In his New Year Day broadcast to the nation, President Muhammadu Buhari, among other policy matters, outlined his plan for the development of the economy, the transportation sector, especially the railway network in Nigeria with a view to connecting the entire country.
Apart from displaying how cut off from political realities in Nigeria he was or still is, he exuded a certain poor grasp of priorities when he curiously said "negotiations are also advanced for the construction of other railway lines, firstly from Kano to Maradi in Niger Republic passing through Kazaure, Daura, Katsina, Jibia to Maradi."
The questions that have been thrown up are: What is the rationale behind constructing a 55-kilometre rail line to Maradi, a city in Niger Republic? Has the Federal Government connected all cities and important towns in Nigeria to a railway network that serves the nation's economy? Could this plan not be interpreted as part of the much-touted consolidation of a certain hegemonic tendency that is causing tension in the country? Of what economic benefit would the rail line be to Nigeria?
Where are the funds coming from? Is there any special consideration for those areas that produce the nation's wealth in the railway plan? Who is advising Mr. President or to whom has he been listening in the last one year on all the issues crying for serious and statesman-like attention? Is there indeed a cabal that has taken hold of President Buhari and whose interest is at variance with the collective will?
Nigeria needs a modern and modernised rail network. In a sense, the country is still stuck to the selfish rail network pattern that the British colonialists created for their economic and political domination interests before they left in 1960. Nearly 60 years since their departure, different Nigerian governments have not taken the bull by the horn to radically transform the rail network.
There were some attempts in the second republic and during the Olusegun Obasanjo civilian administration to extend it in order to move steel products and by-products from one location to the other. But as a national project based on a sound vision, rail network seems, sadly, secondary priority to successive governments and has been relegated to the background, at best, or built into an avenue for corruption.
The benefits of an extended and modernised railway line cannot be over-emphasized. Apart from the capacity to move millions of people and tonnes of goods across geographical space and time, an efficient railway system will save the nation's roads from quick wear and tear. Such a well-established rail system will create jobs for a multitude and have a multiplier effect that can transform the economy.
No modern society with Nigeria's kind of huge population should neglect rail transport. A modernised rail system will also reduce the number of cars on the roads and make it possible for citizens to shuttle from suburbs to cities daily or weekly.
It is against this background that the Buhari administration should be commended for giving rail lines a practical attention and consideration at this time. In the broadcast, the President said he has approved construction and plans will be concluded this year for the rail line to Aba, Owerri, Umuahia, Enugu and other towns in the South east up to Damaturu.
Although he was vague about the 'Coastal Rail' through Ore, Benin, Agbor, Asaba and some towns to Calabar that will take place in 'the next few years,' there is hope that this would come to maturation some day. This plan may not be good enough but certainly better than nothing.
Priority, therefore, should be given to the internal rail network. Considerations for charity network or lines to other countries, especially ones of little economic value, but even grave security risk, to Nigeria should be only after the economy has been sufficiently boosted by a modernised rail system within Nigeria. Niger Republic may be home to many Nigerans' kith and kin but Maradi is not a part of Nigeria and is of little, if any, economic importance to this country.
The President swore to an oath to be loyal to Nigeria, not a section of Nigeria. On this and in many other matters, some of his recent actions and inactions tend to suggest parochialism and a penchant for ethnic chauvinism. This is tragic, considering the massive national sentiment and support that brought President Muhammadu Buhari to power.
Hence there are too many people expressing regrets now that they may have judged candidate Buhari wrongly. This is the time for him to listen to the people who elected him.
Without mincing words, the idea of a railway line to Maradi at this time when the country is in economic difficulties shows that the President has not stayed true to the original spirit that brought him to power in 2015.
There are issues, including a rail network that serves the country in deed and in truth, calling for his attention ahead of an inexplicably self-serving one through Daura to another country.
The statesman in Buhari should come alive and, in appreciation of this, the president should re-appraise his actions and retrace his steps.