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Infrastructure acquisition in bits and pieces



Once again, the unsavoury economic news was received in Nigeria. Last time it was that 133 million Nigerians lived in multidimensional poverty, recent news is that it will require a mind-boggling 300 years for Nigeria to bridge the gap and have the necessary infrastructure to function as a modern economy. This is coming from the country economist of the World Bank attached to Nigeria, but to the discerning mind, it is no less obvious. This avalanche of bad economic news has not always been the case.

Nigeria used to be part of the emerging and rising Africa, the new economic frontier. It became the largest economy in Africa and was destined to be one of 20 largest economies in the world by 2020. Nigerians were the happiest people in the world for some years, but I doubt we are still the happiest people as our youths cannot wait to leave the country.

In terms of infrastructure acquisition, we shocked the world with the revolution in having new communication technology delivered to the country. Nigeria successfully adopted wireless communication in GSM and leapfrogged fibre optical technology. Recently we have achieved successes in rail infrastructure with coming into operations of standard gauge rail between Abuja and Kaduna, later between Lagos and Ibadan. Then the World Bank doused the euphoria.

Some have received the World Bank’s position negatively, feeling that 300 years is an exaggeration. A friend wrote, “The World Bank thesis is self-serving and paternalistic……serving the interest of the United States.” Others submit that the objective of the World Bank with the statement is to create a wedge between Nigeria and infrastructure-providing China; thus creating the opportunity for the US to step back in.

Wasn’t the World Bank stating the obvious? Do we need external organisations to point out these things? Where are our economic planners and managers? A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation will reveal the truth in what the World Bank raised. The 320 km Lagos-Ibadan double track standard gauge rail was laid over five years, averaging 60 km per year. The national rail backbone of Lagos to Kano, Lagos to Calabar, and Calabar to Maiduguri is a total of about 9000 kilometres of expected standard gauge rail. At an average of 60 km per year, the backbone will be completed in 150 years, with connections to other towns and cities another 100 years. Meanwhile, work has effectively stopped as Chinese loans have been suspended.

For the last 20 years, we have been stuck at delivering 5,000 megawatts of power to Nigerians, averaging 250 megawatts per year. Conservatively, Nigerians need 60,000 megawatts, being Africa’s largest economy. At the current rate, that makes it 240 years to deliver power for today’s national needs, pretty close to the World Bank calculations.

Delivering paved roads up to our doorsteps, I mean paved roads that will not be cosmetic but solid like in other climes, is virtually an impossible task as most Nigerians make do with appalling roads after main artery roads into towns. Having high-speed rail or driving electric vehicles as they come of age in the next 20 years is not thinkable at the rate we are going. The World Bank submission was never an exaggeration, it was given in good faith because we are celebrating some belated pieces of infrastructure constructed by this administration. After these baby steps, a lull will set in as it happened in the past.

The Chinese have done right by suspending loans for financing these projects. These paltry loans, when placed against realistic finance figures in trillions of dollars, is weighing heavily on the government’s finance and revenue. Some things are not adding up and a serious rethink is needed. All expectations have not been met, rather public debt and extreme poverty are on the rise.

Once again we should go back to learn from history, that is history of countries who have closed developmental gaps as Nigeria is experiencing.  Upon the US gaining independence from England, the English did all they could to keep the new country a source of raw materials, especially cotton for the textile mills in England. They forbade the sharing of cotton milling technology with the US, checking luggage to make sure the drawings were not exported. A gentleman, Samuel Slater, bucked the system by having the design stored in his head and sailed to the US to download it and reproduce the first industrial loom in the US. This was 1789; 100 years later, the US economy became bigger than the British economy.

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Japan was lagging behind the West and did a rethink from the 1850s under the Meiji dynasty. Within a span of 50 years, Japan was able to take on the West, aircraft carrier for aircraft carrier in the Second World War. You don’t rely on others to do these for you. There is the Chinese lesson in HSR. The Chinese, though latecomers to HSR, laid 40,000 km of HSR tracks within 15 years, 10 times the length laid by first developers, France and Japan. I don’t believe Nigerians don’t have it in them to reproduce such feats if we put our hearts to it.

All our political parties write lavishly on infrastructure projects in their manifestos. So too documents as the Mid Term National Development Plan. However, none seems to have identified our failings at infrastructure acquisition the way the World Bank has done. None has addressed closing the infrastructure gap within a generation or two, without placing the nation in perpetual debt.

We need to identify what is being done amiss and rectify it, after all, we have had faculties of engineering churning out engineers for decades yet foreign engineers and firms dominate our construction space in mega projects. We never developed capacity in rail construction either in these faculties or polytechnics. This is borne out by the fact that a University of Transportation is part of the package given by the Chinese laying our rail tracks.

Our task is cut out for us. Nigerians have to acquire the capabilities to build quality infrastructure, build fast and build ourselves. Not rebuilding a major highway, Lagos Ibadan, for almost a decade. Elsewhere I have written that “we have to totally nairanise and indigenise our infrastructure acquisition.”  This means that we have to eliminate hard currencies from our infrastructure acquisition as much as possible. By indigenising and nairanising infrastructure acquisition, we can build roads, lay rail tracks to our delight like the Chinese do.

We have to stop being just consumers of infrastructure; we have to be providers of infrastructure like the Chinese, participating in the full value chain of the infrastructure ecosystem. How do we get this done? By harnessing and having in-country all construction materials used in infrastructure; from cement to iron rods, from steel to aggregates, to bitumen etc. So many bridges and flyovers have been built in the country that it is a shame we still need foreigners for their construction.

The World Bank puts a $3tn price on Nigeria’s infrastructure inadequacies. This presents us with opportunities to wipe out poverty from the land as armies of Nigerian construction workers go to various project sites once this dollar tag is nairanised. CBN can print the naira to cover the cost of each project. That is how China does it; that is how President Joe Biden will do it to renew its ageing infrastructure, why not Nigeria?

The $3tn price tag is not for the Nigerian government alone, it is for Nigerians, both individuals and organised private sector, who should identify business opportunities therein and shoulder the main burden of providing infrastructure profitably. There are further add-on benefits for the country as we become the preferred infrastructure provider for Africa and the world at large in partnership with others. This is what is regarded as operating in the full value chain of infrastructure, from being a consuming nation to becoming a provider. Nigeria has been operating in the consumer end of the infrastructure value chain believing it will ultimately deliver economic growth and development but it has not. What it has delivered are the humongous loans owed to foreigners, and the minimum transformative growth and development.

Jaiyesimi writes via  [email protected] 

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