By Dr Ugoji Egbujo
The Niger Republic is no market. Though bulky, landlocked, and sitting atop Nigeria, Niger republic is a desolate country. But the Federal Government of Nigeria thinks it is wise to drag a rail line to the Niger border.
It designated it the Kano-Katsina-Maradi master plan. The government’s intention is to position Nigeria to corner the business of goods moving between Niger and the Atlantic Ocean. The expensive railway will also strengthen the ties between Niger and Nigeria.
But let’s look at the country Niger again. It looks a dead end. Not anywhere a lean investor should risk scarce resources. A country of 17 million poorly educated and hungry people. 17 million people scattered over a landmass that is larger than Nigeria.
Some of the least resourced humans on earth. Niger sits at the bottom of the Human Development Index 173/174. The country is literally a desert. 70% of Niger is bleak Sahara desert. Okay, Niger has Uranium. But 70% of its people are illiterate.
Niger has no business. The Niger Republic’s per capita income is 20% that of Nigeria. Two volume of goods imported into Niger in 2019 was two billion dollars. That might sound large. But the total volume of goods imported into Nigeria for the same period was worth 33 billion dollars.
The big states in Nigeria receive more imported goods than huge Niger. To enhance the comparison, small Ghana received imports worth 13 billion dollars in 2019.
The argument that we can borrow and spend on building even a kilometre of the railway towards Niger doesn’t make economic sense.
Someone talked about Niger’s oil and refinery. He suggested the railway would serve to bring their oil into Nigeria. The Niger Republic produces a paltry 9000 barrels per day.
Nigeria can produce over two million barrels a day. A tiny modular refinery in Nigeria can handle over 10,000 barrels a day. What are we looking for in Niger? Niger’s oil is comparatively a spittle.
We might have to remind ourselves where we are now. Most of the money we make, we use to maintain our large government and use what is left to pay the interests accruing on our loans. That’s a bad situation.
We have no money to do anything else. And our loans are increasing. Since we cannot develop with the current state of our decrepit physical infrastructure we have to borrow to build. So we rely on the Chinese to loan us money to build the railways. But borrowing and building is the easy part. How do we repay the loans?
Because we haven’t quite diversified our economy we depend heavily on oil for foreign exchange earnings. But we have been told to take our hopes away from oil and hang it elsewhere. Oil is terminally ill.
We have almost completed the Lagos Ibadan rail. We have connected Abuja and Kaduna. If we had the funds we could have completed the entire stretch of Lagos to Kano and done Lagos to Calabar. But we have no money.
We find it difficult to pay the small contribution required to access more Chinese loans. So most of our important cities are unserviced by rail. And many of these cities are more viable than the entire Republic of Niger!
Sad story. But how do we repay the loans?
Railways are good. But they are social services. Many of the busy ones can’t even repay the loans borrowed to finance them. When you have a weak income stream and you must borrow to build, you ought to build wisely. We must then prioritize to meet our most pressing economic and social needs. We shouldn’t borrow to finance a railway towards a foreign country for sentimental reason.
If we must borrow to drag a rail line to Niger border we must be given compelling reasons. It must be justified. It would have to be an overwhelming priority. But it cant be. That’s the point. There are many parts of Nigeria, North and south, that will bloom with a short 50-100 kilometre rail line.
Let me stop evading the question. The truth is the rail businesses cannot repay the loans by themselves. Because if we put appropriate prices on them we could exclude the poor from them.
Let us then end the railway at Katsina terminus. Let those going to Niger disembark there and complete their journey by road. The idea that one railway to Niger border will corner all Niger’s business for us is a fantasy. The Niger Republic is a vast desolate country. It has borders with six countries. It has road connections with many. Its capital Niamey is nearer the Republic of Benin and Togo than Nigeria.
And let me even ask. How many functioning rail lines do we have today in Nigeria? Let us note this. If a railway to Niger was such a good business, France—the Nanny of the francophone counties—would have built a rail and connected Niger to the Atlantic through the republic of Benin or Togo.
I know we love Niger. So we can organize cultural events with them. They are our neighbours. We can play football matches to celebrate our friendship. But if the government must borrow to build a railway to the Niger border, it must give Nigerians compelling reasons for making that a priority over the crying railway needs of many Nigerian towns. And it should furnish the people with a truthful repayment plan.