The past few days saw a frenzy of anger and outburst on Kano-Maradi rail project. The high and the low; the enlightened and the less have poured venomous anger against the reported $1.9 billion railway, some calling it rail to nowhere. It all smacks of politicking with a critical project that is part of the railway master plan inherited from previous administrations.
People have issues with the Buhari Government, many legitimately, many out of political necessity. Hence, discourse in public domain is stripped of factual reasoning and analysis. As somebody involved in the railway sector, it is important I drop few comments and clarifications.
Are we as a nation denying that we have a national railway master plan crafted by the Obasanjo regime and under implementation by successive administrations? All projects under execution within the sector minus few cases are derived from the plan.
The Kano-Maradi project is not a Buhari project. If former President Goodluck Jonathan was re-elected, he would have pursued the plan as the present administration is doing. During the Jonathan administration, former Vice President Namadi Sambo even confirmed plans to extend railway to Niger republic.
Let me quote him in full in one of his outings then: “I am glad to inform you that rehabilitation of the rail line from Zaria to Kauran Namoda has commenced. I am equally happy to state that rail services from Kano to Lagos are in progress. The survey on the new rail line from Kauran Namoda to Sokoto to Birnin Kebbi has begun. We hope to link the rail line to Niamey in Niger Republic. In the same vein, the standard-gauge rail system from Abuja to Kahuna has already reached 60 per cent completion. It will be extended to Lokoja and to Warri Port. By the grace of God, the new standard-gauge rail system will commence operation by next year.”
The railway plan envisages a direct link from Lagos to Abuja to Kano and to Niger Republic. This is also in tandem with the African Union infrastructural agenda, which plans to interlink all African states and capital for enhanced business interactions and exchanges. Already, Algeria is contemplating similar linkage with Niger republic that will eventually connect Lagos to the Mediterranean sea.
What a wonderful linkage it will be. We also need to realise that the government of Spain and Morocco are in discussion about a rail link with Europe which will link up with the Maghreb rail line spanning the coastal lines of the Maghreb states of Morroco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia.
And back to our immediate setting. There is equally a trade corridor spanning entire northern areas of coastal West African states to Niamey. Already, a rail line is envisaged to run across that line by the AU master plan. What Nigeria is doing by moving ahead with the Kano-Maradi plan is to create a head start in the unfolding regional trade regime, the AfCTA. Ghana is already rail linking with Burkina Faso while Senegal and Mali are working on similar plan. Ivory Coast is renovating the line to Burkina Faso. Nations are fast tracking inter connectivity in anticipation of AfCTA.
Of what gain is such project to Nigeria? I will say a lot. While the volume of trade is presently low, the potential for expansion is high. Nigerian export from Kano Free Trade zone will flood Niger and by extension the Sahel region. Niger’s Import is sure to be routed through Nigeria instead of Benin republic. Our expanded ports in the southern zone will he kept busy. Nigeria will expand her sphere of trade influence.
And as to the question: Why not Lagos to Benin rail line. We should all realise that the Lagos to Abidjan railway is an ECOWAS project. The Heads of States in 2016 signed an MoU with a Chinese firm. That project is yet to take off and Nigeria could not possibly take a unilateral decision. What Nigeria has done are two folds. First is the Lagos- Calabar eastern line that is about to take off. The second is the extension of rail line to Idi Iroko from the Lagos metro project.
What question should Nigerians be asking? Presently, we are asking the wrong question. The issue is about how we are managing the railway sector. The project communication is haphazard. The railway Act of 1954 needs urgent amendment. The Nigerian Railway Corporation should be reformed to operate in more business like manner. There is need for constitutional amendment to move railway to the concurrent legislative list. There is the urgent need to refocus railway financing strategy.
The Kano Maradi line could have been through public- private sector funding. That was the original plan. Actually, last year, a consortium had a project match making show in Europe. Its conception was to be a PPP arrangement. What Nigerian should be asking is why has the plan changed, not questioning if we need the project. We can also interrogate the cost component and the issue of economic viability.
And to southerners who are angry about the project, I ask: what is bad in creating another Lagos out of Kano with an international business outlet through Niger? Southerners complain about influx of northerners into Lagos and the South. Will a new North not change the scenario by creating a new business hub along Kano-Niger-Algeria axis? A Kano-Maradi line will change the North and create a new business corridor especially when you add the ongoing waterway dredging up to Baro port and others.
My point to recap is to affirm that the new project is in the interest of every Nigerian. In any case, this is not a Buhari plan; it is the railway master plan created by Obasanjo regime. By the way, why are we not so mad at the Katsina man over the brand new Lagos-Ibadan SGR? In our badly messed up political space, we should try not to politicise infrastructure.
. Rasheed is the CEO of African Railway Consult Limited and Director, African Railway Roundtable.