In this exclusive interview on Channels Television’s Question Time, the Minister of Transportation, Mr Chibuike Amaechi, speaks on some of the issues in the ministry, including the causes of the derailment of trains and the gridlock around Apapa Wharf among others.
Is there the political will to back the transport policy to address the infrastructural gap and move the country out of recession?
Basically, I suspect that when they deal with the issue of inter-modal transport system, how to provide leverages for the nation to provide infrastructure for transportation — so you talk about railway, aviation; you talk about shipping (maritime management). We are looking at affordable and accessible transportation system. We are looking at the possibility of providing the necessary infrastructure, especially in the area of the railway; like the emphasis this time is more on railways than all other sectors. It is quite expensive and heavily dependent on government funding than the private sector. We believe that other reports will engage all these sectors that I have just mentioned to you, including rail transportation.
But people are worried that might to this administration’s tenure, that might be a project that will outlive or even span beyond in terms of completion and delivery. People are worried that will this administration be able to deliver the projects?
I thought the question was on the transport policy. The transport policy will outlive us. It is not fashioned after the current administration; it is fashioned to last beyond the current administration and that is why it is from June 2017 to 2028.
And you are not worried that the other incoming administrations that might possibly not be this government or political party might not buy into this dream? Are you not worried about the problem of continuity?
I am not. See, what I will do? I will wake up, carry a machete and chase them for not continuing from where we stop? Our job is to serve to the best of our ability. Like I said at the inauguration, we should be talking about smart transportation, we shouldn’t be looking at the common one everybody is used to. The point I made yesterday is that we need to leapfrog from where we met others. We do not need to first find how to drive a bus or a taxi and then move from there to train.
I gave an example of what I saw in Singapore where the airport had a smart terminal — very few human beings, they are not there to assist you. The technology is there for you to get used to and get yourself on the plane. Now, for us, the approach is both in terms of policy and in terms of infrastructural development. And you can give it to this government and the Buhari administration. President Buhari also insisted that we must ensure that we provide the necessary infrastructure in railways because it will grow the economy, it will create jobs and ensure that people are able to move from one point to the other in the best and most convenient form.
You talked about growing the economy, that is where we are at this point. We are just at the marginal point of leapfrogging beyond recession now; what are the immediate term strategy for the national transport policy that would aid this country in terms of economic growth?
I was quoted out of context when I received the report. I think This Day and one other paper, Leadership, in the social media. They reported that I said that the current government should stop blaming the past government. I am a student of history.
Yeah, I was about taking you up on that.
I am a student of History, I did not say that. I just said that our critics say we are blaming the last government, we should focus on our own development. And that is what we are focusing on. We are not interested in what the past governments must have done, but we cannot ignore the fact that they failed in critical parts.
We need to clear the air on that. Does that suggest in any way that this administration has disappointed Nigerians in terms of delivery?
I didn’t say that; you did not get what I said. I said that there are critics, there are those who criticise us and say that we should focus on our own developments and stop criticising the last government. So I just quoted them that despite the fact that they said so, we are focusing on our developments. That is what I said there. But instead of completing what I said there, they just took the context that suits them and put it on the pieces of newspaper. I did not say exactly what they said, I did not put it that way.
Maybe by default but that seems to be throwing the question back to this administration. Do you think this administration has performed creditably well, looking at your own (transport) sector?
I was coming to that, not only in the transport sector, when I took on the issue that I was misquoted. Let us look at the economy; everybody knew that by 2014, the economy has started going down. Whether we like it or not, it was going into recession. what we were praying is that our government should manage it in such a way that we do not go into depression. While congratulating the President, I also congratulate the Economic Team and the entire cabinet that not only did we come out of recession, the economy is growing.
At the recent aviation conference, the President did mention that this administration has failed in meeting up with critical infrastructure in the aviation sector.
Yeah, we are two years. Okay, two years maximum but not even three years. Do you think we could have created all the infrastructure that you needed to grow the aviation or the transport sector? We could not have. So when you asked the question, I wanted to address that question whether we have succeeded in the area of transportation. It depends on how you measure it. When we came, the former government said they had done a lot on the narrow-gauge. Check the narrow-gauge, how many things can move there?
General Electric (GE) promised us 100 locomotives. When they came down to Nigeria to access the tracks, the last exercise they did was to rehabilitate the tracks from Lagos to Kano and the GE did a survey of the tracks so that they can bring in the 100 locomotives they promised. They discovered that the two tracks we have – Lagos to Kano and Port Harcourt to Maiduguri – could not have taken more than 17 locomotives. So they did not bring the 100. Meanwhile, the past government said, “oh, we have fixed the railways, we have fixed the narrow-gauge.” If you run from here (Abuja) to Abeokuta, you have derailments. The last derailment I heard of is not Oshodi, it is after Oshodi that we had derailments.
So is this administration taking responsibility for these derailments?
How can we take responsibility for derailments that came out of the fact that most of those contractors were not railway contractors? Contracts were given to civil engineers, a company that builds houses had a contract.
And two years into this administration, you have not been able to rectify that?
No, how can you say a thing like that? We have brought it to the notice of the country that we are negotiating with GE instead of putting in our own money because we do not have money; the scarce resources we have cannot be spent when there are private sector investments.
Now you hinted earlier that the central focus of the National Transport Policy is going to be based on the rail transport. You did mention that a huge investment is going to the railway. When you look at the railway plan, which is also to a large extent centered on the concessioning plan, the plan looks incohesive.
Have you read it?
People believe that this administration has been piling up debts rather than exploring the possibilities of Public-Private Partnership.
Tell me one place in the world where Public-Private Partnership does rail. You know, I read The Punch editorial that took me on on that, that if you go to London or UK, you will see Public-Private Partnership. Two things first — you begin to see that Public-Private Partnership, the government has started withdrawing from it. Secondly, when you hear Public-Private Partnership in railway, it is operational and not construction. Is there anybody to show me that there was construction by any private investor? What they do is to lure you into a loan and they go back to pay for the loan. Do you know much it will cost? How many private investors will bring in $11billion to fix Lagos to Calabar? Name the company anywhere in the world and I will be glad to bring them in. Okay, take up till now, even though we have not advertised, why nobody has approached us in the management of the Kaduna-Abuja railway is because it is not profitable.
The only that will be profitable will be if we have completed the Lagos-Kano. There are people waiting for us to complete that and they will ask for you to concession it to them. So when you concession it to them, that is what The Punch was referring to as Public-Private Partnership, construction wise they should show me an example and I will copy that example. However, to rehabilitate the entire 3,500km of narrow-gauge that we had before, we are in conversation with GE, the concession led by GE that has promised to invest $2.7bn. So when they bring that $2.7 and they invest it in the project, then you can be sure that we have a Public-Private Partnership. Out of that amount, $700m is to rehabilitate the tracks.
When you talk of the narrow-gauge network which is being concessioned to the General Electric, there are fears over the future of the staff of the Nigerian Railway Corporation.
No, it does not mean that at all. We first received all the staff that belongs to the Nigerian Railway Corporation. When the Corporation did not go moribund, but the standard gauge between Lagos and Ibadan will be working, the standard gauge between Itakpe and Warri will be working, the standard gauge from Abuja to Kaduna will be working. First is that they are suggesting that we lay them off and pay them off the way that the Federal Government paid the staff of NEPA. That is what we need to do. Then GE can inherit or employ those that are qualified to work with them. The remainder that we can also hire, we will hire.
When you look at the railway reforms, you look at the obsolete laws in terms of the Railways Act being governed by the 1965 Act. Is it not the time for an amendment?
There is, it is before the National Assembly. We are waiting for them. There are about three to five transportation bills before the National Assembly — there is the National Transport Commission Bill (NTC), there is the Railway Amendment Act, there is the Port and Harbour Amendment Act, there is the NIMASA Amendment Act; there are quite a lot of bills.
And you do not feel some portions of these laws could affect part of your concessioning plans?
No, instead they expand a lot and allow for concessioning. There was no concessioning franchise in the other law. It allows the government the total monopoly of railways. Now the new law is trying to liberalise that and allow private investors to come into railway activities.
When you look at the procurement system now, do you feel overwhelmed sometimes?
Well, the current Director-General of the Bureau for Public Procurement (Mr Mamman Ahmadu) has been kind to all of us. He has been able to increase the pace of the speed which these things are delivered. If before it took you one year, this time will take you two months. I think it is the sense of change.
There have been issues over adherence to local contents in all these concessioning plans. So how do you intend to ensure that the whole plan keeps to the local content?
As much as possible, we are driving to ensure that Nigerians are involved because at the end of the day, Chinese or Europeans will go. And we are starting from design. These new contracts that we are going to award, that the President has approved, will deal with the issue of design. We will include our people, we will not exclude them at all. Then we are also ensuring that these foreigners are able to establish universities that will teach and improve the technology.
Now in the whole issue of railway construction, there have been complaints about massive demolition, especially along the Ijora-Badiya axis; how is your administration tackling these?
That is our land, those are illegal squatters. Will it not be a tautology to say they are illegal squatter? A squatter is a squatter. Well, we can have a legal squatter — a legal squatter can be somebody allowed permission to stay in a place for some time.
So you are not looking at compensation?
On my land? So I will pay a compensation for staying on my land free of charge? You should pay me rent. But anybody whose land we tamper with, that we acquire and we will pay compensation. There is an amount of money set aside for compensation, we pay compensation.
You did promise that the Lagos-Ibadan railway should be ready by December 2018. So taking a periodic assessment now, what are the plans?
Well, I am not the contractors, you cannot ask me for the plans.
But you take the responsibilities?
And the whole thing is on your shoulder?
I do (take responsibilities). Let me tell you why I said I am not the contractor. No matter what we do, it is the contractor that will do the construction. His contract is for three years, but for Christ’s sake, I need to deliver. Nigerians will ask me questions like you asked me now. What has the President Buhari administration done to improve the lives of Nigerians? For the Lagos-Ibadan, yes the contract is for three years, but we have insisted that they must complete by December 2018. They are working hard, they will soon start laying the tracks. The problem we have is that they should have started from Lagos but we are having problems with gas pipes, water pipes and all that. Once we sort out these problems, they will start laying tracks.
Let us move to the area of ports. There have been issues of ports congestion, especially around the Apapa axis.
That is not the making of the Nigerian Ports Authority.
When you consider the fact that Nigerians are looking up to you. In fact, people are saying that what is Chibuike Amaechi, the Transport Minister, going to do to fix this gridlock and port congestion on this axis?
Let us deal with the issue of gridlock before we go to port congestion. Okay, let us start with port congestion. First, the port congestion would not be the fault of the Nigerian Ports Authority that works under the Ministry of Transportation. Our responsibility is to provide the ports. The Nigeria Customs Service will give you the necessary bills to pay and clear your goods and take away. So if it is congested, it means that you are not taking away your goods. Okay that will be too simplistic but if you go further, the roads to the ports are bad. If you want to be more simplistic, you will say the road construction is not with the Ministry of Transportation.
But is this not an escapist way?
If you listen to me, I said that is being simplistic. The truth is that my colleague is facing that reality of focusing on the rehabilitation of the roads. Construction is in sight, but you must realise that it took several years to destroy that road, that cannot be done in one day. So if you agree that we are not miracle workers, it means that whatever plans we have will take time to mature.
But the public wants to know your plans for addressing this.
You have repeated this question since and I am not dodging the question if there is a word like dodging. I am saying that whatever plans that we have, it will take time for it to bear fruits. What is the first plan? For us in the transportation sector, since my colleague, Babatunde Fashola is already constructing the road with the contribution of NPA, do not forget that NPA made some financial contributions to that road. We are going to provide a permanent solution. We are in conversation with GE to provide locomotives that will begin to convey cargoes out of the seaports to different locations to decongest the seaports. That is what we are trying to do. Take another drive to the seaport and see what is going on.
So when are the trucks leaving Apapa axis?
Before February, we would have decongested the seaports. February will be too far.
Now let us move over to the aviation sector. We have a situation where flights are arbitrarily delayed and we also have the issue of multiple taxations which the operators are complaining about.
Well since we came, we have not increased or introduced new taxes.
It is as if the entire airline business is crippling, the operators are groaning.
How? By the time we came, a lot of airlines were owing the Federal Government. Nigerians should rise against such persons because government provided money to grow the aviation sector and gave them as loans. This person collected it and went out of the country and set up banks.
So what are you doing to those defaulters?
What can we do than take them to court? AMCON has moved in but for that very man, what are you going to take over?
Are you happy with the state of our airports?
Not completely; if I tell Nigerians I am happy with the state of the airports, do not forget that we are improving. Abuja airport was not the way it is now.
How will you feel when you hear the scorching that Port Harcourt airport is the worst airport in the world?
We have heard it as soon as we came but we are fixing it. But again, if you look at the end of the Port Harcourt airport, you will see the new terminal that we are building.
Again, the bulk of the reforms that are in the aviation sector is centred on concessioning and stakeholders in the aviation sector have taken to the streets; they are protesting
That we should not concession it?
They said against court cases
Okay, why don’t you want us to concession?
They are saying that the Federal Government is not following due process
What due process? We advertised meaning that anybody in the world should participate. If you put in your document, we will review the document according to the laws filed by the National Assembly. If you qualify, we will forward your name to the Bureau for Public Procurement.
Now 2019 is getting closer and I wonder if you would like to comment on Rivers State politics.
I thought you said you are here to deal with the Ministry of Transportation issues? Well, just wait.
Because you are a key player in Rivers State
Former governor of Rivers State, ex-politician
Ex-politician? But you are still the leader of APC in your state.
Did you ever hear me say that?
People are perceiving a big crack within the APC
Why don’t you wait until the election, that is when you will know whether there is a crack or not.
When you look at the Rivers State that you left behind and the Rivers State of today, how do you feel?
You are a journalist, why don’t you go and see for yourself. You are bringing me into Rivers State politics. The first thing the governor did is that the governor has just one agenda — if he is in his toilet, Amechi; if he is outside his toilet, Amechi; if he is going to see his mother, Amaechi. What baffles me is not the governor, it is the people.
You said something that the governor has only one agenda, which is Chibuike Amaechi. Do you feel, in the interest of the people of Rivers State, that you need to respond to some of these agenda levelled against you?
No, there is no need to respond. Why should I engage him? He was local government chairman when I was the speaker. He was my staff, it is like one of my sons.
He is alleging that you left an empty treasury in Rivers State.
So how did he start if I left an empty treasury?