Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, is presently saddled with the responsibility of ensuring President Muhammadu Buhari's promise of linking all the 36 states of the federation through rail lines unfolds into a reality. In this interview with EJIKE EJIKE, the former Rivers State governor reveals what the federal government doing to complete some ongoing rail projects and embark on new ones. He also bares his mind on national politics and that of his home state.
Part of president the Buhari administration's focus is to develop the transportation industry. How is the rail sector doing at the moment?
Well, I think the rail sector is doing fine. The first aspect of it , which is the narrow gauge, is where we are not doing much. We are not doing much in the sense that we are negotiating with General Electric (GE) to renovate the narrow gauge and manage it under concession. The concession would see GE invest in the narrow gauge rail system that traverses almost the entire country. One trunk of the rail line starts from Lagos and goes through several states like Ogun, Oyo, Kwara, Niger and Kaduna down to Kano. Another trunk starts from Port Harcourt through Abia , Enugu, Benue , Nasarawa , Plateau , Bauchi and Gombe states, and terminates in Maiduguri.
On the new rail lines, we have proceeded to Lagos and we are working on the Lagos to Ibadan rail, which is part of the Lagos to Kaduna rail project. Also, we are looking for loan to ensure that we finish the Ibandan to Kano and Lagos to Calabar rail projects too. Also, the president is about to award the Port Harcourt to Maiduguri rail line. The plan is to ensure that train gets to all the state capitals.
You talked about loan, how much are we looking at?
The Federal Government is looking at between $40 to $46 billion dollars to complete some ongoing rail projects and embark on new ones. We will do everything possible to ensure that we complete the Lagos -Ibadan railway. We are already negotiating with contractors who will fund the project. If we are able to complete the arrangements, again taking into consideration the Nigerian law, we will start many of them (rail projects) this year.
When government makes this huge investments, it is expected to get something back. When are we looking at recouping some of the funds?
Would you imagine the benefits of moving massive goods from Port Harcourt to Jos or moving a cargo from Lagos to Kano? Now, you cannot quantity the benefits at all.
We witnessed the commissioning of the Kaduna Dry Inland Port. When are you expecting to have others ready?
The one of Plateau will be commissioned by the end of April 2018. You see, private investors mainly handle these dry port projects. So, there is noting much government can do about it. However, the best thing government can do is assist with infrastructure. That is why I said the one of Jos would be completed by April because the governor was with me and we are trying to see how we can commission it in March. We have one in Kano, Isi Alangwa and Funtua. I think in total, we have about six or seven of them and work is progressing.
What is the level of work at the Lagos-Ibadan rail line?
We still believe we can complete this project before the end of 2018. We have problems in Lagos metropolis and with the relocation of a military barracks and we are working on these challenges. We hope this project will be completed within the life span of construction. Nigerians are putting us under immersed pressure. This Contract is three years and we are doing it within one year and two months. Our target is December 2018. A committee was set up and chaired by the board chairman of the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC), Engr. Usman Abubakar, with the representatives of the Nigerian Army, NRC, Lagos State government, NNPC and CCECC as members to ensure that all the challenges are resolved, having it at the back of their minds that December 2018 is the deadline for the completion of the project.
The Jibowu and Costain bridges will have to go. There is no alternative to those bridges that would be demolished and the federal government is working together with the Lagos State government to see how we can reduce heavy vehicular movement on that axis when work finally commences.
What you are saying appear the plan of the current administration to link the entire country through rail as Mr President had promised in January 1st broadcast speech. How do the federal government intend to actualise this?
Well, the president is in need of cash to handle some of these projects. Going by what we have achieved in less than three years, I think the government has done well in transportation. You see. When you talk about rail transportation, you talk about money. When funds are not there, do you expect the president to do magic? Apart from funding, you talk about time. There is a duration period for this construction. Technically, it takes more than three years to construct the Lagos to Ibadan rail but due to pressure from Nigerians, we are pushing the contractors to do it in one year. We are everywhere all the time. I broke down for the first time in my life last week because every month I am in Lagos and we drive through the bushes from Lagos to Ibadan to access projects. In fact, we are forcing them to start laying the tracks latest by April. It has not been easy.
On the loan you talked about, where do you expect to get it from and don't you think the federal government is mortgaging the future of this country with too many loans?
We normally get these loans from the Chinese Nexim Bank. The first $1.5 million was from there and we will go back for more. On mortgaging the future of this country, I will ask if it is wrong to mortgage a future and have a better infrastructure. Are you happy that in other countries, we have better transport infrastructure? Have you also forgotten that we create jobs through these infrastructural projects? If our leaders squandered monies we would have used in building infrastructure, do you want us to continue like that? There was a period that oil was $110 and $, why did we not use the money to build infrastructure? At $110, we needed $1.5 million to do the Lagos to Ibadan rail; in fact we needed $8billon to do Lagos to Kano. We will always have debt financing and we should be grateful that China is ready to give us loan.
What is the expected timeline to put all these projects in place, all things being equal?
All things are not always equal. If we have funds, we may put timeline in Lagos to Ibadan. Then from Itakpa to Warrior, we look at two years.
Let's talk a bit on the country's politics. As the director general of president's reelection campaign as well as the Minister of Transportation, what do you say about certain remarks made recently against the Buhari administration, with some eminent Nigerians asking him not to contest?
Everybody is entitled to his opinion. Now, we are dealing with the railway and people are able to use the rail from Abuja to Kaduna; which was not there before. How do you score a man if not by his achievements? Now we are working on the Lagos to Ibadan. The GE we are approaching for the narrow gauge told me that for eleven years, they have been trying to get the project from the past government. Now, we are the ones begging them to sign for concession. We are not looking for bribe unlike before but just for them to come and get the papers signed is becoming more difficult.
At some point, you; your state governor, Nyesom Wike; Dakuku Peterside and Senator Magnus Abe were political allies until the political tussle started. What actually happened?
Well, I don't know. If I knew I will tell you but I don't really know. You know that character is what brings people out. So, I don't really know what happened.
You were accused of mismanagement and wastage and even buying a private jet that wasn't necessary. How do you react to these three years after?
I don't know. If I were the governor, I will sell the jet now. You see, the difference between the current governor and me is that when I was in power did a lot of things that are obvious for people to see today unlike the current governor who said it is one project at a time. When we were in government, we did roads, water, lights, schools and free education. Let the governor say what he has done since he came into power. By the time I was leaving office, I had constructed about four flyovers and two interchange roads. Let him show one flyover he has done. That is how you know people who work. We had structures. In education, we knew what we wanted to achieve and part of it was free education to reduce parents' bills. Some people feared it would not be sustainable and I said yes I knew it would be difficult but the peace we were getting was good enough. The free education tackled poverty a little from the parents, who then allowed their children to go to schools and the rich could sleep at night. When they asked how Amaechi tackled insecurity, I would say I tackled social and physical insecurity. For social security, I made sure that we provided food for the poor and when they are eating they would not think of going to steal but when they don't have what to eat, that is where the problems begin. On physical security, we trained the Police, we provided the Nigeria Police Force with training and tools to handle insecurity in the state.
There is an allegation that you want to become the godfather of APC in Rivers State. How true is this?
That is not true because I am not a God. You see I don't have any godfather, so I don't want to be any one's godfather.
There are also concerns that you have lost grip and support of grassroots politics as well as relevance in Rivers and that you are only relying on being a federal minister. What is your take on this?
What has been making me relevant in Rivers State politics is the fact that I was a former governor that performed and not because I am a minister. As a minister, I am even looking for money to eat and survive, not to talk of sharing. After my appointment, I hope you saw the crowd when my people received me? The governor reacted by sacking three local government chairmen for allowing such event to take place. Two weeks after, the Ogonis gathered for my return but unfortunately, I fell Ill and couldn't go there. This recent Saturday, we had a rally in Boro. Does this look like someone who has lost grip? Basically, it is the handiwork of God first, and then the fact that as governor, we served our people and that is why anywhere they see me, they cheer.
As leader of APC in Rivers State how worried are you about the division in your state?
I am not the leader; I am just a member of APC. When you meet the state chairman, you ask him please. More over, he just released a statement recently that there is no division and I believe that.
There are concerns that the president and the APC will have a bigger battle, as we get closer to 2019. The thinking is that the opposition is waiting in the wings to return to power. Are you not bothered about this?
I am not God; we just have to wait and see. The opposition should keep waiting. We will see. They can even wait for the next 20 years there is no problem with that.
As a political fighter, which of your numerous battles stood you out the most?
None. I have not been fighting because I have always believed in God and he alone handles my battles.
You recently said you wouldn't support Magnus Abe if he decides to contest for governorship of Rivers State. Why this decision?
I have a right to my choice of candidate and I said I wouldn't. I worry when people quote me on issues like this. That comment that day was because as a Nigerian, and from Rivers state, I have a right to choose who I want to support. One thing we must know is that I know everybody involved because we all worked together when I was the governor or as speaker. I know everybody's capacity. I know those who can betray me and those who I won't. I know those who are sincere and those who are not. This will inform my decision of who to support or not. If it is Abe, we thank God, if it is not Abe, we still thank God. Don't forget, I am not God. I am just one person with one vote. Why is the support of one man creating a problem? Or at most, two votes for my wife and I. You see, they said I have lost grip, if I have lost grip, why bother about who I support or not.
What do you say about the criticism against the president and his ministers for failure to deliver on some of the promises?
You should ask those who are saying this. Would they have done better? We told the world we will come out of recession and we did it in one year. Others took two to three years like Brazil and South Africa, who are still battling with theirs. The stealing that took place before we came was frightening that we became confused as to how to handle it. You are bound to run into crisis when you have such situation like this where people looted the economy dry. We are still doing our best to deliver on those promises.