There are many white elephant projects in Nigeria, a country where the sum of its parts is greater than the whole.
The Ajaokuta Steel Company located in Kogi state is perhaps Nigeria's most infamous white elephant project.
Ajaokuta Steel Company is like the Atlantis of Nigerian industrialization; it promises many great things, but to be honest, people hardly believe it exists anywhere but in our heads.
What is Ajaokuta Steel Company?
In 1980, President Shehu Shagari laid the foundation stone for what will become a $4.6bn project. However, the Ajaokuta project is, in fact, older than independent Nigeria itself. Let's rewind to 1958.
The government of Sir James Wilson Robertson, the last British Governor-General of Nigeria, conducted a feasibility study on the possibility of setting up a steel company in the country.
Many reports passed, and a civil war happened, and still, the Nigerian government hadn't decided the perfect place to build the steel plant.
“A lot of it was politics,” an employee of Ajaokuta Steel Company told Pulse. “Some people wanted it in the North, others in the East, and some others in the West. So this place eventually became the perfect place politically.”
It was also the perfect location geographically. In 1972, one year after the Nigerian Steel Development Authority was formed, iron ore was discovered in Itakpe, Kogi State.
Enter the Russians!
A Soviet survey team discovered the deposits and in 1975, a contract was signed between the Nigerian government and the Soviet state-owned company, Tiajpromexport (TPE).
“Everyone at the time was so excited about the potential of this project,” Badams said. Mr. Badams is the head of the Public Affairs unit at Ajaokuta Steel. He has worked here in different capacities since 1985.
“The Nigerian government sent many Nigerian engineers to the Russia and Soviet states to train them and prepare them for Ajaokuta.”
In 1979, Shagari’s government began work on Ajaokuta Steel Project.
“It wasn't just a normal company,” Badams said, “it was a massive project. The entire Ajaokuta Steel Project is bigger than Lokoja. There are 24 housing estates on the project. Some of the estates have over 1000 homes. There's an -ND awarding institution there. Hospitals. There's even a seaport. Then there's the main Steel Plant itself.”
Ajaokuta Steel Plant is 12,000 plots large. It has a 68-kilometre road network and another 24-kilometre road network underground. “It is bigger than every refinery in Nigeria combined” Engineer Akin told Pulse. Engineer Akin, according to Mr Badams, is one of the finest engineers that currently work at Ajaokuta.
“It is Nigeria’s biggest mineral resource investment in one place,” Akin continued. “Take refineries for example. Oil is in the South-South but there are refineries scattered far away. With Ajaokuta, everything is either here, or nearby.”
“Long Live the Soviet-Nigerian Operation!”
“When the Russians were building it,” Badams said, “they built it like they were building their own. They built it so it in a way that would make it almost independent of imports. They were very socialist in their approach.”
It's why the Steel Plant has 43 plants in it. From Assembly plants to workshops, almost everything needed to function can be built there.
Thousands of Russian engineers lived and worked in Nigeria to make this project come to life and in 1983, Shehu Shagari inaugurated the project.
“It wasn't yet complete at the time,” Engineer Akin said, “40 of the 43 plants are now completed.”
Compared to the amount of progress made between ‘80 and '83, not much has happened after that.
“Corruption started to happen, and Ajaokuta became a conduit pipe,” one veteran staff said. “It became an outlet where money meant for this place never really reached here.”
But, how much did it really cost?
$4.6 billion. That would equate to about $14.5 billion today when you add yearly inflation rates. Before we look into the amount it cost to build it, we have to first look at Ajaokuta’s biggest problem.
“It is the lack of political will,” Engineer Akin said over and over again. “When you look at how far the project has come, and what little is left, it doesn't matter anymore how much it will cost to complete. This project is currently at 98% completion.”
One question often asked is, if the project has made it this far, isn't it possible to just start up with the ones that are available and then complete the rest as you go?
This is actually happening, to a certain degree. The power plant in Ajaokuta was generating 110MW and transferring to the National Grid until gas pipeline vandalisation halted generation a year ago. A few other plants also get small-scale projects done, but very little, compared to what it was built to do. Eagles can hop on the ground, but eagles are born to fly.
The Heart of Steel
At the core of the Ajaokuta Project is a blast furnace, the type of furnace used for 70% of the world's steel production but it has never been turned on. Ever.
“The only time you can turn on a blast furnace,” Engineer Akin said, “has to be when you're ready to begin production. For production to begin, all infrastructure has to be in place, including a functioning seaport and a rail system. You can't turn it off again for another 10 years at least.”
One end of the Ajaokuta plant is at the banks of River Niger, and in fact, the Yar’adua administration did some dredging work there. Also important is a rail network that will transport the steel out of the plant.
“Road transport is not an option for this scale of production,” Engineer Akin said, “the roads will crumble.”
“It will cost in excess of 1 billion dollars to get this place working again, and 18 months of active work,” he said, “but the problem is not even the amount. It's the political will.”
What are we missing out on here?
“If the blast furnace is ready today, 10,000 technical staff will be needed on ground to get working" said Engineer Akin.
And that's just the first phase. In the steel industry, one technical job created automatically creates 50 more jobs. What this means that a total of 500,000 jobs can be created.
“There's a place for just about any course of study here,” Mr Badams said. “No matter what you studied, there'll most likely be a place for you here.”
And all of this, still, is at the foundational level.
The Three Pegs of Nigerian Industrialization
“Let me tell you a story,” Mr Badams said:
I started working here in 1985 in one of the company-owned schools before I went to get more qualifications. I was doing an industrial attachment in NNPC and we usually have this bus banter after work.
This was the early 90s, Mandela was about to be released from Prison and it was clear that he was going to be President when he got out. So people started arguing in the bus that South Africa was going to overtake Nigeria economically in Africa.
Arguments were flying left and right, but a very senior engineer just sat quietly in a corner. Apparently, he'd worked in South Africa for years and understood some dynamics we didn’t. He said South Africa can't overtake Nigeria for several reasons.
One of them is that most of the country is controlled by White people and that power will only just begin to shift a little to the Blacks, who are mostly poor. The second, more important factor is that Nigeria is on an unstoppable path. Now, three things are very important to jump start a country’s industrialisation. With one, you can do just fine.
The first one is arable land. If your land is good, then you are on track. Example is countries like Malaysia. Next, if you have oil, you're good, like Saudi Arabia. Lastly, Steel. When a Steel Industry kicks off, the country becomes unstoppable. Like South Korea, for example.
It's why Ajaokuta Steel Company is called the “Bedrock of Nigerian Industrialisation.”
So what happens there now?
“What we do now, is mostly preservative maintenance,” Mr Badams said. While touring the facility, we ran into menial workers cutting grass in a section of the plant.
“The cost of cutting grass alone costs a lot yearly,” one worker said.
The equipment and plant, though in need of cosmetic maintenance due to rust, is still very much ready to go live.
“Engineers here do idle runs regularly to not only test but make sure everything here stays functional,” Badams said.
“Every few years, an auditing company from Ukraine comes to audit our equipment, and their remarks are mostly satisfactory. Where there are issues, they tell us what needs to be fixed.”
The most profound observation about what's left of Ajaokuta’s workers is the religious devotion in how they go about their duties, making sure none of these falls apart.
Ahijo, a member of the Public Affairs team, said about his first time on the facility:
“I was posted here via NYSC and I didn't even know any of these existed. The first time I walked into the plant and they showed me around, I broke down in tears.”
And he's not alone. Ajaokuta evokes many things in many people. And this devotion is not just on the plant. It's also in the main administrative building.
“We are not just employees here, we're patriots,” a Senior staff said. “I'm responsible for making sure everything works properly.”
And he's doing an incredible job. The water fountain actually works. The elevators work. The building still looks in pristine condition.
And it's strange in the context of many Nigerian government buildings.
“This administrative building was constructed by during Babangida’s administration,” Ahijo said. “The government directive was that everything used in this building will be sourced from and around Ajaokuta.”
There have been different calls to completely shut down operations at Ajaokuta, one of them was by the former Nigerian minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke.
“There was a time that the former minister was in Abuja asking for a complete shutdown at Ajaokuta,” Mr Badams said, “so we managed to get her to visit this place. After six hours touring, she came back sweating, and her tone was softer. She apologised, saying she was ‘misinformed’ in Abuja.”
Every time a senior government official showed up, they left heavy-hearted, gingered to do more when they get back to Abuja.
There's an inside joke in Ajaokuta, “the moment these people cross the Niger bridge, all the enthusiasm falls inside the water.”
The Real Tragedy
“Every time a new administration enters,” Mr Badams continued, “they promise to change things and make it better. But nothing much ever happens.”
“Most of the Engineers that were trained in Russia will be retiring next year,” he said, “and many of them are sad because they never got to apply what they believed will greatly change their country.”
You could feel the heaviness in his heart as he said this.
“I believe that one day, a generation is going to come and bring this place to life,” he sighed.
The Ajaokuta Steel Plant should be buzzing with life, three shifts of thousands of workers racing against time, churning out millions of tonnes for the country.
But when you walk through the massive factory, the only machine thumping will be the one in your chest. The only noise will be from your own breathing.
It is as quiet as death. As lonely as a graveyard. A place where great dreams go to die.
But the workers you see still show up, with all the dedication.
From one perspective, they look like grave keepers, tending to the dead, so the living can find a place to stand and weep.
“This place is not a cemetery,” Engineer Akin said.
And he's right because from another perspective, the state of this place, pristine but comatose, is evidence of their hope.
In the way the workers speak about this place, in the way they go about their duties, you can tell that they believe that these dead bones of steel, will one day rise.