• Monday, July 15, 2024
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BusinessDay

Ajaokuta Steel Company: A monument to mismanagement

FG wades into TCN/Ajaokuta Steel crisis

In the grand vision for Nigeria’s industrial future, the Ajaokuta Steel Company was meant to be a powerhouse, a forge that would ignite a national transformation. Today, it stands as a desolate monument—a chilling mausoleum for over $8 billion in wasted dreams. Rusting behemoths dominate the landscape, a constant reminder of the vibrant steel mills that could have been the backbone of the nation’s economy. We dissect the failures that led to this national disappointment, not to dwell on the past but to explore potential paths towards a brighter future. Can Ajaokuta rise from the ashes, or is it time to chart a new course entirely?

Q: “But unrealistic optimism needs to be balanced with reality. Ajaokuta’s complicated past, tainted by the incompetence of succeeding administrations, necessitates a drastic reconsideration of its future.”

Ajaokuta Steel Company stands as a titan of industry, boasting a 68-kilometre road network, 24 housing estates, a seaport, a 110-megawatt power generation plant, and 43 separate plants within its domain. The promise it holds is substantial; operationally, it could potentially birth half a million jobs.

Steel is the backbone of industrialised nations; its absence leaves an economic void impossible to ignore. Currently, Nigeria imports approximately 25 metric tonnes of steel, aluminium products, and derivatives annually, costing around $4.5 billion. This reliance on imports is not sustainable. Ajaokuta was envisioned as a self-sufficient entity, designed by the Russians to utilise indigenous resources for steel production. However, its Achilles’ heel lies in its dependence on all required inputs being readily available.

Steel production is akin to preparing a complex dish like jollof rice. Iron ore serves as the rice, while coke from coal and limestone act as essential seasonings. The blast furnace, analogous to the cooking pot, is the heart of the operation. However, unlike a kitchen stove, a blast furnace cannot be turned on and off at will; it demands a continuous stream of ingredients for years on end.

Nigeria is blessed with abundant raw materials necessary for steel production: iron ore in Kogi, coal, and limestone in Enugu, and many others. However, these blessings come with their own set of challenges. Nigerian iron ore, particularly from Itakpe, possesses a low iron content, necessitating beneficiation to meet the requisite standards. Similarly, the coal found in Nigeria is often unsuitable for steel production.

So, where did the grand vision of Ajaokuta falter? The tale is one of policy failures, mismanagement, and broken promises.

The contractual agreement between the Nigerian government and the Soviet state-owned company, Tiajpromexport (TPE), set Ajaokuta on a path to completion by 1986. However, subsequent policy shifts, like the backward integration policy of 2012, compounded the project’s woes. Ajaokuta found itself in a paradoxical situation: equipped with functional rolling mills but lacking an operational blast furnace.

The saga continues with the National Iron Ore Mining Company (NIOMCO), tasked with processing low-quality iron ore from Itakpe. However, NIOMCO lies dormant, rendering Ajaokuta incapable of fulfilling its purpose.

Progress is further hampered by infrastructure obstacles. The incomplete railway that connects Itakpe and Ajaokuta is necessary for the transportation of iron ore. This essential transport channel has been hampered by ministerial whims and impractical deadlines.

The dormant blast furnace is the main cause of Ajaokuta’s failure. Ajaokuta is only a hollow shell that cannot realise its full potential unless there is a convergence of working blast furnaces, a workable railway system, and functional NIOMCO operations.

There are several obstacles in Ajaokuta’s path to redemption. It’s possible that dishonesty, not pragmatism, lies behind the dominant story about rescuing this monstrosity. We must seriously consider whether Ajaokuta can be brought back to life without first resolving the underlying problems that have beset it.

Kayode Fayemi’s efforts to secure an out-of-court settlement regarding Ajaokuta offer a glimmer of hope. But unrealistic optimism needs to be balanced with reality. Ajaokuta’s complicated past, tainted by the incompetence of succeeding administrations, necessitates a drastic reconsideration of its future.

Ajaokuta’s saga epitomises Nigeria’s penchant for grand projects marred by mismanagement and neglect. The time has come for the government to relinquish its grip on Ajaokuta and allow private sector intervention. The capital and expertise of private enterprises may hold the key to revitalising Ajaokuta or, failing that, redirecting resources towards more viable ventures.

In conclusion, the saga of Ajaokuta serves as a stark reminder. While nostalgia for past glory can be tempting, we must confront the present realities. Ajaokuta stands as a cautionary tale, a monument to the perils of mismanagement and misplaced priorities.

However, there’s still an opportunity to learn from these failures. Let’s acknowledge our shortcomings with a sober mind. Can Ajaokuta be revitalised with a renewed focus on efficiency and a strategic plan that leverages the expertise of the private sector? Or perhaps a more pragmatic course forward involves redirecting resources towards smaller, more viable ventures?

The fate of Ajaokuta hangs in the balance. By learning from its past and embracing a more pragmatic approach, we can ensure a brighter future for Nigerian industry.