Opinion: Why Capital Projects Fail In Africa – By Princewill Odidi

One major reason most capital projects fail in Africa is because our political leadership often think the Whiteman should know better. So when foreign project consultants advice them on viability of projects they accept it as true. Now this is where the problem lies. Foreign project consultants when they advice you on projects, they advice you based on the structural dynamics in their own countries.

Let me give you an example. A Foreign project manager advising you on road construction under ppp, will elaborate how in a few years you can recoup the funds from toll gates. He is right if the road is built in the developed world. Most expressways in developed world have about 20 thousand cars plying the roads daily, so recouping funds through toll gates is possible. But in our clime, you have a road that may not take up to 100 cars in a day talking of toll gates.

How much toll can you collect to pay off the road. Last Friday I watched Governor Omehi of Ebonyi state on Channels TV talking about building an Olympic size airport in Abakaliki, a city less than 45 minutes from Enugu airport. Most of these governors have no idea that traditionally airports don’t generate money. Landing fees alone cannot sustain an airport. There is not a single airport in Nigeria that is self sustaining, go and check the records. They all get subventions. Airports need continuous maintanance, a governor struggling to pay salaries how will you also create a budget to sustain an airport that cannot attract more that two flights a day? I just came to a conclusion that as African our biggest problem is how we process information. One of the busiest airports in the world generates 70% of its income from car parking fees. Airports does not mean development has come to you, an airport is actually a burden, if left to decay it becomes societal hazard.

About 10 years ago, Bayelsa state spent about 12 billion naira to build a specialist hospital, where is it today? It is sinking in sand. Akwa Ibom built theirs, beautiful edifice, operating at the level of a clinic today, Oshiomole spent billions building a mega specialist hospital, it is still non functional. The big question, why are all these mega projects failing? The answer is simple. Our governors will never learn.

Colonial mentality has blinded their common sense when it comes to project development. A specialist hospital is not how magnificent the building is, so you can spend all the billions in construction it is a waste of time, a specialist hospital is not how sophisticated the equipments you order from overseas are, the equipments are useless if your technicians can not operate it and your medical team cannot translate the results and apply them to operational use, rather a specialist hospital is the quality of doctors you have, the quality of their training, their ability to apply their training to modern research and practice, and the synergy between medical diagnoses and pharmaceutical research advancements. It is this common sense that is lacking among our political elites when they embark on huge projects.

I would not really blame the masses because they really do not understand how these things work, but our Governors should at least consult before they keep wasting public resources on useless elephant projects that make no sense.

A mud house in a local village that has these combination is a far better specialist hospital than the billions spent by governments to build gigantic structures.

A Governor who is sincere would rather fund a university teaching hospital that has a degree of medical capacity and professors with ability to convert the teaching hospital to a specialist hospital, rather we abandon our teaching hospitals to build white castles that upon commissioning end up a wasted investment while teaching hospital rot away. Why do we as a people find it so difficult to see the end from the beginning?

There is a big problem about how we reason in Africa, and unless that reasoning changes we are in big trouble.

Universities are meant to be centers for research and development, it is academics that think for government, but when you fail to fund the universities they die a natural death and government initiatives fail.

You can imagine how much we have spent in electricity in the past 20 years. The entire Nigeria as a Country is not up to Texas as a State. What will it cost to just come up with a new modern design, and rewire the entire country if what we have is not working? Or what will it take for every state to have their own independent power, and transmission stations? No matter how much money you spend to fix an old car it will remain an old car. Most of the colonial infrastructure we inherited need upgrade and change, and most of our political leaders need an upgrade in the way they think.

You can imagine Ghanaians of yesterday who lived at our mercy now chasing Nigerians away from their country, Rwanda, Botswana and Ethiopia all doing so well, yet the giant of Africa crawls and barks without biting.

There are a few sectors that must work properly if Nigeria must get it right. Our educational system needs total revamping, our bureaucracy need total reform, the engine room of any government is the bureaucracy, but if the bureaucracy is corrupted the entire government delivery machinery fails. Our security apparatuses need to be decentralized, and health care given attention.

Infrastructure is important, but we have to apply common sense into infrastructural development. I read of a governor who built fly overs and everyone is thrilled and call it development. In the developed world, flyovers are built only because the local roads are congested with traffic, so flyovers are built to create decongestion. At the end of the day the flyovers are plyed by sheep and cattle at the expense of the development of the human capacity index of your people. If we must invest in infrastructure, invest in meaningful infrastructure that connects with the people’s environment. Invest in boreholes or water treatment plants, invest in rural roads linking local markets, invest in fresh produce preservation systems amongst others.

In our clime we build flyovers not to decongest traffic but to showcase it as development, unknown that those same foreigners you bring to build these flyovers laugh at our collective ignorance as a people.

The uncontrollable appetite for wealth among our people can all be traced to the failure of the bureaucracy. Until we return to the days when civil servants can afford to buy cars and build houses from their salaries Nigeria can never be fixed. Politics need to be made less attractive and the civil service more attractive.

The scares dollars we spend to hire foreigners to come and design and build projects for us in Africa, use that same money to upgrade our engineering and science departments in universities, use it to sponsor our academics to travel and collaborate in research overseas and later domesticate knowledge instead of renting knowledge.

Create pathways for success for our young people instead of calling them lazy youths. How long do we keep our young people at home jobless before we acknowledge that they are wasting their youthfulness?

Development is no magic, it is common sense, it’s time we request common sense reasoning from our politicians. Africa must rise again.

Princewill Odidi is an Atlanta based author, social commentator and host of the Nigerian National Conversation.

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