The Ajaokuta bottomless pit – Thisday

By The Citizen

The recent revelation by the Asset Management Company of Nigeria's (AMCON) chairman, Mr. Kola Belgore, that the Ajaokuta Steel Complex Limited (ASCL) gulps N3.9 billion monthly in salary payments to some redundant 6000 workers is a serious indictment on our country. If that amount is invested in other sectors of the economy like health, education and transport, the result would be immediately felt. And in a country where the issue of ghost workers is such a serious challenge, paying idle hands is equally grievous, especially at a time that our armed forces need all the funds they could possibly get to fight the Boko Haram insurgents.

The tragedy of the ASCL, however, is not only that it is a waste but that it also in a way tells a pathetic story of our country. The contract for the project was signed between the federal government and Messrs Tyajzhprom Export (TPE) of the former Soviet Union in 1979 during the regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo as Military Head of State. Unfortunately, the company has over the years become a cesspool of corruption and one drain pipe on the nation's economy. Over $5 billion has been spent on the project and it was once reported that just $650 million was needed to make it fully operational. The project was 98 per cent technically completed before it was sold to the Indians who would later abandon it after allegedly stripping the company of all valuable assets.

Today, not only is the company moribund, like in many other federal establishments where there is no productivity, several of the workers are even getting promoted in their redundancies! But we do not blame the staff for this development as they are also victim of bad planning by the authorities. It is even  more intriguing that staff recruitments are still ongoing in a company that produces nothing. What's more, Ajaokuta currently has over 2,500 machines installed even when it has become a metaphor for broken dreams and corruption. But even more disheartening is the fact that with the huge amount spent each month to pay idle hands, the complex is now a cancerous sore from which the country is heavily bleeding.

To compound the ugly situation, available reports indicate that intense vandalism is going on as unscrupulous staff members often cart away whatever they find in sight at the complex. The pilfering though pales in comparison to the epic heist carried out by the Indians who once bought the place before practically stripping it bare. After their misadventure, Ajaokuta was left to rot in one of the most embarrassing cases of scavenging in recent history.

Going forward, the first issue to address is that of ownership as well as management. It is very clear to discerning observers that the federal government lacks the managerial skills to restore any meaningful order at the complex. The private concerns also do not have the will or institutional support to revamp the industry. That explains why many Nigerians are of the view that the federal government should just scrap the company and pay off the thousand of workers at the complex. Better still, some of its staff with requisite skills could actually be seconded to other government institutions where they could be useful. There is also an urgent need to revisit all the previous reports and recommendations about the company with the aim of taking a firm decision on what to do with perhaps the world's biggest 'white elephant project'.    

It is in the light of the foregoing that we call on the relevant authorities to take urgent action in plugging the man-made drain pipes that the ASCL has become. There is no sense in spending billions of naira monthly to retain several thousands of workers who are idle.