WITHIN the last two decades, successive governments in the country had initiated separate steps towards revamping the moribund Nigerian Railways to give transportation a fillip in the country. Dating back to the regime of the late General Sani Abacha, billions of public funds were pumped into contracts awarded to Indian, Chinese, and other foreign firms.
Yet, the sector remains dormant, as the multi-dollar contracts were nothing but a rip-off. As a matter of fact, some of the Chinese “engineers’ brought into the country by the Abacha government once reportedly confessed that they knew nothing about rail transport.
In 2006, the Federal Government awarded a contract to the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) to build the Lagos–Kano standard gauge railway. In 2008, the Senate Committee on Public Accounts initiated a probe of the $8.3 billion dollar rail modernisation project because, rather than completing the $528 million rehabilitation project started by the Abacha regime, the Olusegun Obasanjo administration had entered into a fresh project.
It was claimed that the rehabilitation project awarded by the military administration had almost reached completion stage when it was abandoned in 2003, even though the government had paid the company $446 million. By 2006, the same company which abandoned the project was given an $8.3 billion rail modernisation project with a mobilisation fee of N9.48 billion.
It will be recalled that the government had, in grand style, inaugurated the construction of a new Lagos-Kano standard gauge line spanning 1,315km on November 28, 2006. The contract was awarded to the CCECC, only to be abandoned by the Umaru Yar’Adua administration after the government had paid the Chinese firm $250 million.
As a cardinal project under its Transformation Agenda, the Jonathan administration was also said to have expended more than N1 trillion on the railway.
Against the backdrop of the huge investments with little or no positive effects, the House of Representatives is currently investigating the N18.7 billion railway projects from 2010 and 2014. For example, there are reports that only three km of the 400 km was done, despite payments totaling N9, 661,076,318 on the entire track network from Port Harcourt-Enugu-Makurdi, whereas the cost of the Abuja-Kaduna rail project was $841 million, out of which the China Exim Bank provided a loan of $500 million, with 2014 as the completion date.
There is the case of the Lagos-Jebba track rehabilitation project awarded at a cost of N12, 293,390,000, out of which N11, 699,999,111 was reportedly paid without any tangible work done. Again, out of a contract sum of N12, 169,237,337, payment of N10, 423,318,023 was reportedly made for the Jebba-Kano track rehabilitation project without any appreciable performance by the contractor. The Zaria-Kaura track rehabilitation project, with N1, 147,471,038 paid out of N3, 206,241,650, suffered a similar predicament.
Although it touted the privatisation of the sector in the past, the government has now embraced a policy of concession of the rehabilitation of the Port Harcourt-Maiduguri and Lagos-Kano rail lines to the United States General Electric (GE), which has promised to inject $2 billion into the project.
And recently at the ground-breaking ceremony of the Lagos-Ibadan standard rail gauge construction in Ebute Metta, Lagos, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo expressed the government’s determination to deliver a fast and efficient rail service between Lagos and Ibadan by December 2018, having released its $72 billion counterpart funding. According to him, the rail project has the potential to create a million jobs and facilitate the movement of about 3.2 million tonnes of cargo annually.
The construction of the new rail line is being jointly financed by the Nigerian and Chinese governments at a cost of $1.5 billion (about N458 billion).
The gains of a standard gauge are truly immense, ranging from infrastructure outlay to job creation, huge revenues, and relief from the current heavy burden and pressure on roads. At a time, the NRC had about 45,000 workers, but its fortunes have nose-dived tragically following the criminal neglect and abandonment of the sector over the years.
However, while the current initiative is seen as a positive development, the trend of events in the recent past counsels a wait-and-see attitude on the part of Nigerians. In the past, sharp practices and policy somersaults created the crevices exploited by contracting firms and their local collaborators in fleecing the country of invaluable resources.
Thus, the Federal Government must match its words with action this time around. Its words must be its bond: the project should be delivered in December 2018, and without compromising quality and global standards. Nigerians are tired of empty promises and dashed hopes.