A Movement On The Rail Track

6 mins read

On Wednesday, the 9th of August, 2006, President Olusegun Obasanjo made a nationwide broadcast to announce that the Federal Govern ment would commit the sum of $8.3 billion to the rehabilitation of the country’s railway system. According to the plan, Phase I of the project will run from Lagos to Kano, while the Phase II will run from Port Harcourt to Jos, with the same criteria as Phase I.


Obasanjo talked about talked about “a new vision, a new commitment, and a holistic strategic plan encompassing expansion and modernisation of the railway to be implemented within a 25-year time frame. The new vision includes a planned expansion of the railways to cover all the state capitals and the major commercial centres of our country.


The president’s speech envisages that the railway modernisation project will promote technology transfer, the building of new skills and the development of rail allied industries, using as much as possible local materials. Furthermore, the project is expected to generate improved socio-economic activity while reducing unemployment.


I feel particularly delighted that for the first time in a very long time, there is a decision taken by the Obasanjo administration that I can identify with. The decision to move on the rail track of national development, albeit lately in the life of the government is a veiy positive one. I have generally become the spokesperson for the railways in our Editorial Board at Daily Trust.


So convinced have we been about the importance of the railways system in national development that we once wrote an editorial titled WE VOTE FOR THE RAILWAYS, arguing that the nation puts the money accruing from excess crude earnings into the modernisation of the railways system. I also remember that I received a congratulatory text from the late Wazin Mohammed, then chairman of the Nigerian Railways Corporation, for a piece I did on this page last year which had been a very emotional recollection of the impact of the railways on my life as ayoung boy, which I had titled AN UNENDING PASSION FOR THE RAILWAYS.


There was just something incredibly short-sighted about the attitude of succeeding governments in Nigeria to the fete of the Nigerian railways: the deterioration of the system, the aging workforce, the near total lack of new investments to expand beyond the colonial lines, a criminal neglect of its strategic national value in preference for roads transportation and haulage. Whereby our country was held to ransom by powerful elements associated with a roads transportation lobby.


In over seven years, the Obasanjo regime too was locked into Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, the illusions that its neo liberal economic policies could somehow drive just on the roads, that received heavy budgetary allocations were badly done and had left us with roads with potholes, in the words of my brother, Sam Nda Isaiah, big enough to swallow small cars. Of course, those budgetary allocations went in directions otherAhan what they were appropriated for.


So fixated were the technocrats that the regime employed to sell our country cheap that they could not even appreciate the absurdity of their hare-brained idea to ‘concession’ the railways as they presently are. The system is so inefficient, outdated and badly run that nobody in his capitalist right senses would ever have taken up the offer of ‘concessioning’, because it could not make economic sense. Besides, where is the idea of concessioning coming from? These reactionary characters running privatisation projects have borrowed them from the experience of the British Railways, which went from the public service to the private sector under Margaret Thatcher.


So if it was good for the imperialist world, then we must take it as our only way of doing our railways business, line, hook and sinker. But the truth is that privatisation and concessioning have worsened the state of the British Railways, not improved it In fact, Britain is not top of the league in Europe where railways are concerned largely because private operators have been known to cut comers in order to lengthen the margins of profit.


The privatised British Railways are not working for the British people and a clamour for their re-nationalisation has become increasingly strident. It is important to make this point now before the jokers of the BPE take our country along the “concessioning” and privatisation route. Even in the madness to be seen to be good errand boys of the Washington based institutions of neo-liberal capitalism, it is important to look out for what might actually be in our national interest. In my view, we need to learn other lessons such as those that Russia and China teach about the railways.


The post-Soviet Russian state experienced ‘shock therapy’ capitalism during which just about eleven or so capitlists profited from the asset-stripping that was at the heart of the transition to the capitalist system. But the Russian state realises the strategic national importance of the Russian railways in binding such a huge country together. Decisions were taken to systematically continue a regime of investments in the public railways system through their updating, renewal and expansion. Russia did not fall for the Washington-taught doctrine of selling everything in the railways. It knew that its sovereignity as a nation could only be enhanced by a publicly run railways system and it remains committed to that.


The Chinese example is also instructive. The whole world now knows about the phenomenal growth and expansion of its economy, which threatens to outstrip those of the most powerful imperialist economies in the next couple of years or decades. A central aspect of the bourgeoning Chinese economy is the systematic renewal, development and expansion of the Chinese railways. One of the newest developments opened a few weeks ago, offering the opening up of the Chinese region of Tibet as part of the phenomenal development of China. These are worthy examples we should be learning from, not the ideological fixation with privatisation even when the ideas have not been properly thought through in respect of their relevance to our setting. The privatisation people have committed too many blunders in the past few years that we should build a national movement to keep the railways in the public sector because of the strategic importance it potentially could have in the making of a modem Nigeria.


Let us remember that the construction of the railways was a major engineering project of the early twentieth century. Generations of working people laboured and lost their lives, cutting through jungles, rivers, hills and  plains to open up the countiy for the exploitative demands of British  imperialism. The rail lines were constructed to to take raw materials from the hinterland to the ports to feed the industries of British capitalism. They also took finished industrial and consumer goods into the various parts of our countiy as we became firmly entrenched into an international capitalist division of labour.


But as we all know, events in history often have unintended outcomes or consequences. The railways that were constructed to ex- NLC President helped the Nigerian people to travel around the country, and in that process, our people got to know themselves and could exchange ideas, including the anti-colonial ideas of nationalism and anti-imperialism. Two examples are useful here.


From the 1930s, especially with the emergence of Michael Imoudu at the head, the Railways Workers’ Union became one of the most militant detachments of the anti-colonial struggle in our nation’s march towards independence. It was also poignant that the railways also carried the late Sa’adu Zungur from Jos to Lagos where he took up appointment as the General Secretary of the NCNC, the most militantly anti-colonial movement in Nigeria’s histoiy. He had been a teacher in Bauchi Province and had left for Jos where the local branch of the NCNC organised a collection to purchase him a ticket for the rail journey. An expanded, nationwide railways system, if it is truly followed through and constructed, will further help to bond Nigeria as an economic unit. It will assist to break down those backward and chauvinistic ideas which a reactionary political elite manipulates to the determent of the people and the nation’s own development This is especially important now when there are still reactionary characters who question the right of existence of our country.


It is important that the first phase of the railways modernisation, the Lagos to Kano line, be started simultaneously from both ends. That is from the Lagos and Kano ends of the development in order to immediately make the impact of the construction work felt from the two ends of the country.


This is an economic and political choice that must not be underrated given the positive effect it would have on life at all ends of the countiy. It was quite unfortunate that the Obasanjo administration procrastinated for seven years before it took a decision to make some major developments in the rehabilitation of the nation’s railways system, just a few months to the end of the government There cannot be much work done in the few months left to the regime, but the Nigerian people must insist that a successor government should be very focused to deliver an improved railways system, at least Phase I of the project in four years, bemuse it can be achieved.


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