By Ochereome Nnanna
For some reasons unknown to me, Nigerians are no longer paying attention to things that matter about the way they are being ruled. They no longer pay attention to some of the things their rulers say. Otherwise, a strange item in President Muhammadu Buhari’s New Year Day speech should have brought millions of Nigerians to the streets in angry protests.
When first I listened to the President making that speech I could not believe my ears. So I had to wait until the mainstream media published the full text of the speech, and there it was in cold print: “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”.
Maradi is the third largest city in Niger Republic with a predominant Hausa/Fulani population. It is about an hour’s drive through a bumpy road from Jibia, the border town near Buhari’s hometown, Daura, in Katsina State. When I went to cover the 2007 presidential election in which Buhari ran on the All Nigerian People’s Party, ANPP, in 2007 and the late President Umaru Yar’ Adua of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, I had joined a team of journalists that went to Daura to visit Buhari for an interview. We also monitored the election in Jibia, which is a border town with Niger.
I realised how easy it was for people from the two countries to cross the rickety border post manned by a man dressed virtually in rags. He only smiled when we decided to set foot on Niger Republic soil. Indeed, it may interest Nigerians to know that Daura Emirate stretches deep into Maradi and Zinder Departments in Niger Republic. During the 2015 election, there were reports of thousands of people from Niger Republic crossing the porous borders to vote in an election that was none of the business of their country. In the far North Nigerian electoral officials hardly ask questions about the eligibility of voters. That is why you see millions of under-aged voters voting, and at the end the polls are declared “free and fair”.
Once Buhari achieved his life’s ambition of matching Olusegun Obasanjo’s feat as a former military ruler who became an elected President of Nigeria, his visit to Niger Republic became the first of the 22 foreign trips he made within 11 months before he was slowed down by ill-health. He was received by the President and people of Niger like a triumphant son back from the battlefield. Niger Republic President, Mahamadou Issoufou, gave him a white horse and a golden sword. In fact, Issoufou, in 2016, emblazoned Buhari’s photograph beside his own on vehicles during political campaigns.
I went into all this to let you know that the planned new Nigerian railway network from Kano through Daura and Jibia to Maradi in Niger Republic is a selfish project that has nothing to do with other Nigerians like you and me. Even though a president’s oath of office indicates: “….that I will not allow my personal interest to influence my official conducts or my official decisions…”, Nigerian presidents and governors brazenly disregard their oaths of office and oaths of allegiance and divert the state’s or nation’s resources to their pockets, and after that, to massively develop the infrastructures of their hometowns no matter how remote such places are.
For me, if Buhari had merely sought to connect his hometown, Daura, and even Jibia to the new national railway network, I would not have minded it too much, though it violates the principle of economic viability and bankability, which the largely borrowed funds will emphasise in order that we repay the debts in good time. The same logic that led the British colonialists to pass the Eastern rail line through Eha Amufu in today’s Enugu State and terminate it at Nguru in today’s Yobe State and pass the Western line through Kaura Namoda in today’s Zamfara State can also be adduced to extend the new rail network through Daura to Jibia, even if a president did not hail from there.
The offensive aspect is extending the railway 55 kilometres into a foreign land just because the President considers the region as part of his hometown.
When the Minister of Transport, Mr Rotimi Amaechi, was called upon by critics of this unviable extension of our railway to defend it, his response was vacuous and of very little use as a justification. By the way, the proposed new rail addition from Kano through Kazaure, Daura and Jibia to Maradi covers a whopping distance of 806 kilometres, which is more than the distance from Lagos to Abuja (779km) and Lagos to Calabar (770km). It is important for Nigerians to know the scale of the rail line and the amount of borrowed and oil money we are going to dump on this aspect of the project just to gratify the personal whims of the President.
Hear the Minister: “We realised that we had competitors for our landlocked neighbours, competitors like Ghana, Togo and even Benin Republic. Our landlocked neighbours are importing through these countries because we don’t have rail lines that go to them. So, to address the situation Mr President approved a rail line that will go to Maradi in Niger. But that rail line which will come from Kano to Maradi in Niger must pass through some cities. So the rail line passes through Kazaure, and then Daura before proceeding to Jibia and then Maradi”.
The questions the President and the Minister should answer are: Did “our competitors” like Ghana, Togo and Benin Republic build rail lines into Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali and thus stole the “competition” from Nigeria? The answer, obviously, is no. Secondly, why don’t we also extend the favour to Chad and Burkina Faso if indeed we need their patronage? Thirdly, what “competition” is Amaechi referring to? How much do Ghana, Togo and Benin Republic make from imports that our landlocked neighbours route through their countries that makes it enviable which Nigeria should scramble to snatch?
It would be a different ball game if Nigeria and Niger Republic signed a memorandum of understanding to share the cost of the rail line, each country taking the financial responsibility to build the lines that run through their respective territorial jurisdictions.
One thing Nigerians must never forget is that we are borrowing heavily from China, Europe and the Breton-Wood institutions to build our standard gauge railway network. Repayment for the loans which outlay is not available to me at this moment will span decades. Most of us will be gone from the surface of the earth while the repayment will devolve to our children and possibly their children.
This is why we must never keep silent when the ruling party and leaders so brazenly violate the nation’s interests and abuse their offices by throwing projects from these loans into unviable remote hamlets, including hamlets in a foreign country that happens to be a part of their hometown.
I am very sure that our National Assembly, especially the very responsive Senate, will thoroughly examine this railway plan and its funding and protect the interests of all Nigerians, including those of their future generations. Sanitising the implementation of this railway plan will be a prime opportunity to prove that this country belongs to all of us. Nobody, no matter how highly placed, will be allowed to take what belongs to all of us for himself and his kinsmen alone.
We are in a democracy, not a military autocracy. Even if we must accommodate Daura and Jibia to make Buhari happy, the rail line must NEVER be extended an inch into a foreign soil.