Ajaokuta: Intrigues and ineptitude

 Kayode Fayemi

Kayode Fayemi

KAYODE Fayemi, the ebullient minister of Solid Minerals Development, does not look, a little bit, like Santa Claus. But when he visited the twin industrial sites of Ajaokuta Iron and Steel Company and the National Iron Ore Mining Company, Itakpe all in Kogi State, last week, he came with a bag full of what looked like Christmas goodies to Nigerians of all faiths who have been hungry for industrial development. In this holy season of renewed commitment to faith and moral restitution, the minister rekindled our hopes that Ajaokuta Iron and Steel Company long dead, shall come alive again. Its dry bones, reminiscent of the Christian song in my elementary school days, shall rise again; the dead shall rise again.

Ajaokuta, conceived way back in the 60s as the industrial hope and the bedrock of the technological take off of the giant of Africa, came to a sorry pass after so much money had been sunk in the place. It was almost at the final stage of commissioning when the military, with jack boots and all, halted the democratic march commenced by the Shehu Shagari administration. And with it all projects that needed to be reviewed in line with dwindling national resources. That included, naturally, the money guzzling Ajaokuta steel company.

Shehu Shagari, who came into office in 1979 as democratically elected President, showed much zeal and determination to see to the smooth take off of Ajaokuta. He committed lots of funds to the installation of giant industrial machines for the project and the construction of sprawling estates for the steel workers. Ajaokuta, the rural settlement, became a self-sufficient new town with glittering lights, abundant water supply; paved roads serviced with well laid drainage system. A new dual carriage way links Ajaokuta with Okene courtesy of the steel company. Not to mention the bridge linking Itobe and Ajaokuta. To allow the Russian experts fly their machineries direct from the Soviet Union, a runway capable of landing aircraft, the size of Boeing 707, was constructed at Adogo adjacent to Ajaokuta. For all practical purposes, Ajaokuta was the place to be – an industrial as well as a tourist destination.

But all that, sorrowfully, went to waste thanks the combination of international and domestic intrigues as well as local ineptitude and the naivety of officialdom.

Minister Fayemi announced last week that this government would soon come out with the blueprint for the revival of Ajaokuta and its iron ore supplier in Itakpe. He revealed that the government had gone to the roots of what went wrong with Ajaokuta. His visit, he said, was to confirm the information at the disposal of the government.

The public, at this stage, may not be privy to the information available to the government. But there is no harm if we volunteer some more facts and figures that would help it in arriving at an appropriate decision. During this country’s romance with some international do-gooders, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, IMF, in the late 80s, it had sought their intervention in resolving the jigsaw puzzle that Ajaokuta now posed in view of the precarious situation of the economy. Little did the eggheads at the helms of affair know that they were courting danger and disaster. The country invited the World Bank to come take another look at Ajaokuta and help chart the way forward in view of the monstrosity of funds committed and what remains to be done.

We recall specifically that Hatch Associates, consultants to the World Bank, was commissioned by the Federal Military Government to take a critical look at the company and recommend measures that would make the industry viable. They went to work and their report was, predictably, depressing. As I reported in one of my columns in Newswatch, the Ajaokuta projects, observed the Hatch experts, were too ambitious and far beyond the steel requirements of the country. The report recommended that the tempo of activities should be slowed down, its ambition scaled down drastically not only because of the prevailing economic situation but because of the country’s low absorptive capacity. If all the steel plants began operation, according to the oracles from Washington, the country would have more than one million tonnes of excess steel to cope with. The experts directed, therefore, that Nigeria should produce only what it could absorb locally.

I invite the honourable minster to take careful note of this report. For instance, it was silent on the capacity of Nigerian businessmen to export the excess products to the countries in dire need of steel. It equally questioned the nation’s ability to expand its industrial base and therefore, had no use for excess steel. The report obviously left itself open to accusation of meddlesomeness that is self-serving, gratuitously taking advantage of our own stage of development – or underdevelopment.

Do not forget the fact that it was to the West Nigeria turned initially when it mooted the idea of its own iron and steel industry. What was the advice? It was not necessary. It was not desirous. Countries such as China, Australia, Brazil, India and Russia, to mention the top five Iron ore producing countries, can have monopoly of the industry but Nigeria.

For its steel requirements, Nigeria was advised, gratuitously, to continue to depend on the West. But when the West discovered that Nigeria was determined to ignore them and turn to the Soviet bloc for help and advice, they scampered back. Now they wanted a piece of the action. Unable to call their bluff, Nigeria, as if it had a divine assignment to promote détente between the two ideological super powers, agreed to allow the West have a piece of the action alongside the eastern bloc.

That was how come the East and the West, obviously two strange bedfellows, were given the same bed in Ajaokuta. And it opened for them a new battle front to fight their cold war to the finish. On one side of the divide we had Dumez and Fougerolle from France and Julius Berger from Germany, all from the Western hemisphere doing the civil engineering works at Ajaokuta and Tiajpromekspost and co from the Soviet bloc handling the major steel construction business. These strange bed fellows, working at cross purposes, produced a synchronisation disaster leading to delays in completion which resulted in escalation costs. This, in turn provided a convenient ground for Hatch’s chilling report.

In the process, nobody remembered the vital component of the Ajaokuta Iron and Steel Company – the flat sheet components. The company was conceived in the 60s after independence to produce iron rods for the construction industry which was then enjoying a worldwide boom. Local politics over the location of the plant led to undue delay. But when finally the Yakubu Gowon’s administration took the bold step and cited the plant at Ajaokuta close to the confluence of the Rivers Niger and Benue, the world had commenced the shift from construction to manufacturing industry and shift in undue reliance on rods to flat sheets. But we were stuck with the original plan.

Neither the West nor the East felt duty bound to advise Nigeria that the music had changed. We were still dancing Tango when the world had shifted to Cocoma or the craze in vogue then, the break dance.

When the cost of grafting the flat sheet component into the original plan proved prohibitive, Nigeria was forced to take the advice of Hatch Associates. It even went further – it took the line of least resistance. If going forward was as difficult as going backwards, then common sense – in unholy alliance with ineptitude, short-sightedness and cluelessness on the part of officialdom – dictated that Nigeria should get stuck in the mud.

That is where the country is in Ajaokuta. That is where it is with other criminally abandoned projects spread across the country. How to revive these projects and move the nation forward is the challenge that the Buhari Administration faces today in addition to the task of recovering stolen money and all other commonwealth that has been plundered and squandered.

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