INTERVIEW: Ajaokuta Steel Company was designed to last over 100 years – Onobere


Ajaokuta Iron and Steel Company Limited is unarguably Nigeria’s multi-billion Naira project which was built by former President, Shehu Shagari and has remained option ‘A’ to tackling industrial needs, employment generation and national income earnings.

Therefore, the best way to go if the current administration’s quest to diversifying the economy is anything to go by is revival of the company.

On a fact finding tour to the steel plant at Ajaokuta in Kogi State by DAILY POST’s Atek’ojo Samson Usman, and in the interview with the Sole Administrator, Engr. Isah Joseph Onobere, it was explained that Nigeria has one of the best model plant which was designed to last far above 100 years, hence, any campaign of calumny from any quarter remains crass ignorance of what the project was all about.


Can we get to know you officially?

I am Engr. Isah Joseph Onobere, Sole Administrator of Ajaokuta Steel Company Limited. Having joined this Company as an Engineer II in 1982, I rose through ranks and file until I was appointed as Sole Administrator towards the end of 2012.

Talking about Ajaokuta Iron and Steel Limited involves a lot of issues, but to be specific, what is the way forward, looking at President Muhammadu Buhari’s commitment thus far?

Currently, there are three main outstanding issues which were made known by the government and which were being worked upon emphatically.

First of such is the completion of external infrastructure. Ajaokuta Iron and Steel was 98% completed as at 1994 and that was 22 years ago before it’s builders, TPE Russia left. What actually posed a big challenge that time was the logistics of bringing raw materials to feed the mill, especially the imported ones. The plant was originally designed to have a rail linked to the deep sea Port and the closest and approved one at that time was Onne port in Cross River State. We were supposed to have a standard rail gauge from Ajaokuta to Onne. The government at that time felt that the difficult thing was having a rail bridge across River Niger which was completed as far back as 1983 and since then, there was no further development in that area.

Apart from the Federal government of Nigeria owing Messrs Tyazhpromexport (TPE) of Russia before they abandoned the project and left in 1994, it was the rail linking for purposes of raw materials importation that was the real reason and that was because the quantum of cooking coal required was about 1.32million tonnes per annum and there was no other viable means of bringing it except through rail transport.

Secondly as at today, there is need for the rehabilitation of the plant with completion of the 2% of the section that remained.

Thirdly, while the completion is going on, there are 43 plants units in the entire complex with 40 of them 100% completed since 1994 and so we need to put the 40 completed ones to work, awaiting the completion of the entire plants before the commission of the whole.

Does the infrastructure need overhauling since there have not been put to operation?

What we just need to do is to rehabilitate the plant. The equipment are in good condition. We have no problem with the plant at all. In Russia and Ukraine, they have had this model of plant. I personally met one of them in 2004 celebrating 107 years anniversary and still working within their targets. In the case of our own, the equipment were well designed to be robust and rugged. When the equipment in Russia or Ukraine takes 30 tonnes, our own takes more than that because our level of development was factored into the design. Unlike their own, if you don’t stop at 29 when it was supposed to be 30 tonnes, you are on your own. They over design the equipment such that we we don’t need a crane, they put it there. There are some operational plants here that can work 24 hours non stop for seven years such that if an equipment breaks down in the course of operation, another is switched on till the latter is repaired and more so, they are additional equipment that serve as standby. If I open some equipment for you, you will be surprised, and you will think that they were brought in newly. So if we start full operations now, what we have are new equipment and I assure you we can deliver as designed. These equipment were brought as far back as 1982, but were erected in 1994, so by the time we start, what we have are brand new steel plant.

We learnt that there are intrigues and external forces collaborating with some government officials who want t make sure that the steel plant does not work for the interest of the West. As an insider, how true is this?

To a large extent, that is very true. There are internal and external forces working against this plant with external forces using internal forces. Some may be in government and some may not. This is because everybody in this world knows that the day Nigeria produces 1kg of liquid steel, there is no going back again in technological development and that is a notorious fact. The capacity we are talking about is 1.3million tonnes to be upgraded to 2.6 in the second phase and later to 5.2 million tonnes. They know what these means as to the required discipline and potentials.
There was recommendation by vision 20:2020 that Nigeria should produce 20million tonnes of liquid steel which is just a few years from now and if Ajaokuta’s 5.2million is ready with Aladja Steel plant producing 2million, then we would source the remaining from private sector in order to arrive the target at that time.

Looking at the management structure in the past, there was accusation of looting of some machines by Global Infrastructure who were at a time involved in concession regime and there are hints that they want to come back to continue from where they stopped. What is your take on this?

There were accusations of wrong doings against Global Infrastructure which is an Indian firm that led late Musa Yar’adua administration to set up administrative panel of inquiry in 2007 and they were heavily indicted by the panel which eventually led to the termination of the concession in April, 2008 for Ajaokuta Iron and Steel and Itakpe Iron Ore. After the termination, they took Nigeria to Court of Arbitration, but the last administration felt there was need to speed up the case and we opted for mediation which is out of court settlement and that was in 2013. They were asked to leave Ajaokuta with a promise that they would be given Itakpe Iron Ore to operate which was agreed in principle, but the government insisted that agreement to that effect should be modified because the initial one was skewed to their advantage. So in coming up with new modified agreement, we now have problems with them. Fortunately or unfortunately, no officials from the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development was involved in the last agreement and this was because the information was 3 days to the meeting and nobody among 3 officials of government could get visa to travel.