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Fuss over Abuja-Abaji-Lokoja contract variation

11 December 2013, 13:34 Tony Ikpasaja

Last month, the Minister of Works, Arc. Mike Onolememen, appeared before the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme (SURE-P). He was summoned to shed light on the revision of the contract sum for the Abuja-Abaji–Lokoja highway, from the initial N42 billion in 2006, to N116 billion in 2011. Since the hearings, imaginations have run wild. Some of the views, including editorial comments, insinuate some wrong-doing, while others claim that the contract variation has jeopardised the national interest. The Minister of Works has also been criticised for continuing with the project on the basis of the revised scope of works and cost, even though the processes leading to the cost variation were initiated before the incumbent Minister assumed office.

Ordinarily, the basis for the indignation that oozes from these opinions is understandable, against the backdrop of public concern about accountability and judicious application of our commonwealth. But those who have expressed negative views on the issue are barking up the wrong tree, as a forensic examination of the subject matter of their outrage will reveal just how misguided and misleading the comments have been.

In fulfilment of the Federal Government’s promise to dualize all roads leading to Abuja, the Federal Capital, contracts for the dualization of the Abuja-Abaji-Lokoja Road were awarded in four sections to four construction companies in 2006. The contractors are : Dantata & Sawoe, RCC, Bulletine, and Gitto Construzioni. The length of the road is 196km and the scope of works of the original contract involved the construction of a new carriageway only, which is to run parallel to the existing carriageway, so that it becomes a dual carriageway on completion.

The completion period was 30 months. However, by May 2011, that is five years after the award, the projects had attained only about 38 per cent completion. Nigerians plying the road can attest to this, because of the frequency of carnage then, and excruciating loss of man-hours as a result of traffic jams, especially during festive periods.

Several factors were responsible for the non-delivery of the project on schedule. The most obvious of these was the grossly inadequate budgetary provision.  In five financial years (2006 – 2010), the total budgetary provisions for the Abuja-Abaji-Lokoja road project was N26.63 billion, representing 62.6 per cent of the total contract sum of N42.55 billion. Indeed, in 2006 and 2008, there were no budgetary provisions at all. While the project was starved of funds, the basic costs of construction materials such as cement, steel, bitumen, diesel, and cost of labour skyrocketed, owing to inflation and the implementation of the new National Minimum Wage. In the circumstance, the unit rates of the contracts became obsolete.

Furthermore, the contractors encountered serious technical, geological and ecological challenges, including very unstable sub-soil, fine white chalk, clay and black cotton soils, high water table, crop outgrowths, and rock formations. This necessitated the contractors requesting for a review of the rates. In a sense, these challenges were traceable to the haste with the contract was awarded in 2006, because enough time and attention was not devoted to detailed planning, as well as detailed geotechnical and soil investigations. Indeed, some of the sections which the contractors had completed within the 38 per cent bracket in five years had begun to fail.

It bears repeating that the original contract was for one carriageway only. There was no consideration whatsoever for the existing carriageway. However, with increased vehicular traffic and much heavier axial load, the existing carriageway began to deteriorate rapidly by 2008. So, the country was faced with little progress on the new contract, and a failed carriageway on the existing road.

In November 2010, the Federal Ministry of Works constituted a Technical Committee made up of Ministry Officials and representatives of the contractors, to undertake a comprehensive appraisal of the Abuja-Abaji-Lokoja road project, and recommend measures to facilitate its completion.  The Committee submitted its report in January 2011. Key among the recommendations of the Technical Committee were the provision of adequate drainages on the new carriageway; and improving the existing carriageway by complete rehabilitation, where necessary. The Committee also recommended the review of the contract sums to cater for the existence of extensive unsuitable soils and review of obsolete unit rates.

Upon further consideration of the report and recommendations therein, including new costs, the Federal Ministry of Works forwarded the full reports to the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) on July 26, 2011. The BPP reviewed the submissions and issued certificates of “No Objection” for the new cost, which totalled N116 billion. Memoranda were subsequently prepared and tabled before the Federal Executive Council, which approved the contracts at its meetings of September 28, 2011, and November 23, 2011.

Contrary to some of the views being bandied, there is nothing “mysterious” about the variation of the contract sum from N42 billion to N116 billion. A mystery is inferable where there is no identifiable basis. Besides, the impression being created is that the variation in the contract sum is a 24-carat discovery by a Senate Ad Hoc Committee that is exposing cobwebs. To uncover implies some wrong-doing that was previously hidden from the relevant authorities, or those who should know.  As stated above, the variation was approved, first, by BPP, and then tabled before the Federal Executive Council, which considered and passed the Memoranda. It is elementary that Conclusions of the Federal Executive Council Meetings are not shrouded in “mystery”.

What is perhaps little appreciated is that the revision of the cost of the construction of the Abuja-Abaji-Lokoja dual carriageway is, in fact, a new contract, the scope of works of the earlier contract having been enlarged considerably. If the present Administration, which inherited the virtually comatose project, had merely been content with the completion of the road contract as initially conceived, there is little doubt that, editorialists, public affairs commentators, and other well-meaning Nigerians would cry shrilly over why the government did not deem it fit and proper to deliver a truly brand new expressway, by not only constructing a new carriageway, but reconstructing the existing carriageway, which had begun to fail by 2008.

It is obvious, therefore, that rather than jeopardise the national interest, the variation in the contract for the Abuja-Abaji-Lokoja dual carriageway (through the expanded scope of works) is squarely in the national interest. What is even more significant is the value that is accruing on account of the new template for the dual carriageway project. Whereas the Jonathan Administration inherited the project at about 17 per cent completion (that is, if evaluated on the basis of the new scope), today the job (including the expanded scope of works) is 70 per cent completed, with firm assurances that the project would be fully delivered in 2014. This calls for commendation, rather than condemnation under the guise of seeking probity in public contracting, an issue that, on a sober examination, is decidedly not at stake in the Abuja-Abaji-Lokoja dualization project.

Perhaps, the question to ask is why in just two years, a project that was tethering on abandonment has received a shot in the arm and is now due for completion soon. In other words, what lies behind the impetus and how can it be a model for the execution of critical and not-so critical public works?

With a number of previously dilapidated Federal highways now motorable, there is no doubt that no other Minister of Works in recent times has superintended the reform of the road sector public works, and begun to deliver appreciable results, in a short space of time, as we are witnessing in the case of Arc. Mike Onolememen. The Benin-Ore expressway has been fixed, while work is going on steadily on the Ore-Shagamu stretch. The Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway has equally been fixed, among many other projects either completed or in progress. The on-going reforms in the Federal Ministry of Works include ensuring adequate planning, vastly improved road design, effective supervision, better project management, strong quality assurance, and the search for novel and sustainable funding.  

The Minister of Works has chalked up these achievements, and more, without a whiff of scandal. This is because he is a focused professional and disciplined human being. The sweeping generalisation that public contracts are sometimes sleazy is a tar brush that should never have been applied on the Minister of Works. Members of the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme (SURE-P) may have raised eyebrows over the revision of the contract sum, which preceded the tenure of Arc. Onolememen, but the Senate Ad Hoc Committee cannot fault the aggregate wisdom of the Technical Review Committee, BPP, and the Federal Executive Council in seeing the necessity for enlarging the scope of works for the project, which is the rationale for the variation in the contract sum.

* Tony Ikpasaja is the Special Assistant (Media) to the Minister of Works.

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