That the railway may thrive again

A review of Oladele Osunbote’s Railway in Nigeria (Part II) by Abiodun Awolaja.

In a clime where road traffic accidents, particularly by heavy-duty vehicles deployed by Nigeria’s narrow-minded moneybags, are routine, it is perhaps not fortuitous that calls for the return of rail transportation have been less than strident, even muted. If anything, as Oladele Osubote notes in Railway in Nigeria (Part II) (Pentagon Books Limited, Ibadan, 2016), the larger socio-cultural issues impeding Nigeria’s march to greatness, including ethnic rivalry and what Chinweizu has tagged Caliphate Colonialism elsewhere; corruption and nepotism, military adventurism and perverse political leadership, disturbingly  overwhelm the structural issues that the rail transportation system in Nigeria has had to contend with: narrow gauge, abandoned workshops, obsolete infrastructure and plunder of rail infrastructure, among others. In other words, the 430-page epochal material combines both the structural and functional problems of the rail transportation system in a mesmerising dialectic.

Right from the early pages the reader confronts the disturbing details of the  of the perverse politics that turned an otherwise profitable industry employing over 45,000 Nigerians into a moribund industry that continues to drain the public purse by way of, for instance, retirement  and severance packages for workers disengaged from the system in the their productive prime; the wanton and to date unprecedented looting of the treasury by the Sani Abacha (1993-1998) junta; and, before then, the callous termination of the Lagos metro line initiative of the Lateef Jakande administration by the Mohammadu Buhari military junta, a dark phase in Nigeria’s history which also put a break on the genuine initiatives of the Shehu Shagari administration to consolidate on the landmarks recorded under the Olusegun Obasanjo military administration (1976-1999) through partnership with Indian technocrats (the RITES team). In this way, although focusing on woes of the railway in Nigeria and how to reinvent the wheel, Railway in Nigeria (Part II) offers fresh insights into the vagaries of Nigeria’s political economy, and is a must read for anyone desirous of realistic change in the fortunes of Nigeria’s  neglected gold mine. The text suggests that  even though the abundantly blessed railway transportation system in Nigeria suffered the misfortune of being criminally managed, in the author’s one words, “one ruler-hero of Nigeria will one day do something about the railway.”

In an interaction with one of the Chinese saboteurs brought into the nation by Abacha under a $528 million contract/scam, the author learns a shocking fact. “About five of the seven men I interviewed said,’ for China, I no be railway worker.’ (In China, I’m no rail worker).”  These were the people imported into Nigeria by that junta to revive the railway. Osunbote in fact presents startling contrasts: “The re-railing of coaches which occurred at Olodo-Ibadan in 1982 was done within twenty-four hours. Tracks of two kilometres were then totally destroyed. Eight passengers died. When the train services resumed the second day, people did not believe.” By contrast, “On the one which occurred on 7 May 2005, the railway at Ibadan or Western District has no crane. They planned to go to the Eastern District, Enugu, to bring a crane. They would spend more than one week before the crane would arrive at the accident site.”

Indeed, the book is an insider’s account of the ups and downs of railway transportation in Nigeria, the author having served in the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) for 10 years before pulling out in frustration. He had received promotion on a yearly basis, but could not continue with a system he believed had become a ruse since the termination of the contract of the Indian team which gave the railway a massive turn around between the Obasanjo military years and the Shagari years, and the deadly ethnic struggle by its Nigerian successors.