Unraveling Nigeria’s struggle with government mega projects

President Tinubu

By Abdulrauf Aliyu

In a nation striving for development, Nigeria’s history is marred by a series of grand government initiatives that have failed to materialize, leaving behind a trail of unrealized dreams and squandered resources. The recent past, much like preceding years, has witnessed the inability of government megaprojects to deliver value for money or attain completion. The quest to unravel the causes behind this recurrent phenomenon brings to light critical insights from influential scholars, which cast light on the failures and provide guidance for the future.

One of the most glaring examples of Nigeria’s faltering megaprojects is the Ajaokuta Steel Company. Launched with much fanfare in the early 1980s, the project aimed to bolster the nation’s industrial capacity and reduce reliance on steel imports. Decades later, the complex lies in ruins, a testament to the entrenched issues plaguing government projects. Inefficiencies, mismanagement, and corruption have consistently dogged such endeavors, leading to a colossal waste of resources and unrealized potential.

Bent Flyvbjerg’s research provides a lens through which we can analyze Nigeria’s project failures. His concept of “optimism bias” explains the tendency of planners and decision-makers to underestimate costs, overestimate benefits, and downplay risks, a phenomenon that has been witnessed in numerous Nigerian projects. This skewed estimation contributes to inadequate preparation and unrealistic expectations, ultimately derailing projects along the way.

Furthermore, the “planning fallacy” elucidated by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky underlines the human tendency to rely on overly optimistic predictions of success. This cognitive bias is evident in Nigeria’s approach to mega projects, where insufficient attention is paid to historical data or external factors that might impede success. As a result, projects lack contingency plans and are ill-equipped to handle the unexpected challenges that inevitably arise.

Digging deeper into the issue, Dan Gardner’s exploration of the “risk perception gap” highlights how people’s fears and anxieties often do not align with the actual risks involved. This insight finds resonance in Nigeria’s mega projects, where public concerns about mismanagement, corruption, and delays are often dismissed or downplayed. This disconnect erodes public trust and exacerbates the challenges faced by these projects.

Considering these insights, what can be done to ensure a different outcome for Nigeria’s future government megaprojects? The case of the Ajaokuta Steel Company can provide valuable lessons for the new ministers of steel development. To achieve success, they must turn to the principles of disruptive innovation championed by Clayton Christensen.

Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation” sheds light on the need to break away from traditional models and embrace novel approaches. In the context of Nigeria’s steel industry, the government should take a leaf out of Christensen’s playbook and consider the concept of “mini mills.” Instead of focusing solely on massive and resource-intensive projects like Ajaokuta, the government should encourage the development of smaller, more agile steel mills that can cater to local demand, reduce the burden of cost overruns, and minimize the risk associated with mega projects.

The “Innovator’s Dilemma” concept, though not explicitly named here, holds the key to understanding why established organizations, like Nigeria’s government, often fail to innovate. By focusing on sustaining innovations, they can become trapped in outdated practices, missing out on the transformative potential of disruptive technologies or approaches. This dilemma underscores the need for Nigeria to embrace a paradigm shift, moving away from the allure of grandeur and instead embracing incremental innovations that are more adaptable and responsive to changing circumstances.

In addition to these theoretical insights, it is imperative that the new ministers prioritize transparency, accountability, and inclusivity. Citizens and stakeholders should be engaged throughout the project’s lifecycle, fostering a sense of ownership and shared responsibility. By addressing the “risk perception gap,” the government can rebuild trust and dispel fears that have often hampered progress.

In conclusion, Nigeria’s struggle with failed government megaprojects reflects a complex interplay of biases, mismanagement, and systemic issues. By drawing insights from scholars like Bent Flyvbjerg, Dan Gardner, and Clayton Christensen, the path forward becomes clearer. The Ajaokuta Steel Company serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of unchecked optimism and misaligned priorities. As the new ministers of steel development step into their roles, they must heed the call for disruptive innovation, embracing more flexible and locally responsive approaches. Only through transparency, accountability, and a willingness to learn from past mistakes can Nigeria’s government projects finally deliver the value for money and outcomes their citizens deserve.

Abdulrauf Aliyu
An economist and Policy Analyst writes from
45 Ashiru Road, U/Dosa New Extension



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