Nigeria: Pulling Down the Railway Tracks

17 May 2021
column

Railways are a great passion of mine. They are very central to our common future. Not only are they the cheapest and safest means of public transport, I cannot imagine a nation of more than 200 million without an efficient and well-functioning rail network. Railways were crucial for the 19th-century Industrial Revolution in England. They also are for our own ambitions in the 21st century. Not only do they have the potential to employ millions of people, they are a vehicle for nation building.

Last week, some unscrupulous characters were caught on camera vandalising the rail tracks on the Itakpe-Ajaokuta rail. They loaded them unto a waiting van and drove off. It made my stomach churn. If peradventure a train was moving on that track that afternoon, there would have been a catastrophic accident.

In 2018, a police report revealed that "vandals were caught stealing heavy irons of brake system control, wagon parts, wagon wheels, clips of rail slippers... armoured railway doors, sheets of zinc and rail cables."

It is a metaphor for the failed state that our country has become. In all my travels around the world as an international civil servant, I have never come across this phenomenon of people deliberately destroying public infrastructures except in my beloved country. It is unthinkable in Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Togo, Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa. The vandalization of public infrastructures in Nigeria is part of the mystery of iniquity.

During the first decade of our independent nationhood, incidences of vandalisation of public infrastructures were virtually unheard of. It is, by and large, a post-civil war syndrome, just as much as the phenomenon of armed robbery and cultism. From the seventies onwards, NEPA, the water boards and other public utilities became targets for vandalisation. During the Second Republic under Shehu Shagari, it was not uncommon for public buildings to go up in flames whenever issues of fraud came up. Such conflagrations always coincided with audit investigations. It happened with the NITEL building in Lagos and also with the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The military era also had its fair share of such terrible occurrences. During its heydays, our national carrier, Nigeria Airways, had over 50 aircraft on its fleet, most of them brand new. One-by-one, they were systematically vandalised and sold off. Fake invoices would be raised by officials for equipment repairs; only for them to buy second-hand equipment. In some instances, they would remove a spare-part and replace same after receiving payment for a new one. We heard that some air force officers once flew one of our aircraft to London, where they sold it off at a give-way price to some reptilian Brazilian businessmen.

I was perhaps among the last to have flown a Nigerian Airways flight to London in January1996. I was then living in London as a struggling young academic. I came home to see my parents at Christmas. On my flight back to London, the aircraft was impounded by the authorities at Heathrow Airport. After we disembarked, we heard the awful news that the door of the plane was not properly locked when we took off from Ikeja and it had been a miracle how we flew all the seven hours without an incident. That was, in all likelihood, the last Nigerian Airways flight to have seen the skies of Europe.

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I make a distinction between grand vandalisation and petty vandalisation. Grand vandalisation refers to big acts of sabotage and destruction of public properties and infrastructures. Petty vandalisation, on the other hand, involves pilfering and destruction in smaller scales. A good example are the metal frames that are installed in the pavements of public streets to protect rubbish falling in and blocking the free flow of water underneath. If you go round most of our cities, you will notice that most of them have been removed. Some wicked souls that call themselves "mai bolla" go around in the thick of night, systematically removing these metal frames. The long-term effect is, of course, rubbish piling up, blocking the free-flow of water. It is a contributor to flooding in many of our cities today.

Telecoms providers such as MTN and Glo have often complained of systematic vandalisation of masts and other installations. There are thousands of these masts throughout the nooks and crannies of our country. Operating them is expensive. They often require standby generators with diesel. The vandals often descend on them at night to commit havoc. Unfortunately, it is not physically possible to provide full-time 24-hour security for these facilities. On a daily basis, these damaged facilities must be replaced and/or repaired to maintain unbroken network transmission. It is a very expensive proposition. What the telecoms companies do is simply to pass-on the costs to the consumer through higher charges. At the end of the day, all of us are the net losers.

A research conducted in the Copperbelt Region in May 2014, identified four motivations for public infrastructure vandalism. First, there is "acquisitive vandalism", which is vandalisation as pure theft. Secondly, we have "tactical or ideological vandalism", which is motivated by the need to make a political statement in order to draw attention to a grievance. Thirdly, there is "vindictive vandalism", which aims to inflict revenge for a perceived wrong. Fourthly, we have "malicious vandalism", deriving from anger and rage over a perceived wrong. And finally, "play vandalism", where mischievous street urchins take it upon themselves to inflict damage on public infrastructures, not for any motivation but for the heck of it.

The social conditions underpinning vandalisation range from poverty and unemployment among the youths to official corruption and lack of adequate security for public infrastructure installations. The corruption factor is particularly salient. For example, it is not possible to dismantle high-tension power cables or transformers without professional insider knowledge. Lack of patriotism is another factor. The tragedy of our nationhood is that our youths feel completely alienated and disconnected from the rest of society. Their future has been mortgaged and they feel hopeless and demoralised. This is why desperate, hungry unemployed youths see nothing amiss in pulling out rail tracks and power cables.

In November 2013, NOIPolls Ltd, an independent polling agency, conducted opinion polls on public property vandalism. The results showed that six out of 10 Nigerians (60%) believe that Nigerians tend to value public property rather poorly. Majority of respondents (74%) agreed that the high incidence of property vandalism has become a problem in our country. The polls also showed that the most vandalised public properties are: electricity installation (57%); oil/gas facilities (51%); and public buildings (32%). In terms of solutions, respondents recommended provision of more jobs (58%); public enlightenment (15%); and provision of adequate security (13%).

Under the miscellaneous provision of the Criminal Code entitled: "Wilful destruction of public property", the law states that "any person who unlawfully or with intent to destroy or damage any public property removes, defaces or damages any public property shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction". For a railway line, electric power line, telephone line or apublic highway that is damaged or rendered dangerous, impassable or non-functional, punishment is for imprisonment for a term not exceeding 21 years without the option of a fine. For vandalisation of highway facilities, the punishment shall not exceed 10 years.

The criminal law looks severe enough. But it is obviously not deterring offenders. It seems what is lacking is detection and enforcement. The law-enforcement agencies must be trained in patrolling public facilities, including highways and railways and urban utilities. Handling vandalised goods must be treated as a crime of strict liability. Public education and enlightenment is also important. We need to inculcate in our youths the kind of civic virtue that makes them appreciate that public infrastructures belong to our common patrimony and must be protected by all citizens.

Community leaders also have an important role to play. Every vandal belongs to a community. Communities must identify and isolate such criminals. Community leaders must also be held accountable for failure to report incidences of vandalization in their areas of jurisdiction. During planning and construction of public infrastructures, communities must be involved at every stage, so that they have a sense of ownership. Without a robust infrastructure development framework, we shall have no future as a country.

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