By Ochereome Nnanna
A MONTH ago, President Muhammadu Buhari wrote the National Assembly, seeking approval for a $5.851 billion loan from the China Ex-Im Bank for the construction and modernisation of the railway infrastructure in Nigeria. The projects covered by the proposed loan are: the Lagos-Ibadan segment of the Lagos-Kano rail line ($1.231 billion); the Kaduna-Kano segment ($1.146 billion) and the Lagos-Calabar coastal rail project ($3.474 billion).
The President pressurised the Federal lawmakers, reminding them that these projects (and their attached loans) were already provided for in this year’s budget. “As you are aware”, he urged, “the funds available under the China-Africa Fund are limited and loan applications from all over Africa countries are funded based on first come, first served and therefore there is an urgent to sign these loans as soon as they are approved or we may lose out in the event that we delayed in signing the loans agreement”.
Usually, the devil in every idea or proposition is in the detail and method of approach. Given the fact that this is a Federal Government project being funded, in the main, with loans which all Nigerians are equally liable to contribute in their repayment, the spread of the project takes the centre stage.
It is puzzling to note that since former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime till date, prime attention has only been focused on the Lagos-Kano rail line. A lot of money has been invested in its rehabilitation and the trains have since been running. Again, the Abuja-Kaduna standard gauge rail, which was started by the Goodluck Jonathan administration and completed by Buhari, has since become operational. Why is it that the Eastern corridor of the Nigerian rail network (which runs from Port Harcourt through Aba, Enugu, Makurdi, Jos, to Nguru in Yobe State) has remained neglected?
I had thought that this would be the first to be addressed in our renewed attempts to restore the railway system. The British colonial masters set up the two legs of the Nigerian railways to unite the North and South and encourage robust commerce and social integration among Nigeria’s diverse peoples. It was the rail system that produced some eminent cross-cultural Nigerians such as Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, General Ike Omar-Sanda Nwachukwu and Brig-General Godwin Alabi-Isama, among a host of others.
The civil war and the collapse of the rail system created great setbacks to national integration. Any sensible Nigerian leader should have, at least, copied the float of mind of colonialists and used the revitalisation of the rails to reinforce national integration. The rehabilitation of the eastern and western legs of the rails should have kicked off at the same time. As the Abuja-Kaduna rail was going on, the East-West rail line should also have been inaugurated to strengthen socio-commercial ties between the East and West.
Rather, they chose to call it “Coastal Rail”, meaning that the South East, with no coastal link, would be cut off. The initial route we saw took off from Lagos to Ore and Benin; went south to Ughelli, Warri, Sapele, Yenagoa, Otuoke, Port Harcourt, Uyo and Calabar. The people of the South East, especially Senators Ike Ekweremadu, Mao Ohuabunwa, Enyinnaya Abaribe and Hon. Ossy Prestige, kicked against this devilish plan.
It was later on that we heard from the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Transport that the “Coastal rail” has branch-offs from Benin to Asaba and Onitsha, while it also spins off from Port Harcourt to Aba, a very clumsy, unintelligent and half-hearted routing, indeed!
Happily, the Senate has invited the Minister of Transport, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, to come and explain exactly how the “Coastal rail” would run. We are waiting to hear from the “horse’s mouth”. If it is true that the Port Harcourt to Nguru rail line will be given to a concessionaire instead of being constructed, like the others, with borrowed funds, it will not be acceptable. The loan must either serve all of us or we bust it.
We do not know when the “concessioning” will take place, how much it will cost and when it will be completed. Even so, Nigerians living on the Eastern corridor from North to South will, in addition to paying the concessionaire to use their rail, also be paying for the loans used to build the rails crossing the territories of the “more privileged” Nigerians, a double jeopardy.
Experience has shown that concession as a means of building infrastructure in Nigeria never works. The Lagos-Ibadan Express had to be retrieved from Bi-Courtney and reconstructed by the Federal Government from the budget. The Second Niger Bridge concession has failed many times over. Concessions are now mere ploys to ensure that earmarked projects are never completed, and it is always the East that is good enough for such projects. Nobody ever talks of concession when it comes to projects in the North. They are always done straight from federal allocations or loans which everybody is bound to pay back.
The people of the South East and all the zones excluded from the China and other loans must stand up and reject any attempt to exclude them. This is not a battle for Igbo Reps and Senators alone. The South-South, South East, North Central and North are involved in this unwholesome exclusion.
It is not only against the spirit of national integration and even development, it is unconstitutional to borrow six billion dollars foreign loans and totally keep out the South East and North East from its benefits. Section 14(3) and the gamut of Section 15 of our constitution make inclusive governance a binding principle, which Buhari jettisoned with his obnoxious “97%/5%” policy.
Inclusive governance is binding, irrespective of how Nigerians voted. A violation of it is an impeachable offence. Besides, aggrieved citizens have the right to take other measures such as legal actions, non-violent protests, boycotts and civil disobedience, should the Federal Government remain foolhardy and refuses to obey the constitution.
THIS COUNTRY BELONGS TO ALL OF US!!