Rejuvenated rails represent hope for Nigeria

nigerian railway corp.

Nigeria represents for many both the great potential and the great frustration of Africa.

The nation’s oil reserves, among the largest in the world, have flooded the country’s coffers. Yet Nigeria has long been dogged by high levels of crime, poverty and violence, and government corruption has been a serious problem for decades.

Evidence that little oil revenue makes its way to the nation’s 170 million citizens can be seen in the fact that in more than one instance in recent years, hundreds of Nigerians scavenging petroleum products from punctured pipelines have been killed when puddles of fallen fuel ignited.

If government corruption and endemic poverty weren’t enough, the nation is divided between Muslims, who are concentrated mostly in the north, and Christians, who mostly live in the South.

In recent years, efforts by Islamists to establish sharia law have resulted in armed conflict with government forces, particularly in the north, though the clashes pale in comparison to the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s that claimed as many as 3 million lives.

Yet, not all the news from Africa’s most populous nation is bad. The railway linking Nigeria’s capital city Lagos, in the south, with Kano, the second-largest city, located in the north, has reopened after more than a decade.

It cost more than $150 million to rehabilitate the line, according to the state-owned Nigeria Railway Corporation.

With a one-way ticket starting at $12, it is cheaper and, some say, safer than travelling by road.

“Last year an armed robber attacked us on the road,” passenger Bukola Ogunbanjo told the BBC. “There was shooting but thank God we escaped. I feel safe on the train.”

Nigeria was a British colony until 1960. At the time of its independence, it had about 2,200 miles of track, a minute amount even then for a country which encompasses more than 350,000 square miles.

But since 1960, that figure has barely changed, according to the BBC, in no small part because of political turmoil and massive graft within government.

Tracks connecting the cities, which are 720 miles apart, were first built in 1912. But neglect and corruption made nearly three of every four miles of track unusable as of early 2011, according to The Associated Press.

“Policy flip-flops were the main reasons for the delays in sorting out the railways. As governments changed, their approaches to the same problem were sometimes markedly different and were not decisive,” said Rowland Ataguba, a transport infrastructure consultant. “But the last six years have witnessed the most concerted capital investment in the railways by the government in decades.”

Also, it is hoped that the revamped rail line will alleviate the burden on Nigeria’s poorly maintained road network, according to The Associated Press.

In addition to the economic benefits that will come from improved infrastructure, there is optimism that the rejuvenated rail line may be able to begin the process of mending the nation itself.

“I see all of us as passengers – Nigerians, northerners, southerners, Christians, Muslims. Everybody is the same – we are just one,” says a man on his way to visit his family in Kano. “Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo – with the help of the train we become friends.”

(Above: Passengers traveling to Kano peer through a window of the inaugural train in Lagos, Nigeria late last year. Photo Credit: The Associated Press.)

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