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Renaming of rail stations: Buhari puts gesture politics above real governance

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Renaming of rail stations

By Olu Fasan

PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari’s recent renaming of railway stations across the country after certain Nigerians was gesture politics at its crudest.

The Cambridge dictionary defines gesture politics as “any action by a person done for political reason and intended to attract public attention but having little real effect”. How else would anyone describe Buhari’s renaming of the railway stations?

At a time when Nigeria faces existential crises on all fronts, the decision was a trivialisation of governance, a crude prioritisation of gesture politics over concrete actions to tackle Nigeria’s multi-faceted problems.

What’s more, the decision is a blatant attempt to disguise the truth about the risks and danger of Nigeria’s future subjugation to an expansionist foreign power through unviable debt-fuelled railway development.

The capriciousness of the decision is also galling. President Buhari just decided, without consultation or explanation, to name Nigeria’s railway stations after individuals of his own choosing.

Railways are typically associated with places, but Buhari, in his wisdom, decided Nigerian railway stations should bear the names of “prominent” Nigerians!

President Buhari really likes to exercise arbitrary powers. Whether economic decisions, such as banning imports, or political actions, such declaring June 12 as Democracy Day while ignoring the underlying issues, Buhari prefers whimsical decision-making.

Rather than tough, meaningful actions, he prefers the easy-peasy choices, the at-the-stroke-of-a-pen decisions, that have little positive effect!

Which brings us back to the renaming of the railway stations. What exactly was the purpose? Was it to recognise the achievements of those “honoured”? If so, why Wole Soyinka and not Chinua Achebe? Why Obafemi Awolowo and not Nnamdi Azikiwe?

Why Goodluck Jonathan and not Olusegun Obasanjo? Or was it to promote national unity? If so, why are railway stations in the South-West only named after Yoruba people and those in South-East and South-South only named after people from those geo-political zones?

By the way, why was no railway station named after anyone from the ‘core’ North? Was the renaming of the railway stations an attempt to placate the South over sore issues such as lopsided appointments and the marauding killer-herdsmen?

There is no organising logic to the decision. Yet, the renaming of railway stations in Nigeria mainly after Southerners smells like a political gesture with dubious motivations or intentions.

But here are the fundamental questions. Do the people whose names will now be attached to the railway stations know that they are being implicated in the utter indebtedness and potential subjugation of Nigeria to an expansionist foreign power?

Do they know that the railway stations named after them and the rail lines linked to the stations could one day be owned by China if Nigeria cannot repay the humongous and unrepayable loans that it took from China to build those rail lines?

China’s role in railway infrastructure in Nigeria raises serious concerns. As Yunnan Chen, a scholar at John Hopkins University, wrote in a paper for the United States Institute for Peace, USIP, “For Beijing, railway investment serves both strategic and commercial goals”.

These goals are advanced through China’s Belt and Road Initiative, BRI, a global infrastructure development strategy that has been widely criticised for trapping many developing countries in unsustainable levels of debt.

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Unfortunately, President Buhari has made Nigeria a willing accomplice in China’s global expansionist agenda, a signed-up member of its BRI. Chinese firms and finance dominate railway construction in Nigeria, with loans running into $20bn. Indeed, in 2017, China pledged to double existing investment (mainly loans) in Nigeria by another $40bn.

While multilateral and bilateral lenders, as well as private investors, would not touch Nigeria with a barge pole, China is willing to give the country any amounts of loan it asks for. China always says yes to loan requests. It’s called debt-trap diplomacy!

Previously, China tied its loans to Nigeria to oil acquisitions under the oil-for-infrastructure model. But now, with the so-called sovereignty-waiver clause, China will seize Nigerian assets if it cannot pay back its loans.

That’s not theoretical. In 2018, when Sri Lanka could not service the loans it took from China to build its Hambantota port, China forced its government to hand over the port and 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years!

The Buhari government says Nigeria will pay back the Chinese loans in 20 years. But how? Railways are only viable through large passenger numbers. In a country branded “the poverty capital of the world”, where over 50 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, who will use the railways?

Can they recoup their cost through user fees? Absolutely not! And with world oil prices and, thus, oil revenue, destined for permanent downward spirals, how would Nigeria repay the multi-billion-dollar loans? As Yunnan Chen noted in the USIP paper, “A long-term question remains over how the government will service these loans.”

But President Buhari wants railway development to be his legacy. I suspect that the naming of the railway stations after prominent Nigerians is part of the attempt to cement that legacy.

Those famous Nigerians whose names he has attached to the railway stations would help him keep the legacy alive ad infinitum. But it won’t be a good legacy if Nigeria ends up spending nearly 96 per cent of its income on servicing Chinese loans or if, indeed, China could seize the rail stations and rail lines!

Of course, some people would be excited that Buhari named a railway station after them; some have even sent the president “thank-you” letters. But Chief Obafemi Awolowo transcends an Awolowo Station and a Wole Soyinka Station adds nothing to Professor Wole Soyinka. Some people have made the same point about President Goodluck Jonathan.

Truth is, Buhari’s renaming of Nigeria’s railway stations is crude gesture politics, a blatant trivialisation of governance. Yet, those after whom railway stations are named may not want to look at a gift horse in the mouth. But what if the “gift” is, in fact, a poisoned chalice? The wise would reject it!

VANGUARD

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