Friday, May 1, 2009

The President's Interview

It was with great interest that I read the Wednesday’s publication of President Yar’Adua’s interview in the Guardian newspaper. With almost two years since his assumption of office, Nigerians have been looking forward to hearing from the Nigerian leader. Unlike Ex-President Obasanjo, one can describe President Yar’Adua as a man who is shy and unassuming. However, his perceived ‘soft’ nature has also continued to fuel speculations about his leadership qualities and more importantly, his understanding of the challenges facing the position he currently occupies. Following my review of his two years of stewardship, I have personally come to a conclusion that, President Yar’Adua just doesn’t get it? Having said that, this last interview somewhat paints a different picture of the ‘servant leader’. The reason why he has waited for two years before granting such a media interview is still beyond me.

Contrary to public speculations and beliefs, I was amazed by President Yar’Adua understanding of Nigerian issues. He was very articulate in his response to questions, most of which he backed with facts and figures. He looked like a man who is on top of his game. He came across as very intelligent. We however need to remember that he used to be a university lecturer. So I don’t think I’m well qualified to doubt his intelligence in any shape or form. However the question on my mind is, after two years in office, where are the actions to show for this intelligence?

Whilst the interview centred on the President’s ‘seven-point agenda’, one key area that was of most interest to me was the issue of transport infrastructure. The President provided an insight on the recently awarded Lagos-Ibadan Public-Private Partnership contract and Lagos-Kano Rail Modernisation project. On the Lagos-Ibadan Concession Contract, I was delighted to note the government’s intention to provide alternative roads for those who do not want to use highway, before the concession takes place. This is necessary for the sake of equity and fairness. It was also good to know that the content of the concession contract was signed by the previous administration at a cost of N150 billion (!). How N150 billion concession contract can be signed by a government without regards to competitive tendering process still beats my imagination. These are some of the atrocities committed by the Obasanjo regime, despite all its rhetoric about ‘due process’. Also we need to ask Ex-President Obasanjo, why will the road concessionaire be given exclusive right to land and highway? It is expected that the concessionaire will make decisions that suits his business interest also improve its profit share. What if those decisions undermine the government strategic road planning intent? I’m pleased that this government has been able to remove such clauses from the current contract. It is becoming clearer by the day that Ex-President Obasanjo economic reforms were only aimed at enriching few individuals. The so-called ‘privatisation’ of government institutions was done without any regard for public interest. And I will personally continue to call for his head.

Now that the government is looking favourably at entering into Public-Private Partnerships in the area of infrastructure development, it is important that it develops a sound and transparent PPP framework. I will note the current duplication within the institutional framework that is set up to govern the PPP model. Agencies/bodies such as Bureau of Public Enterprise, Infrastructure Concession and Regulatory Council and National Council for Privatisation have duplicated responsibilities that need to be streamlined. Also, let’s not be deceived, the financial market is not what it used to be 10yrs ago. We need a framework that will be flexible and responsive to the economic climate. Private investors will not be interested in unstable economies that operate inconsistent economic policies

As for the Lagos-Kano Rail Project, the President noted that government is still in negotiation with the Chinese firm (CECCC) to re-scope the project. And that instead of the previously proposed two ‘standard gauge’ tracks; the contract will be for a single ‘standard gauge’ track at a cost of approximately $3billion. This therefore means the Lagos-Kano corridor will have two rail tracks of different gauges (one existing narrow gauge and one new standard gauge). I have never supported the original project for one main reason. I do not think enough work has been done to date to demonstrate that, upgrading 1,315km of rail track between Lagos and Kano is economically viable. We need to realise that not all rail projects are ‘good’ projects. For me, the original cost of $8billion is a colossal amount of money to spend on a project without due diligence. Our focus should be on developing the critical transport infrastructure needed in major conurbations of the nation (Lagos-Ibadan-Abeokuta as an example) at this point in time.

Following President Yar’Adua comments, it has now become apparent that the Nigerian government is stuck with the project – albeit with changes to project scope. I’m still however concerned with the government approach on this project. While it might look cheaper to build a single ‘standard gauge’ track, as against two that was previously agreed by the Obasanjo administration, I still cannot understand its benefit. What is the benefit of having a rail corridor with two rail tracks, with differing gauges? I want to assume that the rail corridor is to be built to cater for freight and passenger movements. How much extra capacity will the new single standard gauge track provide? The reality is that the two tracks will be mutually exclusive to the different train types (i.e. narrow gauge and standard gauge trains). Has the government explored the option of constructing a single ‘dual gauge’ track instead of the proposed standard gauge track? A ‘dual-gauge’ railway has railway track that allows trains of different gauges to use the same track. Generally dual-gauge railway consists of three rails, rather than the standard two rails. The two outer rails give the wider gauge, while one of the outer rails and the inner rail give a narrower gauge. Thus one of the three rails is common to all traffic. This effectively provides two tracks of narrow gauge and one standard gauge track within the corridor. While this option might be slightly more expensive, I believe this will offer more benefits in the long term instead of the single ‘standard gauge’ now been proposed by the government.

The final question is, has President Yar’Adua been able to convince me with the exuberant display of his knowledge about national issues? At this point I’m not sure. As I sceptic, it is reasonable to assume that the President would have had enough time to prepare for this type of interviews. His advisers and spin doctors who have seen the questions before hand and provide him with proper briefing. Therefore it is difficult to tell who is actually ‘speaking’. Is it President himself or the ‘doctored’ response prepared by his advisers and spin doctors?

Anyway as they say, actions are louder than voice. The President still has two more years on his mandate to convince Nigerians he actually knows what he his talking about.

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