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Mixed Metaphors: Lest We Forget By Sonala Olumhense

And so, just 10 years after Nigeria famously concluded a debt deal with the Paris Club, President Muhammadu Buhari is seeking $30bn in new foreign loans over. 

To be obtained from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the Japan International Co-operation Agency, the Islamic Development Bank and China EximBank, the funds will be spent principally on infrastructure between 2016 and 2018.

The government explained on Thursday that it will spend $25.8bn of the funds, and the states, $4.1bn.  Of the $18.3bn going into infrastructure development, $14.6bn will cater for federal projects and $3.7bn for state projects.

The debate is on.  If the borrowing span for these loans is three years, to borrow so much is an admission that the government’s anti-corruption claims are ridiculous.  In the same period, the government should be able to collect far more than $30bn from those individuals and institutions that have stolen the country blind. 

Part of the problem is that the anti-corruption locomotive is proceeding like Goodluck Jonathan’s, like Olusegun Obasanjo’s, like Sani Abacha’s.  Like a Basketmouth tale, except that it is not funny.  Because those funds are everywhere to be recovered.  Just ask the victims of the crime: Nigerians.

The second point is that we can make no progress if the government which claims to be fighting our fight, and recovering our money, is not telling us the 4Ws: Who, When, Where, What.  Basketmouth tale.

My next point is that Nigeria project management must change.  The government must define, and publish specifics of projects: How much, Who, Start Date, End Date.  Earn respect by ending the era of cabinet-meeting be-all and end-all, where it is the public that ends up being short-changed and silenced.  If you believe in the Nigerian voter, arm him with information.

Speaking of project management, the Mambila Hydro Electric Power Project is again touted to be on the way, with a $4.8bn lifeline.

But have we ensured we are planting on fertile soil, not sand?  Rail talk features highly in this plan, with $2.4bn being spent on the Lagos-Kano Railway Modernisation project, $1.3bn on the Lagos-Ibadan segment and $1.1bn on the Kano-Kaduna. 

But what are we to make of this: on July 18, 2012, the Jonathan government approved a $1bn Chinese loan for the modernisation of the entire project.  Making the announcement at that time, Minister of Transport Idris Umar said the construction would be undertaken by China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation Ltd (CCECC), an experienced firm which does business all over the world, and would begin with the Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge double track.

What are we to make of this: just two months ago, the government, represented by Minister of Transportation Rotimi Amaechi, signed two contracts with the same CCECC worth $5.1bn for the construction and modernisation of rail lines in the country, with the Kano-Kaduna component worth $1.68bn?   And now another $1.1bn on the same project?

As part of a $3bn loan President Jonathan signed in Beijing in July 2013, CCECC was also supposed to build the Abuja light rail, now apparently renamed “Mass Rail Transit”, for $500m.  What happened?

When Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala traveled to Beijing in 2012 to negotiate the $3 billion loan, she said it would be used to “complete some people-oriented projects.” 

President Jonathan’s government said the money would be spent as follows: four new airport terminals, $500m; agriculture, $500m; completion of the Bauchi Independent Power project, $171m; completion of the Galaxy backbone project, $100 million; Niger Delta infrastructure, $1.4 billion.   AND the Abuja rail project: $500 million. 

Nigerians should ask their officials how a project to be completed at $500m has now become only “Phase I” of itself, while “Phase II” will cost over three times as much at $1.6bn: a total of $2.1b.  In other words, where is the $500m that was supposed to have built the entire Abuja light rail just three years ago, and why is nobody in jail?

Furthermore, during Premier Li Keqiang’s four-nation tour of Africa in May 2014, China committed to a high-speed rail network to connect African capitals.  “As a start, China Railway Construction Corporation made a $13.1 billion deal [during the visit] to build an 860-mile high-speed railway in Nigeria that would employ more than 4,000 workers during construction, and 5,000 more afterward,” reported The European Financial Review.

If that rail line is different from the “new” Lagos-Kano, where is Nigeria building the $13.1bn line?

Is it conceivably related to the $11.97bn, 1300-kilometre Lagos-Calabar Coastal Railway Project that Nigeria signed with China’s CRCC in November 2014?  If so, how?

Nigeria did some roaring business during President Jonathan’s trip to China in 2013 that didn’t make news in Nigeria.  Reported Bloomberg News: “While [Trade and Investment minister Olusegun] Aganga and [Mr. Jonathan] were in Beijing, they signed an agreement with Power Construction Corp. of China that may lead within a year to a $20 billion project for 20,000 megawatts of electricity capacity in Nigeria, with the Chinese company recouping the investment by selling power to the grid, Aganga said.”

One year.  20,000MW.  And we are sharing 2000MW three years later?

A “new” $4.8bn Mambila plan?  In June 2015, President Buhari met in Abuja with CCC officials working on the projects, and said he wanted the troubled 34-year old, $3.2bn., 3,050MW scheme completed.  When he visited China in April 2016, it was one of the key projects on his mind.  Nigerians would recall that while the presidency had said he would seek a $2billion loan, the Chinese offered him much more on arrival: $6billion.

It is unclear what the relationship between those loans and the ones now being sought is, but during his meeting with Mr. Li Keqiang, President Buhari expressed grave disappointment over the failure of previous governments to meet Nigeria’s obligations in collaborative projects.  He recommitted to completing all infrastructure projects expeditiously. 

All of this sounds good, but we are missing the point.  $30 billion is not what Nigeria needs.  Of greater importance, it is not what we can have.  We can, and should be constructing several Mambila power projects; rail links to all the state capitals and major cities, first-rate major highways all over the country.  At the same time.

And we can do it, but not through tokenism and piecemeal policy options with an eye on two years from now instead of 50 or 100, or on foreign loans.

We can do it if the Buhari administration would find the political will to go after the $200-$250bn in the hands of those who have eaten us alive, beginning with the NNPC; if it would follow up the NEITI story; sell Nigeria’s excess assets abroad; focus on the CBN and similar cliffhangers.  The government is currently prosecuting some companies which shipped undeclared Nigeria oil to the US, but there were many such shenanigans in other countries over many years.  The government should also go after those who took large contracts, or stole vast sums, say over $10m, and use creative—not crude—measures to recover the money. 

"We want to have everything back--all that they took by force in 16 years," President Buhari said in November 2015. 

Now is the time to do that.  But you cannot liberate tens of millions from poverty by selling them into slavery.

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Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense