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We are focusing on infrastructure to lift Nigerians from poverty – Fashola

Penultimate week, Babatunde Fashola, minister of Works and Housing, embarked on an inspection tour of federal roads and housing projects in the South-south and South-east zones. He briefed editors on the tour with him in Calabar, Cross River State on various areas his ministry is working hard to make life easier for Nigerians. John Osadolor was on the trip.

Given the paucity of funds to execute your projects, do you feel frustrated that you cannot meet deadline for the completion of your projects?

I will like to see things from the positive side. When you look at what we started with in 2015 when we were inaugurated as ministers, we inherited a budget from the outgoing administration; the amount of money in that year’s budget for Nigerian roads was just N19 billion for all of these roads. Now we have roads costing N40billion, N80 billion, N2billion dollars and the fact that we can even start those kinds of roads for me is a positive.

We now have a budget of N275billion for 2020. This is by far better than N19billion. But don’t forget that that is not all the resources that we have for roads. We have SUKUK, which are in form of Public Private Partnership (PPP), so those are covering about 28 roads out of over 500 and something road contracts.

We have the Presidential Infrastructure Development Fund which is also a form of PPP. Those ones are covering big-ticket items like the Lagos – Ibadan, Second Niger Bridge, Abuja – Kano, the East-West road which is under the ministry of Niger Delta and the Mambilla Power Project, which is under the Ministry of Power. So, we have moved forward from where we started and so that is part of the change that we talked about.

Again, perhaps, the other side of the positive is that at that time I was doing an independent study before I left office as the governor of Lagos State and I was noticing that contractors and construction companies have started to lay off workers and you cannot disconnect this from the small budget at the federal level.

So, with the better budget that is now employing people, the first purpose of infrastructure is being served to get people back to work, to redistribute wealth, to create growth, supply, services, labour, fabrication, welding, mason and you saw all of these on our tour.

You saw a family, husband and wife, the husband is working on the site while the wife is cooking and selling food to other workers. From two different states both women said the standard price for a plate of food is N250 and one of them said she makes a profit of N5, 000 per day. If she makes N5, 000 per day for seven days that is N35, 000 in a week and that translates to N140,000 in a month, that is redistribution of wealth and those are the people President Buhari wants to lift out of poverty. So, imagine that those projects are not there.

Could you speak to the total kilometres of road you envisage to work on?

I don’t have the actual number. From my last report we have completed 660km between August and December 2019.

 

What is it costing the government and how much has the Federal Government paid and what is left?

Under the 2019 budget we have got the first release of N73billion, then we got another thirty something billion naira, then another N21billion.

 

Since money appears to be a major problem at the federal level, why then is the ministry not allowing states that want to handle some of these federal roads to do so?

If you don’t have the full understanding you won’t understand why this is so. After the civil war in the period of national reconstruction, the Federal Government took over a couple of roads that were state roads and that is why the Federal Government now has a lot of roads.

But apart from that if you look at the constitution, we have three levels of government, federal, state and local governments, each level of government has its roads.

The trunk A roads which are roads that connect states are federal roads. On Monday and Tuesday, we travelled from Benin to Auchi that is the road that connects Edo State to Lokoja because it goes all the way to Okene to Kogi State. We bypassed that road and then went to Ewu-Uromi-Sapele road that is the road that connects Edo State and Delta State.

We then went from Asaba through the River Niger Bridge to Onitsha. The Benin-Asaba again connects Edo and Delta states on the east-west divide and connects on the north-south divide to Ewu-Benin-Asaba and then Asaba links Onitsha to link Anambra and Enugu then Onitsha links Enugu on the Enugu-Onitsha road.

Today, we have come from Owerri to Aba, so we have crossed the boundaries again of Imo and Abia states. We are going from Aba through to Ikot-Ekpene, we have crossed the boundary of Abia State into Akwa Ibom State and then from that bypass at Uyo into Calabar-Itu road. So, if you move further towards Akpe and begin to head north you are going again towards Katsina-ala, so those are the roads.

No state government has the resources to build the roads today. Now, the fact is that in the past those roads were not attended to especially some of them that have become urbanised like the Aba-Owerri road and the Lagos-Badagry road. Governors cannot understandably ignore the sufferings of their people in those urban areas but they are federal roads. Ideally those roads should become state roads.

I have made a proposal to the National Economic Council that any governor who is interested should come and take those roads back but I haven’t seen any request. Now, there are also state roads by themselves where state governments have primary responsibility. Have those governors completed all those state roads? Those are roads from local governments to local governments. Then there are roads that are local government roads that connect wards to wards, those are the largest number of roads in Nigeria and we know the conditions they are in those states. So, if you haven’t solved your own problem, why take on the problem of another level of government when you can’t even finance it?

If in any event you see that the federal government is borrowing money from either China NEXIM Bank, SUKUK or other international institutions, these institutions will not lend to many states. And if they do, they will require federal government’s guarantee.

Many states have intervened on federal roads; I intervened, my predecessor Governor Tinubu intervened, and my successor too intervened. And even as we are coming into Calabar today, we saw an intervention by the state. So, a lot of debts have been accrued against the Federal Government.

President Buhari like some of his predecessors agreed to pay but he is the first one who has taken a wholesome approach. I want to know what the total debt is and it came to more than half a trillion naira and that is one of the debts the country is paying back right now because we have now issued promissory notes to the states so that we will pay the debt. So, if you see our debt profile as a country, this is a complement of it. The Debt Management Office can give you more on the breakdowns.

And so it was with this reality and the limited national resources that the government now said okay I am going to pay what I met.

We also saw your intervention in national housing stock. There is an unconfirmed report that Nigeria has 17 million housing deficit. What percentage of this deficit do you target to take off with the housing project that your ministry is vigorously pursuing across the country?

There are so many things rolled into that and the first is the number you quoted. So many people have ascribed it to so many people but all the people they have ascribed it to have denied it. If you cannot measure a problem you cannot manage it. So, those figures don’t exist and we should stop believing the most negative data about ourselves, unless it is proven empirically.

Let us for the want of argument do something. Housing and shelter are global problems but they are much more replicated in urban centres. Urbanisation has become more rapid in the last 50-60years in the history of human civilisation; more people have moved to the urban centres and that is why this our infrastructure programme is very beneficial for slowing down rural-urban migration because we are taking money to the rural areas. The constructions across states are keeping more people from going to the cities, that is the first step.

In the United States of America they properly name their housing ministry as housing and urban development department or even an urban development department. Housing problem is an urban problem, not a rural problem and that is how I understand it. It is just as traffic is an urban problem because there is no traffic in the village; there are no refuse heaps in the village; so why should housing shortage then affect village. Every town I go to, I take photographs and I see empty houses all over Nigeria, so how real is this shortage?

Then how many people are in cities living in a one bedroom apartment that have left a five bedroom house empty in their villages. So, is that data that you are banding around of 17million  housing deficit factored in the empty houses?

So, first of all, what we are doing at the ministry now is to try and conduct a survey in two of the most populated states in each geopolitical zones while we are waiting for the national census because it is the census that will really tell us the state of our housing stock.

So, even when they consulted our ministry to make inputs into that questions, this was one of the questions I sent to them. How many people own houses, where are the houses, who is occupying them and where are the owners of the houses living now? Are they living in their own houses or not?  Do they want to buy houses, and if they want to buy, how much are they willing to pay? That data will help us to really dimension the problem we are facing and then deal with it.

We are a federation and you quoted the Land Use Act. The federal government doesn’t own land in reality unless lands allocated to it by the states. So you will see that in all the sites we visited, they were lands given to us by the state. We asked for five hectares to do a demonstration scheme, that we will test for acceptability and we will test for affordability before we can then roll out and so that is the state we are.

But that is only what the ministry is doing; we have parastatals – Federal Mortgage Bank and the Federal Housing Scheme. Federal Mortgage Bank is funding housing construction and it is funding housing acquisition mortgages, so it is funding developers and buyers.

We have the Federal Housing Authority that is also building. So, all of that is also going on and we are going into cooperative housing on a massive scale. We should have started the launch in February but we moved it to March, we are launching it in the six geopolitical zones.

We want to use cooperatives the way they work in the transport sector, in farm settlements, in markets, let a cluster of people who have a shared interest go and acquire their land, bring the title, register yourself as a cooperative and  design what you want to build. So, it is not government building for you, you choose by yourself. So we are trying to bridge suspicion and mistrust associated with housing when you do it by yourself.

Now, get your state to give you approval so that they won’t say it is a slum and then come and demolish it. When you have all of that come to Federal Mortgage Bank, we will give you the estate development loan just like we are funding other developers, go and build at your own pace. When you now finish we will then give you a mortgage to buy, so we want to roll that out.

We have shared it with all the states at the National Council on Lands and Housing which is a meeting of the minster and the commissioners for lands and housing and they have approved. So, that is going to kick off again to increase the number of housing.

There is affordability issue in empty houses and there is acceptability issue in empty houses; so if you don’t involve the stakeholders and you just go and build a house, they will come and say it is fine but I cannot afford it or I can afford it but it is too small or I can afford it but it is too big.

Do you have a figure as to the number of houses you want to do for a period of time, either in phases under the cooperative scheme?

The more the merrier. We want to see appetite because that is what the federal government should really do. As I told you the lands is in the states, the people are residents of the states, they are not residents of federal capital territory, so if they have their own plan then we enable them to achieve it.

It might interest you, the housing and urban development department in the United State of America, they don’t build houses, and they spent 84% of their $47 billion budget in 2017 simply helping low-income  people to subsidize rent. All the housing is done at the state and county level.

We must understand that we are not a unitary government like the UK or Ghana, we are a federal republic; the strategy must change and this is the strategy I am canvassing for. Government use your fiscal and monetary policy to go and break the back of the problem, let the people buy their lands by themselves.

Given the paucity of funds and how it has taken us so much in terms of manpower, cash to reconstruct, repair and maintain existing road network; is there any plan to have new roads come on stream any time soon?

 

We are a democratic republic, for now and I think for the foreseeable future, the budget is a not a product of executive action alone, it is a product of executive action and legislative inputs. So, we see roads being introduced that were not ours by plan. If you listen to the president’s budget speech he said he wants to focus on completing road projects but once parliamentarians put it there in the budget in response to what their people who elected them want and it is passed, it becomes law and within the limit of our resources we are duty bound to execute those laws. So, that is the balancing thing.

But have we built all of Nigeria’s roads? Certainly not. So, in the next 100 years roads will still be built because communities that are today forest will open up. Population will grow.

If you listen to President Bush’s inauguration speech, the first sentence there was infrastructure. Every nation is committing to expanding its infrastructure because the economy is growing, population is growing, the developmental aspirations are continuing and no nation has fully built up all of its lands.

 

You are like a mother who has many children in terms of the number of roads on the hand and given the fact that you have done so much by way of rigorous thinking but in spite of this you are still being criticised by Nigerians every day. Are you worried, do you lose sleep over this kind of criticism in spite of what you are doing?

In my public life experience, criticisms inspire me. I see it as a validation of their belief in my ability; if they didn’t think I could do it they wouldn’t be asking me to do more; they will tell simply me to leave.

Criticism challenges me but I don’t have time to dwell on what people say because there is so much to do. After each day when I am tired, I just pack it and plan the next day. So, it is my media people who say okay they said this about you; they said we should do more, okay let’s go and do more.

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