Seven years after the contract for the dualisation of the Abuja-Lokoja road was awarded and N116 billion expended, not much work has been done, writes SEUN AKIOYE. In her capacity as the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has given Nigerians a shock of their lives a couple of times this year. From proclaiming that Nigeria was broke and might default in its regular financial obligations to confiding in the House of Representatives Joint Committee on Appropriation/Finance on July 16 , that Nigeria is losing 400,000 barrels of crude oil daily, Nigerians have had to sit on the edge anytime the minister makes a pronouncement. But the pronouncement, which emanated from her office in the first week of November, jolted Nigerians in a not too accustomed way. The Ministry of Finance announced the release of N160billion for Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDA) to execute capital projects in the fourth quarter of 2013. That was not the first time the ministry would release mind blowing sums for capital expenditure. Previous allocations in the year are: First Quarter: N400 billion; second quarter: N200billion; third quarter: N250billion. The cumulative sum released by the ministry for capital projects this year amounted to N1.01trillion. The Federal Ministry of Works under Mike Onolememen got a large percentage of the money with a mandate to fix federal roads, which have become death traps. One of such death traps is the Abuja-Abaji-Lokoja road, which was awarded in 2006 but has grossly remained a sore and embarrassing specimen to the Federal Government. The ministry, which launched what it termed ”Operation Safe Passage“ in 2011, said it was determined to ”reclaim the National Road Network from the state of disrepair and elevate it to an enviable state where it could once again help to promote economic growth and national integration“. History of a failing project To fulfill its promise to dualise all the roads leading to the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), the Federal Government, in 2006, awarded the notorious Abuja-Lokoja road to four major contractors. The contractors are: Dantata & Sawoe; Reynolds Construction Company Ltd (RCC); Bulletine Construction Company and Gitto Construzioni. Prior to the award of the contract, the road has assumed notoriety for preventable carnage which often resulted in loss of lives. The contract was for the construction of an additional 2-lane carriageway and rehabilitation of the existing carriageway. In some sections, the contractors were to construct a number of bridges and bypass. The total sum for the completion of the project was N42billion and completion date set at 30 months, which was to terminate in 2009 but Nigerians never got to see the project come to fruition because in 2010, five years after the contracts were awarded, only about 30 percent of the job was delivered. Travelling on the road became a nightmare and the attendant hardship, loss of valuable time and the frequent carnage became the sorts of legends. The Ministry of Works said the non- delivery of the project was due to the inadequate funding from the Federal Government. ”In five financial years (2006 - 2010), the total budgetary provisions for the Abuja-Abaji-Lokoja road project was N26.63 billion, representing 62.6 per cent of the total contract sum of N42.55 billion. While the project was starved of funds, the basic costs of construction materials such as cement, steel, bitumen, diesel, and cost of labour skyrocketed, owing to inflation. Consequently, the unit rates of the contracts became obsolete,“ a senior official of the ministry said. By 2010, some of the section, which had been completed, began to deteriorate with potholes appearing in several sections while other sections caved in totally. By the end of 2010, work literarily stopped on the project with over N20billion naira already expended on the roads gone down the drain. It was, therefore, a relief to many Nigerians when in 2011, the Ministry of Works announced that work would resume on the road with a review of the scope of the work. This brought joy to the stakeholders, but the joy was short-lived when the contract was reviewed to N116 billion, representing upward review of the contract sum to about 175 percent increase of the initial sum. One of the Nigerians, who were shocked by the development, was Senator Abdul Ningi , the Chairman, Senate Ad hoc Committee on the Subsidy Re-investments and Empowerment Programme (SURE-P). Ningi said his committee ”discovered“ that N178 billion has been expended from the SURE-P funds on four roads and two bridges between 2012 and 2013. Ningi also ”discovered“ that the Lokoja -Abaji road awarded for N42billion has suddenly been increased to N116 billion by the Ministry of Works . Ningi’s worries were, however, not over. He questioned the wisdom of the ministry in increasing the contract sum and was concerned about the high cost of road construction in Nigeria compared to other African countries. The House of Representatives was more willing to give the ministry a chance. In an interview with The Nation, the Chairman House Committee on Works , Ogbuefi Ozomgbachi said while several factors could be responsible for the upward review of the project, the House would do everything possible to ensure the increase is justified. ”The Ministry of Works has come out to explain the funding pattern that in 2006, there was zero budgeted allowance and if we look at it, you find between 2006 and 2010, the cumulative release was about N20billion in five years, and only 50 percent of the whole contract sum was released in five years. Once there is no adequate budgetary provision and insignificant release, it also affects implementation and delivery. ”Our committee will look at the review again; we will subject it to critical compliance test and ensure that the money is justified. We have to track that to ensure that the increase is justified, that is our responsibility and we will not let Nigerians down,“ Ozomgbachi said. But senior officials of the ministry want Nigerians to give Onolememen a pat on the back for a job well done. According to an official, after the initial project failed, the ministry constituted a Technical Committee in November 2010 , which recommended the expanded scope of work and also a review of the contract sum to cater for the expanded scope. The report of the committee was then forwarded to the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) and the report and recommendations were approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) on September 28 , and November 23, 2011 . Since the review of the contract, the funding for the project has been taken over by SURE-P. According to officials of the Ministry of Works , the ministry handed off the funding of the project immediately SURE-P stepped in. ”We don’t fund the Abuja-Lokoja road. We have given that to the SURE-P people, we don’t even have a budget for it. And the contractors get their money directly from SURE-P; it does not pass through us; so, you hardly can accuse us of corruption. We supervise and ensure the work is done,“ an official, who pleaded not to be named because he was not authorised to speak on the matter, told The Nation. ”The Minister has been a blessing to this country; we have not seen the kind of improvements in this ministry and with the work being done on our roads. This is the first minister that is giving us the Road Board and the Road Fund because others know such bodies will erode their authority. Onolememen has done a lot in the best interest of this country and that shows in the Abuja Lokoja road,“ another official, Chude Agbakoba , an engineer, who is the Deputy Director in the Highway Department said. A highway investigation It was 5pm on December 20 in the Ministry of Works Abuja . Ejike Mgbemena , the Director Highway (North Central) was busy planning activities for a road inspection which was due the following morning. Two of his aides sat in front of him. Mgbemena, who joined the ministry in 1981, is by no means a novice when it comes to road constructions in Nigeria having worked in all parts of the country over a period of two decades. Mgbemena often referred to himself as ”Truly Nigerian.“ The Abuja-Lokoja road project is directly under his supervision and the success or failure of it fails directly on his desk. ”The Abuja-Lokoja road is a blessing; that was the road nobody gave us any chance on but I can assure you it is almost a miracle if you look at the level of work already done. We don’t have contractors on that road again, we call them partners. Even when we owe them, we still put a lot of pressure on them to work and they have been doing just that,“ Mgbemena said. The road contract was divided into four sections to be handled by different contractors. Section one, from Zuba to Sheda was awarded to Datata & Sawoe, a Nigerian owned construction company established in 1976. The company claims to have constructed ”hundreds of kilometres of highways and township roads in Nigeria“ and has over 4,000 Nigerians in its employment. In 2006, the contract sum was N11, 227,571,390.41 but which was revised to N28, 666,721,831.64 in 2011. The total length is 43 kilometres. The second section was awarded to RCC, a company founded in 1969. RCC is a subsidiary of SBI International Holdings with headquarters in Switzerland . Under a former company named Nigersol Construction , it constructed the Obafemi Awolowo University , Ile-Ife. Aside many other juicy contracts from the government, RCC is also building the N5billion Loko-Oweto Bridge . RCC got the initial contract for Abuja /Lokoja road in 2006 for the construction of the 54.70km road from Sheda to Abaji junction for N9, 627,615,469.47 but was augmented to N31, 236,905,170.83. The third section was awarded to Bulletine Construction Company ; it runs from Abaji to Koton-Karfe and it is 49km in length. Bulletine, like other companies, have been involved in big government contracts but was famous after the Air force Junction Bridge it built in Port Harcourt in 2005, which collapsed in 2012. The reviewed contract for Bulletine is now N27, 720,210,133.90. The final section, which runs from Koton-Karfe to Abajana junction spanning 50.1 km, was awarded to another government favourite, Gitti Construzioni for N33, 093,934,061.26. Gitto, which was established in 2002, already made itself famous for controversies. After the construction of the second Niger Bridge was awarded to it, the company ”donated“ a 2,500 seat church to President Goodluck Jonathan in his Otuoke village. Investigations by The Nation on the level of work already done revealed a mix bag of optimism and concern. In Section 1, representatives of the contractor claimed that 56 per cent of the work has been achieved. While another carriage way has been constructed within the stipulated time, the median and rehabilitation of the existing carriageway are yet to be done. However, the work already accomplished by the contractor has recorded a relief for motorists at Gwagalada. According to some motorists, the dualisation of the road has actually eased the flow of traffic around the junction especially during festive periods. ”By this time last year, you could spend three hours to get out of Gwagalada, but the dualisation has reduced the traffic here, this year the traffic just disappeared,“ Tola Adebola , who drives an interstate bus, told The Nation in Gwagalada. Section 11 of the road belonging to RCC has also achieved 87 per cent completion according to officials. But full dualisation has not been achieved and the diversion at Abaji has proved a tough nut to crack for RCC. According to the company, the impediment in Abaji is the compensation to be paid for those whose properties were affected. This situation has also affected the traffic coming into Abaji. After three days of monitoring, The Nation observed that motorists require a minimum of two hours to escape the traffic snare in Abaji. The traffic snare is permanent and gruesome, stretching for about 10km and forcing many drivers to make a diversion into the bush. Those who dared the `devil’s bush’ quickly got stuck in the sand and mud while on the expressway, articulated vehicles broke down, adding to the misery of commuters. A resident of Abaji said the town usually offers special prayers because of the unusual traffic gridlock. Only skeletal patches were done on the existing carriageway, leaving many parts of the road bumpy and unsuitable. But, according to one of the officials, the company is committed to its March 2014 completion date. Bulletine also claims to have completed 40 of 49km of its road. Until recently, the company has been embroiled in serious crisis forcing it to abandon the work half way. According to sources, some of the funds of the company were mismanaged, which occasioned a break in the road project. But the company has also had to deal with several knotty issues, especially of re-alignment due to the presence of Nigeria National Petroleum Company (NNPC) pipelines and burial grounds which the residents insisted must not be destroyed. The major challenge for Bulletine seemed to be the Ozi town diversion to Koton Karfe, which has remained an eye sore. Also in Gaba, work has not commenced at all and the median done between Orehi and Gaba were not the required standards. In Uwa, stones were used to demarcate the road while dualisation has just started in Sensentini and Ozi. The result of this delay is that many motorists have had fatal collisions and damages have been done to cars plying the road. According to some residents of Ozi, work has progressed on a ”slow and painful manner“. Gitto construction, which promised to also deliver its 50.1km of road next year, perhaps had the most challenging terrain in the project. The company had to construct seven bridges, the biggest which would be at Karara village, but only two have been constructed. There is also a hill of 1.4km in Ohono village. From independent inspection of the length of the road and the work already done by The Nation, it is doubtful if the contractor can deliver the work in 12 months. The Noah’s Ark Mgbemena arrived in Banda village a few kilometres from Lokoja in high spirits; his guarded tour of the Abuja /Lokoja road has gone according to plan. In Abaji, where the traffic was unforgiving, he opened the half completed carriage way to allow traffic flow from both ends without obstructing each other. That eased the traffic but only for a while. Banda village, however, is where his heart is. He calls it ”Noah’s Ark.“ The devastating flood of 2012 wrecked Banda and cut off the road from Abuja to Lokoja causing untold mayhem. President Goodluck Jonathan promised that a total shut down of a major carriage way would not happen again; subsequently a new road construction was awarded. The new road, which is three meters above the flood level, is Mgbemena’s ark. ”Gentlemen, we have achieved the full dualisation of the Abuja /Lokoja expressway, this is what I called Noah’s Ark, and I assure you that no level of flooding can ever again stop the flow of traffic again because this road is three kilometres above the flood level. This is a promise well kept,“ he said. The Director also said a new state-of-the-art road information system would soon be installed on the Lokoja Abaji road. The system, which is expected to be delivered by the end of February 2014 , will have all information on road traffic, including weather. It will also be solar powered. He also hinted that sections 1 &2 of the entire road would be completed by March while sections3&4 would be delivered in June 2014 . While Mgbemena spoke excitedly about his Noah’s Ark, Atuqua Mohammed sat on a mat surrounded by several of his children and relatives. Along with other families, they had built makeshift huts on the other side of the Niger having been displaced by the flood. He was not impressed by the talk of high roads and dualisation; he was worried about his lost farm and livelihood. ”I just want the government to help us; we are suffering since the flood destroyed our home, help us tell them to help us,“ he pleaded. With the work already done on the road, a new kind of problem has begun and this is over speeding by motorists. According to Moses Audu , Unit Commander of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), Abaji, one of the major problems, especially in the completed sections of the road is over speeding. He said: ”We had two lone accidents today which were caused by driver’s recklessness. That is why we are always on the road to keep the traffic moving and also prevent drivers from reckless driving.“ But Mgbemena sees this as a good problem. ”The roads are so good drivers no longer drive on the road, they fly. But that is a good problem. We are in touch with the FRSC to ensure maximum compliance with laid down rules,“ he said. Stalled fund, stalled progress By the third week in December, almost all the contractors have closed for the year, with some of them promising to resume in 2014. Except for a handful of officials from Bulletine and Gitto, ongoing work has been brought to a halt. Some officials attributed this to the Christmas holiday but investigations by The Nation revealed it might not be unconnected with the stoppage of funds from the Ministry and SURE-P office. According to a cross section of aides independently interviewed, the contractors are still being owed billions of naira, a situation which may have called for their almost non-committal attitude to the project. It was gathered that one of the contractors, who is being owed about N4billion, may not complete the job unless full payment is made. ”There are specific instructions given to the contractors which are measurable and commensurate to the funds released, but the problem is if the contractor is able to do a certain percentage that many people can see, the smaller issues of rehabilitation, median or drainages may be abandoned if the money is not sufficient,“ a source confided. But unlike past projects, the Abuja -Lokoja road project seems to be generating keen interests from critical stakeholders in the country, Onolememen and his principal aides know this. And while the various regulators queue up to ensure probity and transparency in the execution, the most critical sector remains the watching eyes of Nigerians, especially those who ply that road regularly. This fact is not lost on the Minister.
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