingdom, but you will see that some heavy roads or expensive roads are actually, usually undertaken by the national government and they leave the city councils and mayoralties to deal with the smaller roads. So, I don’t see that debate going anywhere unless there is a constitutional amendment.
But people also feel that the Federal Government appears overburdened by it, that’s why they leave many roads in a deplorable state?
Which state has finished it’s own roads? Tell me one state government that has finished its roads or one local government that has finished its own roads. There is no tier of government. If you were looking for blame, there is enough to go round.
How burdensome has it been handling three ministries?
Have I complained? And you see, I think we should also have a consensus about what the job of a minister is: just to provide leadership. I am not the only minister here; we are three. There are two other ministers. I have Mustapha Baba Shehu, the Minister of State, Power, Works and Housing 1; Suleiman Hassan Zama, Minister of State, Power, Works and Housing 2. We have two Permanent Secretaries. Ours is the only ministry with two permanent secretaries. We have competent staff; so with leadership, everybody is doing his job. And the leadership comes from the President, that this is where we are going to focus; this is where I want to see your energy. On one hand, you complain that the ministry is too large; on the other hand, the president merges three ministries and then you still complain on the other hand, you say the cost of government is too high. Merging three ministries is for what? Efficiency. Ordinarily these three ministries used to have about six ministers, three substantive, three junior ministers and each would have a permanent secretary. Each of those ministers will have all sorts of aides as well. We cut all that down to save cost and we are not complaining.
Many remember your stiff opposition to mass housing when you were the Lagos State governor, do you still hold such position on it?
No, no, no. This is a matter of logic and commonsense. Let us get the definitions clear. Once the definitions are clear and you and I are talking about the same thing, then it’s easy to move forward. What was the problem? People were talking about low-cost housing. That is not the same thing as mass housing. They are not the same. They mean different things. My argument then was that, perhaps we should move to affordable housing instead of talking about low-cost housing. Really, there is no low-cost cement, no low-cost iron rod and no low-cost labour. Workers are asking for a revision of their national minimum wage, and what I know that other nations have done is not to pursue low-cost housing but to pursue affordable housing. What is the basis of affordability? Build efficiently. You can reduce cost through design; you can reduce cost through efficient building; you can reduce cost through choice of finishing; you can reduce cost through transparency and elimination of corruption. But more importantly, you can achieve affordability by spreading out the mode of payment. People should not be paying for a house by cash.
Many took you on recently when you said that people no longer use their generators. Were you misquoted?
I didn’t say that. I said that they didn’t run it for as long as they use to. People don’t run their generators for as long as they use to. They don’t buy diesel, the quantity they use to. If that is a lie, come and disprove it.
Some people came up and said that perhaps…
(Cuts in) And I said also that we haven’t covered everybody. Those who are getting better service are receiving better service and people we are yet to serve, I acknowledge that we haven’t served them. Have we improved on what we met? Yes, we have. We can generate 7,000MW now, but we met a capacity to generate only 4,000MW. So, if you measure us over the last three years that this government was inaugurated, we are doing an average of 1000MW per year in power generation increase – from 4,000 to 7,000. If you measure us by distribution, in 1999, the amount of power being distributed was roughly 2000MW. I have the exact figure somewhere. By the time we came, the total power was 2,690MW in May. So, over 16 years, the increase in distribution was 690MW. Divide it by 16 and you get less than perhaps 100MW per year. Now, what have we done? We have moved from 2,690MW to 522 – so, almost 3,000. So, we are doing almost 700MW distribution increase per year. That is tremendous increase from what we met. Have we finished the job? No, it is the same problem that you see with infrastructure or what you left for 16 years, you won’t finish in three years.