When on 29 July 2017, Babatunde Fashola, SAN, minister of power, works, and housing (as the ministry then was) announced 63 roads and 45 bridges for emergency repairs, and later that all contractors for those had been paid, he possibly thought it was realistic to fool all the people all the time. Not so this time, as it happened that he mentioned the Katsina-Ala bridge, and the completely nonexistent Buruku and Quatan Sule bridges which others, I included, have sentimental attachments to. Maybe also, neither he nor his ministry was ready to answer questions arising from these public declarations. It has been said that you can fool some of the people all the time; you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you CANNOT fool all the people all the time. It just doesn’t happen!
The Katsina-Ala bridge is important to me in part because it is virtually the only federal government facility in Sankera, my constituency in Benue, and the only access bridge to/through it. It’s precisely because there is no bridge at Buruku that travellers cross by boat in this day and age, leading to the death of scores perennially, due to boat mishaps. Not to mention the other nonexistent Quatan Sule bridge.
So, on 26 July this year, I in my capacity as a private citizen, made an FOI (freedom of information) request addressed to him as minister, requesting comprehensive information on these 3 bridges and the Makurdi bridge he had listed, as well as some roads I am particularly interested in. I enquired to know the status, the length and other specifications, cost, duration, contractor, number of staff both foreign and local, and other details of each of the projects.
For 1 stretch of road, out of the 3 requested, I got an almost immediate reply, within 3 days, which is totally unprecedented. I was amazed and replied to acknowledge and commend the unusually swift response. For the rest, I am yet to hear from the ministry, more than 2 months after. Never mind that the law specifies that FOI requests shall be answered within 7 days.
I was, however, able to get some information on the bridges alone informally, which was said to be in the process of being passed on to me. The contract to repair the 1-kilometer Katsina-Ala bridge, for instance, according to the information was awarded in February this year at over 3 billion naira, to be completed in 2 years, that is, February 2021, and so forth. For the nonexistent Buruku bridge, the information provided was on a Buruku bridge in Kaduna. As for the Quatan Sule bridge, no information at all.
Here is the issue, in the 2017 federal budget, the ministry set aside 190 million naira to pay a consultant to ‘package’ a PPP (public-private partnership) arrangement for the Katsina-Ala bridge, the Makurdi bridge and 4 roads across the country; in spite of the fact that the ministry has an autonomous PPP unit of well-trained experts to handle any PPP endeavour. In that very same budget, a little over 300 million was allotted for comprehensive repairs of the same bridge. The question is, if the government was spending 300 million on the bridge, why there was going to be a PPP arrangement for the same bridge at the same time? Or was the PPP arrangement meant to take off after the repairs? It is interesting to note that, it is this same Katsina-Ala bridge which cost 300 million naira in 2017 for comprehensive repairs, that was awarded at over 3 billion naira for the very same repairs, in 2019! How did the cost of a bridge be fixed magically leapfrog from 300 million 3 billion naira within 2 years?
On 18 September, 3 weeks ago, however, Fashola announced that the federal executive council had on that day approved over 3 billion naira, to repair the Katsina-Ala bridge (a contract already awarded 7 months prior in February, was approved in September), being an upward review from an unnamed figure. The thing, however, he said, was that the amount covered the 3.2-kilometer access road to the bridge from Ugbema. All right, so fixing the 1-kilometer bridge is 3 billion naira, but the 3.2-kilometer is virtually free? Or fixing the bridge is still 300 million and fixing the road is 3 billion naira? Because the figures are the same. It is complex, and makes no meaning.
On 4 October 2011, the then minister of works, Mike Onolememen, stated that the federal government was to concession roads and bridges it built and maintained across the Federation, and specifically named the Buruku bridge in Benue among those. Three years later, however, the ministry named the bridge in the 2014 budget for construction. They specified it as the Buruku bridge across River Katsina-Ala in Benue. From the foregoing, the dissonance here is obvious. How does one plan to construct in 2014 a bridge already existing in 2011? And could a bridge for construction in 2014 be due for emergency repairs by 2017? Whilst awaiting their response to the first FOI request of 26 July, I then made a second one providing the expatiation and clarification above along with other specific details like the code number in the 2014 budget for this project ‘WORKS010008609’ along with its full narration as contained therein, for the avoidance of doubt, in order to specify that it was this particular bridge we were requesting information about, not another elsewhere.
As for the other nonexistent Quatan Sule bridge, it was provided for in the 2017 budget for construction at 900 million naira. Its code in that budget is ‘FMOWP91020798’. A bridge for construction in the 2017 budget was named for emergency repairs in July of the same year. Meaning that it was billed for construction and emergency repairs at the same time? In fact, if what the minister says is anything to go by, the contractors have already been paid for the bridge repairs. For a nonexistent bridge!
We may not be able to tell for sure whether the questions we have been asking made them say the 3 billion naira was not meant exclusively for the Katsina-Ala bridge, but also the Ugbema – Katsina-Ala federal road up to the bridge also; instead of that outrageous amount for the 1-kilometer bridge alone. Or that they withheld responses to that FOI request in order to put use in order, make a public announcement to clarify the matter before replying to the information request; even though the facts seem to suggest so. What is certain however is, asking questions works, and makes the system responsive and serve us better, however tedious the journey may be. We all should ask more questions.
I still await responses to my 3 FOI requests. I am most particularly eager to know the status of the bridges that exist in their imagination and how they will present the information. However, I won’t be waiting forever. The only other option left for me is to sue Babatunde Fashola and his ministry of works and housing, asking the court to compel them to offer the information and explanations that I requested, exercising my guaranteed right to access public information. This is non-negotiable.
It is rather scandalous that Babatunde Fashola, himself a lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) at that, and his ministry act as though obeying an extant law of the Federation is optional or doing somebody a favour. It is such a shame! Lawlessness should never be normalised or tolerated. I will not. The answers we seek shall be provided.
‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.’ If we all go to sleep, so will these people keep taking us for granted, allotting monies in the annual budget year after with nothing to show for it, and lying about nonexistent facilities that exist only in their imaginations and on paper. A time should come when enough is enough.