The Minister of Transportation, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, in this interview speaks about the federal government’s efforts in reviving the Nigerian railway system. Sunday Okobi provides the excerpts:
So far what is your take on the ongoing Ibadan-Lagos standard gauge rail construction, are you satisfied with what you have seen so far in terms of the ongoing work?
There is total transformation in the project now. This area (the rail track and adjoining road from Ogun State to Oyo State) was a forest before; there were no road here before now. Today, there are roads which were opened by us. From those roads, there are now rail tracks. We are quarrelling with them on the completion of the stations and communication facilities, but the rail tracks have gotten to Ibadan from Lagos. We believe that they have done well. But in terms of completion of the project, in the past two weeks, they have slowed down. Don’t forget that we were here two weeks ago and they made some promises.
One of the promises was that they will get to Agege, but they are 600 metres from Agege. So, I was not too impressed with that. In terms of the stations, Ibadan station at Kajola is nearing completion because they are using local materials, you don’t have to import tiles, because there are tiles produced in Nigeria. The initial argument was that Nigerians don’t make tiles, we only imported, but now, there are places where you can get those tiles in Nigeria. They have bought some and they are testing them in Kajola station. If it works, then we can start buying in Nigeria. The benefit of buying in Nigeria is to create an industry that will create employment for Nigerians.
We have seen that the work is great, but some people are still wondering whether in the next 20 to 30 years the work will be completed?
By April 2020, we are out of site, depending on when the president is ready to inaugurate the project, and by then, the project would have been completed. If you are talking about sustainability and maintenance, we will do the best we can to put infrastructure in place for sustainability and maintenance. But whether it can be maintained will depend on the government in power within the period, after we might have left office. So my response is the same even when I was governor of Rivers State. When I was told I was doing well and how do I sustain the infrastructural projects I was doing, I told them that I will sustain them when I am in office, but I will not bother about them after I have left office. So when we left, the next governor didn’t bother about those projects. In terms of maintenance, we are maintaining the Kaduna- Abuja railway system efficiently. Also, what Nigerians need to know is that either once yearly or three years, we must replace the ballast (those stones you see on the track). For instance, if we start replacing the ballast in Abuja, which we intend to commence soon, people will wonder what we are doing because they are all still new.
I will like us to look at transportation as a whole and the movement of people and goods in Nigeria, and generally the transport system, including water and rail transportation?
Transportation has its own problems in Nigeria. Intermodal simply means you take off from the seaport and receive cargos because this rail construction would go to Apapa seaport, so you just offload straight to the train. If you construct the rail up to Kano, goods will get to Kano. When the goods arrive Kano, truck will take the goods to the various warehouses that is intermodal. In some cases, the plane with the cargos, if you can offload at the airport it can connect to the rail. In Abuja, we have 15 stations, so we can use the 15 stations to arrive at the Idu and offload to the national train that takes you to Kaduna or when you land by air, we can take it by road to wherever it is going to. We have intermodal system in Nigeria.
We have been able to part of the free train ride at Ologunro in Ogun State, and we saw the huge crowd. So we thought, why don’t they put some amount of fare to reduce the crowd?
From April, when we think we want to commence the commercial activities of the rail system, we will begin to charge fare. We will charge between N500 and N600, but if we charge from a N1000 and above, I won’t be comfortable about it. I don’t want to do what I did in Kaduna. I just went to Kubuwa and found that they charge a N1,000. Here, we will charge what is appropriate. What this offers you is that for the direct express train, in 1hour, 15minutes, you are in Ibadan, which is better than struggling on the Abeokuta road, and this will reduce road accident, crimes, police checkpoints, as well as Customs Service.
Recently, lawmakers visited the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), where they suggested that the federal government should connect the rail lines to the airport. Have you given a thought to that?
Everything is possible! Once we get the money, it is very possible; we will connect the rail to the airport. One thing they also forget is that this is not intra-city train system. It is inter-city, which is Lagos and Ibadan, Ibadan to Ilorin to Abuja to Kaduna. What they are asking me to do is to convert a national railway to intra-city rail line. In fact, somebody asked me why there is no station at Oshodi, I said because it is not important to the inter-state railway line.
Can you give a review of the Ministry of Transport in 2019, and what the projection looks like for 2020?
I don’t think in all honesty that transportation has become the poster child of the government. The Minister of Works, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, is doing quite a lot. The reason why we are getting money is because of the president’s infrastructural focus. He is funding power, works, transportation and housing, because he believes that mass housing will create jobs. For the ministry of transport, we intend to complete all the projects we have started, once we have the money. We intend not to disappoint the president; by doing all things he has instructed us.
On the sustainability of the rail project to an extent, the Chinese engineers seem to have limits to the way they work and interact with some Nigerians, and it was learnt that they are not really impacting the knowledge of the rail system on Nigerians working with them. How would this be sustained when they leave?
The Chinese are not here to teach you the Chinese language. If you want to learn the Chinese Language, you can learn it elsewhere. They base their teaching of Nigerians on the technicality of the job. Are you aware that 150 Nigerians are studying the technicality of the railway system in China? Are you also aware that the University of Transport is supported by the Chinese Government and run by them? So it doesn’t matter whether they teach you or not. The GE was invited to do the track; it was not invited to teach you, but to do the work. The Chinese are taking 150 Nigerians to university in China to train them in railway engineering in order to sustain the railway system when they eventually leave.
The Gulf of Guinean is a dangerous zone, what do you make of this?
Most of the things Nigerians do are very disgusting. The reason why the Gulf of Guinean is unsafe is that the elite are involved in illicit deals. Some elite want to the poor to kidnap people so that they can make money, so that they can get contracts to exploit foreigners on the platform and in high sea, and probably get surveillance contract on the pipelines. Some of them even get contract to secure the anchorage. I have no problem with secured anchorage, so you gather ships, they should come to that place to berth, then they pay you $1,000, after that, they pay you $2,000, so if the ship is kept there without allowing it to offload, everyday it is presumed that you pay $1000. Now, that makes you a multi-billionaire, and if that ship stays for 10 days, it is $10,000, and multiply it by the number of ships that come to our seaport. So we got to the president and said we needed to secure the Gulf of Guinea because Nigeria has a large part of the Gulf of Guinean and the President approved a contract for $195 million for the execution of the project.
The contract is to supply train to the Military, Air force and Navy so that they can secure the waters. We lose $7 billion yearly to oil bunkering in Nigeria. A bunker made $7million as at 2014 to 2015, when I was the governor of River State. So if we lose $7 billion to those who do illegal bunkering, you can imagine how much we lose to pipeline surveillance. With this equipment we are bringing, the president can see the activities on the water from his office.
Also, to curb illegal activities on the water from Lagos to Calabar, would acquire two helicopters, three military planes, 20 fast patrol vessels, and three major ships carrying helicopters would also help the military. But those Nigerian elite who are benefitting from that business are scrabbling, making a lot of noise, and even going to the press to accuse the government of corruption. What people think is that once you say corruption, the president will just come after you.
From a security point of view, how you securing the trains?
Just like we are doing in Kaduna-Abuja railway line, in each coach, we have about two armed police officers, so you have enough police officers in every coach. On the tracks, in every track, there are adjoining roads, which the police and other security agents patrol too. The trains are very secure.
How are you managing the challenges you have faced in the last five years as minister in the sector?
I have learnt how to ignore my environment, because if you react, you will now join an argument. So why not focus on what you want to achieve and achieve them. That is how I react to thing like that.
Have you given a thought of having a train running from Lagos to Calabar?
That is the one I’m interested in. In fact, I had a call that they want to do normal works before we can award it to them after the Lagos-Kano project, which is the most viable rail line followed by the Port-Maiduguri. Lagos-Kaduna has 30 million tonnes of cargo, while the Port Harcourt- Maiduguri has 11 million tonnes of cargo. What we are not sure is Lagos-Kano, but the moment we construct Lagos-Kano, Port Harcourt-Maiduguri, Lagos-Calabar and the central line which is Abuja-Warri, then we are done with Nigerian railway system.