“While we are busy working, some people are busy complaining that nothing is happening.” This was the first statement made by the Minister of Works, Power and Housing Babatunde Raji Fashola, shortly after we took off from Abuja at exactly 8.45am on Thursday, March 16, for the tour of the North-East.
By Hamza Idris
ur first port of call was Bauchi State, which is the gateway to the six states of the North-East – Adamawa, Borno, Gombe, Taraba and Yobe, which have suffered a lot of trauma during the nearly eight years of Boko Haram militancy.
While the Boko Haram insurgency lasted, almost everything was grounded in the region. The terrorists bombed bridges, cut off roads, sacked communities, cut off electrical installations and kidnapped contractors to scare away developmental projects.
“But definitely, something is happening now. This trip is part of managing public trust,” Fashola told some of us who were in the same bus as him during the seven-hour drive to Bauchi, with only one stopover at a petrol filling station in Jos, Plateau State, after passing through Nasarawa State in the North-Central.
I was happy when my editors told me of the trip to the North-East, which I thought would be one of those “executive trips” by air, until I received an email from the minister’s special adviser on media, Mr. Hakeem Bello, indicating that the planned journey would be by road.
As we boarded the Coaster bus in Abuja, I saw huge plastic containers, soft drinks and edibles loaded on the back seat, apparently suggesting that it would be lunch- on-the-go and there won’t be break anywhere during our expedition.
When I curiously went through the itinerary, there was no provision for break. It was supervisions, courtesy calls and bedtime.
As soon as the convoy of seven vehicles crossed into Nasarawa State from Nyanya in Abuja, Fashola started “his work,” curiously looking at the fault lines on the road leading to Keffi, taking notes and giving orders to the directors and special advisers on the entourage.
He gave directives on what should be done on the failing portions of roads in Nasarawa and Kaduna. When we arrived Bauchi around 3.30pm, Fashola directed the waiting commissioner for works and the federal controllers of work and his counterpart in housing in Bauchi to come on board. He directed that we should go straight to the Government House for lunch.
That instruction marked the beginning of our first engagement when Governor Mohammed Abubakar, who was represented by his deputy, Engr. Nuhu Gidado, received us for a courtesy call.
In his speech, Fashola said the federal government was not in competition with any state; rather, the President Muhammadu Buhari administration aimed at assisting every state to grow at its own pace.
“There are controllers of work and housing in each state of the federation, and they are ambassadors of the federal government. Please give them maximum cooperation to deliver,” the minister said.
Six federal road projects are ongoing in Bauchi. They include the 142km dualisation of Shuwarin-Azare road, which is at 56 per cent completion; the 106km Azare-Potiskum road, which is at 74.5 per cent completion; the Ningi-Fuskan Mata road, which is at 32 per cent; the Duguri-Yaro, which is at five per cent; the Yalo-Bashar road, which is at 38 per cent, and repairs of Bauchi-Alkaleri road, in which the 15.5km portion awarded so far has reached 11 per cent completion.
Also, the construction of 40 units of houses by the Federal Government is going on at a land donated by the Bauchi State government along Bauchi road.
Fashola said every serious government must provide roads and houses, among other things for its people. He lamented that before the coming of the Buhari administration, which restored peace, many contractors had left construction sites because they were not paid.
“Now they are back. Engineers and artisans are all back to work. The federal government will continue to create jobs, connect states and make travelling by road a pleasurable experience,” he said.
Aware of the quantum of problems in the North-East, Deputy Governor Gidado said he “pitied’’ Fashola.
“Raji, honestly I don’t envy you. You must have seen the troubles on the roads on your way here from Abuja. The ministry you are heading is huge and the problems in the works, housing and power centres are enormous, but nobody doubts your capacity,” he said.
At the height of insecurity in the region, the Maiduguri airport, situated at the epicentre of the crisis, was shut down for over a year, just as the whole of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states were cut off from mobile phone services.
But gladly, the fear, endless bomb blasts and siege on the highways by terrorists have reduced to the barest minimum, especially from 2015.
After the activities in Bauchi, we left for Gombe, where we were received by federal and state officials at Wuro-Dole, a border town between the two states. It was about 7pm; hence darkness had set in, yet we stopped and supervised the emergency reinstatement of failed portion of the federal highway.
Another federal road project in Gombe is the reconstruction of the Gombe-Numan road, which has reached 68 per cent. We supervised it on Friday, March 17. It was particularly gratifying that the road received attention. I still remember how my wife lost our first baby in 2006 following a miscarriage after we passed through the terribly dilapidated road while leaving Yola on transfer.
Seventy six units of assorted houses are also being built in Gombe as part of the federal government housing scheme. When we visited the site on Saturday, hundreds of artisans, including bricklayers, carpenters, iron benders, concrete mixers and food vendors were seen.
A bricklayer, Mohammed Sani, said he was not aware that there is recession now because he’s getting money.
“They say there is recession, but honestly, if this is what is called recession, let it continue. I have not been working for the past two years, but now I am gainfully employed because of this project,” he said.
Fashola told the deputy governor of Gombe State, Charles Iliya, that after many years of inaction, major interventions embarked upon are aimed at bringing back the North-East into the Nigerian household.
The traumatic trip to Jalingo
It was a hectic experience on Friday while on our way to Numan in Adamawa State and Jalingo in Taraba State. The road is good, up to Kumo in Gombe State, and from there, the story changed because you must have to drive at not more than 20-kilometre per hour because of the debilitating nature of the road passing through Billiri and Kaltungo.
From Mayolefe, a border town between Adamawa and Taraba states, there is simply no road but terrible portholes, some big enough to swallow a toddler.
It took us seven hours to get to Jalingo from Gombe. I noticed that Fashola worked on the move and delegated responsibilities, beside the personal notes he took.
On our way back to Gombe from Jalingo, a Coaster bus behind us conveying journalists had a flat tyre, forcing the whole convoy to stop for over 30 minutes.
While granting interview earlier in the day when we stopped for the drivers to refill the tanks, Fashola admitted that the section of the Numan road in Adamawa was really poor.
“I think it is important to first contextualise what we have been through. Three years ago, this place was clearly under terror attack. This will partly explain why the road is bad. No work could reasonably have been done here. Apart from lack of fund, the only thing that mattered most was to secure the place, which the Buhari administration has done. That’s the context.
“You would recall that recently, we approved 11 roads at the Federal Executive Council (FEC), and some of these roads were part of what we approved,” he said.
On Wednesday last week, after our return, the federal government approved an additional N80 billion for road projects in 12 states, including Adamawa, Bauchi and Taraba.
When we got to Jalingo, the minister supervised a completed road and an ongoing housing project. “It is work in progress. We are assessing and watching what our contractors and engineers are doing. Our primary responsibility is to connect all the states,” he said.
Asked if he was satisfied with all the works he saw, Fashola said, “I am never satisfied with anything I am involved in; I just keep going. It’s difficult to satisfy me, and if you ask me to assess myself, I would continue to push myself.”
The trip to ‘Boko Haram enclave’
We also visited the Potiskum bypass of the 560-kilometre dual carriage highway, which is part of the trans-Saharan highway that runs from Kano through Jigawa, Bauchi, Yobe and Borno states. Surprisingly, heavy equipment were seen working. Nobody thought a day like this would come because of increasing mindless attacks by the Boko Haram.
The deputy governor of Yobe State, Engr. Abubakar Aliyu, who represented Governor Ibrahim Gaidam during the minister’s visit to Damaturu, thanked President Buhari for the commitment he showed in restoring peace to the North- East, which he said paved the way for the execution of people-oriented projects.
The shocking night trip to Maiduguri
I was shocked to the nerves when the minister directed that we would proceed to Maiduguri from Damaturu about 7.30pm.
As a reporter, I covered the North-East for over 10 years and I know that since the advent of the Boko Haram insurgency, nobody would ply the Damaturu-Maiduguri road at night. In fact, there was a time you would barely see anybody on that road from 5pm. Despite the restoration of peace, motorists are still skeptical to ply the road in the dark hours, but we did. However, throughout the nearly two-hour journey, the road was empty. Thank God we got to Maiduguri without any incident.
Earlier, on our way to Taraba, I had asked what gave Fashola the courage to embark on the North-East journey and he said, “Well, I don’t think it is courage. I have a job to do and it has to be done well,” he said.
“If you are building and managing roads, you can’t manage them from slides, you can’t manage them remotely. You must at least see how good or bad those roads are. It gives a sense, either of urgency, enthusiasm, or a combination of both, to be able to really deal with it.
“The Ministry of Defence is aware that we are here, but the security arrangement is just precautionary. We have seen ordinary Nigerians travelling in their buses. I have seen the Taraba Mass Transit Services, Adamawa Express, Bauchi Express and others. So life is going on and we just have a job to do,” he said.
Intervention in power sector
We visited Dadin Kowa in Gombe State on Saturday, March 15, where a supplementary power generating plant is being installed.
The first turbine of the 2-by-20megawatt plant being developed by Mabon Limited and handled by Hydro China Huadong Engineering Corporation is expected to be completed in the next six months and the second one in a month later.
Daily Trust on Sunday observed that the switching station was ready while the foundation for the transformers, which will facilitate evacuation are already in place.
A lot of iron work is also in place for setting the foundation for the turbines, which is the electrical site.
The Dadin Kowa Dam is located 5km north of Dadin Kowa village and 37 kilometres from Gombe, town along Biu road.
It was initially identified for hydro electric power generation in 1959, a year before Nigeria’s independence.
The contract was awarded in 1980 and commissioned in 1988 by the then military president, Ibrahim Babangida.
The reservoir has a capacity of 800 million cubic meters of water and a surface area of 300 square kilometers. It has a potential as a source of fish, but nothing serious was done on the electricity potentials until recently.
Speaking on the power project, Fashola said, “President Buhari is responding to this, which is demonstrative of his commitment to ensuring incremental power.
“We also have to thank the Gombe State government for the expression they have shown to take this power on a dedicated basis, and the Lafarge, which needs the power for their industry, as well as the University of Maiduguri, which have committed to uptake the power. This makes this project commercially viable for now in terms of collection of revenue to keep it going,” he said.
He said that being largely agrarian states, Adamawa and Taraba would benefit from regular water supply for irrigation.
“That’s what we have been discussing. I need to see more comprehensive plan about improving water supply to the farm settlements and building more pumping stations. As the minister of agriculture will tell you, we are still challenged by dependence on rain-supported farming when they can actually have all-year-round farming,” he said.
The Ashaka coal power plant
Besides the Dadin Kowa hydroelectric power project, another coal power project is ongoing inside the Ashaka Cement Factory in Bajoga, which we also visited. When completed in 2018, it will provide 16 megawatts of electricity.
Fashola said he decided to go to Ashaka because he had heard a lot about the project.
“I’ve been fed with all sorts of stories on why we are not taking power from coal as Ashaka Cement has coal power. So I decided to find out. As I said, anywhere there is safe and lawful energy, we would seek to put them on the grid as part of our incremental power programme.
“But as you heard, the coal power project is still about a year, so it won’t be ready until 2018. But we will support them to deliver this project because 15 megawatts of power are a lot of power,’’ he said.
He also allayed fears of adverse effects of coal power plants.
“I cannot think of any country that has totally done away with coal. On the average, all over the world, the mix is about 30 per cent coal, 30 per cent nuclear, 30 per cent gas; and those that have rivers do some hydro, wind, biomass, solar – that is the bulk that makes up the roughly 10 to 20 per cent that most countries have in terms of the renewable energy,” he said.