For Nigeria’s Rail Transport, A New Day Beckons, By Idowu Samuel
For decades, Nigerians had dreamt of a crisp transport system for mass movement, built around the railway technology like in developed countries. The dream is as good as coming to fulfilment now with the flag-off of commercial services of the Abuja-Kaduna railway project by President Muhammadu Buhari.
Last month, a delegation of the Federal Government led by the Minister of Transport, Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi undertook a test-ride of the train service from Idu Main Station to Kubwa in Abuja and thereafter returned a verdict of success on the project. Amaechi said the completion of the project, which had suffered years of hiccups, is a mark of full commitment by the present government towards the revival of the transport sector in Nigeria.
The Abuja-Kaduna railway project is already a leap in the efforts towards revitalising the national economy. Aside the capacity to open space for the generation of more employment opportunities, the tendency to save costs for different categories of Nigerians on mass movement within the Abuja-Kaduna geographical axis is unquantifiable.
With the project, it would be easy henceforth for Nigerians to live in Kaduna and yet work in Abuja. Civil servants in this category no longer need to worry about the huge costs they often incur on transportation, worsened these days by the increase in the price of fuel. The opportunity to take cheap train while they shuttle repeatedly between Abuja and Kaduna has the tendency to encourage family bonding with little need for population redistribution.
Over the years, Nigerians have had harrowing experiences on long stretch movements owing to poor road networks. All along, only a few have been predisposed to the option of air travel. With the near collapse of the railway system, the country had longed for succour. That, in any case, prompted successive governments to vote huge sums of money for reviving the railway sector. Nonetheless, past efforts in this regard failed to offer tangible results until now that hope begins to blossom with President Buhari’s endeavours. The determination by the president to put Nigeria back on the track with effective transportation system recently took him to China where he re-negotiated deals on the modernisation of the Nigerian railway agenda.
Efforts towards modernising the Nigerian railway system had commenced in October 2006. An agreement was signed between Nigeria and the CCECC of China for construction of a standard gauge Lagos-Kaduna rail line, costing $8.3 billion. The project, well packaged was for upgrade of the entire rail system to standard gauge, covering a 25-year period. It included the Port Harcourt-Kano line and the additional, Lagos-Calabar line (East-West).
The contractor, CCECC immediately started work with the ground-breaking ceremony performed by former President Olusegun Obasanjo at Kajola in November, 2006. However, Obasanjo left in May 2007, only for the counterpart funding agreement in which Nigeria was to pay the sum of $2 billionn to the contractor to be bungled. His government only paid the sum of $250 million at the time he left.
On assumption of office, late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua discovered that the contract did not follow due process amidst reports that the project cost was also inflated. Yar’Adua visited China, re-negotiated and re-scoped the entire project. Nigeria and China agreed to first get the services back with the rehabilitation of the existing narrow gauge lines.
The project was segmented. The completion date for rehabilitation of the Lagos-Kano and Port Harcourt-Maiduguri lines was December 2011. While this was going on, a Chinese delegation came to Nigeria to commence on-site assessment of the first phase of the now segmented standard gauge Abuja-Kaduna line in July 2008 and to finalise it in 2009. Unfortunately, the death of Yar’Adua stalled progress on the project.
The contract for the Abuja-Kaduna standard rail project was awarded in 2010 under the government of former President Goodluck Jonathan. Indeed, the actual construction did not start until 2011. It is a $874 million project with an Exim Bank China facility of $500 million. Nigeria was expected to pay the balance of the total sum, and the project was scheduled for completion in 2014.
But the Jonathan administration, like the previous ones, reneged on counterpart funding. That necessitated an extension of the completion period. Under Jonathan’s government, almost all capital projects inherited suffered poor funding or non-funding despite their strategic importance to the economy, and in spite of the huge revenue from sale of crude oil all through his regime.
Although the government of former President Jonathan did not initiate the modernisation of the Nigerian Railway system, his government was on the threshold of earning the credit for its completion. That was never to be. The alleged short-sightedness and indeed large-scale corruption the regime is now noted for combined to rub it of such a glory.
Now, history has beckoned on President Buhari to take the credit for re-negotiating and completing the outstanding railway projects conceived years back. He had hardly settled down in office in 2015 when he made the outstanding payment, which had stalled work on the Abuja-Kaduna railway project.
In another breath, President Buhari is putting integrity to the fore in rescuing the modernisation of the abandoned Lagos-Ibadan dual track standard gauge line. The contract was awarded in 2012 with 2015 set as year of completion. The Federal Executive Council on July 18th, 2012 approved the sum of $1.457 billion as the project contract sum over a 36-month completion period. The project was abandoned by the government of former President Jonathan after it doled out the sum of N13 billion to it from the 2012-2013 and 2014 budgets. Nonetheless, there was nothing to show for all the efforts.
President Buhari has renegotiated and agreed with contractors on the commencement of the project including that of the East-West line (Lagos-Benin-Onitsha, Port Harcourt-Calabar) at a reduced sum of $11.117 billion, with his government saving billion of naira for Nigeria on that project alone.
Within the next two years, all things being equal, the Lagos-Ibadan dual rail project would have been completed. Again, President Buhari will expectedly open it up for commercial operations. That project, as conceived, will re-define the economic environment of the South-West for good. It would assist in eliminating the long years of trauma that travellers on the Lagos-Ibadan dual carriage way have been undergoing. In essence, the people of the South-West would have no other government to applaud than that of President Buhari who is about to make it happen.
Idowu Samuel writes from Abuja.