POLSCOPE WITH Eddy Odivwri
For fourteen hours last Monday, the Inspection team, led by the Honourable Minister of Transportation, Mr Rotimi Amaechi was traversing the distance between Lagos and Ibadan rail line, to assess the level, quality and pace of work done in the mega project of constructing rail line between both cities.
The inspection team was pretty motley with all relevant stakeholders in tow. The Managing Director of Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC), Engineer Fidet Okhiria was there; so was the Board Chairman of the corporation, Alhaji Ibrahim Al Hassan Musa. The Director General of Budget, Pastor Ben Akhabueze was in the team and asked very valid questions. The Senate Committee Chairman of Rail transport as well as his House of Representatives counterpart formed the long inspection entourage. Relevant Lagos State government officials, the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Transportation, Dr Magdalene Ajani and media men all swelled the rank of the inspectors.
From Ebute Metta train station where the inspection began, it was clear so much work had been done in the pursuit of the rail project. The Ebute Metta mega station looked great and verily modern. It competes with global standard. Some even described it as a mini-airport, what with the design, facilities, size and latent aesthetics.
Close to the station are adjourning structures like the main Control Terminal for all the rail network in the country.
That’s the station named after former Vice President, late Dr Alex Ekwueme.
With all the tracks long laid, the ten train stations between Apapa and Ibadan are at various stages of completion. Much work has been done.
Few months ago, the Transportation minister had announced that President Muhammadu Buhari’s New Year gift to Nigerians will be the train service between Lagos and Ibadan.
That announcement looks like a commitment. Having committed the ministry, Amaechi is literally working the handle to ensure that the CCEC construction company, completes the task perfectly so the promise of commissioning it would be accomplished.
So, both Amaechi and the CCEC appear to be under pressure to deliver at the stated time.
In all the stations, work is ongoing. Much has been done, but much remains undone.
The coach-production unit, for instance, sited at Kajola, Ogun State, where train coaches and wagons would be produced, is yet to take off. The Universities of Rail Transportation in Daura (in Katsina State) and Ubima (in Rivers State) remain prospective only on paper thus far.
The minister while acknowledging secretly that “the contractors are trying”, he charges them to double their work pace, if need be, by working day and night, especially now that the rains are no more a barrier to continuous working.
The contractors do not seem to understand the speed the minister wants them to work with. Many think the contractors could work faster and meet up with the deadline if and only if they hire more hands. Hiring more hands would mean spending more money. But are the Chinese wishing to spend more money?
In some stations like Agege in Lagos Alagbado, Kajola, in Ogun State, some communication equipment have been installed, but not the fittings.
The minister who expressed satisfaction with the pace of work at the Ibadan station challenged the contractors to employ the same zeal and strategy that hastened the work in the Ibadan Station in the other station so the project can be delivered at the end of December. He stressed, several times, that “after the last inspection next month, we shall write to the President to give us a date in early January for the commissioning”
It is remarkable that in all the ten stations, the minister asked critical questions that even queried the engineering decisions and concepts that were employed by the contractors. In many instances, the Managing Director and NRC Chairman, who are both engineers, agreed with the minister’s critical questions and viewpoints.
There is no doubt that Amaechi is overtly committed to the railway projects across the country. He speaks of them with so much familiarity and zeal. The various train projects and the entire national rail network, their cost, their distances, their peculiarities are all at the finger tip of the minister. Perhaps no such devotion and conviction has been applied to any government project like the one Amaechi is exhibiting.
The sheer exhaustion that follows the rounds of inspections is breathtaking. But Amaechi does it every month. In fact, he had threatened the contractors that after the December inspection, he would practically relocate to Lagos and embark on a daily inspection until the President comes to commission the project in the first week of January.
It is hardly debatable that the rail project is the flagship of the Buhari administration. It represents the most visible effort of the federal government to develop national infrastructure. And Amaechi is the poster boy with the outstanding devotion to the duty of delivering rail transportation across the country. Almost nothing else approximates the seriousness of the Buhari administration other than the rail construction.
Amaechi explains that his commitment to the project is even more driven by the fact that soon as the entire nation is connected and interconnected with rail transportation, a lot of other ancillary problems would have been solved. The frequent damage of Nigerian roads would have been significantly minimized because the cargo trains would do most of the upcountry freighting, thus saving the roads from the heavy pounding by the trucks and tankers.
An efficient rail network will indeed save, not only the roads, but the passengers.
That argument seems to have also guided the controversial extension of the rail service to the Maradi region, in Niger Republic.
The minister explained that the interest and determination to extend the train service is purely commercial and economic.
According to him, our neighbouring countries are land–locked countries. That because of banditry, harassment from Customs etc, Nigeria is unable to take advantage of the shipping needs of such neighbouring countries. And that countries like Ghana, Togo etc., have been taking advantage of the situation to boost their economy given the volume of trade from such countries. That the extension of the train service to Maradi would open a wide vista of business (shipping and freighting) opportunities for Nigeria.
“Apart from the huge economic benefits, it will also create lots of job opportunities for Nigerians”, stressing that “ we did not marry from Niger. Our interest is purely economic”, Amaechi explained.
Apart from cheaper fares, rail transportation ensures greater safety in terms of rare occurrences of accident.
But more than that, the frequent cases of attacks by bandits and kidnappers on many of the nation’s highways, especially Abuja-Kaduna highway, would have been completely eliminated.
But connecting all the ends of the nation with rail looks like an ambitious project. With barely three years to go, how far else can the administration go on this note?
What is worse, the fund is not there.
The huge indebtedness of the country to countries like China, is essentially in pursuit of the rail projects. Would China continue to fund the rail projects, even after the Buhari administration? Would the projects be abandoned at some point?
Would Amaechi complete all the projects he has earmarked?
Both his disposition and body language suggest that with more funds , he still can do much more before the Buhari tenure wraps up. Government should be a continuum, but too often, succeeding governments are rarely interested in continuing from where their predecessors stopped. It is one of the banes of leadership in Africa.
Experts are agreed that there is nothing bad in borrowing. But it is even more gratifying when everybody can see and benefit from the proceeds of the borrowing. Unlike in the past when funds are borrowed and lavishly spent on elephant or intangible projects, Nigerians and indeed the world can see, feel and even measure what some of the borrowed monies have been used for.
Great as the efforts have been, some Nigerians are also concerned that the minister’s attention has been overtly committed to the rail sector to the detriment of other means of transport like road, water and air. Hardly is anything said about road transportation, which is what yet takes many Nigerians from Point A to Point B.
All things considered, the Buhari administration would have rekindled hope of a greater tomorrow for the country if and when the rail transportation is accomplished. The fact that even during the construction work, much job offers have been provided, stakeholders say even more job opportunities will be provided when the train service takes off fully, especially with the adjoining shops and stores attached to every train station. Already, the economy of the communities around the rail corridor has began to show great prospect, starting the with the increased cost of adjoining land.
Fund and time will be twin determinants of how far Amaechi and his principal can go. Commissioning Lagos-Ibadan rail in early January will surely inspire hope and
re-inforce government’s integrity. Nigeria waits.
Recession and other Troubles
Long before the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS) released the second consecutive negative growth of the nation’s GDP, many Nigerians had begun to feel the impact of recession.
Yes, economists are arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic triggered this round of recession. I cannot argue against this because of the crushing effect of the pandemic on small and medium-scale businesses in the country.
With many jobs lost, companies closed, and businesses shut, it was only a matter of time for the statistics to bear witness that Nigerians are suffering, and dying gradually.
I am no expert in economic matters. But how much expertise is required to feel the pinch, no, the sharp pierce?
With inflation biting very hard and fierce, there is no home that does not feel the crunch, perhaps except those who feed fat from the treasury of government. Will the recession cause the political leaders to reduce the cost of governance? Or would the belt-tightening measures apply only to the ordinary man on the streets?
Even though the economists say this is the worst recession in over 30 years, the Finance minister, Zainab Ahmed is optimistic that we shall soon be out of the recession, if not in the 4th quarter of this year, then in the first quarter of 2021, given the Economic Sustenance Programmes (ESP) of government, plus the efforts being made in Agriculture, cement production etc.
But while we await this recovery, we are worried that the threat of sanctions from some powerful countries like the United Kingdom could further lengthen our night of recession. UK parliamentarians which debated our fate following the alleged killings at the Lekki tollgate last month during the #EndSARS protests, promises to tighten the noose around our necks.
Matters were not helped when the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed threatened to sanction CNN for airing a report that purportedly confirms that the soldiers indeed shot the protesters with live ammunition. The report riled government and had been saying the report is fake.
Mr Mohammed went ahead to write a lengthy letter to CNN poo-poohing the report.
I think Mr Information minister merely worsened a bad case. The revelations by the army General at the Lagos panel does not quite agree with the position and storyline of the federal Government. Until the soldier testified under cross examination, the narrative had been that the soldiers fired only blank bullets. Even though the government does not agree that soldiers killed some persons at the venue of the protest, insisting they fired into the air, they have refused to explain how live bullets fired into the sky killed people on the ground. Were those shot protesters living in the sky?
And pray, how does Mohammed really want to sanction CNN?
The best measure to address the anger triggered by the CNN report is for Lai Mohammed to release reliable and undoctored report (including video footages) of what happened at the Lekki tollgate on October 20. Any other effort is sheer political shenanigans.
But if we have survived the violence that followed the peaceful #End SARS protests, and we have survived the lethal effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, what is the guaranty that our own internal insecurity will not send us to early graves?
So, that’s another source of worry: the worsening state of insecurity in the country. From the recent abduction and killing of the APC Chairman in Nasarawa State, Mr Philip Shekwo, through the abduction of some nine ABU students and yet another abduction of some staff in the same ABU campus, abduction of policemen and even soldiers, down to the killing of some soldiers in Borno State by Boko Haram fighters, etc etc, the land is literally flowing with blood and disquiet.
A nation struggling to invite foreign businesses and investments will work towards making the home front less warlike and more welcoming. But not with the daily report of killings in all corners of the land.