opinionBy Issa Aremu
Mni — Yours sincerely last Friday witnessed the historic flagged off of the much awaited intercity passenger train services and haulage of petroleum services from Lagos to Kano by the Minister of Transport, Senator Idris Umar at the headquarters of the Nigerian Railway Corporation, Ebute Metta, Lagos.
Indeed I was privileged to have a ride with thousands of passengers on Ilorin-Kano train that took off from Ebute. I happily de-boarded at Ikeja railway station in a record 15 minutes historic rail-ride that invoked nostalgia of my first trip by rail from Ilorin to Lagos in 1969 as a primary school pupil unaccompanied by my parents. The car that took me to Ebute Metta was still held up at Oyingbo notorious road traffic mess while I had disembarked at Ikeja from the modest but significant rail service. The fact that my car driver caught up with me one hour and half later underscores the economic fact that nothing moves goods and mass of peoples over a long distance, faster and cheaper than the railways! Minister Umar reiterated the commitment of the President, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, to the transformation of the transport sector to which the Railways form an integral part in his address at the event. In his address, the Managing Director of the Nigerian Railway Corporation, Engineer Adeseyi Sijuwade, noted that the opening of the Lagos to Kano Rail route will bring a lot of socio economic development to the nation. Sijuwade who actually led by example and travelled with the service from Lagos to Kano listed the challenges facing the corporation to include insufficient locomotives and rolling stock, inadequate skilled and well trained manpower, as well as financial constraints as the organisation could not be self sufficient at this time.. Are we then witnessing a return of Railway? We were told that what we witnessed was part of the implementation of 25 Years Strategic Vision for the Nigerian Railways, commencing with the rehabilitation of the existing western narrow gauge line (Lagos-Abeokuta-Ibadan-Oshogbo-Ilorin-Jebba-Minna-Kaduna-Zaria-Kano) sum total stretch of the rail line rehabilitated (1126Km)! If the highlighted ongoing projects in the railway sector are executed, we may be having a railway revolution at hand or a railway revival since the nation once had what is being rehabilitated such as the Rehabilitation of the Eastern Railway Line from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, with spur lines from Kuru to Kafanchan and Kaduna and Kuru to Jos and Rehabilitation of Zaria-Gusau-Kaura Namoda Rail Line among others. With modernization projects that include Abuja (Idu) - Kaduna Standard Gauge Rail Line (187 km); and the 22Km Standard Gauge Rail Line of the Central Rail Line from Ajaokuta - Warri with station buildings (276 km), Nigeria is getting back to development as distinct from corruption agenda.
A decade long neo-liberal reform-spell foreclosed decisive and significant role for government as an engine of development. And there is no where this costly perspective manifested in chaos than in the development of infrastructure in general and transport in particular. Nigeria's slide into wholesale imports of Made-in-China motorcycles popularly called Okada in urban cities with complete neglect of railways as a means of mass movement of ever mobile and enterprising people represents the dark-side of reform agenda with respect to transport infrastructure.
Better late than never. Railways investment automatically translates to development. Paradoxically it was just over 100 years ago that Lord Lugard laid the principal railways line which actually began in Lagos in 1896 and terminated in Kano in 1911 some 911 miles.
It was a sad commentary that successive governments had not qualitatively improved on where colonialism stopped with respect to railways.
The significance of railways cannot be over stated. Development economists are unanimous that railways propelled North America, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom, China and India among others into industrialization and prosperity. Railways confer the benefits of economics of scale by discounting space. Importantly railways releases capital and labour for more productive employment, opens up new towns and frontiers for greater resource utilization. The remarkable transformation of Nigeria's pre-colonial subsistence rural economy into a dynamic, commercial, industrial and even export economy in the 50s and 60s had much to do with railways. Towns like Enugu, Kano, Jos, Kaduna, Maiduguri, Minna, Lagos Ibadan etc owned their growth and economies to railways in post-independence era. Conversely the neglect of railways is a single factor that has contributed to today's decay and total collapse of these communities. With the return of railways, the federal government might have just laid the real foundation for economic recovery. Macro-economics in terms of price and exchange rates are desirable but if macro-economic stability does not translate into concrete development like railway infrastructure, real development is elusive. Railways promotes real job-led growth and the job-fall out must be in millions for a vast land like Nigeria. I don't know of any single public-private commitment that raises the prospects of full direct and indirect sustainable decent employment like the railways. A critical evaluation of the rail plan also reveals the inclusive nature of rail development. All states and commercial centres are covered.
The challenge lies in making this plan a reality. If Lord Lugard built principal lines from Lagos to Kano at the record time of 15 years at the turn of the century, oil rich Nigeria with abundant human resources need less time to accomplish the rail expansion and modernization. Federal and state governments must make huge financial investments in the railways with the hope to reap the abundant economic benefits linked to it. It should not be rail for rail sake but rail for development and transformation. When Lugard declared that material development of Africa was summed up in the word transport, he conceptualized transport as a means to attaining colonial economic agenda that included extraction of raw materials, namely cocoa in the West, palm kennel in the east and cotton in the North, in return for manufactured goods from metropolitan Europe. Nigeria's rail plan must certainly be linked with industrial and commercial plans that will unleash capital and labour for industrialization and growth and strengthen internal and regional market. The re-modernization of railways should be part of a programme to diversify the economy and liberate Nigeria from the dependency on oil.