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Strong will, not money, matters more in building infrastructure – COREN president

A BusinessDay and NSE team comprising ADEMOLA OLORUNFEMI (NSE), UKEME PETERS (NSE-Alpahmead) and TELIAT SULE (BusinessDay) engaged ALI ALIMASUYA RABIU, President, the Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN) on the forthcoming National Infrastructure Scorecard Report 2021 and how the country can develop better infrastructure. Excerpts:

Can you provide us with a background on the general infrastructure stock in this country?

The essence of the infrastructure scorecard that the NSE is doing actually is to look at what you have asked me to do the background of infrastructure, look at their conditions and capacities, look at the ability for them to be able to do what they have been constructed to do. So, the background I will give to the infrastructure scorecard committee and I believe that the past president of the Nigerian Society of Engineers in charge, they are doing a good job and they are going to give us a report that will stand the test of time.

If you are to recommend, which infrastructure will you suggest to the federal and state governments to focus on?

In fact, the basic infrastructures are all important. Take the transportation infrastructure, for instance, no economy can grow, or any country for that matter, without adequate infrastructure on a general note. So, to focus on a particular one will be like abandoning certain aspects of your responsibilities. No infrastructure can be relegated to the background for another. When you talk about transportation, you are talking about roads and highways, talking about air transport, talking about railways.

All these are important, railways in particular. I am happy that the Federal Government now has focused its attention on railways. Our roads, people complain that roads do not last in Nigeria but the roads are over-loaded because we have no rail means of transportation. Most of the trailers, tankers that convey petroleum products and so on are not supposed to be travelling by roads. They are supposed to be using the rail. Since the railways are not there, they have to use the roads and the effect of using the roads is destruction because they have heavy hassleloadings which the roads are not designed to carry. Whether it is transportation, whether it is telecommunications, whether it is steel, all the infrastructure projects are important for an economy to grow.

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I understand, but I asked that question because of the fact that our government complains of inadequate resources…

[cuts in] I do not want to hear when government complains that there is no resource. Let me give you an example of Ebonyi State in Nigeria. Ebonyi State is one of those states at the bottom of the ladder when they come to Abuja for the monthly allocation. But if you go to Ebonyi State today and see what the governor is doing in that state, in fact, you will go back to your own state and tell your governor that he is misappropriating your money. By January ending, we were in Ebonyi State. We went there to spend only 1 day. We had to spend three nights in Ebonyi State and they took us around all the projects.

They have 16 overhead bridges in that rural state, 9 completed, 7 at various levels of completion. They have enormous infrastructure projects that they have done within the 6 years that he has been the governor. They have an ecumenical centre that is bigger than the one in Abuja. They have a shopping mall that is comparable to anyone you have in Dubai.

They are constructing an airport which runway is bigger than that of Abuja, 4.2km runway and so on and so forth. Infrastructure projects are going on. From where is he getting the money? It means that the money is there. With the little stipend he is getting from Abuja, that is what he is using to do all those that he is doing. He is building roads, building concrete roads. Dangote built about 20km of concrete roads in Abaja with the news all over Africa. This man has built over 200km of concrete roads in Ebonyi State. So, there is money. When you say there is no money in the economy, it is not correct. I do not want to believe that there is no money in the economy. With the little money that we have, even if there is no money, you can do a lot, if you have the will.

There is a belief that the quality of infrastructure that we have in Nigeria is not really up to standard, what in your opinion is the quality construction and maintenance plan for infrastructure that we have?

Well, it is true that our infrastructures do not last through their design periods and I would like you to know that every project you see has a design life. I will take on roads for instance. They have a design life of between 10 and 20 years. By that I mean no appreciable maintenance work will be carried out on the road within 10 years of its construction. But you find out that what happens in Nigeria today is barely 2-3 years after the roads have been completed, it starts showing forms of deterioration. We have our reasons. We have the hassle loading on the roads are over and above their design hassle loads. The heavy tankers and trailers that ply these roads are not meant to ply these roads but we have no option. They have to convey petroleum products, they have to convey goods and so on, so they impact heavily on the roads and they destroy them.

When you talk about buildings, we have put up buildings that have stood the test of time. If you look at our International Conference Centre, it has been there for over 30 years since Babaginda era and it is still as good as new. If you go to Hilton Hotel, it was built almost 40 years ago and when you get to Hilton, it is still as good as it was built 3-4 years ago so it is not all the infrastructures that are actually defective. We still have those that took time to build professional and they have the resilience and they are doing well.

Let’s look at the maintenance culture and policy, how can the government really coordinate this and ensure that to some extent, extend the life of infrastructure projects?

It brings us back to the issues of the will of those at the helms of affairs. You need to have the will to do some of these things. When professionals advise government officials, many times they do not take the advice. They believe they have already put up the infrastructures, and so there is no need for maintenance. And once you do not maintain such infrastructure, the natural thing is that they will deteriorate and go bad.

It is all about the will of our political leaders. I take you back to Ebonyi. Not because Umahi is an engineer but he also has the will. He is a civil engineer, quite alright but he has the will to do what he is doing. We have other engineers in government, as governors, but I wouldn’t want to say they are not doing as good as Umahi but they are trying their best but he is many steps above all the other governors.

The aspect of the will is highly dependent on the individual and we may not have much control over that. What about institutionalizing these things from the aspect of NSE, COREN and other institutions?

There is very little we can do. Even our constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, sometimes, people just flout it with reckless abandon and they get away with it. The laws are being flouted. So, you as a professional can only advise. There was a time in this country that a president of Nigeria appointed special advisers and when he was swearing them in, he told them that they could only advise him but he was not bound to work with their advice. He said it in the public.

You will advise as a professional but what will you do if the political leader does not take your advice?

If you are to look at all the infrastructures that we have from roads to aviation, water supply, health care, which segment will you look at as having the biggest unmet needs?

Most of them have unmet needs. Well, I do not know what the outcome of the committee will come up with but I had the opportunity to respond to their questionnaire and I scored all of them very low because if you travel by roads, you know that there are no roads. Just like you rightly pointed out, water supply is comatose. Aviation, well, is neither here nor there. Even the operators of the aviation industry are not living up to the expectations.

QUOTE: When professionals advise government officials, many times they do not take the advice. They believe they have already put up the infrastructures, and so there is no need for maintenance

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