By Evelyn Usman
They drove in silence with each lost in thought as concentration centered on their divergent imaginations. Some of them had slept off, leaving the driver whose eyes were wide open to relish the rhythm of the music from the car stereo, as he sang along with the unknown artist.
Then all of a sudden, an incident which changed the course of the journey occurred, following the unprecedented appearance of fierce looking armed men ahead, with the road barricaded. Time was 8am, on April 15, 2019.
The travelers were plying the Lokoja-Kabba road, Kogi state and destination was Lokoja. But the journey was aborted at Obajana –Kabba road, by the uninvited visitors who turned out to be kidnappers. The 14 passengers were ordered out of the vehicle and whisked into the bush, with ransom demanded for their release.
Kidnappers have virtually taken over major highways in Nigeria. In Kogi state for instance, particularly, the Lokoja-Abuja road, Okene-Lokoja road, Obajana-Kabba road and Itobe-Anyigba, they carry out their nefarious activities both during the day and at night, with helpless and defenceless Nigerians as targets. While those who were able to pay ransom were released, others who could not, were killed.
Other expressways in the country where Nigerians suffer untold emotional and psychological torture in the hands of kidnappers and robbers alike, include; Lagos/Ibadan expressway, Otukpo-Enugu road, where the Vicar General of the Catholic Diocese of Otukpo, Rev. Fr. John Adeyi, was kidnapped and his decomposing body found three months later.
The ever- busy Abuja-Keffi expressway, where the immediate past Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh was shot dead , last December , is not spared in the list of dangerous highways in the country.
The Benin-Lagos highway is also among. But the scariest and one of the seven most dangerous highways in Nigeria is the Abuja-Kanuna road, where robbers and kidnappers alike operate on daily basis.
Just last month, Governor Nasir El-Rufai’s convoy, foiled an attempted abduction of motorists along that route, while on his way to Abuja, as security operatives attached to him, forced the criminals to run into the bush, to the relief of motorists some of who had parked, on hearing that the criminals were operating ahead.
Daily, the print, electronics and social media are awash with shocking and alarming occurrences along these corridors.
Railway line to the rescue
Recently, the Inspector- General of Police, Mohammed Adamu launched Operation Puff Adder to tackle kidnapping, banditry and other criminal activities along the Kaduna-Abuja expressway and adjourning communities extending to Kogi, Niger and Zamfara states.
Several arrests have been made with the recovery of ammunitions, including a rocket launcher from suspects since its launch. To sustain the tempo, the operation was extended to other states of the Federation.
However, in a move to put paid to the horrendous experience motorists go through in the hands of criminally minded persons on the nation’s highways, as well as the bad roads resulting in perennial gridlocks which further enhance hoodlums chances of attack, the previous administration under Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, resuscitated the collapsed rail system, while the present administration is on the verge of raising the bar with to measure up to its counterparts worldwide , where rail transportation is a major mode of transportation.
To this effect, Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, often undertakes rail inspection across the country to ensure an inter connectivity from one state to another. An attestation to the Ameachi’s avowed goal to take rail transportation to another level, was the recent directive for double track rail lines in all rails in the North .
One of the rails that has received notable face lift is the Itakpe-Warri lane, which was abandoned for over three decades. The rail takes 20 minutes from Itakpe to Lokoja, which major benefit is to connect the two steel communities in the country—Delta Steel Company, DSC Ovwian, Aladja, in Delta State and Ajaokuta Steel Company, in Kogi State
Another, is the Rail Village in Agbor, Delta State, which was burnt. Owing to its years of abandonment, its equipments were stolen, leaving it skeletally bare, until its rehabilitation which gulped about $200 million from the Federal government.
At the moment, the Itakpe-Warri conveys 100 passengers per trip, daily.
Amaechi had informed that the Warri-Itakpe Standard Gauge line had commenced operation for passenger, commercial and freight services. The train corridors involved Itakpe in Kogi, Aghenebode in Edo and Agbhor in Delta with 12 railway stations along the corridors.
He also informed of plans to link the Itakpe Rail to Abuja axis, a project he said would cost the government $3 billion, adding that if done, it would include a seaport in Warri.
The Minister said that “it is one rail project that we did not borrow a dime to complete”, adding that “President Muhammadu Buhari was and is still enthusiastic in driving the rail project in Nigeria as a way of improving the nation’s economy”.
Commenting on the progress the rail is bringing to the area, a traditional ruler in the area, Chief Madu Agboifo, remarked during the recent rail inspection project in the area that “life is bound to pick up again in this area when the rail becomes fully operational. Already, some of our boys are being offered some jobs at the Railway yard and at the Railway village. So, we are looking forward to a round of robust economy again. We cannot wait to start enjoying the full benefits of railway transportation”.
Another operational rail is the Lagos -Abeokuta Rail, which was completed three months ago, with its operational cost pegged at $1.6 billion. Also, the Abuja-Kaduna Rail has been completed with $500million loan and has since been running.
Very soon, people living in the South West states will have no reason to be trapped in the gridlock when coming into or going out of Lagos, as preparations according to Amaechi , were on to complete the Lagos- Ibadan rail. The ongoing work on the rail which is being executed at the cost of $1.6 billion and funded from the loan from the Chinese government,is put at 70%.
The Minister, has assured that by next month , the laying of tracks is expected to be completed, while the entire rail would start running from Lagos to Ibadan by December.
The Ibadan-Kano Rail, which will cost $5.3billion, is however yet to commence
Aside addressing the menace of kidnapping, robbery and other attacks on motorists, the rail project , when completed will also address the incidents of road mishaps which have sent thousands of Nigerians to early graves. It is also expected to address the menace of gridlocks in major cities, as one significant feature of the project is that rail lines will be extended to seaports across the country, from where trucks laden with containers will ply ,thereby bringing to an end, the nightmare of containers falling off trucks and landing on unsuspecting road users as witnessed several times in Lagos State.
A vivid instance was two weeks ago, at Ilasamaja, along the Oshodi- Apapa expressway, Lagos, where an empty container which fell off its truck, landed on the motor boy, in his attempt to jump out of the truck.
The Minister of Transport has repeatedly emphasized that the only viable solution to end the gridlock along the Apapa- Oshodi expressway, orchestrated by the total take over of the major expressway which leads to the nation’s number one sea port, was an efficient rail line along that corridor.
Speaking during one of the meetings between the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo and stakeholders, on ways to proffer a lasting solution to the traffic situation in Lagos, particularly the Oshodi Apapa expressway, Ameachi, said, “the problem at the Lagos seaports is not clearing. This is because goods are cleared on time. The problem is movement of those goods out of the port.
“Part of the solution to Lagos seaport is an efficient rail line. You can argue that the narrow gauge is there but it is not efficient. The moment we fix this, those goods will be transferred to the rail and the logjam will disappear”.
On how this will be possible, he said that the Lagos-Ibadan rail line would be extended to the port once the Iju section in Lagos was completed, assuring that once that was done, he would push them to go to the seaport.
As the federal government tries to emplace a rail system in the country, the already established ones are begging for more coaches to take the number of passengers who throng the stations daily.
As part of measures to address the situation which leaves the stations crowded , Amechi said plans were under way to move two additional coaches from the Itakpe Warri railway corridor to decongest the mounting pressure on the Abuja-Kaduna train service.
He also admitted during an inspection of the Lagos-Ibadan rail line, to being aware of the ongoing racketeering at the Idu and Rigasa stations where coaches that usually took 200 passengers now carried 500 persons.
About this he said: “We also discovered that some people will buy tickets and resell to the public. Even if you put policemen there, that won’t solve the problem. The queue is because the coaches are not enough; people are standing. The reason for which we bought those coaches was for people to sit down. So, I have directed that they should move two coaches from Itakpe-Warri to Abuja-Kaduna.”
A major significance of railway, is its economy advantage such as creation of jobs. At the Lagos-Ibadan railway for instance , thousands of Nigerians have gained employment since it was established.
It has also reduced poverty level in some homes as food vendors and other petty traders who attend to the daily yearnings of passengers and workers at the station have means of feeding their families.
Commenting on the economic advantage of rails, Amaechi said, “with the coming of the rail, there is bound to be improved economy for those around the rail stations as there will be food vendors, shop operators at the train stations, motor parks to offer connecting road transport service for train passengers, as well as opening up several other business corridors in the Nigerian economy .
And if the promise of the Minister of transportation, that his commitment to the full takeoff of rail transportation in Nigeria is aimed at making life easier and better for Nigerians, is anything to go by, then, Nigerians, irrespective of their status in the society, will one day look back to this administration, with gratitude and smiles of satisfaction on their faces.