I can be accused of nostalgia but, frankly, in my judgement, the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) was the most efficient public project undertaken by government in this part of the country after the Northern Railway Project of the defunct Northern Protectorate in the 1910s. With that strong memory, it was natural for my mind to propose its methodology of project execution to the coming Northeast Development Commission (NEDC). But before we get to our NDEC bride, let us briefly recall the credentials of its suitor.
I cannot be the best narrator of the PTF story in that the role I played was not more than that of a petty landscape contractor and an agricultural consultant - later. However, I was a close associate of many of its major players right from its conception in 1995. As I understood it, the PTF had two sides: The PTF Headquarters and the Consultants – Afri-Projects Consortium (APC, not today’s APC biko).
At the head of the Headquarters was the PTF Chairman, Muhammadu Buhari, a person who was ready to delegate all technical aspects of the job to the group which made the only professional submission on how the PTF could achieve its objectives. With him at the Headquarters was the PTF Board and an administrative structure not much different from that of any government agency: departments of admin, finance, legal, etc. The Headquarters considered submissions from APC on various projects, approve them and process payments when any was certified completed. Contractors were called to receive payments without any follow-up, until the final two years when shortage of funds became a problem.
APC, on the other hand, carried the responsibility of whatever technical work was required to execute projects, from conception to completion, on critical infrastructure, health, agriculture, education, among others. Of course, it needed hundreds of other consultants in various fields to handle different aspects of project management. There were, as usual, many grumbles on how such a nationwide project would be consigned to one consulting firm. However, I still believe it was then the wisest decision the Chairman took as dealing with thousands of consultants and contractors was impossible for an agency that was designed by President Abacha to have “a slim bureaucracy”. It was not a work over for APC either. Its prime mover, Alhaji Salihijo Ahmed, died of a sudden heart attack in 1999 ostensibly due to stress when the agency was winding up.
Despite the difficulties and initial six months lag, the impact of the PTF was immediately felt nationwide through the ruthless efficiency it showed in project execution. Within three years of its active engagement – between 1996 and 1999 - thousands of kilometers of federal highways were rehabilitated; almost all public hospitals were supplied with essential drugs and consumables in addition to considerable delivery of equipment to many; agricultural inputs were delivered to states and surveys were undertaken; learning materials, vehicles and equipment in the education sector were also delivered. All these were achieved at a price of not more than N65billion or less than $1 billion then. In contrast, on electricity alone, the messianic government of Obasanjo that angrily scrapped PTF spent over $20 billion without a trace to reckon with.
The impact of PTF was immediately felt. All our major construction companies were tasked to full capacity. The capacity of the manufacturing sector was tremendously increased as companies were revitalized and patronized through a World Bank-like contract award system. Over 1000 consultants were engaged and more than 10,000 contractors undertook various engineering, supply and research projects throughout the country. It is impossible to say precisely how many ordinary Nigerians benefitted from the projects but they were in millions.
The achievements of PTF have been documented in “Buhari: The PTF Years” by Malam Adamu Adamu. Honestly, many people felt that PTF was the river that baptized Buhari from the persona of a military dictator to someone that can achieve a lot as a civilian. Thus when Obasanjo failed in meeting the nation’s expectations after 1999, it was easy to convince many people that Buhari can be a better alternative, largely on the basis of his achievements at PTF.
The success of PTF gave a practical picture of what can be achieved when administrators decide to give our professionals a chance, without the impeding bureaucracy of government and its debilitating corruption. It was one blessing that the country enjoyed under Abacha. It was the manna that came from heavens when we were crossing the desert of military dictatorship.
That blessing can be repeated today in our dear Northeast that is in the desert of war. Even before the Boko Haram catastrophe, the zone has been lagging behind others in nearly every development index. With the war, the intervention now intended is actually well-deserved.
The NEDC is intended to meet the immediate needs of reconstructing the Northeast and ridding it of the ugly damages of a war that has ravaged not only infrastructure but also millions of minds and businesses. It is something to be taken seriously. Two million people have been displaced. Thousands of homes are destroyed. Hundreds of settlements are abandoned. Orphans and widows are living helplessly in many camps with gory stories of how some of them are forced to offer their bodies for food. Wayyo Allah! 😭 People have lost hope after undergoing this torture for eight consecutive years now. What compounds the problem is the syndicate that exploits the situation, of the military, relief agencies and NGOs, leaving the victims as pawns in their game of perpetuating the crisis.
There have been many stop-gap initiatives on the crisis before. These initiatives, as laudable as they are, carried the gene of incompetence and corruption that forbade their success. Billions have gone down the drain with IDPs still lucking basic food and shelter, not to mention the larger challenges of reconstructing their destroyed villages and towns. The plethora of these agencies, interventions and initiatives alone engendered their doom. The whole crisis seems endless before this powerful machinations.
The NEDC is the holistic solution we have been waiting for. It is meant to take charge of the development of the zone by coordinating different existing efforts and undertaking the developmental projects necessary for bringing the zone out of its present state of doom. It will focus on areas of security, economy, agriculture and education, with a statutory financial base in addition to donations and corporate tax from mineral and agricultural processing firms in the zone. With the might of the Federal
Government behind it, it is our hope that NEDC will dedicate itself to bringing the desired succour to the Northeast.
That succour must be manifested in the revitalization of economic and social activities in the zone, with citizens living under peace and harmony, conducting their businesses without any impediments and children growing up without the scar of violence, hate and discord.
Without disregard to the provisions in the NEDC law, I will appeal to the President to borrow a leaf from his PTF memory. He should insist on a slim structure for the body as shown in the law. Though it will have a board and a management team, it will tremendously enhance its efficiency if it limits itself to administrative matters - as the former PTF headquarters did - and rely more on consultants in project management. At its disposal today are many firms and experienced organizations in various areas of its assignment. It can appoint a major consultant body for each area of intervention which in turn will coordinate the activities of the other service providers needed.
I am not unaware that there are other functions of the NEDC apart from reconstruction. Security is still a major concern and it forms a major component of the Commission’s objective in addition to social reorientation. Yet, I still believe the PTF model is better than others in matters relating to most areas over the other two alternative models.
It will be far better than the do-it-yourself model that some board members intended for the PTF initially. If DIY-model is followed, the amount of activity at the NEDC headquarters will be unbearably overwhelming even with the most qualified staff at hand.
It is also better than the MDG-model of dishing out money to state governments to execute projects. If the complaints of citizens regarding local government funds, Paris Club proceeds and inflated contracts across the country is anything to go by, entrusting state governments with NEDC money will seal the possibility of its success. The humanitarian crisis in IDP camps today is largely exacerbated by the misconduct of state government officials through whom relief is channeled. This must not be repeated in NEDC.
Neither should NEDC operate through government relief agencies. We have seen enough of their failure. They must be avoided too.
The president must also pay attention to the type of people whom he will appoint to manage the affairs of the Commission. If merit is discounted in their appointments, then the Commission will just be a replica of other recent interventions like NDDC, PINE, etc, which are unrepentantly committed to failure through political patronage and kleptocracy. Without a transparent chairman in the person of Muhammadu Buhari and a competent consulting firm like APC, the PTF story would not have been worthy of our recollection today.
The NEDC provides the President with another opportunity to prove his worth amidst the prevailing atmosphere of growing disappointment over the inability of his government to meet the expectations of Nigerians. If he will apply himself to excellence as he did in the choice of his PTF partners, a loud applause awaits him before 2019. If, however, he will allow the opportunity to slip away from his fingers as did many since he mutated into PMB, the NEDC will just be another statistic of failure which his opponents will gladly use to bring him down. The hearts of citizens will further be broken, dashing away all hopes from their minds.
There is the need for all stakeholders at the federal and state levels to give the NEDC the maximum cooperation possible. At the federal level, approvals of projects by the President, where necessary, and timely release of funds by Ministry of Finance are necessary just as is the cooperation of government departments and agencies like the due process office, the military establishment and other stakeholders at that level.
State governments that will serve as advisors to the Commission in addition to their role as its hosts need to also be forthcoming in doing whatever is necessary to easing its operations. Any effort to undermine the Commission will mean prolonging the suffering of our people. In the end, we will only have ourselves to blame. Nigeria has given us the opportunity.
We pray for a successful debut of the NEDC.
Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde
2 November, 2017