Dark clouds looming in the Nigerian railway project
Efforts are in place for the revitalization of a sleeping giant that can be referred to as the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC). On the surface, this looks like a laudable initiative but lets’ look further and deeper, readers will be left to make up their minds. A few of these railway projects will be mentioned briefly below with some narratives. The author will try make visible the activities of the Chinese Engineering giants, coupled with the efforts of the Nigerian state culminating in the likely dim expectation for about eight years time. Please do not hope that it contains too many ‘’Ifs’’ as these unknown might happen quickly and will be difficult to arrest.
Mentioning a few: Abuja-Kaduna, Itakpe railways, Lagos –Ibadan, Warri-Abuja and revitalization of narrow gauge nationwide to mention but a few. For the mentioned, the Federal Government through the Ministry of Transport has borrowed about $7 billion for works on about 1000km of track. (An actual figure not available but this is a conservative estimate.) Plan is to revitalize about 5000km in all and more but we will analyse with the stated number. In simple arithmetic, the government will borrow $35billion to implement on this commitment. If the same was extended to roads and waterways, the Ministry of Transportation alone will need about $105 billion to implement on its ambitious project. Many might point out that there are no similar plans for roads and marine: you will be right but lets’ leave it in our minds for now. I will revert to this later.
The Vice President made public that our national debt profile is at $60 billion. Now scale down on the Amaechi (ministry) figures above and it is not too far-fetched to imagine that Amaechi can double our debt portfolio if allowed to carry on unabated. The folly of these borrowings will be dealt with in the next section. Let us imagine that 10 other ministries join the game and borrow similar amounts, then the country will be in serious financial problems.
I can ask the question been asked loudly now that no sane country will borrow Nigeria these sums of monies. China will. Its plan for the country is different and dangerous. They will loan us funds until we cannot pay back. That is the position that they want us to be and when this position is reached, they will then have unfettered access to our natural resources, which is the reason why they are here in the first instance. Crude oil, coal, iron ore, bauxite, etc. are needed back home to fuel the Chinese great ambition of becoming the number one nation in the world. Nigeria in this context can be referred to as collateral damage and we are not even aware of this impending danger.
When will this position be reached?. I am of the belief that the trigger point will be when the Chinese Government buys up our foreign debt. This will be the day that we are almost at a point of no return. In my estimation, if guys like Amaechi are not curtailed, our dear country will be a failed state with our treasures carried away before our very eyes. This reads very bleak but I refer readers back to the link again for a proper portrayal of how this scenario might unfold.
Astute ones amongst us will be quick to point out that if we borrowed that massively, the funds would have been used to turn our economy around and hence our non-dependence on sale of natural resources. That will be a valid observation but the reality does not support that theory. In the last few years, we built up a debt portfolio of about $60 billion, kindly ask yourself what we have done with the funds. We have simply wasted it in many ways that I cannot even begin to document. It will not surprise you that most of that money ended up in private pockets. Just think about all the financial scandals that you know of and plenty more that you did not even hear about.
I have boldly inferred that Amaechi’s railway project will eventually lead us to oblivion if not curtailed and I will tell you why. I hasten to add that I am a railway engineer with academic and professional experience to boost. The Ministry of Transport put out an advertorial making a lot of claims and signed allegedly by Sabiu Zakari (The Permanent Secretary), what a joke! The crux of this publication is that the Chinese are charging us $4.09 million per kilometer of railways. I am left wondering, why is this railways that expensive as it should be about or less than $500, 000 per kilometer (refer to link for detailed breakdown).
The plot thickens, I put forward that there was no real need for a new alignment between Agbado and Ibadan. There exists a recognized route between Lagos and Ibadan. Everybody knows that and this corridor is 100ft wide and even wider at station areas. This corridor is safe and secure for NRC by the Nigerian Act of Parliament. There was no need for the new alignment and any reason put forward for savings in journey times falls flat. At the same speed and same operation conditions, the new alignment at best will only be about seven minutes faster. That does not justify the digging up of the 28 million cubic metres of the countryside and the associated environmental and ecological issues. The Chinese chose the most expensive layout and alignment and we allowed them based purely on greed and ignorance.
Ask the litmus question, ‘Is this railways needed?’ The answer here is very upsetting and criminal in equal measures. A traffic survey is required as a paramount necessity. This will show ridership numbers and traffic patterns. Was this survey carried out? I am skeptical but I am confident that it was not done properly if it was done at all. I have been in the country for over 10 years and I did not see any survey been carried out. When the question was asked, words came back that the Chinese carried out the survey. If this was to be believed, everyone associated with this railway should be sacked and some of them high up in management should face criminal charges. The traffic survey will tell you everything about the project even from inception. Amongst information and data from the survey are: how many people will ride ; what times they would ride; how much they can pay against how much you can charge; seasonal variations; fixed infrastructure needed for today and the foreseeable future; moving infrastructure and phasing; depot location, size and equipment; project viability and etc. The importance of this survey cannot be overemphasized.
Getting the Chinese to carry out this survey is unbelievably stupid. It can be compared to someone wanting to sell you a used car and you tell the seller to take the car out for a test ride and give you a report. I am still pinching myself to believe that we let the Chinese carry out this survey out of our laziness. The Chinese told us not to worry about the traffic survey since they were going to provide the funds. We fell for it. This is supposed to be the most lucrative of the railway sections and we are not even sure that it is viable.
For a start, we don’t not know if the railway is needed in the first place. No verifiable data to back the claim from the government side. If they have any tenable data, please let us see.
Moving on, the Chinese choose the most expensive alignment and layout, which invariably kicked up the project cost and we sleepily walked into it. The operational cost of the railways cannot be tied down yet as the Lagos-Ibadan railway is a financial mess with costs running out of control. If the Chinese or the Ministry of Transport says No, then let them come out with the project cost. This will be fine as we can then hold them to this cost going forward. I can bet my bottom dollar that no one can state a cost simply because no one knows. They are rushing to finish with reckless abandon for the associated cost.
Managing Director (NRC) revealed that in 2017, the corporation earned N16 million monthly but its fortunes soared last year when the figure rose up to N80 million. He further stated that a figure of N100 million per month was required for operations. The upshot in fortune was due to kidnapping and robbery on the motorway. Without this unfortunate intervention that stretch off, the railways will be in serious financial difficulty but it is not yet out of the woods. N20 million deficit on a monthly basis provided the kidnapping continues if not, far more debt. Railways will close in a few years.
In summary, if we keep borrowing money and wasting it on projects that are not viable as shown here, then doom and gloom awaits. Its not too far in the future, if we continue as we are today, it could happen in the next 4-8years in my estimate. Non-viable projects with hugely inflated costs points towards financial disaster. Coupled with bad engineering and unscrupulous politicians and civil servants: we are on a slippery slope to ruins. Stop been docile, hold your government to account.
•Agunbiade is a rail engineer based in the United Kingdom