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Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Kate Nkechi Okoh: Poor Infrastructure in Our Public Schools at the Root of the Queens College Tragedy

Queens College, one of Nigeria’s foremost public all-girls colleges witnessed an extremely sad incident in February 2017, due to an infrastructure deficit.

It was reported that students, having ate spaghetti and drank water served by the college cooks in the refectory, started vomiting and stooling – leading to the death of 2 students, and medical attention sought by over 1,222 students as a result of the epidemic.

On 31st March 2017, another student died, bringing the number of deaths to 3. According to some parents at the school, the spread of cholera in the school was a result of high bacteria content in the water from the kitchen and the school’s water factory, as confirmed by the analysis from two laboratories.

They also alleged a compromise in the school’s financial system and long time decay of infrastructure in the school’s facilities; especially the toilets, which are not properly maintained.

It is a particularly sad incident for me because I attended an all-girls’ boarding school – Presentation National High School (PNHS), Benin City. PNHS is a private Catholic school set up by Benin Archdiocese and managed by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. In PNHS, we had relatively sufficient facilities to accommodate the students admitted, which is roughly about a hundred for each set. However, in University of Benin (UNIBEN) where I obtained my bachelor’s degree, there are relatively poor facilities to cater for the student populace.
UNIBEN – a public tertiary institution, though ranked as one of the best universities in Nigeria, has insufficient bathing and toilet facilities, which has strong health implications for the students. In fact, over 6-12 students currently occupy hostel accommodations originally meant to accommodate 2-4 students.

This infrastructure deficit is the norm in Nigerian public institutions – primary, secondary and tertiary alike. It is sad that institutions in our country, which ought to be citadels for learning, do not have basic facilities to accommodate the students they admit. Particularly saddening is the fact that this deficit in infrastructure and improper maintenance has gone on for so long, without proper attention being given to it by the authorities.

We require sufficient addition/expansion of the infrastructure facilities and rehabilitation, to raise our public schools to internationally acceptable standard.
Little wonder that in the 2017 World ranking of Universities, no Nigerian University is ranked among the first 1000 in the world.

PPPs… a viable alternative to government procuring infrastructure
Although, the government traditionally finances infrastructure projects, their capital-intensive nature as well as the economic downturn locally have compelled government in recent past to alter this approach resulting in partnerships between government and private investors to ensure the economy, efficiency, effectiveness and value for money (VFM).

PPPs have emerged over the last few years as a more efficient and viable means for infrastructure development, as opposed to infrastructure based-outsourcing arrangement and privatisation. This is despite the inherent challenges of PPPs – including the length of time, absence of long-term funding at reasonable interest rates, and other risk factors associated with PPPs.

In a PPP arrangement, the private investor owns the asset for a period of time to construct, rehabilitate, operate and maintain the infrastructure asset, as well as procure related services using privately sourced funds unlike infrastructure based-outsourcing arrangement.
The infrastructure asset and contracted services provided by the investor are paid either directly by government (when there is a viability gap funding) or by consumers. The government also retains a reversionary interest in the ownership of the asset after the expiration of the contracted term unlike privatization.

In Nigeria, PPPs are usually initiated through the relevant Nigerian Ministry, Department or Agency (MDAs) responsible for the project or service for which private sector participation is sought. This process is done in conjunction/consulting with the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC) and the Federal Ministry of Finance to ensure the viability and bankability of the proposed project. A private investor may also take the lead in initiating the PPP, by submitting an unsolicited proposal to the relevant MDA.

According to the National Integrated Infrastructure Master Plan – Nigeria’s blueprint for accelerated infrastructure development, N485 trillion required to deliver quality infrastructure over the next 30 years will be spread across various sectors as follows: energy (33%), transport (25%), agriculture, water and mining (13%), housing and regional development (11%), information and communications technology (11%), social infrastructure (5%) and vital registration and security (2%).

The ICRC PPP Projects Pipeline for 2016/17 currently houses 77 projects in Nigeria out of which only 5 projects are for education purpose, specifically: the upgrade of some ICT laboratories and libraries; the construction of the National Mathematical Centre-International Science Academy; the construction of students hostel & 500-units of staff housing in University of Gusau, external electrification and provision of borehole & overhead tanks, all of which are still in development stages.

This is an extremely poor pace for a country with huge educational infrastructure deficit in its public institutions.

The sudden death of students due to poor infrastructure indicates an urgent need to overhaul the infrastructure in our public institutions.

• The government must swiftly demonstrate a commitment to partner with private investors to provide the requisite infrastructure in our public schools as well as engage Transaction Advisers for these projects. This will give investors the comfort that these projects have the highest political backing.

• The government can further demonstrate its political will via the provision of incentives and an enabling business environment, by enacting investor-friendly laws. Also, by reducing the bureaucracy, bottlenecks and red tape involved in obtaining the requisite approvals from relevant MDAs, which operate to delay the PPP process.

• The government can also provide the land, seed funding (where there is a viability gap funding), tax incentives and subsidies to motivate investors since the idea of providing a PPP project is such that the investor can recoup his investment on the project. These funds can cover the cost of financing, operating and maintaining the asset over time as well as advisers’ fees.
This will provide the opportunity to bring on stream new and innovative projects at a considerable pace in view of the infrastructure deficit and public debt prevalent in developing countries like Nigeria, where the government alone is incapable of meeting the financial and technical requirements to develop and maintain such projects. These new projects, which are PPP-driven, will create jobs, reduce poverty and translate into an overall economic growth.

• The Nigerian investors have been inactive for too long. It is time that local investors broadened the scope of their engagement in infrastructure development, which could have a significant effect on the nation. They can engage in submitting unsolicited proposals for the initiation of infrastructure development in schools without waiting for the MDA to initiate these projects – including but not limited to the provision of hostel accommodations, toilets and bathing facilities, borehole facilities, refectories, libraries and sporting facilities, all of which have serious physiological and physical effects on students. This invariably will go a long way in improving the quality of graduates in secondary and tertiary institutions who can contribute to the well being of the nation by proffering sound policy advise to the government on topical issues and compete favourably with their counterparts from around the globe.

• Students MAY be made to pay an extra cost in some cases, as a token for these developments – comfort does not come cheap. This extra cost must be monitored efficiently coupled with effective management to ensure transparency and accountability – which will enable the investor recoup his investment within the PPP cycle.

• These PPP projects should be well researched, structured and kept simple in terms of the multiplicity of parties in order to attract financial institutions and banks that can support and sustain the PPP cycle as well as reduce the financial cost in view of the length of time needed for PPP projects which span over decades.

The advantages of infrastructure developments for any nation cannot be overstated – more so, adequate infrastructure in institutions. Thus President J.F. Kennedy of USA succinctly posits “America has good roads, not because America is rich, but America is rich because it has good roads”. Nigeria can be great, not merely because of its resources, but by how best it utilises its resources for development – especially education development. It is hoped that there is a drastic improvement of infrastructure in our public institutions using PPPs as a viable and more efficient alternative, as our institutions should be citadels for learning and not death traps.

May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.