An afternoon with the works minister

Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Raji Fashola (SAN) PHOTO: BUNMI AMOSU

Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Raji Fashola (SAN) PHOTO: BUNMI AMOSU

It was a beautiful and informative afternoon dialogue with the Minister of Works, Power and Housing, Babatunde Raji Fashola. The forum was the recently-revived interactive sessions between The Guardian Editorial Board and high public officials. As far as interviews go, it was educative and revelatory. Even to the deaf and blind, Fashola showed a profound grasp of the issues in his extended portfolio. As a super-minister, charged with three challenging sectors of the Nigerian state, he came across as a frank, sincere and committed individual who indeed wants to make a difference. He showed that he understands the shortcomings of the entire political system: For success to be recorded there has to be a synergy of all stakeholders at the leadership level.

The media has a fundamental role to play if we must entrench democratic norms. Needless to say, accountability and providing credible information are crucial to democracy. Often, myths and half truths circulate in the polity. It is the duty of the media to engage public servants in dialogues in order to, for want of a better expression, extract information from them. Critical questions are asked. At the end of the exercise, both parties review the encounter and determine what areas need strengthening or a reassessment. Sometimes, ironically, it takes an irritating question from a gadfly for government to chart a new or better course in policy formulation and implementation. It is against this background that the dialogue with Fashola was fundamental to our current narrative.

Of course, his antecedents travel before him. As governor of Lagos State for eight years, both partisans and non partisans could see a physical transformation of the city. What was thought impossible became possible. How could one forget the Oshodi miracle? The BRT which looked unending soon brought ease to transportation. A visit to Ikorodu illustrates this. One cannot also forget the rumblings that developed later when the succession matter came up. In all, he emerged as a credible person, fit and proper to hold high public office. In my view, he has not changed. Throughout his governorship days, he was never gaudily noisy or flamboyant like the typical office holder in our clime. His mien showed, and continues to show that to be effective as a public official in the emergency cesspit we have fallen into as a nation, one must pull up the sleeves and get down to work.

In the session, he stressed the need for us to plan as a nation. They who fail to plan, plan to fail. To plan, we need statistics; accurate or near accurate statistics. We need a true population figure. He was in the thick of things when the nation did a population census. Lagos carried out its own assessment alongside the Federal Government because Lagos as well as most state governments did not trust the federal behemoth. We need to faithfully record every experience. Good. Bad. Drivers’ licences. Births. Deaths. This is where Fashola expressed the notoriously familiar, yet shocking fact that there is no reliable data to make a success of policy formulation and implementation in Nigeria.

As a reflection of the worries of Nigerians, about 65 per cent of the interactive time was spent on power – the challenges of power generation, supply and distribution, the challenge of proper auditing, the challenge of knowing how many Nigerians are on the national grid, how many Nigerians are we planning to supply power. Is the six million figure realistic or acceptable? When the DISCOs were approved, what were the targets, short and long term? What megawatts of power do we aim to generate on the basis of which we can tell Nigerians that in ‘X’ number of years power supply would be steady. Fashola’s forthright answer: the actual number of Nigerians on the national grid is unknown. No projection can be made. No timeframe can be fixed. Shocking. Tragic. Depressing. As a man with a pragmatic orientation, he did say that concerted efforts were being made to increase the available megawatts. A form of hope!

It would seem that every government which takes over the reins of leadership in Nigeria starts planning afresh. What happened to the five-year, 10-year rolling plans of the early years of Nigerian independence? What has the National Planning Commission been doing? Any country which takes itself seriously must have both short and long term plans – five years, 10 years etc. Such plans are usually preserved by the bureaucracy, and other relevant institutions of the nation. Politicians come and go; but the figures which form the basis for actions are sacred. They may be subject to reviews. Yet, such data must be renewed and preserved.

Our guest took questions on Works, Power and Housing. Housing appeared to be the weak link in the chain. For any housing policy to succeed the private sector must be involved through mortgage services. Culturally, any male adult in Nigeria who failed to build his house in the twilight of service is considered a failure. As a result, a policy ought to have been in place, well before Fashola to guarantee housing for all. Prof. Eghagha is a visiting member of the Editorial Board.

Our minds flash back to the ‘housing for all’ policy of the NPN under the Shagari administration. Houses in form of estates were built across the country. Sadly, those houses are no longer sufficient. The prevailing culture compels individuals to raise funds from private savings and other unexplainable sources. A house at home, a house in the city. How many Nigerians can afford that through legitimate income? There are too many Nigerians living in squalor, too many Nigerians who cannot afford the rent for decent accommodation in the cities. Abuja is an embarrassment in this regard. So are the cities of Lagos and Port Harcourt. No civil servant in the country can afford the rent of any decent private residential accommodation from their salaries in the typical Nigerian city.

The three ministries-in-one is a reward for hard work. But it is also a test. Cynics might consider it a trap. In my view, it is a test on how well Fashola can meander through the labyrinth of doubts, sabotage and age-long prejudices about efficiency in the power sector. Our very dear late Chief Bola Ige, able, dynamic and efficient, a man with a sharp focus both in vision and eloquence was sent to the Power Ministry during Obasanjo’s second and final coming. What became of his stay there is left for posterity to judge. Over 10 years later, there has been no significant change in the fortunes of the country in the power conundrum. Is there a jinx? Perhaps we should not be in a hurry to judge. Fashola has not been in the saddle for less than two years!

Lack of reliable statistics on which to accurately plan the future of the country will always haunt us as a nation. If we continue to politicise the population census then we can never get things right. Let us get things right this time. An audit of the number of homes and factories that require power supply is mandatory. Fashola should please do this as ACTION ONE for the nation before he leaves the ministry. He has the vision. He has the will. He has the support and confidence of his boss; above all the goodwill of the Nigerian people still subsists. So, this government that mounted the saddle with enormous goodwill from a majority of Nigerians should tackle the population matter before the end of its tenure, whether in 2019 or beyond. It is a national emergency.

Finally, the challenge of providing reliable national data goes beyond our pragmatic and committed Fashola. It is an onerous task for the Federal Government as a corporate body under the leadership of President Buhari. That way, we can achieve one aspect of the change mantra that swept PMB to power in 2015.

In this article:
Babatunde Raji Fashola


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