The misplaced priority of Nigeria’s massive rail transport system


The misplaced priority of Nigeria’s massive rail transport system

By Dominic Datong

Thousands of people, including me, have enjoyed the rail transport between Kaduna and Abuja especially with the outburst of kidnapping and armed robbery along the roads in Nigeria. There is no doubt, a country like Nigeria needs an extensive rail transport across its diagonals.

This is the reason for the conception (in 2006) of the giant 1,343 Km rail project that would connect Lagos to Kano which was to cost Nigeria $11.117bn. Because of lack of funds, the project is being undertaken in segments and planned to be completed within a period of 25 years.

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The 186km Abuja-Kaduna rail segment was constructed at the cost of $873 Million (in today’s Naira N358.5 Billion) and it is operational. Out of this, $500 Million is loan from China Exim Bank.

The 156.65km long Lagos-Ibadan segment of the rail cost $1.2 Billion (in today’s naira N492.8 Billion). The Lagos rail was extended to the Port to give it more economic value. This surprisingly was not part of the plan in the beginning.

It is important to state here why countries embark on rail projects: safety, affordability, transport of heavy goods, large capacity with ability to extend on demand. These are generic. In particular countries choose to develop one area or the other of the economy. For example, the Rail Baltica lists specifically its quest to learn more about the rail technology especially the new trends.

Among the generic reasons for the train system, we can say is safety. Nigeria achieved and the ability to extend coaches all the other factors are not achieved. For example, the Kaduna-Abuja train line, apart from covering only a limited area, is not affordable by many Nigerians except the middle class and above.

Taking a taxi from Abuja to Kaduna costs about N1,200.00 while the same journey in a train is at least N2,600.00 and sometimes it gets to N3,000.00. This means travelling by rail is 150% more expensive than by road.

Secondly, transport of heavy goods which is primary to the rail system is not even in the plan. It is an executive commuter rail service with no coach for goods but executive bags. One can hardly say that Nigerians have benefitted educationally and in skill addition since the introduction of the rail system.

Usually, a lot of research by small businesses go into new components for new system requirements as such new technology is achieved. The Apollo 1 space rocket, which never flew after expending millions of US dollars, brought with it a lot of memorable inventions. It, along with the other apollos were said to have gulped over $280 billion but gave the world new technologies  including the flight computer used to auto-fly planes, the heat resistant jackets, cordless devices, breathing masks used by firefighters etc.

The research and development community can hardly say that they had an opportunity to contribute to the currently expended $2.1 billion on the Lagos-Kano rail project. Of course, a lot of US dollars has also been spent on the Lagos-Port Harcourt rail lines without commensurate intellectual or skill development gains.

Current issues that Nigeria may need to put more energy and more money in is in the development of the agricultural sector which is by far the highest employer of labour. In 2014, the world Bank reported that over 70% of Nigerians were employed in the Agricultural sector.

Despite this huge dependence of Nigeria’s population on Agriculture, it is one of the least mechanized countries in the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2018 estimated that Nigeria has a tractor density of 0.27 hp/hectare while the recommended is 1.5 hp/hectare this translates to only 18% of the minimum requirement.

The world bank in 2014 suggested that Nigeria needed about 81,000 tractors to fill its deficit. With a Jumia average of N12 Million per tractor, the $2.1 billion used for the rail projects can procure over 72,000 tractors. This translates to up to 2000 tractors by state. This, I believe, will change the agricultural landscape and improve rural economy thereby reducing the cases of banditry, kidnappings and continuous recruitment of terrorists.

Developing a nation demands the accumulation of savings for the cumulation of capital goods. For the sake of brevity, capital goods are those goods that are used in producing other goods, rather than being bought by consumers. By this definition, in my opinion, the train system in Nigeria, especially due to its use case, is a consumer good rather than a capital good. It can be likened to a person who has no food, no clothing, no healthcare but borrows money to buy a car that would be taking him around in luxury.

In 1953, Israel negotiated and got reparation of about 3 Billion Dutch Marks from Germany. This formed the basis of their industrial development today as they were barely living on aids and supports from other countries. The bulk of the reparation went into the procurement of machinery and raw materials from Germany. Similar developmental style has been adopted by the Asian Tigers and everyone knows the story today.

Nigerian leaders must take their time to redefine what they call infrastructure or capital expenditure and make national investments that make sense. I consider the rail system of Nigeria a misplaced priority fulfilling the desires of the leaders to be like developed nations but not going through the rudiments of developing the rail system.


Datong, Dominic Gwaman is a Conflict, Security and Development Expert [email protected]
September 29, 2021.

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