There is hardly any part of our national life today that is delivering satisfactory service that meets global standards. It’s either we have not kept pace with development around the world in many sectors of the economy or we have completely abandoned some of them. Even within our ecological niche, it is seemingly hopeless to the extent that any modicum of light in darkness is visibly noticed and sometimes, celebrated. From education, power, industries, healthcare to transportation, it is one sorry story or the other. The entire essence of government is the welfare of the people, but our institutional paralysis leaves so much to be desired. In the books of history, no nation has ever salvaged its people from the fangs of poverty by being complacent about the dysfunctional or retrogressive state of her institutions and services.
One sector that is critical to national economic life is transportation because of its multiplier effect on other areas of national life. The transport system of any nation plays a significant role in its economic growth. It has rightly been described as a catalyst that drives economic development through efficient movement of raw materials from source to their final consumers and through factories to markets. Also, as the platform for movement of persons and resources around the country, it generally enhances physical connectivity, opening up every part of the country and driving social engineering. An economic life without transportation is unimaginable, simply put, it is wishful thinking.
The different modes of transport, air, land, sea and rail, exist for different reasons and all have their places, each with their own merits and demerits. Policy makers are also often in a paradoxical situation where the different modes compete with one another, rather than seeking complementarity and optimal balance. Nigeria has 28 airports, 20 of which are managed by Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN). None of our airports is among top 50 globally and despite being the biggest economy in Africa, as at 2019, none of our airports was among top 10 in Africa. This does not negate the commendable efforts in the aviation sector to ensure safety, meet world standards and attain relevant certifications from ICAO, IATA etc.
We are blessed with a long coastline of 853km and we have six port complexes plus other ports and terminals but none of our ports is among top six in Africa despite our significant consumption of finished goods and export of oil and gas and agricultural products . Again this does not undermine our achievements in the shipping sector and ocean economy which is widely and globally acknowledged.
On roads, we are not among top 10 countries in Africa with the best or longest road network. Less endowed countries like Cape Verde, Morocco, Mauritius, Rwanda, Senegal, Botswana, Namibia, Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya and South Africa have better road networks than the giant of AFRICA. Since transport is the trigger for economic competitiveness, this lends some explanations for our deficient comparative competitiveness despite the size of our market, driven by population.
Of all these modes of transportation, one that can offer us the benefits of efficiency, reliability, capacity to carry passengers, safety, cost optimisation, environmental friendliness and serve public welfare is rail transport. It also has capacity to co-operate with other modes of transportation using intermodalism as a strategy. Unfortunately, before now, the rail stream had suffered neglect like most other sectors that facilitate productive national life. In fact, beyond moving people around, a well connected railway network is the preferred mode of transport for merchandise and products like oil and gas, agricultural products and manufactured goods.
From what we inherited from the colonial administration at independence, it appears our rail was completely forgotten or abandoned, and there was no substantial investment made to expand the rail lines or the capacity. Abandoning the rail lines put pressure on all other forms of transportation especially our roads which in a matter of time, also caved in. With dysfunctional rails, agricultural boom and industrialisation suffered and expectedly, economic growth generally was constrained.
Between 1960 and 1999, no substantial investment was made in rail aside from the award of Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri line which was not executed. We continued to operate sub-optimally from the relics of what we inherited from the British.
Then at the advent of the current democratic dispensation, President Olusegun Obasanjo cast a strategic vision for railway. He initiated the 25-year master plan for railway in 2004. He flagged off the Lagos – Kano standard gauge line in 2006 at the twilight of his administration and so he could not do much. In his foresight, Obasanjo advised that “no nation has achieved holistic development without a coherent, integrated, efficient and reliable transportation system”. The successor administrations attempted to revitalise railway but could not do much for several reasons . Credit must be given to the Goodluck Jonathan administration that sought to run with the plan and programme of the Obasanjo administration but was inhibited by time.
President Buhari in his determination to break the jinx, set a clear vision to change the narrative of railway system. He appointed Rt. Hon Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi as Minister of Transportation and gave him a charge, to give Nigeria and Nigerians a modern, efficient, effective, affordable, safe and reliable rail system that serves the interest and welfare of all. As Minister, Hon. Amaechi took this charge with the seriousness it deserves. He quickly devised a three-pronged strategy; rehabilitate and upgrade all existing 3,505km of narrow gauge lines across the country in phases, develop new rail lines to promote intermodalism and inter connectivity, and finally create necessary framework and structures for sustainability.
In pursuit of the first prong of his strategy, he vigorously pushed for and completed the monumental Abuja- Kaduna rail line in July 2016 which till date has carried nearly two million passengers. His thirst for developmental change spurred him to resuscitate the Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri railway which was initiated about 32 years ago without much progress. The project is now almost completed. Work has also reached advanced stage on the 156.5km double track standard gauge Lagos – Ibadan rail line which has a southward extension to Apapa seaport, with a firm commitment to deliver it this year. Ibadan – Kano will commence any moment from now. Rehabilitation of 480km Lagos -Jebba narrow gauge railway, 624km Jebba-Kano narrow gauge, 468km PH-Aba-Enugu-Markudi, 640km Karu-Bauchi-Gombe-Maiduguri rail line, 221km Zaria-Funtua-Gusau-Kaura rail line, Markudi-Kafachan-Kaduna Junction narrow gauge railway are all nearing completion and will be fully operational this year. At every point, the Hon. Minister has proven that Nigerians are not bereft of ideas or energy to deliver results but we just need focus, commitment and a dose of patriotism to make life better for majority of us.
Another bold step the Hon. Minister has taken is the conceptual development of 284km Kano-Katsina-Maradi standard gauge rail, 2163km Port Harcourt-Maiduguri single track rail, Itakpe-Abuja central line and the ambitious Calabar-Yenegoa-Warri-Sapele-Benin-Ore-Lagos Coastal rail line with spur to Otuoke, PH, Aba, Uyo, Obudu and Onitsha. There can be no better demonstration of deep understanding of the intersection between transportation and development than this. For centuries, rail network has formed the foundation for industrialisation, productivity and economic efficiency for many developed nations.
Noteworthy is that the Hon. Minister did not lose focus of intra-city mass transit and intercity rail system which enhances connectivity; Lagos Mass Transit Train moving about 13,000 passengers daily and the Aba- Port Harcourt–Aba mass transit. Intercity Passenger Service: Lagos – Kano –Lagos Train which operates once a week, moving about 2,500 passengers, Offa – Kano – Offa train also operates once a week, moving about 2,000 passengers and Minna – Kaduna – Minna Train that shuttles 3 times per week, moving about 3,500 passengers. There is also Kano – Nguru intercity Train which operates two times per week, moving about 1,000 passengers and 200 tons of luggage and parcels, and Port Harcourt – Kano- Port Harcourt Train Once a week which has been temporarily suspended and Zaria-Kaura Namoda-Zaria Train.
To boost human capacity development, the Hon. Minister initiated the development of University of Transport, Daura to build the necessary manpower required to drive railway. He had also initiated rolling stock procurement for operations and fabrication of strategic components of train elements in Nigeria. Legal framework to drive sustainability and private sector participation in railway is being put in place. You can see and feel the coherence of strategy and implementation in the Buhari railway renaissance agenda .
One of the greatest challenges we face is sustainability of rail projects. The modalities of the railway encompass physical activities which will remain a constant. As the world ushers in the digital revolution which are likely to put economies of nations under immense threats, disruptions in logistics, will only complement the existing modalities of the railway systems, rather than replace them completely. So the railway remains a formidable force for commerce, at least in the short term, until such a time when science and technology discovers a cheaper and more efficient means of moving resources and persons from one point to another.
We often underestimate little things that make a difference. Rt Hon C R Amaechi has demonstrated in Transportation that vision, values, strategic planning, integrity, passion, hardwork, focus and patriotism are necessary ingredients in leadership to make lasting positive impact. By reinventing railways in Nigeria, he has left a legacy and written his name in gold in the minds of Nigerians. We need many more Amaechis who are emotionally intelligent, can live above self and model the values that make nations great. Where ever we find one, let’s celebrate them to enable others come forward and know that selflessness and patriotism are valued in this part of the world. Please permit me to wish Rt Hon C R Amaechi a happy birthday.
•Dr Dakuku Peterside is former Director-General of NIMASA.