A clarification made by the Sole Administrator/CEO, Ajaokuta Steel Company, Engr. Sumaila Abdul-Akaba, when a Senate delegation was led on an oversight visit to the plant recently by the Minister of Mines and Steel Development, Arc. Olamilekan Adegbite, that the plant was designed to last for 100 years must have changed the perception held in some quarters that the technology of the long–abandoned Ajaokuta steel plant is outdated. ABAH ADAH writes.
Many have argued in recent times that the technology at the Ajaokuta Steel Company Limited (ASCL) is outdated and does not meet modern standards. This may be due, largely, to the fact that the steel plant, in its final stage of completion, has been abandoned over the years.
President Shehu Shagari and former Russian leader, Leonid Brezhnev, both of blessed memory, led Nigeria and Russia when the two countries first started the construction of the Ajaokuta steel Plant in 1979, which design was expected to produce five million metric tonnes of steel annually at its third stage. Thousands of Russian engineers were deployed to Nigeria in the years that followed to give effect to the Ajaokuta dream. However, work stalled eventually even as the project had reached over 90 per cent completion due to Nigerian government’s failure to pay the builders, Tyazhpromexport (TPE Russia’s), on schedule.
Now, 40 years later, Nigeria is again banking on a bilateral agreement reached in October, 2019 during a meeting between Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in Russia to resuscitate the hitherto challenged steel factory complex.
Briefing the visiting Senate Committee delegation, Engr. Akaba averred that the technology installed by the Russians and Ukrainians under the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR, is not obsolete as being claimed by many people. He made it clear that the four decades plant which is the largest steel plant in West Africa was built to last 100 years just like one of the steel plants in Russia that had lasted for 115 years.
He said: “I want to talk about the popular notion that this plant is obsolete. The concept of engineering generally is universal. Technology and its application do not change or get obsolete, rather they get improved for efficiency of operation and application with new ideas. In the case of the steel industry the key technology of application and process are the Blast Furnace (Basic Oxygen Furnace – BOF) and Electric Arc Furnace (EAF).’’
“So, for plants of this magnitude, from the design stage, there are provisions for upgrade every 10 years. The plant you have here in Ajaokuta is a new plant. So, the question of obsolesce never really exists.’’
“When I came on board in October, 2017, focused on the plant facilities and we initiated an audit to find out the technical capabilities of the plant and ascertain its true status because the best way to manage any system is to know the status of that system and by 2018 when the technical audit which took about four months was completed we found out that the status of the steel plant facilities was largely intact – nothing has gone wrong with it.
“In 2019, the same technology we have here, that is, the Blast Furnace, had to produce steel of about 1.3 billion tonnes the world over. These facts are verifiable.”
Explaining further, the Sole Administrator said, “What you do in the production planning is that you continue to modernise, and luckily for us at Ajaokuta Steel we have an enviable workforce and thorough professionals that in the last 10 years only on monthly basis these plants were by-run.
“We even carried out a human resource audit. That audit was to identify the skill of the workforce we have which is about 2, 400. Why do we do this? We did it so we know the requirements- the number of engineers we have; their profession, and for how long they had being in the system, as well as the number of training they had gone through.”
However, the ASCL boss said 10000 technical staff are needed to commence operation of the various phases of production in the plant.
Aqcuainting the law makers with the infrastructure, he noted that Ajaokuta Steel Company sits on 24,000 hectares of land, that is, the site is bigger than the whole Abuja town, which sits on 17,000 hectares.
“Ajaokuta Steel Plant has 60 kilometres road network; 67 kilometres of rail network between the plants, to move materials from one point to the other; a river port; an airstrip, 10,000 housing units of which over 50 per cent is completed and are of very high quality; and about 23 estates.
“And by design, the plant’s first phase production is put at 1.3 million tonnes liquid steel, while the second phase would be 2.6 million tonnes, and the final (third) stage, 5.2 million tonnes of liquid steel”.
He appealed to the Senate to support the move by President Buhari last year at Sochi where he met with his Russian counterpart, President Putin, on a government to government arrangement, to make the steel giant walk and run after 40 years of crawling.
The Sole Administrator also presented to the visiting delegation the report of a technical audit that was carried out by his administration at the instance of the ministry to ascertain the status of Ajaokuta in 2018, before taking them round to inspect key parts of the infrastructure.
His words: “The Russians are ready to come back to do what we call revalidation of an audit we carried out in 2018 to ascertain the status of this plant, and based on that, we have had discussions with TPE and AFREXIM Bank, and they have made a proposal on modernisation and upgrade of the plant. They are expected to be in Nigeria to revalidate the audit before we can sign on the actual contract.
Speaking to newsmen afterwards, Engr. Akaba expressed confidence in the readiness and willingness on the part of the Buhari government to complete and operationalise Ajaokuta as, according to him, no previous government had gone the level this government has gone in ensuring that the plant is revived since it was abandoned years ago.
He said, “There is no point in time that a president of this country took it upon himself to travel to Russia and engage the original builders of this complex, the TPE. Now, the Russian President has given his consent that the required support would be given to the partnership.
“We have a Ministerial Committee and a Presidential Committee on this already, and a lot of work is being done. The committee has been divided into subcommittees to look at the already existing agreements which are being amended.
“And, a Finance Committee is engaging AFREXIM Bank and the Russia Trade Centre that has already pledged some $1 billion and $0.45 billion. We have never gone this far before.
“We are praying that that COVID-19 pandemic eases, so that travel restriction can be lifted to enable the Russians come in.
“And I am confident in the integrity of Mr. President. That is even why many nations would want to talk to us today, because they believe in what is happening. This is the time for us to move the country forward.”
In his remark after a tour of the complex by the delegation, Senate Leader, Yahaya Abdullahi, said they were delighted to see that the project had reached over 95 per cent completion and that the equipment was intact in spite of all that happened.
Commending the management of the company and the ministry, the Senate Leader said the Senate and indeed the National Assembly would not spare any effort at ensuring that what is required to complete the project is provided for when it comes to appropriation of resources.
“We have visited all the major components of the plant and we are happy to say that over 95 per cent of the plant is on ground. I think the management and the ministry have done a lot.
“We appreciate the government-to-government agreement signed with Russia to complete the project, and we as members of the National Assembly, will ensure that whatever is required is provided when it comes to appropriation,” he said.
Also speaking, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Solid Minerals, Mines, Steel and Metallurgy and who also a former Governor of Nasarawa State, Sen. Tanko Almakura, said the Senate was prepared to give full support to the executive in their quest to complete and operationalise the factory.
On his part, the Minister, Arc. Adegbite reiterated the Buhari Administration’s commitment to ensure that Ajaokuta comes on stream as soon as possible.
Lamenting the delay caused by the ban on international flights as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Minister assured that the Russians would come in for the first phase of the job – the technical audit as soon as the situation improves and the ban is lifted.
The delegation was also at the National Iron Ore Mining Company (NIOMCO), Itakpe earlier where its Sole Administrator, Augustus Nkechika, stressed the need to get the mine working ahead of Ajaokuta.
Itakpe was established in 1993 to feed Ajaokuta as well as the Delta Steel Company with raw material – iron ore.
Nkechika said, “The need to fully complete the rehabilitation of NIOMCO as well as acquire additional mining equipment cannot be over-emphasised because to meet the first phase of Ajaokuta’s production level alone, NIOMCO must be able to produce and process seven million tonnes of raw iron ore annually.
“And to sustain production for at least 15 to 20 years, sufficient stock pile of iron concentrates at both the Itakpe and Ajaokuta ends to serve as buffer in the event of temporary stoppage of haulage or production of concentrates is required.
“Hence there is need for Itakpe to commence production of concentrates well ahead of the commencement of production by Ajaokuta.