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Does Dave Umahi know Nigeria? (I)

Nigeria’s Minister of Works Dave Umahi appears to be resolved to deliver good roads.  I infer that from remarkable things he has been saying and doing.

To help him, we must first find out if he is ankle-deep in this, or neck deep.  So, I invite him to sit in front of a big mirror and stare deeply at the man he sees because, unlike roads, this is really a one-way journey.

Mr. Umahi has been touring the roads extensively.    In September 2023, shortly after he took office, he offered a scathing rebuttal of the preceding government.  “There is no project being constructed right now in Nigeria that is going to last for seven years,” he said.  “The question is, are we going to be maintaining or reconstructing our roads every 10 years? That is what we have been doing.”

Then he confessed: “I travelled from Abuja to Benin City through Lokoja, all the stretches of the road are on contract, and ongoing, this is through the policy of the last administration but how much of the roads are motorable? I travelled through the roads myself and I shed tears for the kind of pains our people are going through.”

Keep those two images in mind.  The first: “There is no project being constructed right now in Nigeria that is going to last for seven years.”  The second: “I shed tears.”

Five years earlier, his predecessor, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, dismissed widespread criticism of the Ministry, asserting that federal Nigerian roads were better than they were portrayed.

Mr. Fashola often made outlandish claims about his achievements nationwide, and I made a point of challenging them, including in “An orphan called the Benin City-Abuja Road,” published on 2nd July 2023.

In October 2022, Fashola announced, curiously, that he had toured Nigeria twice by road, with other Ministers, traveling 12 hours each day, and that the Muhammadu Buhari government had constructed 8,352.94km of roads.  It was one of many false outbursts; nobody had seen the Ministers anywhere.

Three years earlier, in August 2019, he declared that his government would complete “all on-going and abandoned projects” before its tenure ended. He did not. Those roads are what have left his predecessor weeping.

Take the Lagos-Ibadan expressway: every year, from 2016 until 2023, Fashola’s leadership promised its completion.  Well, it is now 2024, he is out of power, and the road is still being constructed.  It is why, throughout the Buhari years, Nigerians asked the same question: “Where are the (completed) roads?

That Umahi, a man of the same APC of Buhari and Fashola, is now publicly asking the same question means confirms that it is a practical, not a political question, and a genuine exposure of an eight-year long hoax.

Mr. Umahi has now indicated that the Lokoja-Benin City Road will be reconstructed within six months.  Earlier in January, he had announced that the government was working to clear the N1.5 trillion backlog of debts owed to contractors.

“I spent 14 hours on the road having started my journey at 10 am and got to Benin City at 2 pm the next day and I was very happy I experienced the pains,” he explained.  “President Tinubu said I must travel through all the projects so that I could brief him on my experience and tell him the truth.”

For reasons of history, it is difficult to believe that a government led by Mr. Tinubu will rescue Nigeria from the same mess he is an integral part of, including his track record, the manner of  his acquisition of the presidency, and the staffing of his government with stalwarts of the Nigerian kakistocracy.

That said, I am willing to give him a chance, and I commend these efforts.  In the area of roads, Mr. Umahi is right concerning the problems with our public projects regime.  He has flagged the corrupt and irresponsible Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) process and called the attention of his principal to it.

But the problem is much broader than that, and Mr. Umahi, as well-meaning as he might be, ought to step back and undertake a comprehensive review of the ethos and mission of his Ministry, its departments, capacities and personnel, and the political habitat of its operation.

Following the Minister’s tour of federal roads in September 2023, The Sun Newspaper published a comprehensive and graphic Special Report it called “Highways to hell I” and “Highways to hell II.”  To read such reports leads to only one conclusion: that governance in Nigeria exists in name only, and question as to why—given Fashola’s falsehoods of bravado and achievement—such officials are not apologizing to Nigerians in prison uniforms.

To be fair, though, this was not just Fashola, and this is why I offer Umahi that mirror.  Let us look at that Lokoja-Benin City metaphor in the Fourth Republic, keeping in mind that it is but one of hundreds of projects nationwide.

Umahi wants to make things work?  He wants to dualize the road?

· According to the House of Representatives, a contract for that purpose was awarded to a consortium of contractors in 1999 with the weird completion date of 2021.  Affirming that the road had “gulped” N200billion, in that 2021 the House ordered an investigation into it.

· In November 2012 the Federal Government approved N65.2 billion for the construction of the four sections of the road, with each section taking N11.6 billion.

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