MINISTER for Transportation, Mr Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi, in this interview, talks about the challenges faced by the President Buhari administration and assures that the tide will turn for Nigerians. He also bares his mind on the issues that made him and former President Goodluck Jonathan part ways. He also tackles the Rivers State governor, Mr Nyesom Wike, over allegations levelled against him (Amaechi) while he was at the helm of affairs in the state. You have been in office as Minister of Transportation for about a year and three months. What are the challenges and what would you consider as your greatest achievements?
I don’t know about achievements but I know about challenges. There are challenges and the greatest challenge is how to get the economy moving the transport sector forward because a huge chunk of the economy depends on the transport sector. Even those who transport crude by pipe lines still need the transport sector and we have all sorts of ideas that we want to implement but basically there are no funds. When I tell people that we met recession, they would say how? Recession does not start in a day. It could not have happened in our first one year in office if the factors were not there before we came in the factors were huge. If you had listened carefully, I said as Chairman of the Governors’ Forum, the first disagreement I had with former President Goodluck Jonathan was on funds that the Presidency couldn’t account for. There wasn’t any specific reason we were fighting other than my insistence on good governance.
First battle with Jonathan I. How much did former President Olusegun Obasanjo leave behind? About $68 billion in the Excess Crude Account, not in the foreign reserves and then we fell into the economic crisis we had in 2008. To be able to battle that economic crisis, the late President Umaru Yar’Adua borrowed quite a lot of money from the Excess Crude Account. He was taking $1 billion every month from the account that was shared by federal, states and local governments to augment the budget and ensure that we didn’t feel the impact of that economic crisis.
We came out of that economic crisis in 2009 or so at a time oil price bounced back to about $110 to $150 and by that time, Yar’Adua had spent the money to $48 billion. So, Jonathan inherited, the Excess Crude Account, inherited an untouched foreign reserves and also inherited increase in price of oil.
With that money, the railway construction from Lagos to Kano, which contract was awarded at $8.7 billion by the Obasanjo administration, all Jonathan ought have done was to take $8 billion from the $48billion to do the project. Jonathan also awarded the contract for the Lagos-Calabar railway project for $11.9 billion before this government brought it down to $11.1 billion. Let us even go back to $11.9 billion; from that $48 billion, you could still take another $11.9 billion. You would have funded the Lagos-Kano and the Lagos-Calabar railway projects.
So, here now as Minister for Transportation, I am battling on how to raise funds from China for these same rail projects, and like I said, they have just released $1.5 billion for the Lagos-Ibadan railway project. The most difficult aspect is the funding and security. Most people don’t know that NIMASA is in charge of water security in the coastal areas and it is huge. The coastal area is essentially the Niger Delta. So, it is a huge problem but we are confronting the challenges and trying to find solution to the problems as we approach them.
You got into a little bit of hot water with the Senate over the issue of funding some rail projects with loans and they said that you were not telling the truth…
As a journalist, what do you think is the truth? As much as possible, I have huge respect for the National Assembly. I was once in the legislative arm of government and I wouldn’t want to get into confrontation with the National Assembly.
It is a fact that the Federal Government submitted a request for $30 billion borrowing plan, it is a fact that it was rejected, it is a fact that $1.5 billion of the Lagos-Ibadan railway project was in it. That is what I said in Kwara and I told the people of Kwara that they should beg the National Assembly to approve it. So, what are they disputing?
Once they pass the borrowing plan, we will start work because it is very embarrassing that the Chinese government has approved but we cannot travel to China to sign because the National Assembly is yet to approve the borrowing plan. One reason China quickly approved it is because we told them that we didn’t want the rainy season to meet us before we start the project. I don’t think I insulted or lied against the National Assembly, all I did was to repeat the facts as they happened. I told my (media) people not to reply the National Assembly because it is an institution and you don’t have to joke with such an institution.
In a language that an ordinary man will understand, which of the railway projects that will come up this year?
If the National Assembly approves the borrowing plan, and I hope they will, then the Lagos-Ibadan rail line will start. In fact, ordinarily, we expect to start this February or first week of March. I hope that the National Assembly will approve it and we expect that we start early in March.
Nigerians want to know why the Federal Government is not utilizing recovered looted funds to fund the budget?
How much is it? There is no money that they recovered that has not been announced. Everyone they get, they announce and you should be able to tabulate from that point. One of the mistakes I made as a governor was that I listened to Rivers people who said I shouldn’t take loans because they hate their governor borrowing money. Even what I borrowed, I paid off almost everything. And I was not borrowing as the current governor is borrowing now. I was borrowing to execute projects. If you asked anyone who was in my administration in Rivers State, he/she would tell you that we suffered in the last six months of the government because we could have told the new government to pay.
So, the Federal Government has to borrow to come out of the current economic crisis we are in. One person that does not like to borrow is the President, he believes we can manage our way through. The reality is that the President also understands that people need to come out of recession and that is why he agreed to submit the $30 billion borrowing plan. These loans are tied to specific projects and, when the money comes, it won’t come to the Ministry of Transportation, there will be an account where they will be paying the contractors. So, you can see the discipline by the President. Unlike before, the loan will be provided but it is the Federal Government that will allocate to projects. But these are loans for specific projects and imagine how the economy would look like. Just imagine $30 billion pumped into the economy, you and I would no longer be talking about recession because it will generate so much economic activities, so much jobs etc.
Still on the borrowing plan, many people are skeptical about the huge amount of money government wants to borrow.
The infrastructure gap is huge and, as I said, this loan is not taken to any ministry or minister’s pocket. I just told you that by the time we were getting huge money from crude, we didn’t need to borrow money because we had money to do these rails. Now, one of the things that can bring us out of recession is construction. And since we don’t have money, we have to borrow. If you review the borrowing plan, they are all tied to specific projects.
One controversial issue has been the closure of the Abuja airport. There are experts who will tell you that you don’t need to shut down that airport to do what you need to do. The airlines have found it particularly difficult to explain the shutdown. Have you made any progress on that?
Who are the experts? The truth is that the Federal Government does not want to close that airport, the pain we will feel for closing the airport is unimaginable.
How do you close an airport in the seat of power? The President is also compelled to go to Kaduna to fly out. When people say these things, it is as if we are having fun closing the airport. That is not our intention. The crisis you have at the Abuja airport is that the runway has lasted 34 years and it is supposed to last 20 years. What these so-called experts are telling you is that they think we are repairing the runway. We are not, we are building a new runway because the foundation has given up, you cannot repair it anymore.
If it is to overlay the runway, we will be glad to do that but if you overlay it, it won’t last and we don’t want to lose any life. It could be anybody, it could be me because I use the airport too. We are also confronted with the reality that people may die if we don’t shut down this airport and rebuilt the runway. I think Nigerians should be patient and give us some time. One government that is cautious and committed to Nigerians is our government.
So are you meeting the foreign airlines midway?
The Minister of State for Aviation has held series of stakeholders meetings, he has spoken with them on the challenges that we have and the arrangements we have put on ground to assist them in Kaduna including security, alternative mode of transportation, putting more soldiers and policemen on the road and all that.
Your successor, Governor Nyesom Wike, granted an interview recently where he made a lot of remarks about your tenure as governor and what he inherited. He said he inherited a mess and that some of the projects you left behind were bogus projects like the school projects. He also alleged that you built hospitals with no doctors in them. How do you react to that?
A governor should not tell lies but when you make a child a governor, then you expect a reverse of the protocols of governance. There is a saying in my village that if you give a child something he can’t carry, he would falter and falter. The hospitals I built are still being used; he tried to change the name of one of the hospitals I built inside the Rivers State University of Science and Technology. He lied. I met 200 doctors when I came in as governor, I employed 400 more. He even lied that I owed salaries for six months. Let anybody in the state come out to say I did not start paying April salary before I left in May 2015.
He should ask for files. The primary schools I built till tomorrow are the best primary schools in Nigeria. They all had computer laboratories which people have seen but have now been shut down by his government. We got Indians to train the children in computer education. A class had 30 children. The school has an auditorium for 390 children, with music instrument. The current governor cannot manage these schools; he has handed over the primary schools to villagers to manage. He said each village should manage their own primary school security. It is disastrous because Rivers will not come out of this disaster for a long time.
I met a state that people were being killed and I stopped it; now people are not just being killed, they are being beheaded.
One of the things he said is that although you did some things, you were getting N20 billion per month and that if he had N500 million, he would have done more than you.
Do you believe that? There are months we got N7 billion. One good thing that I was taught in governance is that whatever document you sign you must have a copy. So, if you go to my house now, I have an open space where I kept all the documents I signed as governor of Rivers State. He first said I did nothing but I paid salaries. So multiply the number of months I paid salaries. When I came in as governor, local governments were paying primary school teachers, but because I focused on education, I took away their wage bill of N2 billion to add to mine. So every month, I was paying primary school teachers for the LGAs. But now the governor sits down and collects local governments money, that is not the responsibility of a governor.
I said I won’t say anything until he competes his four years, then you(the press) can compare. Nigerians have forgotten the fact that I not only did roads, which he is using, I also did education. I had a plan.
Can you imagine a governor taking an acting President to a place he said he was doing recreational centre. He called a village that he wants to build a motor park and mini market. You know he was formerly a local government chairman, he still governs the state like a local government chairman.
Wike said he didn’t want to be governor…
The quarrel was because he wanted to be governor. From the first day we came into Government House, Port Harcourt, he said he wanted to be governor but we all thought it was a joke.
Former first lady Mrs Patience Jonathan endorsed him as PDP candidate and forced him on Rivers people. Elections are over and it is time for governance, if not that he granted that interview replete with lies, I won’t be talking about him.
Let Wike tell us one road he has done. If he did not grant that interview, my plan was to keep quiet until elections, then I will call Rivers people and tell them it was time to compare the two administrations.
Wike actually said you wanted him to be the Commissioner for Finance but that he objected and chose to be your Chief of Staff?
Wike does not have the courage to look at me and tell me he wanted any position. One of the persons he sent to me is our common friend, Bello Adoke, a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General. He told Bello to come and beg me to appoint him(Wike) as Commissioner for Finance. I told Bello, no.
What is Wike’s background to be Commissioner for Finance? You cannot give a lawyer, who does not have that background of managing money, the job of Commissioner for Finance.
Let me tell you something that will surprise you. Nyesom Wike swore to me with his children that if he ever betrayed me, that his children should die. It shows you the character of the person we are talking about.
For many Nigerians, it is like the APC has started something they cannot finish?
Nigerians cannot say that
But that is what people are saying
Nigerians cannot say that. Do you know why I said Nigerians cannot say that, they owe me sympathy. As chairman of the Governors Forum, when I started fighting with President Jonathan, I was clear about what the fight was all about. I was the first Nigerian to raise the alarm about the former CBN governor’s letter to President Goodluck Jonathan that $49 billion was missing from the NNPC account and not paid to the federation account. If they had returned it, we would not be in recession. If that $49 billion was there plus other recovered looted funds, perhaps, we would have hit $50 billion. With $50 to $60 billion, you don’t need to look for dollars to buy.
What we are saying is that we did not meet money. Now, we are generating the funds before we can deploy. We have ideas, which will generate huge economic growth, but we don’t have the money and that is why our President is talking to people to give us money. So, we are not overwhelmed by the job, we are overwhelmed by the fact that we don’t have money. So, we are looking for money.
But top government officials of the past administration have also argued that there were efforts and moves by the past government to save and invest some of the excess funds that accrued to the Federation Account but that the Governors Forum, of which you were the Chairman, opposed the move and went to court. Do you regret that action?
Let me correct the false impression because you see the first action was when President Goodluck Jonathan took over in 2011, there were savings. Then we used to have the National Economic Council meeting and the Minister of Finance was to tell us how much we had in the ECA. Let us say in May, it was $48 billion, but when you come by June it would drop to $47 billion. Whenever we asked, Minister for Finance would say that the President directed that she should use the $1 billion for something.
Again by July, $1 billion would be missing, and it would be the same story. Four months after, the President was still directing her to take money from the account monthly, without the governors knowledge and that was when we decided to put a stop to it and demanded that the money be shared but we agreed to put $1 billion in the Sovereign Wealth Fund. Each state could then go and do their savings, while the FG could save its share.
What was shared was $10 billion. So ask, what happened to the larger chunk of $37 billion? And remember, what we are arguing about here is the savings from Obasanjo era, which President Yar’Adua inherited and then passed on to President Goodluck Jonathan. And all we shared from that amount was $10 billion. When we became strong enough to resist the illegal spending from the account, they stopped calling NEC(National Economic Council) meetings. For about two years, there was no NEC meeting but the Constitution says NEC must hold at least once in a month. So, in disobedience to the Constitution, they stopped calling NEC meetings because they wanted to spend the money.
These are the facts. There are governors you can ask. Governors went on strike three times and we refused to collect our monthly allocation until they stop deducting from the SWF. Why would people now say that it is the governors that caused it? The reason we embarked on strike was because we said the money was being shared illegally. Out of the whole money, what was given to us was $10 billion.
So, under President Goodluck Jonathan, nothing was saved. If you convert these funds into infrastructural development, the infrastructural gap we have now, won’t be this wide.
Under President Goodluck Jonathan, our country had the money to do it. Now, the money is just not there. The President is extremely disciplined. So, when you want to ask that kind of question, you should ask what happened when we had money?
We must accept the blame because we are the government in power but the challenge from the President is that you must not remove your eye from the ball. What is the ball? When you get the money, spend it on projects. That is why you see that it is taking a longer process before we award contracts because you must do that six weeks of advertisement, you must go through all the processes. Even when they give you, the Federal Executive Council must look at it to see whether you passed through the process. If you did not comply with it, it is sent back to the ministry for you to start afresh.
What Nigerians should be saying is that yes, we are facing challenges but we are sure that our resources are safe.