Memo To The Transport Minister: The President Is Right On SGR For Eastern Railway Abraham Abiodun Idowu In the last few years the ruling party at the federal level has rightly highlighted its resurrection of the comatose Nigerian railway system. After many false restarts since the RITES contract that spanned the late 70s into the early 80s, the national railway system is finally seeing significant investment and achieving major milestones like the completion of the Abuja - Kaduna, Warri - Itakpe and Lagos – Ibadan sections of the Western and Central lines both of are Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) lines. These sections have been completed using Chinese funds, companies, equipment and expertise with Nigeria providing about 10 percent as counterpart funding and lower level labour but with a new crop of Nigerian engineers and technicians being trained in China to ensure we can pick up where the Chinese leave off. The federal government can claim that it could have done even much more if it had timely legislative backing for the loans financing the projects but luckily that excuse no longer obtains and that brings me to one major reason I concur with the President but disagree with the Transport Minister on building the Eastern Line from Port Harcourt – Maiduguri as a SGR line. A couple of months ago the Transport Ministry announced it had concluded plans to sign a contract for the rehabilitation of the Eastern line which would extend from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri and traverse the South Eastern states and the eastern Middle Belt states. At a cost of about $3b it would be a little fraction of the more than $10b expected final cost of each of the Western and Coastal Lines. The Coastal Line will be from Lagos to Calabar. The Eastern Line is so cheap because it will not be transforming the century old and dysfunctional Narrow Gauge Railway (NGR) but will merely upgrade it while retaining the basic configuration with its limitations relative to SGR lines. I was not sure I read right and waited for a backlash from the populace but it seemed many missed the issue until a couple of weeks back when the governor of Rivers State, Mr Nyesom Wike, pointed out the blatant inequity. Soon after the governor said his piece the Transport Minister, Mr Chibuike Amaechi, came out to defend the decision. He stated that the nation is constrained by the lack of funds and so cannot afford to spend the equivalent of what it is spending on the Western and Coastal Lines on the Eastern Line. He went on to say the president, General Buhari, had insisted for a long time that the Eastern Line should be transformed to the same standard as the rest of the three railways corridors but he, the minister, had eventually won him over and had his way. He further justified his decision by saying that there is only a 20 percent difference in speed between SGR and NGR systems. Mr Amaechi is a public figure I have long admired from a distance especially his dogged pursuit of the objectives he believes in. I have been quite impressed with how he has made new railway lines spring up in Nigeria despite the paucity of funds. I have been aligned with the principle that all nations borrow especially for infrastructural development and, as the federal government in which he serves continues to remind us all, Nigeria is actually under borrowed but is challenged in revenue collection. Without infrastructure we cannot grow the economy, create jobs or justify collecting revenue from cynical citizens. With those as the rationale for the builder financed railway boom, one must wonder how the same logic of borrowing today for a better tomorrow failed once it became the turn of the Eastern Corridor. We are Africans and surely understand how to manage large and diverse households. How can anyone convince the citizens from the South East especially and the other areas along the Eastern Line that they are not seen as the poor cousins in the Nigerian family who must make do with hand me downs and other symbols of marginalization? How does the Federal Government rationalize to itself this blatant marginalization of a group that has long proclaimed to the whole world that it is marginalized? We have long been tortured by tales of woe about South Eastern roads being the worst in the nation and now we want to set things up so similar claims can validly be made about the South Eastern rail line for the next several decades? Above all else political leaders must be politic but this is the most impolitic government decision I have come across in a long while. The excuse that the difference in speed is just 20 percent is far from acceptable because that means if an SGR could deliver passengers or cargo from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri in 14 hours the NGR would do the same in about 17 hours. Beyond speed and promptness we also have the cargo handling capacity of both systems and the SGR again beats the NGR. When we come to safety SGR again takes the trophy. Lastly we should examine the minister’s basic premise of lack of funds. The federal government provides just about 10 percent of the contract sum for each railway project as counterpart funding while the Chinese provide debt finance for the rest. All the railways are expected to generate the revenue to pay off the debt used to construct them without further recourse to government coffers. It is debatable if that model will work eventually but, as long as we have chosen to believe that fiction for the Western and Coastal Lines, we cannot choose to grow cold feet when it comes to the turn of the Eastern Line. Another $11b to $14b for the Eastern Line on top of the around $30b being spent and mostly borrowed for the two other lines is not going to bankrupt our $1 trillion (2020 PPP estimate) economy or significantly dent our already far from stellar sovereign debt rating. Mr Minister, you have misadvised the President in this instance and I hope you will listen to the voices raised against this decision and ensure the President’s initial preference is actioned. Rebuilding an NGR through the South East of Nigeria will only hand a propaganda coup to certain fractious voices in our nation and when this tale is told and retold in years and decades to come the fact that you, a son of the soil, persuaded the ‘outsider’ to shortchange ‘your own people’, will not be highlighted. It will be seen as a continuation of the presumed conspiracy by the rest of Nigeria to hold the South East and South South regions down. Please save our union and do not needlessly empower those who war against the soul of Nigeria. Ultimately the various railway lines are meant to generate the funds to pay off the loans used to build them. We all know that is not going to happen as long as they are managed by a government agency so we should start having the conversation of how we ensure these debts do not come back to haunt us all. Executive Order 007 of 2019, that empowers businesses that are hindered by poor public infrastructure to rebuild them at their own cost and recover that cost from future taxes, maybe points the way forward. Just like the roads that Dangote enterprises and others are now building out of their cashflows, the new railways will be of greatest use to large scale manufacturers like Dangote Cement, Bua Cement and Nigeria Flour Mills. As a first order of business the federal government must mandate all our cement manufacturers to build branch lines that connect their factories to the main trunk lines being built by the government now. Dangote cement for example has its entire 32 million tons capacity at Obajana, Ibese and Gboko either on the rail line or within 50km of it. Building spurs that run through its factories so that cement is moved straight from the production line onto railway wagons would be the height of efficiency which would cost it mere tens of millions of dollars. This move would relieve Nigerian roads and road users of 4,600 deadly cement juggernauts, with 60 ton payloads I really stopped seeing them as mere trucks a while ago. This is a necessary complement to the strategy of connecting all our seaports to the railway network in order to make our roads less congested, safer and longer lasting. Fortuitously most major Nigerian markets were built on the railway corridors so setting up depots close to those markets for wholesalers and others to patronize would complete a seamless distribution network. If such large manufacturers can be persuaded to connect their factories to the rail network then it should be relatively easy to persuade them to lead consortiums that would buy majority stakes in each line so they can manage them as private sector entities with a much higher chance of staying viable and generating revenue to pay off the loans used to build them in the first place. These are some of the steps the current administration needs to take in the next two years so that these issues do not become lost in the usual inter regime cacophony. This is one more reason the Transport Minister must not allow himself to become trapped in a bitter quarrel over why only one long marginalized section of the country is being lumbered with an NGR line in the 21st century. One European nation chose to adopt a different gauge from its neighbors to make difficult its invasion by those nations. Surely we are not trying to create a de facto infrastructural division of our nation. There is much work to do to ensure this nascent railway revolution does not yet die in the incubator as so many other national leaps forward have in the last four decades. May God grant our leaders on all sides the wisdom, understanding and discernment required to take Nigeria to the promised land.