In 1955 when the Nigeria Railway Corporation Act was enacted, the rail network across the country was massively increased, thereby, facilitating the ease of movement of goods and passengers across Nigeria. It is a known fact that one element that drove Nigeria’s economy in those days was the efficient rail system. Before Independence, the rail system was operating effectively and shortly after Independence, its efficiency recorded improvement.
Towards the late 70s, the rail system started experiencing decline due to massive corruption, lack-luster management and lack of maintenance culture which is a major bane of infrastructure in the country. Due to lack of maintenance culture, the locomotive and rail assets snowballed the rail system into sharp decline and ineffectiveness. For instance, Nigeria inherited about 3,000kms of rail tracks from the British colonialists, but had only succeeded in adding less than a thousand rail tracks since then. The declining trend reached a crescendo in 1988 when the Nigeria Railway Corporation was declared bankrupt to the extent that it went into comatose for a period of six months.
Although, services continued after that period of brief comatose, however, the operations of the rail system gradually grounded to a halt in the subsequent years. For many years, the Nigeria rail system was a ‘living dead’ and this development greatly affected the road transportation in the sense that there was extreme pressure on the motor roads; resulting to massive fatal accidents that have become daily occurrence across the country.
In December 2012, the Administration of Goodluck Jonathan took some steps that brightened the space of the system with the commencement of a regular service between Lagos and Kano in full scale. Many are of the opinion that it was the Administration of Jonathan that resurrected the railway system from ‘death’. That largely explains why the former President used the rail system as one of his major achievements when he was campaigning for re-election in 2015.
It should be noted that the railway system in Nigeria is one of the key infrastructures of the country’s economy; so, every aspect of it such as funding, management, maintenance, impact of government policies, route management, efficiency, attitudes of the members of the public and so on, are all key elements that are germane to the success of the railway system.
The area which this article focuses on is the much-touted Lagos-Ibadan rail service that is being embarked upon by the Federal Ministry of Transport. In no uncertain term, one can easily deduce that the project, if completed, is very crucial to Nigeria’s economy; judging by the fact that the Lagos-Ibadan express motor road is known to be the busiest road in the country.
The contract for the 2,733km Lagos-Kano stretch was first awarded by the Olusegun Obasanjo Administration in 2006; but unfortunately, the project was never executed due to lack of funds.
In August 28, 2012, the Federal Executive Council under the Jonathan Administration signed a Memorandum of Understanding of $1.5bn with CCECC for the construction of Lagos-Ibadan Standard Gauge Track covering a distance of 156.65km. The then Minister of Transport, Idris Umar said that the move signaled the commitment of the Jonathan Administration towards the modernisation of the railway system.
After the epoch-making MoU in 2012, nothing much was heard about it for few years due to Nigeria’s normal style of bureaucratic delay. However, in January 2017, hope was rekindled on the crucial route when the Federal Government announced that it had released the sum of N72bn in fulfillment of its terms of agreement with CCECC in the funding of the viable project. A week after the release, the Export-Import Bank of China approved $1.2bn loan (about N408bn) for the project on behalf of the Chinese government.
Commenting at that time on the approval of the loan and the release of funds by the Nigerian government, the Managing Director of Nigeria Railway Corporation, Fidet Okhiria said that with the steps taken by the two sides, the stage was fully set for the commencement of the project without any delay.
In his reaction, the Minister of Transport, Rotimi Amaechi said: “On the construction of the Lagos-Ibadan rail line, the Minister of Finance has been kind enough to release the N72bn as its counterpart funding in full. I think in the history of Nigeria, this is the first time we are releasing counterpart funds in full so that there will be no delay.”
The Lagos-Ibadan rail project is designed in such a way that it will be built on the existing corridor of Lagos-Kano rail. The difference is that it would accommodate only modern locomotive that would facilitate faster movement that befits 21st century modern rail system. Many stakeholders are of the view that it is economically viable because preliminary estimates reveal that about one million passengers may be transported along the route annually when completed. In the area of socio-economic benefits, it is also estimated that the project would create over 50,000 direct and indirect jobs. It would also make extensive impact on the economy of South West and Nigeria in general as it will help transport about one million tonnes of cargo annually, which of course will remove several tankers/trailers off the motor roads; thereby reducing tanker drivers related risks on motor roads and making the roads safer and durable.
Another factor that makes the project more noteworthy is that it is designed to connect Apapa and Tin Can port complexes so that it would curb incessant gridlocks at the Apapa axis and would also go a long way in facilitating import and export operations at the port.
However, as viable as it is, the project is in the eyes of the storm as regards the time of its completion. When the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo flagged off the project in May 2017, he said that it would be completed by December 2018.
While unveiling the project in May last year, the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo said: “We are confident that the national rail project will create up to half a million jobs and facilitate the movement of up to 3.2 million tons of cargo per annum. It will also mitigate the burden on national high ways; thus reducing deterioration of the road network and increasing the life span of our roads. Railway network will support efforts to diversify the economy and enhance our export potentials. Just as several of our cities became known as railway towns in the past, we expect to boost economic activities within the railway lines that will eventually cut across the entire country.
“I am confident that we will see the same zeal in project construction so that the railway line will be completed on schedule. We are looking forward to a fast and efficient service between Lagos and Ibadan within the projected time frame which is on or before December 2018,” he stated.
Amaechi has also spoke on several occasions as regards the time frame of December 2018 deadline, always noting that they are committed to meeting the deadline against all odds that surround the fulfillment of the mandate.
In his words, “The good news is that by December 2018 we should complete the Lagos-Ibadan rail project. But we have about 43km of water pipes to be replaced. We have sewage to deal with. We have bridges to demolish and rebuild, we have an army barracks to relocate, and we have gas pipelines to relocate and other challenges.
“However, we are discussing with the Lagos State Government on how to deal with these challenges,” the Minister assured.
But the way the matter is going, most especially as it concerns some technicalities such as Right of Way, demolition of Jibowu and Constain bridges, relocation 43 kilometers of gas and water pipes and some telecom cables, the Lagos-Ibadan rail project may not be completed as scheduled.
Also, the Minister had earlier stated in January that 1,400 houses had been marked for demolition in Abeokuta, Ogun state to give way for the rail line. He later made a volte face in February that the buildings might no longer be demolished, noting that the Ministry had told the contractor handling the project to find a way of reviewing the relocation of the route in Abeokuta to avoid an area where there are too many buildings and consider the left side of that area where there are fewer or no structures on it.
Even, in January this year, a senior official of CCECC; the company handling the project reportedly said that the possibility of completing the viable project by the set deadline of December 2018 looks bleak, considering the situation on ground.
As reported in the media, the official who craved anonymity said: “The track passes through the Army barracks at Ebute Metta, Lagos, which means we will have to relocate the barracks but to where?”
“The government is still discussing with the Military on how to relocate the barracks. Until that is done, there is little we can do. There are several water and gas pipes that have to be relocated. That is a huge challenge because it is complicated relocating those pipes. Also, the existing narrow gauge track will be removed and relocated at some places,” the official added.
According to him, in some locations, the height of the high-tension electricity wires would need to be elevated at least 9.5 metres also.
“As we speak, we still have three kilometers of right of way not yet acquired. We still have thousands of tonnes of steel at the Apapa port we haven’t cleared because of the gridlock. But if the Federal Government can fix all these challenges, we can complete the project this year. If not, there is nothing we can do,” he said.
The official reportedly said they would try their very best to deliver the project by the set deadline of December 2018 despite the myriad of challenges that cloud it.
Even the Minister of Transport in a thinly veiled manner sounded somehow skeptical about the feasibility of meeting the deadline when he made on-the-spot assessment visit to the project site in Abeokuta in January 2018. He lamented the challenges that could militate against the meeting of the December 2018 set deadline.
“On the job done so far, I am satisfied, even though the contractor is now behind schedule. Before, they were meeting up with the time schedule, but now they are not; and the excuse they are given me is that if we remove all the issues on the right of way, they wouldn’t be behind schedule.
“We are rushing to make sure that we complete all the civil works on the project before the rainy season, because if we don’t, then the civil works will have to wait until after the rainy season,” he added.
The Minister, while making the assessment said that the project, normally, is a three-year project; but they had decided to ‘rush’ it so that it would be completed by December this year.
“Don’t forget, this is a three-year project that we are trying to force into a one year project. The civil works is what they are currently battling with, and they cannot finish the civil works if the issues on the right of way are not sorted.”
That is why many have been saying that project is just a political gambit by the ruling party as tool of promoting the party as the 2019 elections gradually approaches.