The strange Nigeria-Niger Railway project
It is amazing how officials of the same government that should speak with one voice are feeding members of the public with divergent information, thereby creating confusion. The penchant for government functionaries to disagree on what should normally be a common ground should stop for progress to be made in the public interest.
The disclosure, the other day, by the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, that the Federal Executive Council (FEC) had approved about $1.96 billion for the award of contract for the development of the proposed Kano-Jigawa-Katsina-Jibia to Maradi rail line in the Niger Republic has sparked serious contention from different quarters of the Nigerian public.
The question being asked is why the Buhari Administration is rushing to extend a railway line to the Niger Republic while the existing railway lines across Nigeria have been work in progress because of poor funding? The public feeling is that this is obviously a misplaced priority.
Charity, they say, begins at home. The expectation is that Buhari should first revamp the national railway network that is dilapidated, get them functional before embarking on a project to extend the same to another country.
Consequently, there has been public discontent over the Maradi project. It is presumably on that ground that the presidency reacted sharply and disowned Amaechi.
The presidency reportedly countered the announcement made by Amaechi to the effect that the FEC approved the whopping sum for the railway project.
Senior Special Assistant to the President, Garuba Shehu, had said that the rail construction would only get to a designated point at the border. But that designated point, Maradi, is inside Niger Republic. What is the point of clarification here? This is obscurantism at its best. It is clearly misleading and so unnecessary.
Shehu reiterated that an agreement was reached between Nigeria and the Niger Republic in 2015 for the Kano-Katsina-Maradi Corridor Master Plan (K2M). According to him, both nations agreed to build a rail line to the “border town of Maradi,” noting that Maradi is the largest city in the Niger Republic and the administrative centre of Maradi Region and seat of the Maradi Department.
“Nigeria isn’t building rail line into Niger but only to the designated border point,” he clarified. He recalled that the Nigerian delegates to that meeting comprised officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, National Boundary Commission, Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Water Resources as well as those of Kano and Katsina states.
According to the presidency, which should not be the clarifier of railway project’s conundrum: “The objective of the railway line is the harnessing of raw materials, mineral resources and agricultural produce,”
Certainly, this is not the whole truth. The overriding objective of the rail line is for the supply of crude oil from Niger Republic to the refinery being built in Mashi, Katsina State. The $2 billion private sector-driven petroleum refinery is facilitated by Niger Republic. The refinery, billed for completion in 2021, would have the capacity to produce 150, 000 barrels per day.
Mixed reactions had trailed the development of the refinery. While some stakeholders in the industry commended the Ministry of Petroleum Resources for the initiative, others expressed worries and dismissed it as politically motivated.
There should be concern about how much crude oil is available from Niger: What size, complexity and scope should be envisaged? What are the economic benefits of the project? Who will own the refinery and what operating model is proposed? Nigerians need to know at this juncture. It should not be a secret deal, after all. The Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) rejected the refinery on the ground that it could divert the government’s attention from the refineries in Port Harcourt and Warri, which, already, are neglected and ill-maintained. That fear is not unfounded.
There have been insinuations that the rush to develop both the refinery and the rail line is part of Buhari’s political-strategic game plan to give the north some form of economic independence from the oil refineries in the Niger Delta. Thus, while the restiveness in the Niger Delta could pose a problem and disrupt petroleum products flow from the region, the Katsina refinery, with guaranteed oil supply from the Niger Republic, would be unaffected, thereby giving the north some form of leverage. This kind of talking points can be a blight upon nation-building.
Obviously, the proposed Kano-Katsina-Maradi new rail line is strategic and is part of Buhari’s masterpieces to leverage the North. This is part of what will continue to fuel accusation on sectionalism and a breach of federal character provision in our constitution.
Otherwise, it is pertinent to ask why the Federal Government has not been able to revitalise the moribund Nigerian Railways Corporation (NRC) under a Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) arrangement it announced more than seven years ago. Why is it that noting concrete has happened in that regard? The country’s railway system still remains decadent and there is little in the horizon to show that government has mustered the political will to revamp the rail system.
For instance, with the exception of the much-flaunted Lagos-Kano railway system, the Eastern rail line from Port Harcourt through Enugu to the North remains moribund. Nothing is being done about this very strategic rail line.
There is no doubt that we need a functional railway system in the country. An efficient transport system is a key factor in socio-economic development.
But while that is a fact, equity demands that effort on the railway system should not be one-sided in favour of one section of the country. The entire railway system should be revamped for robust economic development of the country – before we extend the same to a neighbouring country!
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