Catching the West African train

Lekan Sote

When a team of journalists from Arise News Television asked the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), why Nigeria would fund a railway line — complete with rail tracks, coaches, engines and personnel — from Kano to Maradi in the Niger Republic, he explained that he had first cousins in the Niger Republic.

Apart from laying to rest speculations that his father was a Nigerien who came to Daura, in Nigeria, to trade in ducks, it was also a thumbs down for the artificial borders created by the metropolitan powers that sat at the 1884–1885 Berlin Conference to divvy up Africa the way you do booty or spoils of war.

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, which introduced the wheel that enabled man to move heavy objects and free himself and his animals from the drudgery of physically carrying loads, and the twilight years of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, denizens of the metropolitan powers, led by German Chancellor, Otto von Bismark, “Man of Steel and Blood,” African societies were rent in pieces.

Many glorious African ethnic nations were fragmented so that the Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, Kanuri, Efik and other linguistic and cultural groups were fragmented into Nigeria, Benin Republic, Niger Republic, Chad Republic and Cameroon.

Kenya President, Uhuru Kenyatta, laments that the Maasai, riven by borders into two countries, Kenya and Tanzania, regard themselves as “The Other” and in competition, instead of being complementary. He narrated the ridiculous story of the Awori brothers, of the same father and mother: Moody, the Kenyan Vice President, and Aggrey, the Minister in Uganda.

Some point to President Buhari’s filial sentiments, Kenyatta’s cynical observation and the objectives of the Economic Community of West African States and the Africa Continental Free Trade Area to argue for a railway from Cameroon, through Nigeria, to the Benin Republic and on to other countries in West Africa.

It reminds you of the “Go West, young man” charge given to adventurous and audacious young men who sought both fame and fortune in the outback during America’s early days of becoming a country and an economy of opportunities.

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In 1975, 16 Heads of State and Government signed the ECOWAS multilateral trade agreement to foster economic relations and enable members to have unhindered access to each other’s markets.

AfCFTA was founded in 2018 by 54 member-states and commenced operations on January 1, 2021, with the following objectives: “Create a single trade market, deepen economic integration of the continent, establish a liberalised market through multiple rounds of negotiations, and aid movement of capital and people.

“Facilitate investment, move towards the establishment of a future continental customs union, achieve sustainable and inclusive socio-economic development, gender equality and structural transformations within member states, enhance competitiveness of member states within Africa and in the global market.

“Encourage industrial development through diversification and regional value chain development, agricultural development and food security, resolve challenges of multiple and overlapping memberships.”

You will agree that the idea of free trade, single market, unhindered access to each other’s markets, and aiding the movement of people and capital assumes that there is a transportation network that runs throughout the region. An extensive road network is credited with the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire.

Arguments for a railway line through ECOWAS member states include low carbon emissions (the green lobby’s article of faith), avoidance of damage and reduction of road maintenance costs, facilitation of ECOWAS and AfCTA objectives, and easy linkage of Lagos, the hub of Nigeria’s economy, to the ECOWAS region.

Others argue that whatever is good for the Lagos-Ibadan-Kano-Maradi railway line is also good for the Calabar-Lagos-Porto Novo-through Dakar railway line. They argue further that whereas the gross domestic product of Niger Republic is a mere $13.7 billion, that of ECOWAS countries west of Nigeria is a whopping $233.3 billion!

Throw in the fact that a mere 24.2 million Nigeriens cannot match the relatively huge 145 million population market available to Nigeria if the railway line were to be extended to the Atlantic Ocean via Dakar, in Senegal.

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Imagine the savings in time and money if goods were freighted from, say, New York City port on America’s East Coast and transferred to trains moving from Dakar to Lagos, instead of ships having to go through the Gulf of Guinea and Bight of Benin.

Nigeria, with $429 billion, or 62.5 per cent of the GDP, and 206 million population, or 52 per cent of the population of ECOWAS, is easily the hub and mainstay of the West African subregional economy.

Even if the Lagos-Ibadan-Kano-Maradi railway line were extended northward to Tunisia, the market and effective demand that will be available from the resulting GDP and population cannot match the opportunities from a railway line running from Calabar to Ethiopia on the (Eastern) Horn of Africa.

Tuareg countries, mostly in North Africa and the southern Sahel, and countries in Central Africa, down to Southern Africa, must also be encouraged to build railway lines to transport their goods and people. Africa can certainly achieve its economic integration and free trade objectives faster with an Africa-wide railway network.

If Nigeria’s policymakers understand the dynamics and adopt appropriate policies to take advantage of Nigeria’s economy of large-scale production, Nigeria will be in a position to spread its economic tentacles across Western, Central and Eastern Africa in the immediate, North Africa in the medium, and Southern Africa in the long term. The loan taken to fund a busy rail line route will surely be repaid more quickly.

If Nigeria’s Land Use Act is reviewed, multiple taxation is eliminated, insecurity is tackled, infrastructure is further upgraded, and Nigeria spearheads the extensive West Africa rail line, Nigeria, with the biggest economy and population in West Africa, nay Africa, will be Africa’s preferred Foreign Direct Investment destination.

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However, while trying to implement this East-West African railway system, parallel to the Equator, Nigeria’s policymakers must pay attention to the following checklist prepared by some experts, viz: Detailed, but simple, Memorandum of Understanding, comprehensive feasibility studies, costs of project, finance, timelines, approvals and relevant agencies, land clearing and allocation, and Environmental Impact Assessment studies.

India, a country that is almost a continent, has 126,366 kilometres (or 78,500 miles) of rail track. Between 2019 and 2020, this giant railway system moved 22.15 million passengers and freight of about 3.32 million metric tonnes.

The United States of America, with the largest rail network in the world, has 257,723 kilometres (or 160,141 miles) of rail track. It also freights goods and passengers, across state lines and within large urban centres, and moves a not so impressive figure of 10.3 million passengers, but moves, wait for this, 1.71 trillion tonnes of freight per annum.

The European High-Speed railway that runs throughout Europe has assets that include infrastructure, installations, logistics, equipment and rolling stock across 33 countries. There is even a pass, known as Eurail, that grants the passenger access to as many as 40,000 European destinations.

These stats are just to show how much the people and economies of the world owe to Englishman, George Stephenson, the civil and mechanical engineer who invented the train engine, and American Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, who built his wealth, first from ships, and later helped to transform the geography of America from the East to the West Coast using railroads.

What Nigeria needs to do is to take advantage of this durable technology.

Contact: [email protected]

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