THISDAY - - LIVING - Is­rael Ibeleme Ibeleme writes from Abuja

Just days be­fore Pres­i­dent Buhari met with Pres­i­dent Trump at the White House, his­tory was made in Wash­ing­ton, DC, with the sign­ing of a land­mark in­fra­struc­ture agree­ment be­tween the Nige­rian Gov­ern­ment and a con­sor­tium of multi­na­tional firms led by the Amer­i­can dig­i­tal in­dus­trial gi­ant, Gen­eral Elec­tric (GE). The im­ple­men­ta­tion of that agree­ment, worth US$45 mil­lion in the first phase, will en­sure that within the next 12 months, pas­sen­ger travel by rail from La­gos to Kano will be faster and safer, while for the first time in over a decade, con­tracted and sched­uled freight rail ser­vices can once again be of­fered.

This mile­stone project is the out­come of Pres­i­dent Buhari’s sin­gle-minded de­ter­mi­na­tion to de­velop, up­grade and mod­ernise Nige­ria’s trans­port in­fra­struc­ture, as well as the re­lent­less push by the Min­is­ter of Trans­porta­tion, Ro­timi Amaechi, to fully de­liver on the Pres­i­dent’s vi­sion.

Since Mr. Amaechi took of­fice in Novem­ber 2015, as Min­is­ter of Trans­porta­tion, there has been a re­nais­sance in Nige­ria’s rail in­dus­try, in line with the Pres­i­dent’s oft-stated vi­sion. This planned re­vamp of the Nar­row-Gauge Rail Net­work by the in­ter­na­tional con­sor­tium com­pris­ing Gen­eral Elec­tric, Transnet of South Africa, Sino Hy­dro of China and APM Ter­mi­nals (part of the Dan­ish Maersk Group) – af­ter two years of metic­u­lous plan­ning, ne­go­ti­at­ing and con­tract­ing, of­fers strong proof of the se­ri­ous­ness with which the Buhari Ad­min­is­tra­tion is tak­ing its railway mod­erni­sa­tion am­bi­tions.

Nige­ria’s Nar­row-Gauge Rail Sys­tem was con­ceived in the 1890s and built be­tween 1898 and 1926, with a to­tal length of 3,500 kilo­me­tres. It con­sists of two pri­mary lines – La­gos to Nguru and Port Har­court to Maiduguri – with spur lines to Eleme, Baro, Kaura Namoda and other places.

These crit­i­cal eco­nomic as­sets have since be­come de­crepit, hav­ing suf­fered sig­nif­i­cant de­cline due to lack of in­vest­ments in in­fra­struc­ture main­te­nance. A few years ago, a pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion com­menced a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gramme, which saw the La­gos-Kano line come back to life. But that re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion was not ac­com­pa­nied by corol­lary im­prove­ments in op­er­a­tions and engi­neer­ing man­age­ment ca­pac­ity, thus fail­ing to fully ex­ploit the mas­sive freight and pas­sen­ger po­ten­tial of the nar­row­gauge net­work.

The Buhari ad­min­is­tra­tion, as part of its in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment vi­sion, has now fi­nally taken the long over­due bold steps to mod­ernise the rail net­work. On Au­gust 18, 2017, the Fed­eral Ex­ec­u­tive Coun­cil, fol­low­ing a com­pet­i­tive pro­cure­ment process, ap­proved the con­ces­sion of the Nar­row-Gauge Rail Sys­tem to the GE-led Con­sor­tium. The Gov­ern­ment is ad­vised by a mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary con­sor­tium led by the Africa Fi­nance Corporation.

The ini­ti­a­tion of that con­ces­sion agree­ment is what has now fi­nally taken ef­fect fol­low­ing the sign­ing in Wash­ing­ton, DC yes­ter­day, ahead of Pres­i­dent Buhari’s bi­lat­eral meet­ing with U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on Mon­day.

Sources within the GE Con­sor­tium have dis­closed that the first set of 3 lo­co­mo­tives and sixty wag­ons (out of 10 lo­co­mo­tives and 200 wag­ons) are ready to be shipped to Nige­ria.

The ben­e­fits of this in­ter­ven­tion are im­mense: in­creased eco­nomic pro­duc­tiv­ity, job cre­ation, pri­vate sec­tor in­vest­ment, hu­man ca­pac­ity de­vel­op­ment and much-needed world class ex­per­tise. World­wide, rail in­fra­struc­ture has been proven to re­duce costs and wastage of goods; in­crease eco­nomic trade be­tween farm­ers/ min­ers and in­dus­try and be­tween traders and con­sumers; and grow busi­ness com­pet­i­tive­ness and in­crease op­er­a­tional ef­fi­ciency.

The Nar­row-Gauge Con­ces­sion with the GE-led Con­sor­tium is only one of many projects con­ceived in the sec­tor. In July 2016, Pres­i­dent Buhari com­mis­sioned the Abuja (Idu) to Kaduna (Ri­gasa) Stan­dard-Gauge Rail Line, which runs two round trips daily be­tween the two cities, cre­at­ing an al­ter­na­tive for the over 20,000 mo­torists who ply the route.

Also, that month, Min­is­ter Amaechi signed a rene­go­ti­ated agree­ment with the China Civil Engi­neer­ing Con­struc­tion Corporation that re­vised the cost – orig­i­nally ne­go­ti­ated by his pre­de­ces­sors – of the La­gos-Cal­abar Coastal Railway Project down­wards by 800 mil­lion dol­lars.

Again, in March 2017, Vice-Pres­i­dent, Yemi Os­in­bajo flagged-off con­struc­tion of the 156-kilo­me­tre La­gos-Ibadan Stan­dard-Gauge Line, fol­low­ing the pay­ment of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s 15 per cent coun­ter­part funds about two hun­dred mil­lion dol­lars to the Chinese Ex­port Im­port Bank. The project is ex­pected to be com­pleted within three years and it forms the sec­ond phase of the La­gos to Kano Stan­dard Gauge Line, af­ter the Abuja-Kaduna Line. This Stan­dard Gauge project is dif­fer­ent from the ex­ist­ing Nar­row-Gauge line be­ing con­ces­sioned to the GE Con­sor­tium.

Fur­ther­more, in De­cem­ber 2017, the Fed­eral Ex­ec­u­tive Coun­cil ap­proved the ac­qui­si­tion of nine lo­co­mo­tives, one hun­dred and twen­tyeight Pas­sen­ger Coaches, and one hun­dred and ninety wag­ons to sup­port Stan­dard Gauge rail op­er­a­tions.

The Abuja Mono­rail project will be com­mis­sioned dur­ing the sec­ond quar­ter of 2018. The first phase of the 45-kilo­me­tre rail project has 12 rail sta­tions and con­nects the Nnamdi Azikiwe In­ter­na­tional Air­port to Abuja’s Cen­tral Busi­ness Dis­trict.

In his 2018 New Year Speech, Pres­i­dent Buhari an­nounced that ne­go­ti­a­tions were ad­vanced for the con­struc­tion of the Fron­tier Rail Line from Kano to Maradi in Niger Repub­lic em­a­nat­ing from Kano through to Kaza­ure, Katsina, Jibia and fi­nally to Maradi.

Also note­wor­thy is the de­vel­op­ment of the Coastal Rail Line from La­gos to Cal­abar via La­gos-Ore-Benin City-Sapele-Warri-Ye­nagoa with sid­ings to Otuoke, Port Har­court, Aba, Uyo, Cal­abar and branch line from Benin-City, Obudu, Onit­sha in­clud­ing Onit­sha rail bridge. These de­vel­op­ments are sig­nif­i­cant, as they will po­si­tion Nige­ria as a ma­jor tran­ship­ment hub for mil­lions of tons of goods be­ing im­ported from and ex­ported to land-locked coun­tries in­clud­ing Niger, Chad, Burk­ina Faso and Cameroon.

For cen­turies, rail net­works have formed the foun­da­tion for in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, pro­duc­tiv­ity and eco­nomic ef­fi­ciency for many de­vel­oped na­tions. For in­stance, rail in­fra­struc­ture stock in the United States of Amer­ica in­creased 16-fold from 14,000 kilo­me­tres in 1850 to over 220,000 kilo­me­tres to­day. The United States’ rail net­work has an­nual rev­enues of about $60 bil­lion, pro­vides 221,000 jobs and de­liv­ers 5 mil­lion tons of freight and trans­ports ap­prox­i­mately 85,000 pas­sen­gers ev­ery day. One third of all ex­ports from the United States is fa­cil­i­tated by rail trans­port.

In the 2017 Bud­get and the 2018 Bud­get Pro­posal, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment pro­vi­sioned more than 300 bil­lion naira for railway projects, mainly as 15 per cent coun­ter­part funds to un­lock ad­di­tional con­ces­sion­ary fund­ing from the Chinese Ex­port Im­port Bank.

This is an un­prece­dented com­mit­ment, which, com­bined with the GE-led Con­sor­tium’s drive to mod­ernising Nige­ria’s rail in­fra­struc­ture, will add im­mense value to Nige­ria’s long term eco­nomic growth and pro­duc­tiv­ity.

Pres­i­dent Buhari in one of the coaches when he com­mis­sioned the Abuja-Kaduna train ser­vices

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