The security of our rail routes and assets should be treated as an emergency
Barely10 months after some bandits attacked the Abuja-Kaduna train, resulting in the death of about eight passengers and abduction of 65 others, the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) last Sunday announced the closure of Ekehen Station in Edo State. The previous day, 7thJanuary, some gunmen had invaded the station in broad daylight and abducted many passengers waiting to board a train to Warri in Delta State. While the number of victims remains in the realm of conjecture, that tragedy has left confounding questions about measures being put in place to curb this dangerous descent into anarchy.
We commiserate with the distraught families and commend the security forces for their prompt response this time around. But at a period travelling by road has become an agony, it is worrisome that criminal gangs have now targeted the rail lines. With the latest attack coming a few weeks after the Abuja-Kaduna rail resumed operations, the confidence of many Nigerian travellers must have been shaken. How many people will still be courageous enough to board a train under the prevailing circumstance?
Already, the climate of insecurity that pervades the entire country is impacting negatively on services along most vital rail routes. The murder and mass abduction of passengers on the Abuja-Kaduna route forced a suspension of services. This has been followed by similar terrorism induced suspensions along both the Lagos-Kano and Ajaokuta- Itakpe routes. To worsen matters, services on the lucrative Lagos-Ibadan route have been scaled down, due to the activities of vandals on the tracks.
The national economy has been at the receiving end of this malaise. The NRC claimed it lost N113 million to the shutdown of the Abuja-Kaduna route. But those close to government say the financial loss exceeds N6 billion, especially when you add the cost for the truncation of citizen economic activities tied to rail travel by passengers as well as losses on freight and haulage services. Since most of the new and revitalised rail projects were funded with loans from foreign lenders, one can only imagine the dire implications. The repayments of principals, interests and other contingent costs continue to run and pile up in an economy that is, by all sensible estimates, distressed.
In this induced state of suspension by the NRC, assets will keep deteriorating as rail lines, rolling stock, stations and other ancillaries remain unused. Staff redundancies and eventual job losses will ensue in a country with nearly 40 per cent unemployment. There are other intangible but even more consequential losses. For instance, the national social and cultural integration benefits of rail linkage of our vast geography have been halted. As the rail system is suspended, safety of travel on our roads remains perilous and precarious. The scourge of highway kidnappings and robbery remains an ever-present headache in most parts of the country. Air travel is no credible alternative. It is elitist and expensive.
While everything should be done to ensure the safe return of the remaining abductees of the Edo train attack, it should concern relevant authorities that an underground ransom economy seems to have taken root. People are kidnapped. Ransom is demanded and paid sometimes through the banks with no trails tracked. According to a report by the Lagos-based risk analysis firm SB Morgen Intelligence, kidnapping in Nigeria is an extraordinarily lucrative enterprise with at least $18.3 million in ransom between 2011 and 2020. Meanwhile, dens of kidnappers are within our borders, in the ungoverned spaces of forests and remote villages. Besides, there are reports that most of these kidnappers are agents of some powerful people who live within the cities.
All factors considered, the security of our rail routes and assets ought to be treated as an emergency. It touches on the ability of the Nigerian state to protect and secure aspects of our sovereign space. It is therefore not too much to ask relevant authorities to put in place safety measures. Our economic survival dictates it. The confidence and convenience of citizens demands it. And the imperative of sovereign territorial integrity compels a stiffer response than the present attitude of indifference and lazy surrender to the forces of anarchy.