Construction is, and will remain, a big business in Nigeria. This is against the background of a huge infrastructure deficit in the country. In 2013, the Governor, Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola (BRF), put the infrastructure deficit in Lagos State alone at US$50 billion.
While the accuracy of BRF’s figure is debatable, the point is that we have a long way to go in the area of infrastructure development. Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu (ABAT) was apparently lying through his teeth when he gave as one of the reasons he’s not supporting the second term bid of the outgoing Governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, the fact that the Governor is not meeting the aspirations of the people but rather focusing on brick and mortar.
Given that Nigeria ranks high among nations where open defecation is still the norm coupled with our sole dependence on road transportation, ABAT’s comment is both preposterous and a coup against the wishes and aspirations of the masses. Brick and mortar is an integral component of infrastructure development. The Jubilee Bridge in Ajah which has reduced the travel time to the axis is a testimony to the importance of brick and mortar. Other bridges in Abule-Egba and Pen Cinema (under construction), all handiwork of Governor Ambode are brick and mortar set to further alleviate the suffering of Lagosians.
While the construction sector in Nigeria has a lot of prospects, it is not a sector for the simple-minded investor because there are mines that will readily take out the unsuspecting. The complexities of the construction business make it a cesspool of corruption in our clime. Almost always, the first advance payment which is usually about 30% of the total contract sum (10% -15% for very big projects) is to ‘settle the boys.’ Those that refuse to ‘play ball’ among the contractors get nothing and are soon out of business. All that’s required to take out contractors that struggle to secure good contracts but refuse to play ball along the way is to delay subsequent payments for a considerable period of time.
As a young boy growing up in the 1970s, we used to sing, “Alfonso, a b’ona je. Taylor Woodrow, a t’ona se (Alfonso is a road destroyer. Taylor Woodrow is a road repairer). The song was an affirmation of our preference for road work by Taylor Woodrow. Don’t ask me what our assessment criteria were. By the early 1980s the two construction companies had fizzled out and so many others have followed the exit door. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw a road construction project being handled by Taylor Woodrow (now Taylor Wimpey) in London sometime in 2009. In retrospect it is understandable why left Nigeria.
It is, therefore, not out of place to state that the companies handling our road projects have managing business in corruption-ridden environment as part of their core competences.
A Tale of Two Construction Companies
Narrowing down to specific companies, let’s consider the activities of two big construction companies in the country – RCC and Julius Berger. These are the two companies handling one of the biggest (if not the biggest) road construction contracts, in value terms, in Nigeria so far. That is the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway reconstruction.
According to Wikipedia, “The reconstruction of the expressway was flagged off on July 2013 by Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, the immediate past President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, to help reduce the travel time of hundreds of thousands of commuters and international air passengers. The contract was awarded to Julius Berger Nigeria and Reynolds Construction Company Limited at a sum of 167 billion Naira, equivalent to US$838,986,290. Two sections of the expressway will be reconstructed and this includes Section I (Lagos to Sagamu Interchange) and section II (Sagamu Interchange to Ibadan). Section one handled by Julius Berger has a total of 43km with total contract sum of over N134 billion, while section two by RCC spans 84km with over N96 billion contract sum.”
I am not a fan of RCC. As a matter of fact, I believe they would have been written off and shown the way out in a serious environment. My beef with them is what I consider the poor handling of the construction of the Ife-Ibadan Expressway. Shortly after the construction, several portions of the newly constructed lane started failing! For that reason, I have not taken that route in the last 7-8 years.
However, I am beginning to change my perception about RCC of late. In fact, I am becoming endeared to them because of the way they have handled their Section of Lagos – Ibadan Expressway Reconstruction, Benin – Shagamu Expressway repair and Third Mainland Bridge resurfacing.
RCC is particularly proving to be a people-well-being-oriented company. On the Lagos – Ibadan Expressway reconstruction, the company has been focused and conscientious. They continue to work without trying to draw attention to themselves. Despite the fact that the company’s Section is longer, they are faster and have covered more grounds.
On Benin – Shagamu Expressway, while making steady progress from the Benin – Ore end of the Expressway, they have covered all the potholes and bad spots of the portion they are yet to get to in terms of full repair work! I noticed this during my trip to Ondo in October 2018. The impact of their thoughtfulness on the safety of lives on that route cannot be overemphasized.
RCC’s people centredness is probably most noticeable with the resurfacing of the Third Mainland Bridge. Unlike the ridges created on the road by the ‘farmer’ construction company who handled the job previously, RCC is doing a smooth job on the road. The amazing thing is that they do their work at night! I cannot remember the last time I saw a construction company work at night in Nigeria.
RCC has shown they deserve to get more of the big and strategic contracts in Nigeria because of the way they have conducted themselves in recent times.
On the other hand, Julius Berger is the opposite of all the good things RCC is putting out. They conduct themselves as if there’s a trophy to be won for making the lives of Nigerians miserable. That the contract sum for their Section of Lagos – Ibadan Expressway is higher (58% of total contract sum) despite being shorter in length (43km of 127km) is one of the ‘balu balu’ syndrome (the more you look, the less you see) prevalent in our environment.
The company is always in the news for negative reasons. At the time Nigerians are asking when their nightmare on the Lagos – Shagamu end of the Expressway (Julius Berger’s Section) will end, the company went on air to say they are going to complete the 43km road they started in 2013 in 2021!
When I saw the caption, I was not surprised because it is typical of them. What came to mind is that it is foolhardy to expect a mango tree to bear oranges. One worrying thought though is whether we are witnessing a re-enactment of neo-Nazism! I’ve tried to bury the thought but it refused to go away. Time will tell whether a leopard can actually change its spots.