Olawale Rasheed, CEO of African Railway Consulting Ltd., in this interview with Daily Trust, said that Western countries’ focus on funding soft development projects and promoting LGBT and campaigns against female genital mutilation women, among others, has pushed African leaders to opt for Chinese. loans to finance the infrastructure that the continent sorely needs. Extract:
OWhat has led to the degradation of railway infrastructure in Nigeria?
Most of us have grown up knowing about the railway from Lagos to Kano. I remember I used to go to Kano regularly from Ibadan and it worked relatively well. Now what happened? I think the army has a lot of positive and negative impacts on the country. The decline of the railroad began from the collapse of the Second Republic.
When the army took over, there were many changes in governance. From 1984 to 1986 there was a disinterest in the expansion and maintenance of railways. But one thing with railways is that there has to be constant maintenance and management of the infrastructure, like replacement of train parts, among others.
From this period, the disempowerment led to the fall of many lines like the Port Harcourt-Maiduguri line, Eastern line while the other going from Kano to Maiduguri, the tracks were cut and the coaches went wrong.
But in 1999, the civil administration of Obasanjo drew up a recovery plan with the 25-year development master plan. The Minister of Transport that we had from 1999 to today began to present plans for recovery and expansion.
The 25-year master plan actually covered rolling stock replacement, track reconstruction, and a few other things.
After Obasanjo, Yar’adua, then Jonathan came and chose the master plan for continued implementation. We had worked on the Abuja-Kaduna line; we have work in Abuja. There was rehabilitation of the old gauge from Lagos to Kano and many measures were taken under Jonathan.
Fortunately, President Buhari did not abandon all legacy projects. He completed Abuja-Kaduna and without this completion the North would have been cut off from the rest of the country because of the problem of banditry.
President Buhari has also broken a bad spell because the Itakpe-Warri line has existed for nearly 30 years; to be fair to him, he completed the line. Even though they are still doing communication work and skeletal work, the work is largely done. I think the plan is to connect the Itakpe-Warri line to the port on the coast at Warri. The administration has also completed the Lagos-Ibadan Standard Gauge line and some works are in progress.
But some will wonder why the government is borrowing to build new rails when old ones can be upgraded to save the country from more debt?
Before answering the question, I want to put it this way. When I say the Nigerian railway system is coming, I am not saying all is well with the system. There are still a lot of things wrong with the rail system. It will interest you to know that we are still applying a 1958 Railway Act in 2021.
This law being colonial, most of its provisions do not correspond to modern reality. One of the failures of civil administrations is their inability to repeal the Railway Act. There is no justification for a country as big as Nigeria to perform a colonial act for the railway.
Second, we need a new legal framework to accelerate the development of the Nigerian Railway. The era of government only building infrastructure is over and the government is facing a shortage of funds.
What others are doing, the best practices in the world, is opening up the infrastructure sector to the private sector. So we need to open up the railway to private sector participation. We haven’t done that. Coming to the question, for the government to continue building new lines came down to a new legal framework.
For example, in Brazil, the government presented a policy. He called on local and international private companies to seek out any railway line they can build; justify why it is needed, can they recoup their costs, how many years will it take to complete and how will they work.
From there, 68 companies expressed interest in designing, building and operating the lines without any government money. By December, the government had signed 28 new rail line contracts for various companies.
The only thing the government will do is monitor their activities. If the companies complete the projects in various regions of the country, it will increase the number of kilometers of railways available in the country, boost the economy of the regions and employ many people, thus helping the government to create jobs.
These companies will pay taxes to the government, which will increase government revenue and strengthen the strength of the economy; all without the government spending a penny.
I see no reason why we cannot come up with a legal framework that will open our railway to private sector investment. This is why the government must borrow to finance investments.
Chinese companies are mainly awarded contracts for the construction of new railway lines. Do local businesses lack the capacity to undertake the work?
We do not play politics with infrastructure. I constantly congratulate this administration for the achievements recorded in the railway field. However, the area of his fault is the railway’s approach to financing; it is defective.
We assume that we can only focus on China to fund our rail infrastructure. Part of the reason many of us are not in favor of this approach is what has happened now. China cannot finance it because it also has its own challenges.
Also, the lending model adopted is controversial, our leaders have tried but they have not done due diligence on the model. For example, they give us the loan; they take care of the design, construction, operation and billing. What’s worse is that the agreement replaces our law on public procurement.
Why did we make the mistake? I guess it was because of the government’s eagerness to build infrastructure, but in the process we overlooked other things. The loan is a mistake because China is operating in Egypt but it is not taking loans but doing contractor financing projects as China is building consortium relationships with French and Lebanese companies to execute railway projects and major infrastructure in Egypt. So how come Nigeria and Kenya have adopted this borrowing model that you don’t know the details of?
Also, the issue of China and infrastructure in Nigeria and Africa is a big debate, but what I tell people is that Africa needs infrastructure. The West, our friends, prefers to spend money promoting LGBT rights, anti-FGM campaigns and funding softcore development areas.
Meanwhile, the mainland’s problem is physical infrastructure. Getting to Cameroon, Niger or N’djamena is a problem. Why is it a problem that we can’t fly a plane or a train from here to these places? We have interconnectivity issues because our roads are not good, our airlines are a problem and we don’t have rail connectivity.
For a while the West was hesitant to pour money into these regions and China came up with a road and belt initiative and the whole of Africa jumped into it as an opportunity. We can’t blame our government for signing on, but they could have been smarter in terms of their approach.
Now China has helped by saying that the loan is not given because they too have problems and they are diversifying into financing digital infrastructure because it will bring quick returns.
They too have their economic challenges, so they cannot afford to pump money for heavy infrastructure projects.