I have always been fascinated by train travel. My late mother, Chief Sarah Oyeladun Babarinsa, traveled frequently by train in northern Nigeria, visiting cities like Kano, Zaria, Sokoto and Minna. She kept talking about a town called Nguru, which is at the end of the Nigerian Railway (Opin Irin!).
From Nguru you will need to take a truck if you wish to travel further. I have traveled to every state in Nigeria but was always in too much of a rush to think of traveling by train. That’s a lot of a reporter and the tyranny of the deadline!
Although I have traveled by train to other countries, it was only last December that I had the privilege of traveling by train in Nigeria. I must admit that it was a very pleasant experience. I had been invited to Abeokuta, the capital of Ogun State, to attend the funeral of the mother of Reverend Matthew Shobiye, our family friend.
In the morning, I boarded the train at Babatunde Raji Fashola station, Agege. The station is a beautiful piece of architecture, made mostly of aluminum and other metals. The air conditioning was good and the service quick.
One of the first things that will surprise you is that the station is tucked away in a cul-de-sac, difficult to access if you are determined to pack your car at the station. In the end, we packed our bags by the side of the road and walked to the station. The atmosphere was welcoming and cool. This is what Nigerians deserve, you tell yourself. You go to buy your ticket, and you are told that the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) does not accept payment by credit card. You must pay cash! You wonder how anyone can manage a modern establishment today without the possibility of electronic cash transfer. Yet the Federal Government of Nigeria, which promotes a cashless economy, is the owner of the NRC.
I think we paid N2,000 to go to Abeokuta in economy class. Business class had been fully booked at Ebute Metta. Everything is done manually. You cannot book in advance. You have to be there physically. You can’t book online of course. The NRC, despite its modernist gimmick and state-of-the-art station, is still a throwback to the old days of the analog generation.
So we paid, collected our tickets and dropped off in the comfortable carriages. It was a comfortable ride as the countryside slipped away at a brief pace. We could see the shacks lining the railroad tracks where the poor and humble of our republic lay their heads and try to live what they call life. Soon we reached Abeokuta in about an hour and disembarked at Wole Soyinka station, named after Africa’s preeminent poet, Nobel laureate, playwright and political activist. Just like in Lagos, it was also not an easy place to get to. The station is a beautiful place. It is a place worthy of the great Wole Soyinka.
Rail travel in Nigeria is over a century old. For me, the railway tradition was part of my youthful years. When the railway started, my mother lived with her uncle, Bayowa, who later became the Saloro of Okemesi, at Ile-Ogbo, one of the smaller stations in Osun State near Iwo. Another uncle of mine, Chief James (Jaymisi as my mother called him) Ekunola, was one of the great men at Zaria Station where he had all his children. We called him Baba Zaria. In his heyday, the NRC sent him overseas for several trainings. Oyedokun Babarinsa, my father’s younger brother, was a high-level technician at the Ebute-Metta railway workshop in Lagos. Several years after his retirement, he was still a consultant for the NRC.
I don’t know if any of these people would recognize the new NRC. This new NRC is what many Nigerians have wanted for generations. Since the British built the railway lines in the early 20th century, the NRC has remained in the same time zone for several generations. Nothing really happened to the railroad. If you want to know how your ancestors traveled when Lugard was here, travel by train. For many years, Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki, the late Sultan of Sokoto, was the chairman of the NRC. When I met him at his Miyetti Allah lodge in Sokoto in 1987, he said that successive governments had refused to implement railway reform proposals. The government of General Yakubu Gowon, the most successful regime in Nigeria’s history in terms of infrastructure development, simply left the railway in its particular time zone.
There was turmoil under General Sani Abacha when Chief Ebenezer Babatope was Minister of Transport. In the end, the railroad slowed its pace. The real attempt to tackle the rail problem began with Chief Olusegun Obasanjo who served as our President from 1999 to 2007. He appointed a powerful Board of Directors and made a vigorous young man the new Chief ‘executive. Unfortunately, the President died in a plane crash, but his work continued and today we have an almost new NRC.
The problem is whether we can still claim that it is our own railway. I understand that everything about the new railway is imported from China, including the new terminal buildings. Although we need technical support from the Chinese to have a new railway line, I think the Nigerians should have been allowed to build the terminals. If Nigerian companies are building air terminals and Bi-Courtney runs Murtala Muhammed2 Airport in Ikeja, I see no reason why Nigerian companies and engineers have been deprived of the opportunity to build air terminals.
The Chinese did not invent the construction of railways and trains. They also learned it from the Russians. By the time the Russians withdrew after the first Russian-Chinese conflict in the early 1960s, the Nigerian railway was in full bloom and certainly better than the Chinese rail of that time. The Chinese learned the hard way. It’s time we too were ready to learn, even if it was the hard way. A starting point is the construction and maintenance of our own railway stations.
An intriguing perplexity in Nigeria is the growing visibility and prominence of Chinese people in the Nigerian public space, particularly in construction and related industries. Nigerian politicians may have decided to shift Nigeria from European fire to Chinese fire. If you travel across the country now, you will see Chinese people managing different types of construction projects, including local roads that could be done by Nigerian C-class construction companies.
Yet we have had giant construction companies that have grown on Nigerian soil since the 1940s. Today, most indigenous Nigerian engineering firms are in crisis because political leaders have learned not to trust. It is also possible that Nigerian engineers and construction companies do not know how to deliver both at home and abroad, like the Chinese.
One fear that came to mind when we got off at Wole Soyinka station was whether the people currently running the station have the capacity to do so long term. Do they have the guidance or skills to handle such expensive facilities? I think the government and NRC management need to look at this critically. Let them start by making these people realize that this is the Nigeria of 2022 and that pay per outlet is not really magic.
It took over 20 years to achieve the feat of having the new railway line built and operational from Lagos to Ibadan. It would not be out of place to continue praying in every church, mosque and temple in the country that the railway project from Lagos to Abuja will be completed in our lifetime. My only concern about this is that by the time the Lagos-Abuja rail is completed, it will again have become obsolete by international standards. Nevertheless, it was a good feeling to ride on the new railway. It shows that if we really mean it, something good and great can happen in Nigeria.