Let me tell you about my new hobby. It is called, believe me, looking under the carpet. Sounds rather crazy for a hobby but that is the beauty of it. The carpet is an ordinary piece of home furniture. Its primary purpose is to collect dust brought into a room and still leave the room looking clean and decent.
But the carpet serves a greater utilitarian value than that. It is perhaps the most reliable source of confidence in government circles in all countries. Rulers, big and small, hide a multitude of their sins of omission and commission under the carpet. They trust the carpet to keep their secrets. The carpet obliges them too. Once they sweep what they want to keep away from the public under the carpet, their secrets are safe and the ignorance of the public in matters of public interest is assured. The only time a carpet is obliged to yield its secret is when a nosey poker, also known as a reporter, picks up an unpleasant smell and decides to follow where his nose leads him.
So much is hidden under the carpet and so much can be uncovered from looking under the carpet. My new hobby resulted from my curiosity as to why rulers and their minions have so much confidence in the capacity of the carpet to keep faith with them and keep their secrets. My curiosity led me to look under the carpet of the federal government. It is easily and understandably the biggest carpet in the country. I found it an unbelievable treasure trove of our developmental history; what we have made and unmade of our nation in all areas of human development and resource management.
Under it, I found promises not kept, plans abandoned or half completed, movements that morphed in a mere motion, the squandering of riches, the squandering of opportunities, wasted and lost opportunities for national development, abandoned projects that replaced the people’s hope in their governments and rulers with cynicism, wasted financial and human resources not harnessed towards a more humane, united and egalitarian society. And I came to know why this great country so greatly endowed with human and natural resources, has remained stuck at point A and is unable to move to point B in steady steps of focused development towards realising its greatness.
I saw why the cankerworm called corruption which has been the enemy of all Nigerian rulers since January 15, 1966, has proved too powerful to be dislodged and instead digs deep and shames the commanders of the forces of the war against it. And I came to appreciate why former President Ibrahim Babangida once perceptively observed that the country has “…witnessed (its) rise to greatness followed with a decline to the state of a bewildered nation.” And I know that the carpet plays a more important role in the affairs men, women and nations than making our living rooms look beautiful.
In the service of my new hobby, I would occasionally look under the carpet of the federal government and persuade the carpet to yield some important information on the history of our successes and failures as a nation. I would then serve my finding in an occasional column titled, Looking under the carpet. A few days ago, as of this writing, I looked under the carpet and here is what I found.
Steel is the bedrock of every nation’s industrialisation and development. Sometime in 1971, the federal government under General Yakubu Gowon, took its first major step towards taking our country into the comity of modern, industrialised nations. It established the Nigerian Steel Development Authority, NSDA. Its enabling law was decree 19 of that year. The first assignment of the authority was to carry out the survey of local raw materials for a steel industry. It carried out this assignment and presented its preliminary report in 1974. The report indicated that there was a huge iron ore deposit at Itakpe in the Ajaokuta area of Okene division in Kwara State.
The preliminary report was followed by a more detailed project report in 1977, fully confirming the preliminary findings in respect of the availability of the necessary raw materials for the steel industry in the country. The Obasanjo military administration approved the report as well as the recommended steps to kick start a steel development project in the country. What is technically called global contract “for the construction of steel plant at Ajaokuta were all commissioned and executed under the NSDA” by 1979. The departing military administration thereafter dissolved NSDA and formally set up the Ajaokuta Steel Company Limited, ASCL, on September 18, 1979, under decree 60.
The company defined its vision as “the production of quality steel for the industrialisation of Nigeria while meeting all standards.” The Obasanjo military administration certainly had the same vision in setting up the company. The company’s potentials were huge. It would be the most strategic industry in the country. Its capacity for employment surpassed the capacities of all existing industries in the country put together.
From what I could gather about its huge potentials from its website, “It would provide materials for infrastructural development, technology acquisition, human capacity building, income distribution, regional development and employment generation. While the project would directly employ about 10,000 staff at its first phase of commissioning, the upstream and downstream industries that will evolve all over the nation will engage not less than 500,000 employees.”
The task of taking the company from the drawing board and giving it life fell on the first executive president of the federal republic, the late Alhaji Shehu Usman Shagari. He too was persuaded that the time had come for the country to do more than pay pious lip service to our industrialisation. Steel development, he too reasoned, was the first and perhaps the most strategic step in the country’s worthy ambition to eat at the same table with the Joneses of the industrialised world. He wasted little time in giving effect to our national dreams. He poured his heart into it and expected to see steel roll out of the factory during his tenure as president. The Russians, willing partners in the project, came and Ajaokuta gradually became the talk of the country.
And then, as often happens in our country, this strategic industry became a metaphor for our myriads of unrealised national dreams. The dream died; the factory is a monument to our attempts to rise to greatness only to descend into the bottom as a bewildered nation, wondering if it is suffering from the curse of nature’s endowments and kindness. I have tried to find some evidence of what was spent on the project before the Nigerian system brought it down to its knees but no luck. It is simply described as a multi-billion US dollar project. For more than twenty years, the company suffered from policy summersaults and contradictions, leading to the deepening of our national misery. Our riches were squandered, turning our industrialisation dreams into a nightmare.
ThisDay newspaper quoted the sole administrator of the steel company as saying that $400 million would be required to complete the plant and if that amount of money was poured into the company with holes in its pockets, it would take a minimum of three years to revive the plant. You do not need me to tell you that if the money is not given to the company, the situation would not just remain as it is; it would be worse. Whatever remains of the assets that have not yet been stripped would be systematically stripped, leaving the carcass of a factory in the carcass heaps of our national failures. You see, this is the sort of thing you find under the carpet.
Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo recently lamented the sorry pass to which Ajaokuta has been condemned all these years. He said, “It is one of the cases of failures. It is a tragedy of immense proportion that we have both Ajaokuta Steel Complex and NIOMCO and couldn’t get anything out of them for years.”The Buhari administration is bestirring itself over Ajaokuta. But do not keep your fingers crossed. If we place our lean financial resources against the demands of this huge industrial complex, we have a fairly good idea of what the ocean feels when a man empties a glass of water into it.
Dan Agbese can be reached via Email: [email protected],