Ajaokuta, Also Known as Nigeria

It’s been a while since I wrote any article. I have been thoroughly submerged by work, yet it is work that has birthed this article. I recently had a short stay in Ajaokuta to undertake certain assignments for my employer within the Ajaokuta Steel Company Limited. Of course, I cannot tell why I was inside the famous plant, but having been there, the parallels between that infamous place and Nigeria were enough to inspire this article with hope that some may learn a thing or two from the corroding potentials that seem only good for grasses, snakes, and apes.

A brief imprecise history lesson may be helpful here. The Ajaokuta Steel Plant is a massive project in Kogi State that spans about 24,000 hectares, with 800 hectares for the main plant itself, while the rest of the land provides for adjoining facilities and over 20 residential estates. I always wondered how a band of Ukrainian soldiers could stay locked up within the Azovstal Steelworks for twelve weeks while defending against the Russians. Getting to see the quantum of land occupied by Nigeria’s non-functioning Azovstal helped to put things in perspective. For context, Azovstal sits on about 1,036 hectares, while Dangote Refinery, sitting on land that is about six times the size of Victoria Island (Lagos), occupies around 2,635 hectares.

Apologies for the history lesson I promised. You can read about Ajaokuta Mill here, here, and here.

For about 40 years, the steel mill has remained in the news as virtually every administration has pledged to complete it as a key linchpin for Nigeria’s economic development. While everyone is right that having a functioning steel mill would turbocharge industrialisation in Nigeria, we have spent billions of dollars on a plant that cannot seem to work, diligently sticking to a 90+% completion that never seems willing to get to 100%. Instead, each president comes in, makes some grand announcements and TV gesticulations, approves some tidy amounts for the plant to be revived and completed, whereas the only thing that gets completed is the president’s administration.

Today, instead of directly employing tens of thousands and indirectly spurring the creation of maybe over a million jobs within and outside Ajaokuta via allied industries (just like the link between petroleum refineries and petrochemical industries), the steel mill employs a much smaller workforce who run its administrative building and a few other parts of the company, including its massive residential footprint. I also gathered it provides some laboratory testing services to engineering clients. Yet, this is not what Ajaokuta was meant to be. Its present condition is like someone who buys an iPhone 13 just to send text messages. Except you have a lot of money to spare, you could have just bought the cheapest Bontel phone!

Expectedly, several Nigerians have been shouting for years for the steel plant to be brought to life. Many compare the plant to Nigeria’s four public-owned refineries and baulk at the retention of staff earning salaries in facilities that do not work. This outcry highlights widespread misunderstanding of how a lot of things in Nigeria are just complicated; trying to get a strap untangled causes more entanglements as if it is always August.

First, even if you wanted to shut down a company, you would still need some persons to undertake the shutting down process. Asides the administrative requirements to formally wind down a business, you may be legally required to decommission your facility and restore the environment to how it was before you stepped foot in it. Secondly, there is something about institutional memory that cannot easily be put in documents; something that lives in the brains of humans and must be transferred from one person to another. Imagine sending a team of the brightest and best engineers to Ajaokuta to revamp the place. You provide them with all the engineering drawings, philosophies, reports, and everything else, but without any human with whom they can talk. They would struggle to come up to speed, except you wish to just blow up the whole place and start afresh. This is because some things get changed during construction, operations, or maintenance, and while the best organisations may have processes for documenting almost everything, having someone who has off-hand knowledge of the facility is always a booster. Else, any day you want to resume work at such a facility, you would regret not having anyone who knows his or her way around the place. This is one reason we cannot simply fire people employed at the steel plant (or the refineries).

Thirdly, it is interesting how the same Nigerians who are “usually” opposed to any attempt to sack government workers, including unqualified teachers, would ask for employees of the steel plant to be fired. What would likely happen is that the government would be accused of being insensitive to the prevailing bad economic conditions and high unemployment rate, and there would be strike actions by the steel workers and maybe even a solidarity strike by the main umbrella unions in Nigeria. You see how firing these people is not as easy as it sounds? Of course, with strong political will, certain solutions can be devised, including maybe finding placements for some staff in other public or private entities.

Another complication for Ajaokuta is that maybe without political considerations, the plant may not have been sited there or may have had a different design. One weakness with massive engineering undertakings like this is that you would usually need to agree on some “engineering design basis” or guiding philosophies and then everything gets designed around the agreed parameters. For example, to build an LNG train, you agree on which LNG technology you want to use and then proceed with your design. If you start construction and realise the gas parameters with which you chose a technology were faulty, alas like the Bible would say, the foundation is destroyed and the righteous can do nothing. This is the situation with Ajaokuta Steel Plant. From available information, the plant was developed for an iron ore specification that does not match the intended source of iron ore. But this is Nigeria where respect and fear are so interwoven that people cannot speak truth to power because those who dare speak may be quickly replaced by those wise enough to nod upon request.

I wondered if the engineering design consultants did not warn the Federal Government about the faulty design basis, but I realise this is Nigeria where in many cases, we work from the answer to the question, so there is no question of questioning the answer. The boss says do something and it is your job to create a justification for that thing and then do it. For Ajaokuta, at some point, they came to a politically “wise” decision to bring in some quantity of iron ore to commission the plant, maybe to show that the then government was working. This is not strange in a country where a president has commissioned an uncompleted hospital, or where water is poured into water tanks to commission a potable water project, or a diesel generator is used to keep lights on, so a gas turbine can be “commissioned”.

The problem is that the main boilers (giant furnaces) in such a steel plant like Ajaokuta are supposed to work for several years non-stop once started. If you know you are not ready to operate, you are not supposed to start them. I know a hospital in Lagos that kept generators running 24/7 for months while construction was being finalised, just to ensure that the MRI Scanner they had installed did not go off, because if it were to stop working, the cost and effort to restart it (including flying in specialists) would be far more than the cost of diesel. However, in Ajaokuta, we started the main boilers without even constructing the rail line from Itakpe, where the iron ore (allegedly “off spec”) would be gotten. That rail line was just completed by the present administration. Hence, once the initial batch of iron ore was used up, the boilers went to sleep and decades later, we still have not awakened them.

Some would say the plant should be sold, so some private entity can step in and make it work. In fact, I would be willing to sell off the entire facility for a symbolic one-naira fee, knowing that the benefits of a functional steel industry would outweigh national losses from such a discounted sale. However, we have yet another complication. First, we have Nigerians who see the steel plant as a national treasure, just like the public-owned refineries, and would rather have them owned by the public for the sake of national pride. For these ones, it is more honourable to retain ownership of a non-functional facility rather than suffer the ignominy of an outright sale. Then, we have the problem of how to convince the public that the sale is an arms-length transaction, and not a case of transferring national assets to friends and family. Recall that the Obasanjo administration sold the nation’s refineries, but Yar’adua reversed the sale, and many Nigerians have neither forgiven Atiku for heading the privatisation council, nor Jonathan for partly selling the erstwhile Power Holding Company of Nigeria.

Still on the list of complications, we have corruption and foreign interests. I think the corruption angle should be straightforward. Why revive the dead if you can perpetually create budgetary appropriations for its resurrection? That is for the ogas at the top. For those at the bottom of the food chain; why wish for the plant to be revived when you can access the place to steal sellable items? Though attempting such theft today might put you at the other end of a Navy-issued rifle. Similarly, the foreign angle appears to involve at least the Russians, Americans, and Brits, with some interests over who turns around and runs the plant, and maybe little concerns about having a functional steel plant in arguably Africa’s biggest market. Now, that a conspiracy theory I cannot prove!

Whatever the complications, they can be resolved if the political will (leadership) is available, and Nigerians are willing to understand the complications and make the necessary compromises. There is a lot of potential within Ajaokuta. Asides the steel plant, there are beautiful hills that could be tapped for tourism, and a power plant inside the steel complex that could contribute a little extra power to the national grid. But until we find a way to fix Ajaokuta, the town would continue to dwindle gradually, mirroring the Nigerian situation, although, unlike Nigeria, Ajaokuta has relatively constant power supply.

PS. Technical discussions about Ajaokuta Steel Plant were excluded from this article’s scope. See this 1988 report for a technical discourse of the issues as articulated by two employees of the plant.

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