Has Sanwo-Olu Finally Broken the Traffic Jinx?

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Lagos state governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu is obviously on a path to rewriting the problematic traffic history in Lagos state. During the week, the governor in far away Milwaukee in the United States of America announced to the world that his administration has achieved a quantum leap with its successful acquisition of two new sets of trains with each train carrying 10 cars manufactured by Spanish Talgo with a speed of 330kmph for the Lagos Red Line project.

It was unarguably a huge dream come true for Sanwo-Olu and his team who, just a little over two years ago on assuming office, started the train project from ground zero in line with his administration’s commitment to traffic management and transportation.

In choosing to place traffic management as a major thrust of his administration, the governor was highly conscious of the huge losses recorded by the state as a result of the impediments encountered by residents and businesses seeking to commute as well as move goods and deploy services across the state.

The absence of a well articulated intermodal transport system which would incorporate the use of water, land, air and rail transportation was not only frustrating but threatened the race to achieve the megacity status that Lagos has become.

Indeed, the Sanwo-Olu’s Midas touch culminating in today’s success story took too long in coming. About 39 years ago, the late Governor Lateef Jakande’s administration conceptualised the metro line project in 1983, but for reasons bordering on suspicion, pettiness, lack of foresight and vision, General Muhammadu Buhari, military head of state then, scrapped the project.

It needs recall that after the Nigeria versus Biafra civil war which ended in 1970, lots of easterners and others seeking greener pasture headed to the South west, a region that remained intact and untouched throughout the period of the hostilities.

The rural to urban drift brought with it lots of problems for Lagos which at this time doubled as the federal capital territory and Nigeria’s biggest commercial hub. From accomodation, lack of intermodal transport system, security, to sanitation, Lagos suddenly found itself struggling to cope with these new menace.

Meanwhile, unable to bear the escalating security threat which resulted in the assassination of General Murtala Muhammed and the exploding population in Lagos, the federal government decided to relocate the federal capital to Abuja to free up Lagos.

Regrettably, the situation got worse as more influx of people from the hinterlands including neighbouring countries like Ghana flooded into Lagos. Faced with the dire consequences, the then Lagos government led by Lateef Jakande (between 1979 and 19832) first mulled the initiative of metro system, it was a projection into the future.

Although belonging to an opposition party, Jakande approached the civilian government of President Shehu Shagari for help. After initially showing no commitment, Shagari eventually backed the project and instructed the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to grant the required monetary support.

By then, a Japanese company and a consortium of 19 French companies, Interinfra — each of them first-class companies — had been engaged by the state government. A 10 per cent essential contribution of about $70 million was also readied with the expectation of more funding from the CBN.

Preliminary preparations were ongoing until General Muhammadu Buhari came into the picture. A successful coup that terminated the civilian rule of Shagari enthroned Buhari as the military Head of State, leading to the beginning of the end of a high-impact project that would not only have equipped the state to solve the perennial traffic challenge it still faces, decades after, but would also have pushed other states to follow suit and propel the country’s development.

According to George Etomi, the transaction lawyer who consulted for 17 of the French companies engaged to handle the metro system project in 1983, “It would have addressed 80 per cent of the chaos we are seeing today.

“At that time, the Buhari government set up a mass enquiry against all the civilians because there was this notion that many of them were corrupt and needed to be brought to justice”, he pointed out.

Buhari’s thinking was that the UPN government merely used the metro line as a cover to sponsor their political party. So, he set up the Justice Famakinwa Tribunal of Inquiry to investigate the project, check origins, check all the payments that were made and so on.
In the end, nothing was found and the federal government had to pay heavily for reneging on its commitments to the companies. Eventually, Nigeria spent money for the wrong reasons and no metro line.

Undaunted, the Tinubu administration brought back the rail project in 2003, but the project has stalled after failing repeatedly to meet it set delivery deadlines occasioned by slow pace of work and complaints of paucity of funds. There is however, a silver lining in the horizon following a recent pronouncement by the administration that the blue light rail line started by former governor Bola Tinubu is to commence in 2022, years after the euphoria that greeted the launch has long died off.

In a statement released during the week, Sanwo-Olu said he had completed the deal at a public event inside the Milwaukee facilities of Spanish train manufacturer, Talgo Incorporated in the United States.

Thereafter, the trains will be heading to Lagos, for the Red Line, a 37-kilometre track rail project started by his administration. The project will have 11 stations, and when completed, it will be the first operational metro system in West Africa; which is why the state government said it is excited to complete the purchase of the two brand new trains.

Describing the sweet deal he just sealed in Milwaukee, the ecstatic governor pointed out that “A train is not something you can just go on the shelf and pick up. We are very lucky to get brand new trains. We have seen our beautiful white and red trains. Coincidentally, the rail line is called Red Line, and you can see they have given us the colour. We are just going to brand it and put up our seal there.

“We hope that this (purchase of the trains) will be the beginning of a mutually beneficial business relationship. Providing source of livelihood for our citizens is all about providing jobs for our people, and that is what we are doing. It is about ensuring that we can build our economy, people can move from one location to another and businesses can grow.

“Part of what we have done in the last two and half years is to have what we call integrated urban mass transportation system, where we will be using road ≠≠, waterway infrastructure and rail infrastructure so that we can move over 20 million Lagosians within and around the city.”

Sanwo-Olu has specifically promised Lagosians that the first phase of the Red Line will begin by the last quarter of 2022 or first quarter of 2023, with a capacity of 500,000 passengers daily.

While celebrating this feat, the government needs to bear in mind that a lot more needs to be done to achieve Eldorado. Although no one knows the cost of this latest acquisition or what it would cost to finally deliver the 36 kilometer train, the governor needs to institutionalize corporate governance in government business to remove the current opacity where government transactions are shrouded in absolute secrecy.

Now that the governor has started well, he needs to stay the course and leave a legacy by building institutions that would outlive him and etched his name on the sand of times. How would he achieve that?

It is good that LAMATA has been formed as a holding company for the transport sector. However, to build the kind of institution that would last, LAMATA has to limit itself to regulatory and supervisory functions in liaison with the transport ministry.

The rail service for stance should be decentralized to create companies in charge of tracks, another in charge of train/coaches as they are called elsewhere and also a company solely for ticketing, catering services, branding and facilities managers.

The guiding principle here is that all these companies submit their prices which eventually form an aggregate of the final price to be paid by the commuter. Once a ticket is used, a sharing formula is used to disburse the proceeds to each company according to its agreed pricing.

The novelty in this arrangement is that Lagos state government or LAMATA can float an international bid seeking participation from companies willing to buy into the project, bring in their money, build a track, if that is where it has comparative advantage, operate the concession and transfer after a particular time frame.

If Sanwaolu wants to exit in a blaze of glory, he should begin to up the ante and think innovatively. He needs to adopt other creative and uncharted options like the Public Private Partnership to build and expand infrastructure without saddling the state with avoidable loans like the Muhammadu Buhari administration has done to Nigeria.

He has started well and would end well only if he can muster the political will to stay the course. For Sanwaolu to win big, he needs to embrace the change in real practical terms by doing things differently no matter whose ox is gored. After all, is it not on his table the buck stops?