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SHIFTING GOALPOST ON LAGOS-CALABAR RAILWAY
Tony Iyare writes that the Lagos-Calabar rail will likely be abandoned, again
Sometimes one is at a loss on the increasing double speak and different tunes on the proposed 1,400 kilometers Lagos-Calabar rail line or what has become the shifting goalpost on such a vital project.
While delivering the 34th convocation lecture of the University of Calabar in March, 2021, the Minister of Transportation, Mr Rotimi Amaechi disclosed that the federal government was going to sign a loan agreement for the commencement of the project and before the end of the year, contractors would move to site.
Mr Amaechi also told the nation assertively in July this year that a London bank had consented to fund the project. According to a report by thenewsguru.com, an online publication, Amaechi was quoted as saying that the, “London-based Standard Chartered Bank offers to fund the Lagos-Calabar coastal rail with $11bn of the $14.4bn needed to build the project.
“The rail line will pass through Calabar, Uyo, Aba, Port Harcourt, Yenagoa, Otuoke, Ughelli, Warri, Sapele, Benin, Agbor, Asaba, Onitsha, Ore, Ijebu Ode, Sagamu and Lagos!,” the minister said.
But between the recent interview he granted to THISDAY and the Transport Ministry’s budget defence at the National Assembly, we are now being told that the government is still sourcing for money to fund the Lagos-Calabar railway or what’s otherwise called the West-East Coastal rail line, a novel project that will link the western and eastern parts of the country.
Hear Amaechi in THISDAY interview published on November 1:
“I am looking for money to do Lagos-Calabar, which covers my area, South-south; it is not there, $11.1 billion. We have seen some movement of cash; they have told us that they will give us $300 million to start while we look for $1.65 billion. Supposing we finished the $300 million and they say they don’t have money, what will you do? But so far, they have not given us any money, which is why I said I have seen, because once you put pen to paper, they will raise the first $300 million for us to commence construction.”
Perhaps one of the most significant projects to be embarked upon since the country’s independence, the Lagos-Calabar rail line involves the construction of a total of 1,402 kilometers of railway line in addition to railway platforms, 22 railway stations including ancillary facilities, administrative space, and level crossings. Other works include the installation of safety systems, electrical systems, lighting systems, and signaling systems, as well as the laying of tracks and electricity lines.
The first phase will run between Calabar and Port Harcourt, while the second phase will run between Port Harcourt and Lagos through Onitsha.
Given the nature of that route as one of the busiest in the country, it’s possible that it could even outstrip the 11 million tons of cargo envisaged to be moved by the Lagos-Kano rail line. It will not only provide an alternative outlet for the massive movement of passengers and goods but reduce the weight and carnage wrought by heavy duty trucks on expressways such as Lagos-Ibadan, Benin-Shagamu, Benin-Onitsha, Benin -Warri, East-West and many others. This will surely lengthen the lifespan of these vital roads. It is also expected to engender massive industrialization of the cities where the rail line will pass through and generate thousands of jobs.
Since it will connect Obudu Cattle Ranch, it offers the opportunity to rekindle our tourism industry as it could be extended in future to link both the Mambilla Plateau in Taraba State and the Yankari Games Reserve in Bauchi State. So it is really not a project that should be mired in fiddlesticks.
In early August, 2021, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) approved the project for the award of the contract for the building of the Lagos-Calabar railway. Minister of Information and Culture, Mr Lai Mohammed who briefed the media said, “And then, also another memo that was approved today was the ratification of the President’s approval for the award of contract for the Lagos-Calabar Coastal Standard Gauge.”
He revealed that the project was an old project which was inherited by the current administration. Mohammed said that under the former administration, approval was given but nothing was done. “Today, the council has given approval to commence the Lagos-Calabar Coastal rail. This particular route is very important because after the Lagos-Kano route, this Lagos-Calabar Coastal route actually will link all the coastal cities in the country.
“Actually, the proposed route alignment is as follows; it will go from Lagos to Sagamu, Sagamu to Ijebu-Ode, Ijebu-Ode to Ore, Ore to Benin City, Benin-City to Sapele, Sapele to Warri, Warri to Yenagoa, Yenagoa to Port Harcourt, Port Harcourt to Aba, Aba to Uyo, Uyo to Calabar, Calabar to Akamkpa to Ikom, Obudu Ranch with branch lines from Benin-City to Agbor, Ogwashi-ukwu, Asaba, Onitsha and Onitsha Bridge and then Port Harcourt to Onne Deep Sea Port.
“This particular route is very important especially for our coastal economy; the cost of the project is 11. 17 billion dollars,’’ he said. According to him, the project is expected to be completed in six years.
I really do not want to share the cynicism of those who say the project has entered voicemail. In fact, a highly respected senior friend of mine actually said, “Don’t mind Amaechi, this government will not touch that project”. The skeptics may indeed be right because time is obviously running out for the expected ground breaking event.
If nothing happens this year, it’s doubtful whether the project will be touched even with a long spoon in 2022 when the dramatis personae in government will be heavily distracted by the politics of 2023. The Buhari government’s vacillatory stance on this project also evokes doubt as to whether it is really committed to pulling it through. You can almost glean its sleekly antics from what has become the cocktail of shifting goalposts on the issue.
First, we were told that an American firm was interested in funding the project. After President Buhari returned from his Russian trip, the Presidency told the nation that Russia had resolved to undertake the project. The development, we were informed was one of the agreements reached at a meeting between President Buhari and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Last, it was Amaechi’s London bank tale by moonlight. From the London bank story, we are now being told that the government is still looking for funds for Lagos-Calabar railway. At each turn, the story on the project keeps changing.
The Buhari administration may however not be alone in this dodgy moves on the project. In July 2014, under the Jonathan administration, the Lagos-Calabar Railway Line Project received necessary approvals from Federal Executive Council (FEC). By November of the same year, the Federal Ministry of Transport signed an agreement to build the Lagos to Calabar railway line with China Railway Construction Corp. Ltd. (CRCC). In February, 2016, the Export-Import (Exim) Bank of China, one of three institutional banks in China chartered to implement the state policies in the industry, foreign trade, economy, and foreign aid to other developing countries, and provide policy financial support so as to promote the export of Chinese products and services, agreed to finance a part of the project. Unfortunately by September 2017, the CRCC expressed its unwillingness to fund the project.
Similar to this is the Abuja-Itakpe rail line that the contract amounting to N3.9bn was reported to have been awarded to CRCC on PPP in October 2019. Amaechi had told us in November 2020 that work on the project would start in 2021. But Amaechi is now singing another tune.
“Central line is even the worst, the Chinese company said they want to do PPP, we signed and got the contract for them to sign, now they said no, we should convert it to contract. I said no, I will not. Instead of me to convert it to contract, I will cancel it. We will advertise it and I won’t let you bid.
“You misled us. When you are asking for PPP, everybody I met in the world told me there is nowhere since the world was created that they have seen PPP in railway. And they said there could always be a first time. Now, they have gone to look for the money and can’t find the money. They say we should convert to a contract, but I will not and I will go back to the cabinet to ask for cancellation,” he told THISDAY.