We walk. And we limp (1)

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By Dan Agbese

Nigeria’s capacity for self-sabotage is legendary. It has sabotaged its rise to greatness and thus remains stuck in the murk of its contradictions as a potentially great nation. It has sabotaged its vast economic opportunities to become the economic powerhouse in Africa and thus wears the ugly crown as the poverty capital of the world, even as it lays claims to being the largest economy in Africa and remains a major crude oil exporting country. 

It has sabotaged its agricultural development and is thus unable to produce enough food to feed its people despite the fact that 80 per cent of its vast land is arable; it depends on small Asian nations for its food imports. It has sabotaged its political stability and thus contends with its political chaos characterised by fair and just decisions taken and fair and just decisions sacrificed to greed and short-term interests that advance the national interests not at all. It has sabotaged its own determination to be a nation people can trust but despite its much-publicised anti-graft war, it has thus made corruption a way of life with all its public officers wearing the mark of the beast.

            Nature has been immensely kind to this country, but this country has cynically thrown the mud in the face of nature in ingratitude. We have extensive arable land, yet there is scarcity of land for agriculture. The country, once the undisputed leader of all black nations, has condemned itself to catching at the straw and mistakes its crawl along the path of modern development for strides towards the sunrise.

            We run, we walk and then we limp and hobble on crutches. We yearn for qualitative leadership, but we settle for mediocres as Godsent. And we blame the devil. Poor devil.

            In his maiden speech on his assumption of office as president on August 27, 1985, General Ibrahim Babangida painted a graphic picture in two sentences of the cumulative effect of our nation’s self-sabotage. He said, “We have witnessed our rise to greatness, followed with a decline to the state of a bewildered nation. Our human potentials have been neglected; our natural resources put to waste.”

            We run, we walk, and then we limp.

            Come with me for a short stroll to see how we rose towards greatness only to sink back into “a state of a bewildered nation.” First, we look at our spirited adventures in the steel industry., unarguably the mother of all industrial developments. In its issue of April 25, 2022, the Daily Trust newspaper published an expose on the moribund Ajaokuta steel industry. Steel is the stuff of industrial revolution. Nature appreciated that and appreciated that this potentially great nation would need steel to rise to its full height in its industrial development as a great nation. In its quirky manner, it deposited huge quantities of iron ore in a small village called Itakpe in what is now Kogi State. 

Someone saw it and alerted the federal government to this bounty, the exploitation of which would lift up Nigeria in its industrial and economic development. The late President Shehu Shagari did not need much persuasion to exploit the iron ore and put it to good use in a nation anxious to rub shoulders with the global big boy players in industrial and economic development. In 1980, he gave effect to our national dream when he laid the foundation stone of the Ajaokuta Integrated Steel plant. The Russians were given the task of birthing this gigantic industrial establishment. They set to work, turning Ajaokuta into a new town and the gleaming steel city it was destined to be.

We rose. 

Just to show you how potentially big a development this was for the country, experts projected it would offer direct employment to 10,000 technical staff and that another 500,000 semi-skilled and unskilled workers would be indirectly employed by the plant. By 1994, according to the newspaper, 98 per cent of work on the plant had been completed. That marked our potential rise to greatness in the steel industrial. 

Ajaokuta was set to become the biggest industrial undertaking in the country with its immense capacity to contribute to and influence major developments in other areas of our economic development, including agriculture. The government set up steel rolling plants in Oshogbo, Jos and Katsina to spread the benefits of the steel plant beyond its immediate environment.

And then the descent into the shock and disappointment began. The Russians left in shabby circumstances. Their place was first taken over by SOLGAS ENERGY, USA, to which the Obasanjo administration concessioned the moribund industry in 2003 for a ten-year tenure. The company failed to perform. The concession was determined in 2004. An Indian company, Global Steel Holdings Limited, next came in and was awarded the concession. It too did not seem particularly keen on making the plant work. It came to bury the plant, not to revive it. 

The company was accused of assets stripping that virtually left the plant an empty shell. Both sides met in court over their disagreement. Under the settlement, called modified concession, the Indians gave up the plant but are holding on to the iron ore at Itakpe for seven years from August 1, 2016. The implication is that it is now in charge of the primary raw material for the steel industry.  Magomago? You got it.

We run, we walk and then we limp.

It has been 42 years since Shagari laid the foundation stone of the industry. Time enough for Nigeria to become the steel capital of West Africa. We missed it because we sank. Because the steel plant failed, the rolling mills also failed. The jagged evidence of the country’s failure to rise on the cusp of its steel industrial development is pretty much unsightly.

President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to give up on Ajaokuta Steel Company. He thinks it can be salvaged. Well, we have no other major steel industry than Ajaokuta. Salvaging it qualifies as much a patriotic act as killing corruption before it kills the country. The plant is moribund, but the federal government continues to budget for and allocate fund to it in its annual budget. Daily Trust reported that in the current fiscal year, the federal government allocated N4.2 billion to the Ajaokuta Steel Company.

In the salvage operation, the nation is merely running around. In the natural order of things, completing the remaining two per cent work on the plant would seem like a sensible approach to its revival. Why has this option not been taken if that is what it would take to make the gigantic plant hum again in production? I know of no nation that would have allowed such a huge investment in its steel industry to be turned into a fairy tale. But, as we like to say, this is Nigeria where expectations often morph into inexplicable shock and disappointments. And we are bewildered.

Thus, did we rise in the steel industry and thus did we sink into bewilderment.(To be continued)

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