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The night train to hell by Reuben Abati

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The railway used to be a very important part of transportation in Nigeria during the colonial era up until the collapse of everything that once worked in this country.

The collapse began, suspect, with the civil war and its aftermath and the introduction of a Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in the 80s which turned the country into a wasteland of poverty.

As young students, knowing the rail lines of Nigeria was a compulsory assignment if you were studying Civics or Geography. I recall how we were made to draw those winding lines with double bars across indicating the lines from Lagos to Nguru and Port Harcourt to Maiduguri.

We also memorized all the destinations along the line. We were taught that the first railway in Nigeria was opened between Lagos and Abeokuta in 1898 by the colonial authorities using the Cape gauge, a very narrow gauge.

In Abeokuta, Ibadan, Kano, and Maiduguri, the train terminal was a major cultural and social icon, a bustling centre of economic activity. Along the route to the major terminals, small communities developed along the rail routes, the trains linked towns and communities – Ifo, Ilaro, Mokoloki, Minna, Kaduna, Kaura Namoda, Kuru, Jos and the people in such places found jobs and opportunities.

During the civil war, the rail line was a ready route of escape from the pogrom in parts of the country as Easterners fled to their ancestral homeland. After the war, the railway was also useful. It provided not just a reliable alternative to road travel, it was also useful for the transportation of goods and services.

As a young lad, I travelled with my step mum from Abeokuta to Ibadan and to Lagos. At every major train station, hordes of sellers would knock on the windows and sell sugar cane, bean cake, maize, corn matte, and all kinds of fried materials. The signal that the disembarkation of passengers and the boarding of new ones had been completed was always signalled by the loud horn of the train and the clanging of bells to announce the continuation of the journey.

I found the movement of the train especially intriguing. I preferred to look out of the windows to soak in the sight of moving houses and trees. In my innocent mind, I thought the houses and trees moved along with the train.

The Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) was one of Nigeria’s biggest public sector employers at the time. We used to hear of such things as Railway Yard, and truly, it was quite prestigious to be a Railway Staff.

In Dugbe, Ibadan, Lafenwa in Abeokuta, Iddo in Lagos, Kafanchan, Jebba, and Minna, the Railway station was a 24-hour melting pot of culture, and commerce and engineering. The NRC could also boast of many rich assets. The trains were so slow it usually took about three days to get to Kano from Abeokuta.

But the people were happy with the services. The routes were safe, day and night. There were no regular accidents, and if any, very minor, but the most fatal that occurred was at Langa-Langa in present-day Nasarawa State on February 16, 1970. The train was on its way to the South East from Jos, when it suddenly derailed at Langa-Langa, resulting in the death of about 150 persons. It was a tragic accident.

Many had to be amputated before they could be rescued from the wreckage. But this did not deter people from patronizing the services of the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC). In due course, Nigeria happened to the Railway. Here is what that means: the Nigeria Railway became inefficient. Its coaches collapsed one after the other and they were not replaced. Many of the train stations from Lagos to Nguru, from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri were abandoned.

ALSO READ: Suddenly, I felt empty without my mobile phone by Ehi Braimah

Many of the train communities lost the commerce that the trains brought along. In the few places like Lagos, where a few coaches still moved between Agege and Iddo, rail transportation had become an expression of madness.

By 1990, the NRC could only boast of about 15 coaches in its entire national network. In many parts of the country, vandals stole the iron-on train tracks and melted them for their own selfish purposes. The tracks were already overgrown with weeds in any case.

The most shocking illustration of the failure of the NRC was the conversion of the rail lines into trading posts. In Lagos, at Agege, and in Yaba, Oshodi, and Mushin, as the rickety surviving coaches approached, the traders moved their wares out of the way.

As soon as the train passed, they would set up their wares again: tomatoes, pepper, second-hand clothes, chin chin, puff puff. Late in the night, the rail tracks were turned into public toilets! The dispossession of the Nigerian economy due to bad economic judgment, bad leadership and corruption within the public sector led to the collapse of the Nigerian Railway: unpaid salaries and allowances, unhappy pensioners, abandoned yards.

As the railways collapsed, Nigerians moved to the roads. The roads would also soon collapse under the weight of abuse.  Air travel has always been elitist. The majority of the people travel on the roads and by rail. In the 80s, the Lateef Jakande administration in Lagos, thinking ahead, tried to build a Metroline in Lagos. Jakande meant well, but the Buhari administration that came to power in 1985, aborted the project. About 40 years later, Lagos is still struggling to revive the dream.

Indeed, it has been long recognized that a multi-modal transportation system and a railway system, in particular, was crucial to Nigeria’s development process. This explains why since the return to democratic rule under the leadership of President Olusegun Obasanjo, concerted efforts have been made to strengthen transportation infrastructure in the country with the rail system as part of the design. Other administrations have followed suit with efforts and programmes to deliver efficient and solid railway infrastructure.

In 2006, the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) was brought in to build the Lagos-Kano Standard Gauge Railway. Before the Obasanjo Government left office in 2007, there had been an attempt to further expand railway operations in the country. In 2009, serious attempts began to restore the rail lines beginning with the Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, on the Eastern line.

At both state and federal levels, efforts were also made to rebuild Nigeria’s railway infrastructure. In fairness to the Buhari administration which assumed office in 2015, it has done a lot to sustain infrastructure projects that it inherited from its predecessors, including the Jonathan administration, the railway, included.

These include the Abuja-Kaduna rail line of 187 km, officially commissioned on July 26, 2016, the Warri-Itakpe line completed in 2020. It took 30 years to finish that particular construction. The Lagos-Ibadan line was launched on June 10, 2021.

The administration has also constructed major railway terminals in Lagos, Ibadan, Abeokuta and parts of the East. In a sense, what the Buhari administration has done with the Railways, in terms of structure, branding, reinvention, and promotion of communal ownership is meant to be one of its major legacies.

Unfortunately, all of that is coming unstuck in a very bad manner. The rail lines cited above and others are in place, and others are works in progress, but the efforts of the Buhari administration is taking the revival of the rail infrastructure in the country to a strong end is undermined by recent revelations and incidents about the integrity of railway operations in the country.

The most shocking development would be the attack on an Abuja-Kaduna bound train by terrorists last Monday. As reported, 398 passengers bought tickets, 362 boarded, but some media outlets reported that a total of 970 persons were on board. How?

Nigeria is one country where basic statistics is a ghost affair, we are a country where nobody knows how much crude oil is produced, how much is refined or imported, how many students are in school or out of school, how many policemen the country has, there is even no reliable data on retail sales, we don’t even know the country’s exact population! Almost a week after the attack on the night train to Kaduna, Nigeria remains in a state of confusion.

The only people that are most affected are those who lost their beloved ones- their only sin is that they belong to a country that does not care enough for its citizens.

The Abuja-Kaduna train tragedy speaks to all that is wrong with Nigeria: we have revived the railways, but in the very effort that has been made is the seed of failure. Who is going to explain this failure to the affected families? Who is going to tell them that it is okay to die needlessly in Nigeria?

The big lesson from the Kaduna-Abuja train tragedy is that the country is not safe. Not even in the Langalanga incident was there a report of the bombing. The rail tracks at the worst of times in the past used to be safe. Today, terrorists plant bombs either in trains or on rail tracks.

I painted the picture of a time when the Railway was considered one of the safest modes of transportation in Nigeria and the decline that followed. Despite all the investments and the attempts to revive the railway sector, it is sad to note that the best is not working.

A loud statement was made about the insecurity in the land when the Abuja-Kaduna train was bombed. There have been other cases of a train bombing in the world: the Minsk Metro bombing of 2011, the Chennai train bombing of May 2014, the Istanbul Metro bombing of 2015, the Brussels train bombing of March 2016, the Saint Petersburg Metro bombing of April 2017, all of them linked to terrorist attacks.

What rankles in the Nigerian case is that there was prior intelligence. Nobody acted on the intelligence. Both the Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir el-Rufai and the Minister of Transportation have disclosed that the tragedy was avoidable because it was foreseen.

El-Rufai accuses the military of failing to do its duty by blatantly refusing to attack the hideouts of the terrorist despite having enough information about their location, identity and operations. El-Rufai barely stopped short of accusing the military of complicity.

He plans to see the President to make specific requests: he says military formations should be established in the North West, that the military should show greater determination, and that the NRC should stop night operations henceforth.

The Minister of Transportation says the problem is money: if only he had been given N3bilion as earlier proposed to address security and surveillance issues and to purchase sensors and other surveillance equipment, nobody would have been able to go near the trains to plant bombs or attack travellers.

The Inspector-General of Police now says he has deployed security men to protect the engineers who have been directed to make sure the trains start working again forthwith. He also wants to deploy drones. The Nigerian Air Force says it will use aircraft to provide backup security for trains in Nigeria. Minister Rotimi Amaechi has talked about engaging villagers along train routes to provide information to the security agencies.

Please where on earth does anyone build strategic railway lines across vast, ungoverned spaces of the country without working out a security arrangement, only to wait for tragedy to occur before considering security as an add-on? Only in Nigeria! We act first and think later, after a familiar fashion.

The terrorists in the North West and the North East have become more audacious because they know that Nigeria is negligent. They understand the weakness of the state better than the state itself. One whole week after the incident, with the President giving the Service Chiefs marching orders, nobody has been arrested, nobody has given us any positive information, no victim has been rescued! But we have evidence of cosmetic visits to the hospitals and promises made.

The House of Representatives acting patriotic asked the Service Chiefs and other stakeholders to show up in their Chambers to give account. The Service Chiefs and other stakeholders, with the exception of the DG of the Nigeria Airspace Management Authority (NAMA) sent Representatives!

The President has directed that services should resume. The Nigeria Railway Workers Union has sent back a rebuttal: its members are not going back to work unless their safety can be guaranteed. I doubt if many passengers would have the courage to travel by rail again, either along the Abuja-Kaduna route or elsewhere.

The problem is that the roads are not safe, air travel is expensive, and there are no other ready options. We are under the siege of bandits and terrorists and hapless security agents.

Apart from the bombing of the Abuja-Kaduna train, the Kaduna International Airport was also attacked by terrorists who according to a certain Army General were just passing by. Passing by!  Communities have also been tacked in Niger State, close to the Federal Capital Territory.

Governor el-Rufai says if the Federal Government would not do anything, he will arrange to get mercenaries to fight the terrorists. He is speaking out of frustration. He has no such powers under the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic.

The Nigeria Air Force says they are now prepared to deploy the Super Tucano jets that Nigeria bought from the US in 2021. When we see the jets in action, we will say so – seeing is believing as Nigerians would say. But all of this is reactive rather than proactive.

Insecurity remains the biggest problem Nigeria faces today. It is the same problem that any Presidential aspirant in the 2023 Presidential election must talk about with clarity and sense.

On this subject, the outgoing administration must eschew the temptation to abuse, harass, insult or intimidate anyone who chooses to speak truth to power either from the pulpit or from lecture halls at home and abroad, whether that person be a Sheik, an Overseer or a former President. We need to make the trains safe: leverage technology, put the best hands in charge and place a higher priority on the observance of best practices.

In 2019, the Nigerian government reportedly reviewed the National Security Strategy (NSS) to find lasting solutions to security threats. It was the first time since 2014 that such a review would take place. Three years later, where are the gains of that review?

Strictly Personal

Don’t cry for Mandela’s party; ANC’s poll loss is self-inflicted, By Jenerali Ulimwengu

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There is losing, and then there is losing. The loss that the African National Congress suffered in the recently concluded elections in South Africa is a loss of a special type. It is almost as if the erstwhile liberation movement willed this loss on itself.

This is Africa’s oldest political organisation, which, with its longevity and the special task imposed on it by history, became more than a party or a movement but rather became more like a nation — the nation of Black South Africans.

I mean, if you were a Black man or woman in South Africa and you wanted to identify as somebody who wants to be respected as a human being, you were automatically ANC.

True, this is somewhat exaggerated, but it is not very far from the truth. For most of its life since its founding in 1912, it always identified with and represented the people of South Africa, taking an all-inclusive approach to the struggle for all the racial, ethnic, and confessional groups in the country, even when the exactions meted on the country by the most nefarious ideology on the planet could have suggested, and did indeed, suggest a more exclusivist outlook in favour of the majority racial cohort.

It sought to unite and to mobilise energies nationally and internationally, and create a more equal society for all, that would be in sync with the most advanced and progressive thought of the world at different stages of its career. It became home for all South Africans regardless of colour, creed or social station.

Even after Apartheid was officially promulgated as the philosophy and practice of the national government after 1948, the ANC hardly veered from that steadfast philosophical vision. To galvanise adhesion and grow ownership, the ANC adopted strategic blueprints for the future, including the Freedom Charter of 1955, setting out the basic things the movement would do when it came into power.

In the face of intransigence on the part of the Boers, the ANC saw the need to alter strategy and accept that armed struggle was inevitable, and launched the MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation) to spearhead armed insurrection.)

Though MK was more effective as a propaganda tool than a fighting force, it did the job of getting the white minority in the country to realise that their lives of comfort were numbered as things stood, and that it made more sense to seek some form of accommodation with the Blacks.

Once that was effected, even those Whites who had been diehard supremacists suddenly realised, with regret, how stupid they had been all along: Not only were these Blacks, long considered subhuman, not only fully human but also corruptible—just like the Whites.

And so the White establishment set out to work on their old enemies, corrupting them to the core with the luxurious goodies that up to then the nouveau riches had not imagined, with things like the erroneously termed “Black Empowerment”, a programme designed to yank from the bosom of the people a handful of individuals with sufficient appetites to make them forget about the Freedom Charter.

Probably more than anything, it was this that spelled the start of the demise of the ANC. In the past, we had seen former freedom fighters in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea Bissau scramble into the blinding lights of Lourenco Marques, Luanda and Bissau, to be destroyed by the perils of Original Sin.

But South Africa was different in that the erstwhile oppressors simply took even the former “terrorists” by making them filthy rich, detached from the depressing realities of the masses of their people, by making them, in effect, traitors. So much so that when the workers at Marikana went on strike against a company owned by the current president of the country, the latter had absolutely no qualms about sending in the police to kill scores of protesters!

Now, the phenomenon of two sitting presidents being replaced by their party is spectacular in itself, but it belied a body politic that was groaning under its dead weight of sleaze and factionalism.

It may seem to some observers that the only thing that kept the various hungry factions together was the white-run oppressive system, and that after this was replaced with money-making cabals of ex-comrades, we found an ANC that was ideologically bankrupt and politically rudderless.

Now the ANC has to deal with the electoral result that has denied it an absolute majority for the first time, its crimes and misconduct have caught up with it. It has been sent to a political purgatory to atone for its sins, but while there, it must choose whom to work with among its sworn enemies:

Will it choose the DA, a lily-White party whose feeble attempt to ‘bronze’ itself with the recent choice of Mmusi Maimane as its head failed miserably? Will it rather be Jacob Zuma’s MK party, which is shamelessly an ethnic outfit bent on rehabilitating a misfit who has been disgraced multiple times as a rascal and a thief? Or could it be the EFF’s Julius Malema, whose day job has become, for some time now, to lambast the person of the current president and chief of the ANC?

We shall see.

Ulimwengu is now on YouTube via jeneralionline tv. E-mail: jenerali@gmail.com

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Appraising 25 years of return to democracy, By Jide Ojo

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Last Wednesday, May 29, 2024, marked exactly the silver jubilee of Nigeria’s return to civil rule. However, the celebration has been shifted to June 12 in commemoration of the 1993 presidential election won by the late Chief MKO Abiola which the military junta of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida annulled. It was the immediate past President, Muhammadu Buhari, who did that. In a tweet posted on his X handle on June 6, 2018, Buhari said inter alia “Dear Nigerians, I am delighted to announce that, after due consultations, the Federal Government has decided that henceforth, June 12 will be celebrated as Democracy Day. We have also decided to award posthumously the highest honour in the land, GCFR, to Chief MKO Abiola. In the view of Nigerians, as shared by this administration, June 12, 1993, was and is far more symbolic of democracy in the Nigerian context than May 29, or even October 1.”

Chief Abiola’s running mate, Babagana Kingibe, was also awarded a GCON. Furthermore, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN), a tireless fighter for human rights and democracy, and for the actualisation of the June 12, 1993 election was posthumously awarded a GCON. Buhari said further that, the June 12, 1993, election was the freest, fairest and most peaceful election since Nigeria’s independence.

1999 to date has been described by political historians as the Fourth Republic. Recall that the First Republic was between October 1, 1960 and January 15, 1966. The Second Republic was between October 1, 1979, and December 31, 1983, when the military struck. The Third Republic was between 1990 and June 23, 1993, when IBB annulled the June 12 presidential election. Thus, the Third Republic was inchoate and inconclusive as it was aborted without a president being sworn into office. Out of Nigeria’s 64 years as a sovereign nation, 29 years were administered by military junta.

How has Nigerian democracy fared under civil rule in the last 25 years? Poorly. Leadership remains a bane of Nigeria’s progress. Although there are 11,082 elective political offices in Nigeria, the occupiers have been more concerned about personal aggrandisement than selfless service. That is why our elections are heavily monetised and prone to violence. Politicians, more often than not, adopt the Machiavellian principle of ‘the end justifies the means.’ They do all they can to compromise the electoral process and manipulate it to their advantage. For instance, campaign finance laws are breached as they spend far above the legal spending limits. Though there are copious laws against electoral violence with stringent penalties, the masterminds and the arrowheads more often than not do not get caught while their minions who get caught are bailed out of detention without prosecution.

If the Independent National Electoral Commission should publish the list of those successfully convicted for electoral crimes in the last 25 years, most Nigerians will be surprised at the infinitesimal number. This has sustained the culture of impunity in our electoral process. Little wonder INEC has been in the forefront of asking for the setting up of the Electoral Offences Commission and Tribunal. Will Nigeria’s devious political class allow that law to be passed? That will be political hara-kiri!

So, since many of Nigeria’s political leaders ‘bought’ or procured their electoral victory, their loyalty does not lie with the electorate but to themselves and their rapacious political class. Because of the heavy spending on elections, the primary objective of Nigeria’s political class is to recoup their investment with super profit. Thus, there is a nexus between unbridled political spending and corruption. The truth is that if all the political officeholders were to live and survive on their basic salaries, there would be so much left for infrastructural development and good governance. However, while they are quick to show us their pay slip, the humongous amount they receive as allowances, estacodes and kickbacks are never mentioned.

Does it not occur to you that nobody will spend billions of naira to contest for a political office only to collect a sum of money that will not defray his or her political expenses? The truth is that not all politicians are bad but the good ones are very few. According to the former American President, Abraham Lincoln, “The true rule, in determining to embrace, or reject anything, is not whether it has any evil in it; but whether it has more evil than good. There are few things wholly evil or wholly good.”

I watched a vox pop conducted by a lady in the United Kingdom asking Nigerians in that country if they would like to get £100,000 and move back to Nigeria. All the respondents said no to the offer. She probed further why they didn’t want to come back home, and unanimously they said it was because of our leadership problem. They all fingered leadership as Nigeria’s number one challenge. The irrefutable fact is that Nigeria is a crippled giant to borrow the words of renowned Professor of Political Science, Eghosa Osaghae. Yes, while I admit that we are not where we used to be, we are at the same time not where we ought to be. For many years, Nigeria laid claim to being the biggest economy in Africa but today we are number four after South Africa, Egypt and Algeria according to the International Monetary Fund.

Twenty-five years into this Fourth Republic, we have had seven general elections in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2019 and 2023. We have also had five presidents namely, Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Yar’Adua, Goodluck Jonathan, Muhammadu Buhari and the incumbent, Bola Tinubu. Two political parties have ruled at the centre; the Peoples Democratic Party which governed from 1999 to 2015, while the All Progressives Congress has taken over the leadership mantle at the centre from 2015 to date. Unfortunately, whether you’re talking of the APC or the PDP, or the three tiers of government namely, federal, state and local; what is common to all of them is poor governance. All the development indices that are pointing south are a cumulative non-performance of all the former holders of political offices and the incumbents. As we say, governance is a continuum.

I have said, time and again, that no individual has the magic wand to turn things around for the better in this country. The President, being the overall boss should work collaboratively with state governors and local government chairpersons. However, the president must lead by good example so he can serve as a moral compass to helmsmen and women at the sub-national level. I’m not comfortable with the spending spree of our political office holders who luxuriate in ostentatious lifestyles with their families while the majority of my compatriots languish in poverty.

Nigeria’s political leaders should imbibe the culture of prudence in the management of public finance. The borrowing binge should also stop. Many in the executive arm holding political offices are indulging in reckless borrowing under the guise of funding developmental projects. At the end of the day, there is nothing much to show for the huge public debts. It is important to block revenue leakages and stop oil thefts. It is an act of selflessness, not selfishness, of our political officeholders that will lead the country out of its current economic doldrums.

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