In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Transport Minister, Rotimi Amaechi, speaks on the challenges and advantages of Nigeria’s latest rail transport system, Rivers State politics and the ruling All Progressives Congress.
PT: What are the challenges you have faced in this ministry?
Amaechi: Money has been the basic challenge. The contracts that you need to deliver on a railway are in tonnes of naira. Take for example the approval by the president that we should do a railway from Abuja to Lokoja to join Itakpe to Warri as well as a sea pot in Warri; that project was put at $3.1 billion, which is nearly N1 trillion. Where will you get the money from?
PT: When you say that money is your problem, what are you doing with the private sector?
Amaechi: I don’t know why people engage in this debate without looking at the realities. Everywhere in the world when it comes to real operation, people get involved. Like we are having a real operation investment in the narrow gauge in which GE is bringing about two million dollars to revive the old narrow gauge and run them by themselves.
But when it comes to real construction, it is usually the government because they are in trillions. How many persons can raise that? The contract from Lagos to Kano is $8.3 billion, the contract from Lagos to Calabar is $11.1 billion dollars. At N300 per dollar, that is N3.3 trillion.
PT: You have just explained that one of the reasons why government takes charge of real construction is because of the requirement for huge sums of money. Yet you had stated that the River Niger dredging costs this government only N100 million. Were you referring to maintenance dredging there or capital dredging?
Amaechi: Maintenance dredging. But what is capital dredging? It’s the same 2.5-meter draft. The work has been slow because the dredgers were rented out. Next year I have told them to include it in their budget to buy a very big dredger, so you don’t need to award the contract. What will a contractor do other than to use a dredger to desilt the river; which you can do if you have your staff?
PT: So, what you are saying is that because dredgers are not adequately available, the contract was outsourced?
Amaechi: I said NIWA is handling the contract. Nobody will do it for you at N100 million now. The only way you can do it at N100 million is that you are paying the staff their regular salary and you are buying diesel to fuel the dredger and the dredger belongs to NIWA.
PT: Recently when you announced that with the improvement in patronage of trains, the Kaduna Abuja rail now generates N30 million monthly; you added that the operational cost is N56 million per month. Does that mean the rail is being run at a monthly deficit of N26 million?
Amaechi: Of course. Because you are subsidising. Where will you run a rail transport for N1,000 and then the business coach is N1, 500? The passengers themselves are the people begging that we should increase the cost of transportation and we are hoping that by October, when we receive more coaches, we will increase the price. I don’t know how much we will increase it to. But we will increase the price so that even if we do not pay the entire cost of operation, we can at least reduce the loss.
We expect about 10 to 17 more coaches by October. I think by the time the new coaches and locomotives arrive, we will be doing 130 kilometres per hour. The current speed is 80 kilometres and the train has a capacity of 150 kilometres per hour.
PT: We understand that some people are already taking advantage of the scarcity to extort money from unsuspecting passengers by purchasing these tickets for the normal price of N1, 000 and selling at high prices as N3000. What do you intend to do about this?
Amaechi: There is nothing you can do about it. Ordinarily, what law is the man breaking? The man is trading. He buys a ticket and he offers you at N3000. If you don’t want to buy, you don’t want to buy.
The man is not creating scarcity, the scarcity is because government is not able to bring in more coaches. So, the solution to it is go and bring in more coaches, the man won’t have a business. As soon as we bring in more coaches and have between 10 to 17 coaches; there will be too many space for the man not to have that market. We currently have only four coaches. These four coaches can only take 120 passengers. So, if you have about 800 passengers, that means there is a deficit of about 600 and something. So, some passengers will pay more if they must go to Kaduna.
PT: Having completed the Kaduna Abuja rail, would you consider it part of your achievements, given the fact that it was not originally your project?
Amaechi: That will be very unfair. For instance, why is the Itakpe-Warri not running? It was awarded 30 years ago. Now, we are focusing on it and if N100 billion is required to complete it and we bring that; then they say, ‘no it’s not your project’. You see, that’s why politicians don’t complete projects if it is abandoned, because you will go and say; ‘it’s not your projects. It’s like what I told my supporters in Rivers State; that it doesn’t matter if Wike completes a project I started and takes the glory. We did not believe in the principle of commissioning projects. He believes in the principle of commissioning projects, then let him go ahead. We believe you are employed by the people, your salary is paid by the people; and then you do your job and call the people to come and dance with you, because you have done your job?
Let us consider the Kaduna-Abuja rail that you talked about. It is part of the Lagos-Kano. It was close to 90 per cent competed. But key is that there were some things that we needed to address: we had to deal with the obstacles. One of them is that the Catholic Church needed land and compensation for their land and the buildings we were going to demolish. We paid the compensation. Personally, I went to the Minister for FCT and got the approval for a Certificate of Occupancy and handed it over to them and we got government to fence their land for them and they vacated. So, you cannot say it is not our project. We are not laying credit. What matters is that business is running.
The Itakpe-Warri rail was awarded in 1987, and up till today, it has not been completed. About 50 kilometres have been vandalised – from Itakpe to Lokoja. Now, we are awarding a fresh contract to CCECC to enable us rebuild from Itakpe to Lokoja. Hopefully, cabinet should be able to discuss it once we send a memo.
PT: Among the various allegations against you by Rivers State governor Nyesom Wike, he accused you of admitting to have taken $39 billion for the construction of a specialist hospital in your state, which was never built. Would you comment on that?
Amaechi: That is not completely correct. To the extent that we paid, yes! That is correct. Our contribution to that project was three billion. So, we had given them that money, which they utilised. I arrested the man and handed him over to the police, because if he knew from day one that he wanted me to award him contract, then he should have said so. I would have looked for the money. I would use the public procurement process. But he came behind and said, ‘bring 10 per cent, we will bring 90 per cent’. And that excited me as a governor and I brought the N10 per cent he promised and then he came to me and said; ‘I have done this; I have done that’; they do not have money, and that is what we disagreed on. So how does that constitute corruption? They had finished the foundation, 18 floors.
I am not too happy that it is now that Nigerians will say I am so corrupt. Why did Goodluck not prosecute me or even accuse me then? When I was accusing him and shouting corruption. Don’t forget I was the first person to shout that $49 billion was missing from NNPC. Sanusi wrote the letter, but kept quiet. I stumbled upon it and went public. The CBN president wrote in September and then I saw it the next year. A lot of people tried to compromise me and I refused.
When I spoke up about oil subsidy; do you think I was not tempted? Under Obasanjo, oil subsidy was N300 billion, under Yar’Adua oil subsidy was N300 billion. Under Jonathan’s first six month in office, oil subsidy rose from N300 billion to N1.7 trillion! You think they did not invite me, that nobody spoke to me? You think nothing happened behind? I will write my book. Nobody accused me of corruption all that time. Then, suddenly one young man comes up and says, ‘Oh! He is corrupt! Two years after leaving office, they have not prosecuted Amaechi; I have no immunity.
PT: Are you sure you were not prosecuted because you were a governor at the time? That’s considering your question that the Goodluck Jonathan administration never prosecuted you.
But why did they not even accuse me? I was not prosecuting him, I was accusing him. They know; Goodluck Jonathan knows that I don’t like money, if they want to be honest.
PT: Can you tell us about the recently reported practitioner’s operating fee for ports officials that was introduced by this administration?
Amaechi: It was there by law. The only thing that happened is that when I came, these people were collecting the money that the law says government should collect and give them a percentage. When I came in, I told them that we should implement the law. They refused. They took me to court. You don’t come and threaten me. The only person that can threaten me now and I will kneel down is my wife. Not men. Let him pull out, other people will come in. The law says you will pay x y z first, then government will split it with you. But first, you will pay that money to government.
PT: Given the economic recession and its effects on the masses, coupled with the controversies that have trailed the president’s medical vacation especially in recent times, would you say that the ruling party still has nothing to worry about in the next election?
Amaechi: I am not the party’s chairman.
PT: But as a member of his party, would you say that the cabinet is not bothered, for example about the president’s health and other related issues?
Amaechi: What should bother us should be the President’s health. He has left everything in order. Once we know that he is alive and is recuperating, that calls for celebration.
Shouldn’t we be thankful about where we are now? Have you checked our rating in Transparency International’s list of corrupt countries? Is anybody chasing you out of the roads now because somebody important is passing? We are not high-profile ministers. The challenges were fait accompli. Apparently, we were going to go into recession. Now, we are walking out of this recession. A lot of indicators show that we are. The only problem we have is the cost of food production. We were importing about 3 million tonnes of rice, now we are saying let’s produce at home.
Give it the next 10 years and the price of rice will go down.