Kakistocracy – 3

I love driving. Put me in a car, with enough money in my pocket and I will gladly drive from Plymouth to Inverness and back. Please note that I have not opted to drive from Lagos to Potiskum; that would be careless indulgence of a hobby, as there are no roads on which to drive. I am also fascinated by the near-kin of road travel; the railway.

As part of my “railway appreciation course”, I have spent a fair deal of time trying to understand the different types of engines, track gauges, pantographs, voltage systems, signalling systems, use of cuttings and embankments in track design. I have also observed – as a passenger and as an interested passer-by – the varied uses to which trains can be put.

Before I ever saw a cargo train, my notion of trains was rather simple; some clumsy means of transport that is used by students who lived in Makurdi and schooled in Port Harcourt. (Do not blame me for this, many of my school mates in secondary school who lived in the Middle Belt in Nigeria travelled by rail, which was what gave birth to this belief). As I grew up, I realised rail travel also included the very efficient commuter trains that hurtle from the suburbs to the cities in the Western world daily, ferrying tourists and workers alike – on time. Then, about 4 years ago, I saw “my” first cargo train. It is a beauty to behold. I do not mean a train with some coaches dedicated to carrying stale groundnuts or near-putrefied kola-nuts. I am talking about 42 coaches conveying nothing but raw materials destined for some blessed factory. Then I understood why my country of origin was and may never be developed. It is not about space technology, neither is it about your ability to split hydrogen atoms or fuse uranium isotopes.

Development, is simply making things work. I stood by the platform that day near my house and counted 42 coaches of this steel leviathan draw cargo towards the car factory that employs nearly everyone in my village (where I reside) and all sorts of thoughts started coursing through my mind. That factory manager would never understand a production delay that was caused by “wetin you carry”! When the factory manager is informed that his cargo has left the Midlands (or wherever the source of the material), he can time his production to begin on schedule. He is not compelled to keep workers on stand-by for 48 hours because Lagos-Ibadan expressway occasioned the ever-present traffic jam (it’s no longer restricted to the first Friday of the month). The railway has, for him, become an extension of his factory line.

That these trains carry more than a Mazi Akajiaku, Chief Mafunwonje or Alhaji Dan-Barawo’s fleet of trailers is very obvious. That these trains travel faster than Large Goods Vehicles (LGVs) can be seen by the blind. There are no gongs to be given for deducing that trains would encounter fewer obstacles in transit than trailers au Naija. That selling and distribution costs for virtually every manufacturing or trading firm operating in Nigeria can be reduced with proper rail infrastructure is quite apparent, if they all don’t have to employ their own fleet of drivers, mechanics, trailer boys and other accompaniments. That the increased prosperity of these firms would translate into a general improvement of the national economy by multiplier effect is something I learnt in GCE economics. These very obvious outcomes are however lost on the lees of intellectual capacity that govern the society.

I am not being inconsiderate; there is rail network in Nigeria. All 3,505km of steel, gravel and dust. It stands in its serpentine glory, snaking from Lagos to Kano and from Kafanchan to Port Harcourt. There is also an offshoot from Kafanchan to Maiduguri. However (there’s always a snag, abi?), less than 70% of the locomotives are operational; less than 50% of the coaches are in a serviceable condition. Speeds are limited to 35km/h for most parts of the network because of rail conditions. No new wagon has been bought since 1993. Some wagons, which were supposed to have a lifespan of 20 years, date as far back as 1948. I reckon it is a case of back to the future!

When the British were in Nigeria, they designed a railway network that would support moving goods from upcountry to the coasts for onward exportation to their own factories in the United Kingdom. So, the track was planned – groundnuts had to get from Kano to the ports in the south and cocoa from Inisa to Lagos. Almost 60 years on, we still have the same network in place, which has little bearing to the economic demands of the nation. It has not been upgraded to reflect the needs of the nation with respect to goods and services distribution.

There is an enabling legal framework also for the operations of railway systems in Nigeria, it is embodied in the Railway Act of 1955 (the latest amendment I could find was 1960). So if you

wonder why no one has embarked on the establishment of private railway schemes, Section 29 of the Act states “It shall be unlawful for any person, without the consent of the Corporation, to construct or operate a railway for the public carriage of passengers or goods within Nigeria”. But in an instance where the government has abdicated its responsibility in this regard, I would have thought that this antiquated pronouncement should be revised to permit private operators and investors build up rail infrastructure to support their economic activities. This section has not been used – to the best of my knowledge – as a basis

for revamping the Nigeria Railway Corporation, instead it is used by the motley assortment of individuals who are supposed to enact laws as a basis for thwarting any meaningful progress that may be made in this direction.

Here is another interesting piece of obsolescence, Section 72 of the same Act; “72. (1) The liability of the Corporation for the loss, damage, deviation, misdelivery, delay or detention of or to animals accepted for carriage by the Corporation shall not exceed, in the case of –
(a) a horse, forty Naira ;
(b) neat cattle or mules, per head, thirty Naira;
(c) a donkey, sixteen Naira ;
(d) a sheep, goat or pig, four Naira ;
(e) a dog or other animal not hereinbefore in this subsection mentioned, two Naira, unless a higher value has been declared in writing by or on behalf of the consignor at the time of consignment.
(2) Where such higher value has been declared, the Corporation may impose an additional charge in respect of the increased liability or, if the value of the animal has been declared to exceed two hundred Naira, may either impose such additional charge or, notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (1), decline to accept liability in excess of the sum specified in relation to that animal by that subsection.”

But then, I think I understand… if the railway network is functioning perfectly, “wetin you carry” business would diminish significantly, the trailer “parks” at Bode Saadu and Ogere would vanish, the trailer boys would be out of job and would become armed robbers, Mazi Akajiaku, Alhaji Dan-Barawo and Chief Mafunwonje would be saddled with a fleet of antique trailers and would run the risk of bankruptcy, the bitumen-tattooed roads would no longer spoil as quickly, so JB would be deprived of road contracts. The existing means of livelihood for a whole bunch of leeches would be scuttled and we as a nation cannot afford that; so let us keep the railway off track!


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