‘We need infrastructure investment, effective public-private partnership to grow’

Olukayode-pixOlukayode Fabunmi is the Director of Business Law Academy and now the Conference Director of the planned infrastructure investment conference slated for March 15 and 16 in Abuja. In this interview with CHIJIOKE NELSON, the business law expert said opportunities in infrastructure investment and public-private partnership, which remains untapped in the country, is setting our development backward.

What is the conference all about?
The conference is an international event, precisely an international infrastructure investment promotion and exhibitions, which primarily seeks to bring the public sector officials, key decision makers and the investing private sector together, with the objective of accelerating infrastructure investments in Nigeria and bridge the gap in infrastructure using private sector operators.

This is not the first time that such conferences are arranged in the country. Why do you think that this one is going to make a difference?

When you go for conferences, usually there is one key element, which is information dissemination. You will get to hear about what is going on in the market place. One other key element we introduced to this conference is what we called business-government networking platform. So, Business-to-Government (B2G) is where you are targeting private sector and the government to explore business opportunities. For instance, in the areas public-private partnership, you find the government projecting what they want the private sector to invest in, while the private sector is there to look for a project to invest in as well. This conference, in addition to information dissemination, will also bridge the gap between investor and government. Basically we are going to have a business lunch, where government at state and federal levels will have access to interested private sector players on specific areas. The conference will match-make governments’ investment needs with investors choice such that they can start explorative discussion. This will also take out charlatans from the system.

From your experience, what do you think is the actual problem with getting investors for infrastructure development?

We need people to start talking about what is going on in Nigeria positively, not just that we have the biggest population, biggest market and problems. We need to start talking about specific infrastructures. For instance, if we go to East Africa, there is a specific infrastructure that they can be identified with. Here in Nigeria, if you ask sincerely what project we have, we will have to scratch our head to come up with the list of projects. So, in my opinion, if we have one or two projects of national importance that go into the international financial market, there would certainly be interest from people. For instance, two years ago, the Lagos-Lekki-Epe Expressway project attracted a lot of interest into Nigeria. But we didn’t build on that momentum.

Nigeria is really going through some challenges now. How confident are you that the needed investment would be attracted from this conference?

Well, there are different kinds of investors. There are those who see opportunities in crisis situation. Yes, the crisis is there, but it won’t last forever, it is just a phase. So, this is the time for us to plan. Infrastructure budget is not a quick fix, it takes a long process, but the opportunities are there, depending on how they are structured along the way. There are predictions about Nigeria having a turnaround in economy, perhaps by next year. Investors will be interested to plan and come into Nigeria now and some after the crisis. So, I am confident that the current situation will not affect what is going on in terms of attracting infrastructure investment. In fact, it is a business.

In Nigeria, after each round of privatisation, everything remains the same. How do you think investors will believe whatever will come out of the conference?

I think privatisation as a concept should not be looked in isolation. For instance, a government institution that is sold does not necessarily mean that it will perform, if there is no competition. So, a company that is monopolistic, either as private sector or public sector, will most likely underperform because of lack of competition. Look at telecommunications, if you have had only one carrier, there would not have been enough progress in the market. I think privatisation is one aspect, but there are other aspects that need follow up. You need to have a strong regulator that will oversee the industry and most importantly, have other players to come in and raise competition to improve the services.

Which infrastructure are you looking at in this conference?

I think one of the key things that the government should look at is socio-economy infrastructure. Unfortunately, especially at the state level, you find out that the interest is more on commercial infrastructure like building of more markets and the rest of it. The socio-economic infrastructure like hospital, roads, schools, in my opinion, are what the government needs to focus on, especially with public-private structure and once the concept is clearly understood, which unfortunately is not understood now, we will be making very major progress in terms of infrastructure development. So, at the moment, the concept has not fully been developed, because it means different things to different people and that confusion is one of the problems. The enabling Act needs to be looked at again, because when it was promulgated, it sought to resolve an issue that does not exit any more.

Who starts the process of enabling environment being touted and how long would it take?

Well, everybody needs to start it and for us we are contributing our own little ways with this conference. We expect that issues like this would be discussed as a matter of fact and that the National Assembly would come and give their perspective on the law. The private sector, which I belong to, is coming with this conference and we need the support of the government because we cannot have public-private partnership when the government is not involved. We need to have more conferences, seminars, workshops and training.

Who bears the cost of these arrangements?

One of the things we said when we started this initiative was that we are not going to meet government to take any responsibility. We, as private sector operators, are set up to make profit, so we have to think outside box to see how the conference will be funded. Primarily, we are going to charge delegate fee, which is traditional and we also have sponsorship from a few companies. One other key part of the conference is that, we are also providing opportunities for exhibitions.
Some government agencies have indicated interest, as well as some private sector operators. There are those coming from outside Nigeria. The conference, though is not designed as a moneymaking opportunity, but as we can rightly put it, to offer the first word. We expect to have senior government officials, even as few ministers and governors have confirmed their participation and of course, we are also waiting for more people to be confirmed. One thing I will also like to mention is that we are putting together a private sector fund that will train 500 public officials over five-year period in specialised areas of public-private partnership, so that across the 36 states of the country and the federal MDAs, you have people that have first hand knowledge of public-private concept.
We hope to have a two-week intensive residential course on specialised courses for them, as well as the plan for a Nigerian PPP yearbook, which will chronicle every project that is classified as PPP in Nigeria. So, I don’t need to know any commissioner, any minister or anybody in government to be able to assess such information, which will help investors and researchers.

Why do we make laws against ourselves with so much intelligent lawyers who take advantage of the loopholes?

The job of a lawyer is to defend a client. So to that extent, you cannot fault a lawyer for defending his client. If there are technical issues that can knock off a case, so be it. The only thing is for one to engage a very sound lawyer that would take up their matter, but one other important aspect is that the legislature should also look at what there is in the law that deals with the issues on hand. But it is very important that specialists are also invited in the law making processes. It is not enough to say you are having a public hearing, but it is equally important for them to also engage specialists that can get them quality advice that will give the legislative process that are required. The truth of the matter is that all over the world, public-private partnership has contributed greatly in terms of asset delivery and in Nigeria, I can cite some examples. If you look at the ports, there is a turnaround that has changed Lagos and Port-Harcourt. If you look at the Lekki Expressway, though there are issues, but the road is there. The local airport is there. One thing that PPP will do for the people, which is the most critical thing, is that it will deliver. This has been proved all over the world. The only thing is that in Nigeria, we will need to get the structure right and once we start doing that, we will start seeing projects.

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