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The East and the railways

By Obi Nwakanma

I grew up hearing the sound of the Railways, first in Ibadan, living as we were in those days not very far from the Agodi Gates, and then at Umuahia, with the Umuahia Central Station smack in the city center. The Railways station was part of an economic grid that defined the Umuahia city layout. Leading from the Railway station’s main drive on the long Aba road, was the famous Umuahia city clock tower, which also faced what was then the next major edifice of the day, the Umuahia General Post Office.

Now, you must realize dear reader, that these iconic symbols of the city have all been diminished by time. The old General Post office is now mostly an eyesore, and no one seeing it today would ever imagine that it used to be perhaps one of the most modern public architectures in Nigeria. The clock tower has been so thoroughly insulted and disfigured by its new designers, who changed it from the simple elegant modernist architectural beauty captured in ordinary lineation, to a faux-gothic form today that has something of a crown placed on it, and a signage that says, “welcome to Abia State” – a design which frankly convinces me of two things: that the architect who redesigned this clock tower belongs to the nut house, and has very little aesthetic instincts, and since our urban public architecture reflects the state of our minds and consciousness, that we in this generation, rather than improve the work of our fathers have regressed to savagery.

There is urgent need for psychiatrists to investigate the failures of our minds. The evidence is everywhere. That clock tower has especial significance for me: it was there in 1980, not yet fifteen and on holiday from school, and impatient to drive, and without a driving license, I had “liberated” the keys of my father’s car, an old Peugeot 404 of those years, and  taken my friend Eke George Udensi on a drive through the town. At the Umuahia Railways Roundabout, right in front of the clock tower, I lost control and decided to plunge the car at the tower. We fled the scene, of course, and disappeared. The police retrieved the car, and placed a call to my father on his return from a conference in Port-Harcourt, to come and retrieve his car from the police lots at the then Divisional Police Headquarters on Bende Road.

My distraught parents sent out feelers which reached my hibernation, to return. Return, I did. But my father took me the next morning to the Chief Superintendent of police and insisted that I do community service. I swept the corridor of the Divisional police office for one week, everyday at 9:00 am, while others were doing the long vacation programs that year. It taught me a lesson.  Those were simpler years. People were kinder. Umuahia was designed as, and had the feel of, a provincial English town, and was actually modelled after Surrey according to the plans I saw once at the old Eastern Nigerian Land and Surveys office in Enugu. It was a city of small, elegant cottages, with open frontages or lawns.

Some of those cottages had cornershops – the cornerstone of the mom-and-pop retailers and grocers business that were at the heart of the city’s economy, and the pubs, the famous “palmwine bars” of old Eastern Nigerian cities that were at the core of town life. People often went to these bars to decompress, and the whistle of the 9:30 train was the signal to go home for the night. The Railway lines demarcated the old town, going towards the Hills station at Ugwunchara, from the new layout, whose residents called the old layout, “Over-Rail.”

The rails in other words, was at the heart of the city, and trailed all the way from Port-Harcourt, through Aba, to Old-Umuahia, through the heart of Umuahia with its Rail crossing and Central Market, and on towards Uzuakoli, Ovim, to Afikpo, and to Enugu, and then beyond to Eha-Amufu, Makurdi, Jos, and all the way to Maidugri, where it ended. It was the East-North Rail from the Coast towards the Lakes, we call “Lake Chad.” It was one of the most vital, and perhaps even still the most vital of Nigeria’s Railways artery, because it is the one line that runs on a straight line, from the south, through the central heart of Nigeria, up to the North. In its time, it carried a quantum of goods and men, and oiled trade and national exchange, in ways that remain unique and necessary.

I have memorialized this route in the novel I’m writing, “A Bowl of Incense,” in the journey of the character, Seidu Martin, on the south-bound train from the fictional Rano to Port-Elizabeth. But that is a different story. The main point is that the East-North Rail route, by the nature of its location, remains potentially the most lucrative route for the Nigerian Railways Corporation, if it modernizes and offers clean and efficient services to its potential customers. But here is the crux of my story today: this route, from Port-Harcourt through Aba to Umuahia and Enugu and up to Jos and on to Maidugri, is totally ignored and excluded in the proposed rails rehabilitation project currently undertaken by the Federal government  through the Federal Ministry of Transport.

Two very important implications lie at the heart of this exclusion: one, is the continuing alienation of the East – the Igbo specifically – in the Nigerian national enterprise, and the second is in the profound injustice of it all: the $5 billion loan earmarked for this project, and expected to be approved by the National Assembly not only excludes the East in very significant ways, but the Easterners would be expected to be taxed and to contribute in the repayment of the loans from which they do not derive a whiff of benefit. It is a policy that is not only a calculated insult, but it is even more, a calculated injustice, and it is brazen in its challenge to the Igbo. It is as if the Federal government is simply is telling people in the Eastern parts of Nigeria, “go do your worse!”

This is a dangerous challenge Nigeria must not continue to rub this into the historical wound which is still sharply felt in these areas. I think it is heeding this cautionary tale that led the National Assembly to, last week, question the architecture of the proposed Rail projects by the Transport Ministry. But to add insult to injury, Yetunde Sonaike, Director of Public Affairs, speaking on behalf of the Transport Ministry denied that the East was excluded. However, even her words contradict her. The Federal government, she noted, is embarking on two main Rail projects with the $5 billion loan from the Chinese: one is the Lagos to Kano rail, and the other is the Coastal Rail, from Lagos to Calabar. They are all worthwhile projects.





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