Hon. Toby Okechukwu is the deputy minority leader of the House of Representatives. In this interview adapted from a FRCN programme in Enugu he spoke on a range of issues affecting the nation, particularly the Southeast roads. He also spoke on the IPOB attack of the former Deputy Senate President, Prof Ike Ekweremadu, revealing that he accompanied him on the trip to Germany. Excerpts:
In the social media there were news that some politicians in the Southeast were given N8 billion for Oji-Achi-Mmaku-Awgu road. The same story is also being peddled about Enugu-Onitsha expressway. As the immediate past Chairman of the House Committee on Works, could you please throw some lights on these roads and other roads in the region and across the nation?
Let me make a general statement that the challenge of infrastructure particularly the road sector is a national problem. It is not about Southeast. Lagos-Ibadan road, Abuja-Minna Road, East-West road, Katsina-Kano road, and many others are all in bad shape even after people from those parts of the country have presided over the affairs of Nigeria as chief executives. So, it is preposterous to begin to blame anybody when the people that were even presidents were handicapped. The problem is purely and predominantly funding. As a matter of fact, when we came in as a Committee in the 8th House of Representatives, our diagnosis was to the effect that we have issues of governance with regard to the road sector. We also have the issue of the capacity of engineers to deal with such challenges, and then we also have the issue of funding. Then what we did was to provide legislative solutions to those challenges. First and foremost was through the Federal Roads Bill, which was passed by the Senate and House. It was sent to Mr President, but he returned it and complained about certain sections that have been amended and sent back to him. Citizen engagement would require us to ask Mr President to sign it. Second, we dealt with the issue of funding for roads. I would give you an instance. We have about N4 trillion commitments with regards to roads that have been awarded in this country. This year alone, we have about N220 billion in the budget. If you begin to pay N220 billion annually, it would take you over 10 years to complete the roads that are contractually committed to be done. Now the Road Fund Bill deals with the issues of road user charges and all that and that should constitute the real seed capital for roads funding in Nigeria. Budgetary intervention can come after it. Then we also talked about the professional capacity of engineers, a situation where you have mechanical, electrical or civil engineers they trained, what next you see is that you send them to teach or send them to do things that are extraneous to their professional calling. What did we do, we dealt with the Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN) Bill, which the president was gracious enough to sign. That is why, for instance, we now have some level of local content in the sector and from every engineering project, about 0.05 per cent that will go to this would enable them to have some internship for the engineers, who will now be properly tooled to deal with issues in that sector. At least, by the time you are coming out from the university we won’t have a situation where young engineers after studying engineering would be looking for work in the mass media as announcers. So, engineering is very important and then we have dealt with that and you will see the effects shortly. But with regards to the issue of somebody collecting N8 billion, how much was the road contract for Oji-Awgu road in the first place? It was about N4.8 billion. So, it means if he had collected N8 billion, it is more than enough to do the job, but as we speak, in the policy and implementation of road construction in the Ministry of Works, nobody will give you any penny unless you have protected any road that you have done. By protecting it, I mean that unless there is asphalt on the road. Unfortunately, we don’t have a knowledge-based assessment or advocacy for our roads. Actually, the Oji-Awgu road had a problem from the previous contractor and it had to be revoked and that was after 10 years and it has been given to another contractor. That contractor has not collected up to N1.5billion even in spite of the roads and work he has. So, I do not know where the N8 billion is coming from. And the good thing is that you can always follow government’s money. It is easy to know from the Ministry of Works how much has been spent on that road. So, it is obviously propaganda. It is the permutations by and from people in their brain. You talked about the Enugu-Onitsha Expressway. Like I said, the issues of those roads is not the issue of not awarding the contract or giving anybody money. Actually, there is no section of that road that has not been awarded, except 9th Mile to 82 Division, which has also passed due process. And with the constitution of the new federal cabinet or ministers, I am sure that the Federal Executive Council will approve it. Apart from the general funding problem, a major problem with the Enugu-Onitsha Road was design defect. This is a technical problem, not a legislative problem. But when it was discovered, we insisted it must be redesigned, otherwise, it would be a waste of time and resources. RCC was given the contract. A few meters or kilometers were done and the roads were collapsing. They also said they wouldn’t continue and won’t get into the project unless it is redesigned. It had to be redesigned and that was part of the delays apart from funding and when you go to see what they have done now it is quite distinct because first and foremost, there is some level of filter by way of sand. There is also some kind of cement that has been put there. There is now double binder whereas you only had single binder initially. And they have also introduced polymer for the road. It makes it a little more expensive, but it makes it much more durable. So, the initial delay was, in fact, due to the defect, hence there had to be collective efforts towards addressing the challenges. It is not just a single story or single narrative. As I said earlier, the issue with our roads generally is funding and take it to the bank or anywhere, we would not get to anywhere in this country unless the Road Fund Bill is assented and implemented.
The Minister of Works came during our last budget defence and said that we needed N10 trillion and we need to raise funds to that effect. Whereas I would agree with the minister that we need about N10 trillion, the truth is that if anybody is going to raise funds, people expect you to tell them how you would pay back the money and that is what the Road Fund law will address. In other jurisdictions, we have tolls, we have some little taxes on petrol, you have some road user charges, and you have weighing bridges for people who carry overload. There is no way you can begin to address this fact unless you deal with the legislative solution that has been provided by the parliament and what I expect from Nigerians is to be strong advocates for the signing of that road bill. When we talk about unemployment and youth restiveness, contracting does not give you employment. It only gives you temporary employment. Once you finish a contract of years years or three years, you are gone and the company declares redundancy for staff. But if you go into proper road funding and implementation of Road Fund Bill, it becomes an Act of Parliament. What you see is that you see people or contractors or maintenance being concessioned for 30 to 40 years as they do in other jurisdictions. What you will get is a situation where a company for maintenance employs an engineer for 30 years and you need about up to 50 engineers along that road for maintenance for bridges, for culverts, for road clearing, and for maintenance of the various infrastructure we have on the road. How many years is a civil servant supposed to be in service; 35 is employed for 35 years and we have these plethora of roads that are littered all over the country. They would clear the engineers and get them gainfully engaged.
There is anxiety especially in the Southeast about the Akanu Ibiam International Airport. Tell us the role of our National Assembly members from the zone towards making it function optimally. It has been closed and when you try to tell people it is for maintenance, they don’t seem to be comfortable with the explanation
Actually, the Akanu Ibiam International Airport has been a source of worry for a lot of us. The efforts that prompted the internationalisation and reconstruction of the runway were done essentially by the federal legislators from the Southeast led by Senator (Ike) Ekweremadu while I was a legislative aide. Enugu State NASS Caucus also sacrificed and pooled funds that should have gone to their constituencies to make sure there was provision in the budget for it and to enable the Federal Government to award the contract. Unfortunately, just like you have in the Enugu-Onitsha road and in the runway, the water level is so high that there has to be special design for the reconstruction of the runway. Water and asphalt do not work well so when water rises it tampers with the asphalt and that is why you have the collapse of various sections of the runway. They have been patching it for a long time. You also needed to have deep holes that will enable the water to drain instead of rising to the point of the asphalt. So, essentially it was a construction defect and the FG has to fix it. So, in 2019 budget, there was special provision for the airport for the reconstruction of the runway. That is what I believe they are trying to implement now.
You accompanied Senator Ekweremadu to the Ndigbo Germany Cultural Festival and Convention. What really transpired between him and members of the IPOB, who accused him of instigating Operation Python Dance, selling out, and all that?
Actually, the former Deputy President of the Senate was among the Nigerian dignitaries invited to that programme. It was a two-pronged event. One was the economic outing and the other was the cultural aspect, which was the last. Prior to the event Senator Ekweremadu had discussed with our governor, Rt. Hon. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi and the governor said he was going to attach one of his economic advisers to go with him because of the industrial free zones we have around Enugu. Unfortunately, the visa of the man the governor wanted to attach to him was not out due to the Sallah holiday. It was the same with visa of the President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo. So, I had to accompany him since I was in Europe. I met with the Senator a day before and he had discussions with several Germans that were brought by some Igbo people resident in Germany for investment back home in the Southeast. Ndigbo have very credible and rich Diaspora community and we needed to put their contacts to good use for the benefit of our people. Some of the investors were talking about agricultural investment. Some others were talking about manufacturing. In fact, he discussed with about 10 business groups from the day before the event to the morning of that fateful day. It was after all those discussions and presentations that we had to go for the cultural arm of the programme where he was also going to tell our people about investment efforts and opportunities in the Southeast like the Enyimba Economic City in Abia, Lion Business Park in Enugu, Enugu Industrial Park Project which will commence shortly at Emene, Blue River Port/Industrial Park at Obeaku in Abia and so on.
That was when he was ambushed and attacked by those IPOB members. And if you noticed, the real organisers and invited guests were all inside awaiting the start of the event. They did not know what was going on outside. So, one of those IPOB people came up to him and introduced himself, saying he was from Abia. He started speaking in Igbo. He said that they heard what happened in Abia when they had the Python Dance and all that and the Igbo leaders didn’t do enough to stop it. Ikeoha told him it was for such explanations that he was also in Germany so that he could explain things they needed to know and also take their concerns back home. But they came prepared with missiles because Nnamdi Kanu also visited Germany that week or thereabouts and held meeting with them. It was an ambush and unfortunately the Igbo people in Germany that invited Ikeoha were inside. If you look at that video recording none of them lasted up to a minute. If they were talking about Python Dance, it means they were not briefed on what Ekweremadu had done because he intervened and canvassed against it both in writing and orally.
But above all, it means they pretended not to know the critical role the Senator played in getting Kanu out of prison. I am sure you read the statements of people like Chief Nnia Nwodo, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, Osita Chidoka and a host of others who were part of the efforts to free Kanu from Kuje Prisons. It means that they came prepared to show ingratitude for all those. Philosophically, when you commit an evil act, you begin to look for all the reasons in this world to justify it. If it was not a premeditated attack, why did they have eggs and other weapons in their hands? And more importantly, Ekweremadu says the same in a better, structured way by championing restructuring. Must he abuse everybody, including the president, other ethnicities, religions, and so forth? What they did was sacrilegious. But the Senator, as a statesman, said he had forgiven them and moved on and he wants Ndigbo and the Nigerians to face the real problems facing the nation.
The issue of RUGA and insecurity in the Southeast in general…in your own point of view, what do you think has really gone wrong?
Well, Ruga ordinarily is the manifestation of the challenges we have in the country. Shepherding your herds is a private business and responsibility taken by farmers. It is part of animal husbandry. As a policy of government I don’t think there is anywhere in the Southeast where it has been accommodated. As a matter of fact, the governors have made a policy statement that it would not be possible to undertake here. As a business, ranches are in vogue. If you remember what they call cowboys, that is a lexicon or vocabulary that is known very much when you talk about America. The cowboys were also herdsmen, but at a point it became unfashionable to push herds or have cowboys move all over America. At a point they started having ranches. That is the way to go. That is the way to conduct that business. As a matter of fact, it was during the transition, when actually we had no ministers, that civil servants were pushing the policy. A number of contracts were awarded, but at a point, it was interrogated and the Federal Government had to stop it so it is by voluntary. A state has to make a voluntary assessment of it and now adopt it as a policy. But as far as I am concerned, as far as I know, it is not operational in any state of the Southeast. Any social media story with regards to it would amount to what Trump calls fake news.