Can Nigeria get rail transport right?

Nigerian leaders have championed the revival of the nation’s rail lines for years. And with a recent boost in infrastructure funding, the leaders say new trains will create jobs and revitalise the economy. But some analysts say train projects are one of the Nigerian government’s biggest scams and they note that money for rail transportation in the past has disappeared.

This town is only about 30 kilometres outside of Abuja’s posh city center, but it feels like another country. A few generators rumble in the marketplace because city power hasn’t been on in weeks. Most stores are unlit, and shopkeepers say they have never had power in their homes.

Osa sells bright purses and shoes in a store owned with her fiancé, Kenny. They’ve heard of the city’s latest rail plan, a project that’s expected to get 500,000 commuters from other parts of the Federal Capital Territory surrounding Abuja into the city centre for work every day by 2015.

Osa is optimistic. “We should have faith and it should work for us,” she said. “Maybe people in the past might have failed us but maybe someone that is coming now will provide it for us.”

Kenny, however, has doubts. “2015, to be frank with you, is not going to work. It’s not going to work. That I’m sure of because they have not even started anything,” he said. “They’ve not started anything. It’s not going to work.”

Chinese boost

Despite past disappointments, some officials say it will work this time, because this time they have the money to do it. A Chinese loan of US$500m will cover more than half of the nearly $825m project, which includes two of six planned rail lines.

Jonathan A. Ivoke, the executive secretary for the Federal Capital Territory Administration transportation department, says workers have started building the first two lines, and the other four are expected to be done over the next ten years.

“The project was invigorated,” he said. “The issue of the scope of work, the issue of consultancy and the issue of funding was solved. So we are expecting that with these assurances set aside that nothing will inhibit the project, except maybe supernatural issues.”

Ivoke says for Nigerians living in the many “satellite towns” surrounding the capital, the trains will make life easier by alleviating the gruelling traffic into the city and give the economy a much-needed boost.

“Transportation is an enabler of the economy,” he said. “When people move from place to place, they go from their house to their work place, from their house to the market place. From their house to the offices, from their house to the school. The meaning is that they are carrying out economic activities.”

Previous disappointments

It’s hard to find a person in Abuja who doesn’t agree with Ivoke on this point. The director of the Institute for Anti-Corruption Studies at the University of Abuja, Kabir Mato, says without trains, consumer goods plod across the country on trucks, keeping prices high while most people live in absolute poverty.

But he says he’s tired of train plans because these have been floating around since before Nigeria transitioned to democracy. The current Abuja rail project was first conceived in 2006 and the government says it’s 22% complete.

“From the military days up to this moment, governments have kept the promise going that we will revive the railway system,” he said. “A lot of monies are appropriated on an annual basis. And perhaps by the end of every financial year 50%, 60% or 70% of the appropriated amount is expended. But trains are not moving. Trains are not moving.”

Mato says the larger the project is in Nigeria, the more likely the funds will be stolen. If even half the money set aside for train projects had actually been spent on train projects in the past, he says, there would be trains everywhere. – VOA