Saturday, April 10, 2021

Nigeria’s Rail Sector: The Buhari agenda and Amaechi’s strides, by Muhammed Dahiru

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tiamin rice

The importance of Railway Infrastructure to economic development cannot be overemphasised. It is considered an essential feature of all modern economies. Rail line has an important role in increasing production, reducing travel times most especially for cargoes, increasing employment and improving accessibility.

Until the coming of this administration, I could not have imagined or been able to tell the level of infrastructural development and investment that had taken place in the bid to revamp Railway Transportation in the Country. All that I knew and believed were snippets of information about the government desires to rebuild the railways.

My current knowledge and change of perception about the Railway Sector in Nigeria stems from my involvement in the sector after it has become one of the cardinal objectives of the Buhari Administration to revive it. As a Banker, and a stakeholder in the sector due to my relationship with one of the big Railway players in the country (China Railways Construction Company International-CRCC), I have been involved in the process of reviving the sector and have a first-hand knowledge of what this administration is doing in order to take the Nigerian Railway infrastructure to the next level as being spearheaded by Honourable Minister of Transportation RT. Hon Chibuike Amaechi.

Within the last 3 years I had taken several trips both within an outside the country for evaluation and bid preparation visits, contract negotiations, etc. as it relates to the development of the Railway sector. This experience changed my entire perception and mind-set about the possibility of putting Nigeria on the road map of development and most intriguingly about the person of the Honourable Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi. He is a wonderful person. I used the word ‘intriguingly’ because of the kind of comments people make about him but since this article is not about his person, I end that point here.

Since my involvement in the sector, I have done a couple of personal research on Railway development in Nigeria. For proper appreciation of the fact, it is necessary to state such history here. Only recently, I read an article from Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi (a former Managing Director of the Daily Times) where he chronicled the history of the Railways transportation in Nigeria.  It could not be put any better. I have therefore adopted significantly his historical perspective in this article, and I hope my modest reference meets his standards for acknowledgment.

The British in 1898 began to construct the first railroad in Nigeria, that is, the 32km narrow gauge line from Iddo in the Lagos Colony to Ota in today’s Ogun state and subsequently to Ibadan, it was conceived purely as a commercial venture designed to ease the movement of goods from the hinterland to the coast for export. That project was completed four years after, in 1901. Thereafter, rail construction continued steadily, with the construction of Ibadan-Jebba line, between 1907 to 1911. Urged by the British Cotton Growing Association, a single-track narrow gauge, with a speed of 12 miles per hour, was constructed in 1907 from Baro to Bida, Zungeru and Zaria to Kano to ease the evacuation of cotton for export. Following the discovery of coal in Enugu in 1914, the 243km Port Harcourt – Enugu line was constructed to facilitate export of coal through Port Harcourt. Then, by 1924, several other lines were added, among them the Enugu – Makurdi line, the Kaduna – Kafanchan and Kafanchan – Jos lines. In the 1920s and early 1930s, the Zaria – Gusau – Kaura Namoda lines were built. Then two final extensions, Kano – Nguru and Ifo – Idogo were built by 1930.

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According to history, in all those years, the railways were run efficiently because the institution was then under the supervision of an efficiently-run civil service. Then on October 1, 1955, it became a public enterprise by an Act of Parliament (No. 26). By 1964, the old Nigeria Railway Corporation reached its peak performance when it was said to have conveyed some 11.2million passengers annually and about 3million tonnes of goods. In the 1963/64 Financial Year Report, the Corporation had a financial performance of £16million and a working surplus of £2million.

History also has it that the rot in the sector began to set in gradually after independence, arising from poor infrastructure maintenance, derelict and antiquated rail tracks, outmoded locomotives and wagons and, of course, corruption and poor management. Although the neglect of the sector started with the British themselves, whose interest has begun to shift gradually to “black gold” (crude oil). For instance, for thirty-one years between 1927-1958, apart from two minor extensions to the rail network, namely, Kafanchan – Bauchi and Bauchi – Maiduguri, not a single sleeper was laid anywhere in the country. And then, for over fifty years between 1970 to a few years ago, the sector laid comatose and became, with possibly one exception, a cheap dispensable pawn in the hands of successive Nigerian administrations.

After the exist of Britain, successive administrations had made efforts to revive the railway. First major effort was by General Sani Abacha in 1995 who engaged China Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC) to rehabilitate the entire rail infrastructure, for about $528million. Another major attempt was in 2002, when the Obasanjo administration drew up a twenty-five development plan to build an aggregate of 8,000km of railway network, to link all state capitals and industrial centres in the country and in 2006, Obasanjo re-engaged CCECC in 2006 to build the Lagos – Kano 1,315km Standard Gauge line for $8.3billion.

In 1995, General Sani Abacha brought in the now famous China Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC) to rehabilitate the entire rail infrastructure. That $528million contract was also poorly executed. Then, again, in 2002, the Obasanjo civilian administration came up with an ambitious twenty-five-year Strategic Vision for the corporation, one that would build a modernised 8,000km of railway network, linking all state capitals and industrial centres in the country. Indeed, in the dying days of his administration, Obasanjo re-engaged CCECC in 2006 to build the Lagos – Kano 1,315km Standard Gauge line for $8.3billion. Needless to say that nothing happened. The Jonathan administration made significant efforts to rehabilitate the narrow gauge and also awarded contracts for the constitution of Abuja-Kaduna Standard gauge, which was later completed and commissioned by President Buhari’s administration. One of major milestones of the Jonathan’s administration in the sector was the conception of 1,402km from Lagos, through Ijebu-Ode, Benin, Port Harcourt to Calabar Rail Line.

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In the last four years, the Ministry of Transportation with the Nigerian Railway Corporations superintended by Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi has remained a major flashcard of progress and development under the Buhari administration. The first milestone achievement was the completion of the construction of the Abuja-Kaduna Standard Guage Railway Line, which was commissioned by President Buhari in 2016. Again, the Itakpe – Ajaokuta – Warri railway Standard Gauge project, which was commenced over thirty years ago was finally completed by this administration in 2018 and currently being test run. Only on Friday 17th May, 2019, the Minister of Transportation on behalf of the Federal Government of Nigeria issued an award for a $3.9billion contract to link Abuja (Idu) with the Itakpe-Warri line and down to the Sea Port at Warri. The contract which is to include the construction of a new sea port, when completed in 2024 will be able to convey passengers and cargo straight from Kaduna to Warri sea port.

Another milestone achievement of the Amaechi’s Rail Revolution is the ministers ability to negotiate with one of the major construction company to establish a Transport University in Nigeria with speciality in Railway Technology at no cost to Nigerian Government and also to give scholarships to over 100 Nigerians to study Railway Engineering to PhD Level who upon return will become lecturers at the University. The Honourable Minister also agreed with the company manufacturing locomotives to set up an assembly plant in Nigeria that will serve the entire sub Saharan Africa. The Minister’s vision is to have Nigeria develop the capacity to be able to construct its own rail line in no distance future.

Under the watch of President Buhari and superintendence of Amaechi, Nigeria is about to witness a major fit in its history Railways Construction; the competition of 156.5km Lagos-Ibadan double track Standard Gauge section of the Lagos – Kano line. It will be the first time that a Nigerian administration would commence a railway from the foundations and build it to completion. Simultaneously, the rehabilitation of some existing narrow gauge lines (the 480km Lagos – Jebba line, the 624km Jebba – Kano line, the 468km Port Harcourt – Aba – Enugu – Makurdi line, the 640 Kuru – Bauchi – Gombe – Maiduguri line and the Makurdi – Kafanchan – Kaduna Junction – Kuru line) are ongoing. In all of these engineering and construction work, Nigeria is expending heavy amount of funds, which has great multiplayer effect to the GDP and employment index. The Ministry of Transportation has also supervised the acquisition of Rolling Stock (wagons, coaches) and an assortment of parts for operational use, cater for the increasing passenger demand. Within the last four years, intra-city and inter-city mass passenger transit services have resumed on the refurbished narrow-gauge lines. For instance, 12 trains have since been deployed on the Lagos, and Aba-Port Harcourt lines which commutes over 12,000 passengers daily in both lines. Currently, the Lagos-Kano operates freight and passengers once a week; and the Offa – Kano –Offa line also operates, once a week.

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The Ministry of Transportation has also recorded an all times first to secure a private investor to invest in the railway sector of Nigeria under a Public Private Partnership framework. This trend, if sustained, will be beneficial to the country in breaching infrastructure gap. In terms of framework and regulations, the Ministry of Transportation made significant in route with its reform agenda and drive to have the National Assembly to amend the current Nigeria Railways Corporations (NRC) Act, which has been in existence before independence. Part of the Amaechi’s idea for the Transport Sector (Railways) is to have a framework that separates the Railways Operations from the Regulators just as exists in the Aviation sector. Some of the proposed Bills includes the Nigeria Railways Authority (NRA) Bill. The Bill is designed to open up Railways Transportation, for the first time, to private sector participation.

The Buhari administration has made significant achievements in the Transportation (Railways) under Rotimi Amaechi superintendence. With Amaechi’s dexterity and drive, the goal of this administration to link each state capital and commercial city with railway is looking like a possible ambition. Whilst Nigerians demand and expect much more dexterity and push from this administration in the next four years, both in terms of improved infrastructural and economic development, I say a personal kudos to President Muhammadu Buhari and Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, Minister for Transportation for their achievements thus far in the transportation sector.

Mr Dahiru wrote from Abuja, and can be reached on: [email protected], Twitter handle: @mohsally

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