……On power supply: NERC has power to stop estimated billing.
……On housing: There is no such thing as ‘I will give you free house’
……On Third Mainland Bridge: It is 30 years old and must not collapse
Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola, SAN, in this interview, speaks on how he is carrying out the mandates of his ministry. Fashola speaks on metering and estimated billing, housing deficit, the planned closure of the Third Mainland Bridge, Lagos and the agitation for state police amid the challenge of insecurity in parts of the country. Excerpts:
By Olalekan Bilesanmi
Let’s start with the announcement that maintenance work on the Third Mainland Bridge will take 27 months during which the bridge will be shut to traffic. Is the bridge really going to be shut down for 27 months?
No. And let me quickly tell you how important it is to get as accurate as possible when information is put out there. I know that, of course, the traditional media continues to compete with millions of publishers who can now publish by phone. But what comes out from the traditional media must be reliable and accurate. The statement that we put out was that we were closing it for the first three days, I believe, from the 27th of July or thereabouts. We had tried to do it before but we thought that if we allowed children to go on vacation, it would reduce the number of vehicles that needed necessarily to be on the road and, therefore, ultimately reduce the amount of inconvenience. But we are torn now between maintenance and safety and peoples’ convenience. But, essentially, the first three days at the end of this month, as was stated in our press statement, is for investigative work to be conducted to assess the current condition; because there is procurement for maintenance that has been approved. But between that time and now, something may have changed. So, we want them to do an examination again just to be sure that there has been no material deterioration beyond what we have procured. After that, our engineers and our contracting firm will now lay out the plan of work.
Some of the materials and equipment have to be imported, I think later in the year or early next year we will start the repairs. That would imminently compel some closure as we have had in the past when I was governor; I think we closed it for about 12 weeks. We will try and reduce the period of closure as much as possible. But this is a choice between peoples’ safety ultimately. That bridge must not collapse; it needs maintenance. It has been built now upwards of more than 30 years. And if you recall, the maintenance that was done at the time was not completed because the budget was cut. That was why they now did it in phases. So we are back to what we should have done before. It is costing more but it needs to be done.
So, for how long are we hoping the bridge will be shut? You said the first three days would be for examination. What about the real maintenance?
The first three days is what I can speak on right now. At the end of this, we will come back to members of the public and say to them definitely, based on what we get from the outcome of this assessment, and say definitively that this is for how long it is going to take. I am not in the position to say that now until that report comes back to us. But what will happen at the end of July is three days.
So, how did reports mention 27 months then?
I don’t know. I think somebody mistook the date of 27th of July for 27 months. I don’t know how that came about that, but there was a signed statement from my office and it didn’t contain 27 months. And I think that, before we leave that subject, just to underpin the fact that we haven’t maintained many public assets for a long time, Ijora Bridge, you might recall, collapsed. It was lack of maintenance, 40 years plus. We also had recently, in Niger, the Tatabu Bridge which also collapsed as a result of lack of maintenance. We must do something about our aging infrastructure.
There are issues with prepaid meters, the metering system as well as fixed billing system. But you have taken a stance on that and you have gone ahead to procure a metering device, we understand. What is that metering device about to achieve for you as a ministry and the power sector?
Well, I think you are mixing it all up. I didn’t procure a metering device and, if you are referring to the automatic meter reading apparatus that the Federal Executive Council approved about two weeks ago, that is for the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN). TCN provides service to the Generation Companies (GenCos) and the Distribution Companies (DisCos) as a transporter of power. At every turn in the value chain, from when the gas is supplied to the GenCo to when the electricity reaches your house, there is a meter at every point. So the meters we are talking about in that approval are bulk meters; meters between GenCos and TCN and meters between TCN, as a transporter of bulk power, to the DisCo feeders at the injection sub-stations; because everybody needs to be settled and you are settled based on what you deliver. And what those machines do is to enable remote monitoring. At the moment, a sizeable number of the meters have to be inspected manually and read and that causes delay in the settlement system and brings liquidity challenges. So that metering reading system is for bulk meters. They must be distinguished very clearly from retail meters which consumers use to settle their accounts with DisCos. That is another matter entirely and I think I made this quite clear when I briefed journalists after that Federal Executive Council meeting.
What is the NERC expected to do when you directed them to act to get the DisCos to fulfill their obligations concerning metering and stopping estimated billing. What exactly are they expected to do specifically?
There is a lot that the NERC can do and one of the obligations and contracts between the BPE and the DisCos is that certain number of meters will be supplied under contract. That is a contractual obligation. So if a contractual obligation comes in my favour, I should enforce it. There are also statutory and regulatory obligations which are conditions for the granting of license by NERC to the DisCos. Under the terms of their license, there are things they are supposed to do. And within the law, there are things NERC should do if a licensee is not fulfilling the terms of that license. So nobody in this system is helpless, whether BPE or NERC. BPE is the contracting power not the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing. NERC is the regulatory authority not the Minister of Power. For example, Sections 73 and 74 provide NERC with very clear powers to amend a license, to revoke or withdraw a license for non-compliance. That is NERC’s job, to exercise its powers when it feels that certain things are not being done. But the exercise of the discretion and the power to withdraw a license is something that must be done very reluctantly and only as a last resort in the ultimate public interest.
The other things they can do; they can insist that the DisCos must recapitalize for example and fund the supply of meters and distribution equipment to take power to the people. So the purpose of that briefing is to tell everybody to go and do their jobs. I don’t have issues with the DisCos. I just want them to take on responsibility for their customers who call me, who text me about problems. I think that is customer service job; that is not the job of the Minister of Power, Works and Housing. That is the job of the service provider.
You have been very passionate about the issue of state police. You have always recommended and you have always believed that states should have their own police system. Are you happy with the manner the National Assembly is going about it. Do you think that what we see could portend danger?
As far as state police is concerned, I have written enough and I have said enough. I think that first; it is a good step that there is a new Bill seeking to address it. But the point to also make; and this is part of the commentary and conversation that comes into the public space; we want state police? No. We already have state police and nobody should deny that. Almost every state government has one law enforcement apparatus or the other. In Lagos, I can tell you about KAI, LASTMA and others.
Are these state police?
They are for law enforcement. That is what police do. Policing is enforcement. There are law enforcements for traffic offences; there are law enforcements for sanitation and environmental offences. Then you have the Neighbourhood Watch. They are like the neighbourhood vigilante collecting information. I think what is important is to stop hiding behind the finger and looking for state police. States fund police, I funded them as governor (of Lagos State). Many other states are still funding them. What is important is to put together a legislative framework around which all these can operate. It already exists; we should stop living in denial.
I think what people want is something that will be more effective.
What we did in Lagos was effective. We had bank robberies almost every week, sometimes twice without response. We ended that. We didn’t create a new police force. I went to President Yar’Adua and I said, ‘Look, I have people here who are at risk and all of that’. He said ‘what do you want to do?’ I said I wanted to import guns and I wanted to import ammunition. He called the NSA and said ‘is this possible?’ The NSA said ‘yes but we won’t give it to you’. I said ‘you don’t need to give me the weapons. Give it to the Inspector-General of Police but make sure he reassigns them to my state’. We got that and then patrol vehicles. We called our people and then people started donating vehicles, money and, every year, we had an AGM to show people what we were doing with the money. That encouraged people to continue to fund. But it wasn’t the public alone that was funding, government was also funding. But the public commitment was a rallying cry.
And talking about intelligence, what is intelligence? There are two ways to get intelligence in a global world that we live in. One is to have a police state where everybody is monitoring what everybody does. That is not what we want in our democracy. We don’t like that. We had a semblance of that during the dictatorship days where all of us were speaking in muted voices. Intelligence is actually you and I. Who is willing to share information with the police?
Let us get your thoughts very clearly. Are you saying that we don’t need another body as being legislated upon by the National Assembly?
I didn’t say so. I said the legislation is welcome but that the conversation we are having that we want state police has taken us farther away from solving the problem. And that state police actually already exists. That is my opinion and it is based on what is happening. People are setting up one structure or the other to collect revenues, to enforce laws and all of that. Put a legislative framework around that so that everybody knows what to expect from state to state. To that extent, that intervention is welcome but we should have a knowledgeable conversation about what is happening. When we talk of security, all we talk about is law enforcement but, really and truly, bringing policemen means that you are seeking to enforce law. What will secure us really is peace. Do the people want peace? Have they resolved to live together in peace?
There are reports that 17 million houses are needed to ensure that Nigerians have houses. What figures is the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing working with in order to address whatever deficit they believe exists in the system?
I think it is a good place to start the conversation on housing. What I want to say first is that, as part of the media organization, I think we must interrogate some of the people who come to present figures. It is very important to do so. And I say that in the sense that if you ask a couple of Nigerians today, depending on who you ask, they will tell you our population is nearing 200 million, they will tell you it is 200 million, they will tell you it is 170 million. I think the question we should first be asking is ‘why haven’t we had a census?’ We need one like yesterday.
Who should we be posing that question to?
Yes, it is us; government. And to the best of my knowledge, if I recall, the news report was that because there was an election, there was no appropriation for it; some people felt it was too close to have an election and so on. These are matters you the media also reported. I think a census is a more important as a developmental tool for our country. Now to the question about the deficit, who conducted the census for housing? That is the question I think I should ask because I say that the deficit shouldn’t define us. What we should be focusing on is what this administration is doing; developing a housing model which we can then build progressively over years. The British housing model is a hundred years old. Not everybody in that country owns a home. Not everybody even has a shelter. There are data of homeless people currently being conducted in the UK and other parts of the world that I am aware of. Our housing model has started.
We are building in 34 states. We are piloting now to validate first the acceptability of the model and the affordability before we roll out. Acceptability and affordability are important and are relevant to the question that you raised about the data of deficit. In every city that I have been to in this country, there is one empty house or the other. Did the person who conducted that census include the number of empty houses? Are there housing deficit in rural areas and how many are they? I said that because we had a conversation the other day and somebody was telling me about the argument he was having with his father and he kept saying, ‘Daddy, how did you hear this? I was there, it is not true’; and the father said, ‘The news said it, so it must be true’. So, whatever comes out of here and other people who operate in the conventional media space must be authenticated, must be stress test before it is released to the public because the public believes what comes out of here. What I find interesting is that the Federal Government is working with 34 states because it has made it very obvious, it doesn’t control land, it has to get land from the states and states have to buy into the programme; I think housing is in the Concurrent List and states also have some jurisdiction here. But where it does have full powers, like the Federal Capital Territory, and where it could, perhaps, have shown a model of it, it has been very quiet here.
No, we are building in Gwagwalada too. And don’t forget, there was a National Housing Model during President Shagari’s time. At this moment, we have requests from at least 10 states where people are saying, ‘Look, those houses were abandoned, people never moved into them in some states’. And they want to either take them off or buy them off and we are reviewing these requests. To me, that raises a question, why didn’t people move into those houses?
That is why, first, we did audit, we did consultations, we called in private sector architects and we used government architects from different parts of the country. And the things we started dealing with were cultural diversity, land use diversity, about how to build for different parts of the country. There will be no one-size-fits all. So what we’ve seen is that largely in the North, buildings must respect their privacy and we must build in such a way that the courtyards are at the rear. They also prefer bungalows, partly because of the climatic conditions and so on and so forth. In the South, we see that blocks of flat are easily more acceptable; so we are rolling out these models in different parts of the country based on the feedback that we have received. Of course, we then have to stress-test them for affordability; ‘can you afford to pay for this?’
What plans are you rolling out here in the FCT?
One, two and three bedrooms! What we have in the Federal Capital Territory in Gwagwalada is a mixture of bungalows and blocks of flats.
We’ve heard from you what you see as the solution, which, of course, is the capitalization of the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria. Currently, it is capitalized to the tune of about N1.5bn, mortgages to about 2,700 since 2015 for about N20 bn. But you’ve asked that capitalization go up to N500bn. In view of the past corruption in the FMBN, if it is capitalized to the tune of N500bn, how certain are you that that money will go in to address the housing deficit in the country?
I feel optimistic about what I control. I can’t vouch for what I will later not control because, at some point or the other, I will leave office. The point to note also is that when institutions work, there are good people who are doing their job. From time to time, you cannot eliminate the possibility of one bad person in a position of authority in an institution. What then happens is to ensure that, that kind of people who accidentally find their ways there, they must leave as quickly as possible. So, there are self-correcting measures. The point to make also is that the Federal Mortgage Bank on its own cannot fund all of the housing needs of Nigerians. What we need to do is what this administration is doing: leading the way and enabling private sector operators to come and play their role just like you have public and private transport; you have your car, people use buses; you have public and private health, people use private healthcare, others use public hospitals. It is that mixture that must also come to play in delivering housing. What we can do is to lead the model and once that is done, I think that ultimately people should be able to then get on with the business of housing.
How can we get our local banks to get involved in the housing project in a way that they are committed?
Inevitably, when the economy of housing is developed which is my focus, banks will find their ways into it. If you look at the history of banking in Nigeria, it is not a sector that you traditionally venture into. If you see what is happening in agriculture now, they are beginning to test their feet in the water and you will hear that from some of the SMEs who are into agriculture and agro-processing. As we open up the economy, I believe the banking sector will also respond. It is important to say two things. First, we must redefine and re-discuss housing. We must not allow people to come to public space in the pursuit of public office to say ‘I will give you a free house’. There is no such thing. We must not allow people to come and make uninformed promises so that as the next election cycle approaches, if anybody comes here to say ‘I am going to build houses’, we must go to the economics of it. How are you going to raise the money? Where is the money going to come from? How many can you build? Because when I hear one million houses, let us just give an example: one million houses, let us assume each flat has only one window; that is a million windows.
You said that attempting to fight corruption in Nigeria will be almost impossible if landlords expect tenants to pay next year’s rent in advance given the salary range in the country. Can you get the National Assembly to buy into a solution that will mandate landlords to collect rents on a monthly basis?
I am always very careful of what I say. I didn’t say that it will be impossible to fight corruption, if we do that. What I said is that when we ask people to go and bring in advance two years of salaries that they have not earned, we must put that in the context of how we aggravate people to take desperate measures. In answer to your question, the answer will be really and truly how much can the National Assembly as a parliament legislate in terms of private ownership? Because supply and demand on housing is an economic matter and, without a doubt, there are deficits and the pressures are consequences of urban centres. That is one of the consequences of urbanization; people moving in search of opportunities and that is why I made a case that as we begin to progress with agriculture, infrastructure, we are taking opportunities from the urban centres back to the rural centres and, as such, slowing down the rate of migration.
People go back to their farms, quarries and mines which are in rural areas to supply materials to build for construction. We tried to intervene in certain types of houses in Lagos. What did we really do? We just saw that this is a prescriptive law. If any of you breaks that law, you will not be able to come to court to seek relief; either the tenant that pays more than the prescribed amount or the landlord that accepts more than the prescribed amount because then it will be an illegal contract. So it is a self-enforcing law. But ultimately it is you and I as landlords who must take the first big step to say this is really unfair. ‘How can I ask somebody to go and bring what he has not earned and when he brings it, I don’t think that I have done something to push him to desperation?’ If we reduce the number of people who are working and who, every year, come to beg an uncle, an aunt, a father , a cousin to say ‘please my landlord has come, I need two years loan’, if we remove that pressure from the society, we will be a happier people.
Will there be the political will to address this?
I am a minister of government and those statements that I have made to the public charges everybody to come together to let us do something about it. That is political will.
What are you doing to ensure that the models that you build get to the right people?
The model that we worked with in Lagos took us a better part of my first term to finish because there is a lot of extensive planning that goes into preparing. When we rolled out, we were then able to roll out 200 apartments every month. And as I said at the time, there was no government on the continent of Africa that will deliver 200 apartments every month. The plan was for it to build to a sustainability curve because I think we left about 7,000 units in various stages of construction. It’s almost (like) something that we are starting now. Mind you, this is a national scheme and that was why at the National Council on Housing and Lands last week in Gombe, one of the things I charged the commissioners who are members of the Council is to do something; just start building so that we start reducing the deficit
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