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A coastal highway of misplaced priority and due process abuse

A coastal highway of misplaced priority and due process abuse %Post Title

 

 

 

 

 

Construction of the Lagos-Calabar Coastal Highway has begun amid a myriad of fiscal and due process concerns. But indifference is the response of President Bola Tinubu’s administration to the challenges. The 700-kilometre stretch of road infrastructure, which will span eight years to complete, will gulp a staggering N15 trillion. This figure is tentative, given the country’s inflationary spiral. The project might well have significant economic benefits for the country but there are real questions involved, especially as regime spokespersons have repeatedly reiterated the fact that our economy is bankrupt, of which there is no question.

The pilot phase of the construction has started at the Eko Atlantic City and it will terminate at Lekki Deep Seaport, for which N1.06 trillion has already been released. It is a highway of 10 lanes, which will cost N4 billion per kilometre, and would be the first of its kind in Africa, says the Minister of Works, David Umahi. His zealousness in its implementation brooks no dissent, and sometimes it gets spiteful. The first set of victims, whose properties were demolished to pave the way for the construction, were paid N2.75 billion in compensation last week.

There are similar road networks in the offing, in the Sokoto-Badagry Coastal Highway and the Enugu-Abakaliki-Ogoja-Cameroon Highway, in what seems like a geo-political balancing act. As a spur, the latter will course through Oturkpo in Benue State, to Nasarawa State and end at Apo, in Abuja. On the second project, Mr Umahi said, “We have started the design and I’m sure that as soon as the Federal Executive Council approves it, we will be starting at the Sokoto side.” Given its 1,000-kilometre length, it will surely gulp over N20 trillion.

The political ecosystem is already astir on the Lagos-Calabar Coastal Highway, with the circumstances surrounding its award. Adherence to due process has been raised by some critics, causing waffling in official quarters. The point has to be made: the project did not go through a competitive bidding process, which is imperative for such a huge venture, in line with the 2007 Public Procurement Act, as enunciated in Section 16 (1) (1) and (d), to create transparency, accountability and value for money.

As the minister admitted, the award sidestepped the public tender competitive bidding process. This raises the question of how the cost was arrived at. Was it a favour to a friend of the administration? Or is the government bidding farewell to the transparency and accountability of public tender and the competitive bidding process? In addition, why was the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) phase of the project not done before work began? We know this through a letter dated 18th April that emanated from the Ministry of Works, soliciting residents living in the Section 1 and 11 areas of the highway in Lagos, to attend a workshop organised for a scoping study that will generate this all-important data, after the project implementation had commenced.

This action, the letter reads in part, will “ensure that the project is developed in a responsible and sustainable manner, in line with regulations in Nigeria as well as international standards and frameworks.” No, this is sophistry! The country’s statute and global best practices do not uphold putting the cart before the horse in the award of a contract, as the ministry’s letter exemplifies. The ESIA precedes any contract.

How the project will be financed is still mired in obfuscation. On 23 September 2023, Umahi disclosed that Hitech – the construction company for the work, would fund the project, precisely under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) scheme. However, in a volte-face recently, he said that the government will provide 50 per cent counterpart funding, in an Engineering, Procurement, Construction plus Finance (EPC+F) model. This fiscal decision is not cast in stone yet, as he revealed that discussions were ongoing for a possible reduction to 30 per cent of government funding.

It beats our imagination that the federal government will undertake the construction of these projects at a time that the country’s finances are heading south; and in the face of the dilapidated state of thousands of kilometres of existing highways, which are death-traps. It is not surprising that Nigeria is ranked 131 out of 141 countries by The GlobalEconomy.com on the quality of its roads. However, the Muhammadu Buhari regime, admirably, embarked on their reconstruction, instead of building new ones. But many are not yet completed.

A judicious utilisation of resources demands that these vital road networks spread across the six geo-political zones be completed first. In the North, the Kaduna-Zaria-Kano Highway only scaled through the first phase of reconstruction under the last administration. The Abuja-Lokoja Highway has not been completed. With its huge land mass, the northern region has more of such decrepit road infrastructure.

The East-West Road, a coastal road network in the South-South has been a work in progress through four administrations since 2005 when Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime initiated it. Its Calabar-Oron end and final stretch has not been touched. A Senate Committee on Works chaired by Abdul Ningi, on a fact-finding tour in September 2023, turned in an unsavoury verdict: “We have traversed the East-West Road from Bayelsa, Delta, Rivers, Akwa Ibom and now Cross River; it is disturbing what we have found in the course of this assignment.”

A failed section of the road in Eleme, Rivers State, precipitated a fuel tanker fire late last month that burnt 120 vehicles and killed five persons. On the Calabar-Ituh Road, Ningi’s committee spent six hours on a journey, which ordinarily should take one hour; and the senator decried: “I have never seen and experienced what we saw on that road anywhere. Thousands of trucks stuck in traffic with little or no motion.”

The Benin Sapele Highway and Benin-Auchi-Okene-Lokoja Road remain a nightmare for motorists, who perennially block them in protest. The Benin-Sagamu Expressway rehabilitation, started by the Jonathan administration, is still unfinished work. The Lagos-Badagry-Seme Highway, whose Lagos end will increase from four to 10 lanes, is begging for completion.

In the South-East, reconstruction work on the Enugu-Port Harcourt Highway stopped at the Aba end, due to the lack of funds, as the Buhari presidency wound up. The dual carriage work on the Owerri–Aba road has been suspended. These uncompleted projects, among others, left a N6 trillion debt hangover for Tinubu. The N300 billion 2023 supplementary budget the government provided to address this challenge does not scratch the surface at all.

The Tinubu regime should be shrewd in deploying public resources. A road project that will take eight years to complete offers no solution to the urgency of now. If the economy had been buoyant, the borrowing binge of the immediate past regime would not have been a policy trajectory to embrace so soon.

As part of the government’s 2024 borrowing plan, the Senate, in December last year, approved $7.8 billion and €100 million. The NNPC Limited has facilitated a $3.3 billion loan from Afrieximbank, under a five-year tenure at an 11.85 per cent interest rate, which will be repaid through a crude oil swap, whose value has been seriously questioned by critics. There are also two other loans from the World Bank: the first, a $2 billion facility secured to mitigate the hardship of fuel subsidy removal and a more recent $2.25 billion one that the Minister of Finance, Wale Edu, announced after his Washington trip. The African Development Bank (AfDB), too, has offered the government $1 billion in credit.

These funds should not be frittered away on a white elephant and projects that will not positively impact the economy in the short and medium terms. The country’s education and health sectors are in absolute shambles, resulting in recurrent crises. There isn’t a single world-class healthcare facility in Nigeria. Our teaching hospitals are relics of the last century; while our universities remain underfunded, denied of the N220 billion annual revitalisation funds in demand since 2009, to make them functional and ideal citadels of research and innovation.

Nigerians are presently being ravaged by fuel scarcity as the federal government is unable to pay oil marketers the N200 billion outstanding bridging claims owed them. Our seaports cannot compete with the best in Africa, which before now led to the loss of $7 billion annually to Cotonou and Ghana seaports, while the international airports are a laughing stock in comparison with their peers offshore.

Nigeria’s crude oil production has fallen to 1.23 million barrels per day, according to OPEC records in March. We urgently require strategic thinking on how to improve public finances. Nigeria’s revenue has plummeted, creating a foreign exchange shortfall with its crippling effect on the naira. PREMIUM TIMES believes that at a time in which the economy is bleeding profusely, there must be better areas to plough our little resources into, not coastal roads. In fact, the over N77 trillion debt and 96 per cent of total revenue to service it, alongside the criminal negligence of our roads, are sufficient red flags against this super highway now.

•Premium Times Editorial
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