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Terrorism and the second slow death of train transport in Nigeria – By Israel Ojoko

Travelling in Nigeria today, whether by road, train or air, has become a dangerous adventure dreaded by many. Apart from terrible roads that cause accidents and poorly maintained aeroplanes that cause crashes and emergency landings, insecurity across the country is a factor bedevilling all means of transportation.

What have we not seen in Nigeria? We have witnessed terrorism inside the airport, we have seen attacks and kidnapping on the roads, and we have seen bomb blasts, killing and kidnapping of passengers on a train by terrorists. We have seen it all.

On 28 March 2022, terrorists attacked an Abuja-Kaduna train in Katari, killed some passengers right there and kidnapped many, some of the abducted victims have managed to pay a ransom and got released, while many are still in the den of their abductors, not sure if they would live to see the next hour.

Only recently, three hostages were released after 100 million naira ransom was paid, while the abductors have categorically told the family of another hostage that they will never see her again. I remember the excitement travellers felt when the Abuja-Kaduna rail was opened for service in 2016.

The 187 km standard gauge line was inaugurated by President Muhammadu Buhari on July 26 that year, with standard gauge railway tracks from Idu, near Abuja, to Kaduna in the north-western region of Nigeria.

In a matter of a few months, the number of travellers doubled. Both rich and poor, politicians and businessmen, men and women, young and adult, Hausa and Igbo, Yoruba and Igala, Christians and Muslims, pastors and imams, all enjoyed the safe and affordable services. The number of roads and air users dropped, and people started taking more trains.

In 2018, the Nigerian Railways Corporation (NRC) announced that the Abuja to Kaduna train service has recorded approximately 900,000 passengers in two years. In 2019, then minister of transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, said the passenger traffic on the Abuja-Kaduna railway has increased from 1,000 to 3,700 daily, which is about a 270 per cent rise.

In August 2020, NRC reported that about 50% of the revenue of its about 4,000 km entire rail network would be generated by the standard gauge Abuja-Kaduna line. That was how massive patronage increased on that route. However, all these frenzies and booming businesses came crashing in March 2022 and are yet to find their feet back. The worst has now happened. Revenue generation has stopped, the government is losing huge money daily, and the train and its tracks are out of use, leading to rust deterioration.

Let me do a rough calculation. Business class on the train cost N5,300 while the standard class cost N2,700. But let’s assume all 3,700 daily passengers paid for the standard class. 3,700 multiplied by 2,700 is N9,990,000. That is to say the Abuja-Kaduna rail service makes about 10 million naira daily. Now, the service has been suspended since March 28, that is four months ago or 120 days ago. If you multiply 10 million by 120, it means the  Nigerian Railways Corporation  has lost 1.2 billion naira since the attack and suspension of the Abuja-Kaduna railway service. That is a huge financial loss.

In the late 2000s, the train was projected to be a major means of transportation in Nigeria in 25 years. The Abuja-Kaduna segment is the first to be implemented as part of the Lagos-Kano standard gauge project under the first standard gauge railway modernisation projects (SGRMP) in Nigeria. The rail will connect Lagos, Kano, Kaduna, Warri, Bauchi, Abuja, and Port Harcourt and was to cost the country $13 billion, much of which will be financed with a loan from the Export-Import Bank of China. The China Railway Construction Corporation secured the contract to build the 3,218km network, which will be digitally operated using fibre-optic cables, radio communication and wireless services.  

Train service was a safe and effective means of transportation in Nigeria until the 90s when it was abandoned for lack of maintenance and the Nigeria Railway Corporation collapsed. But today, insecurity is a major problem mitigating against the long-term success of train transport.

I summoned the courage to travel by train despite knowing full well that since there was an intelligence report of an impending attack on Lagos, the train could be a particular target following the success of a similar attack in March. However, It was a smooth and safe ride from Yaba in Lagos to Moniya in Ibadan.

It was my first time in more than 30 years and the second time ever to travel on a train. The first experience, I was just a little child who travelled with my mum from Ibadan to Kaduna in the late 1980s. As young as I was then, I remembered the journey took us about three days to complete, but I cannot recollect the route we took and the stations or places we had stopovers. I only remember that when I wanted to poop while on the train, I pooped on the ‘pit’ and was seeing train tracks while my excreter dropped on the ground.

In my second and recent experience, the total number of passengers on that trip was about 100. We had about five short stopovers and I observed that at every train station where we stopped, there were armed security personnel on duty at the facility. These are soldiers and mobile policemen. I also observed that at every construction site, there is armed security protection for expatriates and local workers.

Taking a train trip from one state to another in Nigeria is not for the faint-hearted. In fact, we got to a place in the middle of the forest where I became scared, I was just imagining if we were attacked right here right now, what would happen to us? The Abuja-Kaduna train attack has also discouraged many from using the train service. Lagos-Ibadan rail line is the second busiest after the Abuja-Kaduna rail line. But only a handful of people still patronise the service.

When we got to our final destination in Ibadan, just as I disembarked from the conducive air conditioned train, I saw three armed soldiers with AK 47 guns alighting from the front of the same train, then I realised they travelled with us as the security on board. I was impressed that the government is taking the railway service seriously and ensuring the protection of lives.

No doubt, these are dark times for us as a nation, our defence lines have been breached so badly it now seems irredeemable. We pretended for too long that we are insulated from the clear and present danger that lurks around and taking a poisonous and permanent seat among us. Recent development where terrorists have attacked defence formations speaks volumes on its own.

The country has been thrown into fear, memos are flying left right and centre that the Federal Capital Territory and the commercial nerve center of the nation, Lagos, are  potential primary targets. Residents in these places are terrified to go about their normal lives, and if they step out and return in one piece, they count it as a miracle.

After spending billions of dollars to bring back functional train service in Nigeria, the government must not allow a few greedy people who profit from the insecurity situation, and a group of nuisance carrying guns, to mess up the huge investment in the infrastructure.

The government must provide adequate security for travellers, and give the people the assurance of their safety. Insecurity is not an excuse to cause another death of the railway system in Nigeria.

Israel, a writer and content editor, can be reached via israelojoko14@gmail.com 

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