Umahi: The minister in my heart

A round peg in a round hole may not succinctly describe Engineer David Nwaze Umahi’s appointment as the Minister, Federal Ministry of Works. A round peg with a correct diameter inserted in a round hole with a fitting diameter best describes Umahi’s appointment as the current minister of works. Nigerians cannot ignore the minister’s superb performance since his assumption of duty in the ailing Ministry of Works, bedridden with supersonic corruption. This is the ministry responsible for the construction of federal roads nationwide.

The systematic and gargantuan corruption had made road construction per kilometer in Nigeria the most expensive compared to developed and developing nations globally. As far back as 20 years ago, a report published by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) indicated the cost of constructing a kilometer of road to be between N400 million and over N1 billion from the study conducted by the World Bank in 2000. Compared to South Africa, constructing a kilometer of road costs an equivalent of N7.6 million in Limpopo.

The scale of Nigeria’s road infrastructure problem is staggering. A 2019 study estimated the total length of roads in the country to be 200,000 kilometers, of which 34,000 kilometers belong to the federal government. The rest are owned by the state and local governments, at 16 percent and 66 percent, respectively. Furthermore, the condition of these roads is so poor that only about 35 percent of the network is motorable.

Road construction projects in Nigeria are the most frustrating to motorists. Upon award of the contract, the contractors will dismantle the old road and make it unmotorable or motorable with herculean difficulties while the contract work moves at snail’s speed. One may think that time is not a factor in Nigeria’s road construction projects. Many two or three years projects last between 15 and 25 years. You will see the beginning of the construction of the road project, but you will be lucky to see its end.

There are many examples of such roads – Katsina to Kano road of 150 km is over 10 years with less than 80% completion with skeletal work still ongoing; what of Maiduguri to Kano, Lokoja to Abuja, Kano to Abuja, and several others? One particular annoying road project is that of Gusau to Zaria; after over 90% completion in over 10 years, the portion from Milgoma to Samaru, a 5km distance, started June 2023, and the work is ongoing to God knows when.

Some of us residing in the area are battling the laterite dust hovering over us; I can imagine how asthmatic patients survive under the area’s harsh, polluted air conditions. Road construction contractors do whatever they like, and nobody seems to supervise what they do. You will see them working today and disappear in one week or so without being accountable. They behave as if they are doing Nigeria a great favour when they mobilise to sites and seem free to do whatever they like. They take advantage of Nigerians’ docility and compromising attitudes of leaders, unscrupulous civil servants, and non-performing consultants. Under this scenario, the saviour, Umahi, took over the ministership.

Unlike many ministers who are content with occupying and warming their seats, Umahi has been tirelessly crisscrossing the entire country, inspecting active, non-performing, and abandoned road projects. His dedication is not just a mere statement, but it’s evident in his actions. For instance, he once challenged a fake engineer who couldn’t differentiate between sharp sand and gravel. In the clip, he sternly warned the non-performing contractor and his collaborators, unscrupulous civil servants who have been milking Nigeria dry through project upward review and non-performing. If Umahi had his way, he would have summarily dismissed the engineer and terminated the contract, but due diligence is required to take action by a public servant.

Another clip showed the minister giving the individual non-performing contractors a few minutes of the audience. Before the encounter, he went around those non-performing projects and summoned the contractors to find a way forward. The contractors, primarily non-Nigerians, were not used to this treatment. Someone is challenging their dubious acts; they were used to getting away with anything in Nigeria, hook or crook. There was no hiding place, and they had no option but to do what was needed as the minister was determined to change the narrative.

His actions have not just instilled a sense of hope in me as a Nigerian but also a double happiness with ahead high as a fellow engineer. I have never been so proud to be an engineer like that day. I wonder how powerful Umahi is; the minister can trample on the toes of the powerful and insist they must abide by the rules of the game and execute parts of their contract. Nigerians were amazed to watch the unfolding drama between the minister, contractors, and crooks in the civil service, between light and darkness. Who is Engineer Umahi? How did he develop the audacity to confront the politicians’ backed contractors?

Dave Umahi is a civil engineer, businessman, and politician. He was born on July 25, 1964, to the family of Elder Joseph Umahi Nwaze and Margaret Umahi at Umunaga, Uburu, in Ohaozara local government area, Ebonyi state. Umahi received his secondary education from Ishiagu High School and Government Secondary School of Afikpo before his admission to read a Bachelor of Science Degree in Civil Engineering at the Enugu State University of Science and Technology in 1982. He graduated in 1987.

In 1990, Umahi co-founded Norman Engineering and Construction Nig. Limited with Ombo Isokarari and served as its general manager until 1993. Until 2011, he served as chairman and CEO of Brass Engineering & Construction Nig. Ltd., Focus Investment Nig. Ltd., and Osborn La Palm Royal Resort Ltd.
Umahi first appeared on the national political scene in 2007 as the acting chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Ebonyi state chapter. From 2009 to 2011, he served as the state’s PDP substantive chairman. During that term, he served a year as chairman of the Federal Medical Centre in Asaba.
Umahi was the deputy governor of Ebonyi state from 2011 to 2015, a two-term governor from 2015 to 2023, a senator representing Ebonyi south senatorial district from June to August 2023, and finally as the current minister of works from August 2023 to date.

Like most politicians in Nigeria, Umahi’s political vocation is shrouded in controversy, allegations, and counter-allegations. He defected from PDP to the All Progressives Congress, APC, with his deputy when he was a governor, and they were dragged to court to vacate their offices. The high court granted the prayer but was upturned by the Appeal Court, which affirmed Umahi as governor of Ebonyi state, saying his defection to the APC was immoral but not unconstitutional.

An online newspaper, People’s Gazette, accused Umahi of corruption during his tenure as deputy governor and governor, alleging a transfer of more than ₦3.6 billion to his company, Brass Engineering & Construction Nigeria Limited. Umahi denied this and demanded the paper retract the report. When the paper failed to do so, he sued the People’s Gazette for defamation and demanded ₦2 billion in damages.

Despite the controversy, Umahi’s action and proactiveness won my heart and have become a shining example of how a minister should be. Several ministers have disappeared from the public gaze; they are neither seen nor heard performing in the privileged positions President Tinubu granted them. The president has promised to boot out non-performing ministers enjoying the privileges while shirking their responsibilities. Non-performing ministers are a liability to the nation, and Nigeria will never develop with such personalities retarding its growth.