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‘Ignoring The Bigger Picture’… Why Buhari Cancelled The Metroline Project That Hurts Lagos Till Date

When peers around the continent are mulling an expansion of the metro systems designed in the early 1980s — the same era Nigeria conceived the Lagos metroline network — Lagos finds itself avoidably racing with dysfunctional cities to construct its first metro infrastructure, courtesy of Muhammadu Buhari’s sheer lack of will and slushy handling of a high-impact project that would not only have solved the perennial chaos from heavy traffic but propelled the development of the country, Writes TEMITAYO AYETOTO

At the close of the week’s activities on a warm Friday evening in March, a man approximately in his 60s stood in a crowd of commuters hunting for a bus to ferry them from Apapa to Ojuelegba, Ketu or CMS. Living in Ikorodu, he has to cover a distance of about 33.8km daily on roads associated with the worst examples of gridlock traffic in Lagos, to get to work.

With a tight grip of his handbag, he readied himself for whatever rush was required to grab a seat in any approaching vehicle. Luckily, it was a Good Samaritan who approached in a private sports utility vehicle, offering a lift to Ojuelegba for just two people. He was one of them, not just comfortably balanced in the back seat but also escaping inflated fare.

In 2020, the elderly man’s fate of moving wouldn’t have been by chance if Nigeria had seen the mass transit dream of building metro systems to fruition back in the early 1980s. Currently, deployment of more buses and ferries is the attempt to solve mass-transit problems in the commercial capital of Nigeria. Weighed against the transport needs of a rapidly growing population, this is nothing more than a few drops in the ocean.

A PROJECTION INTO THE FUTURE

When the then Lagos government led by Lateef Jakande (between 1979 and 19832) first mulled the initiative of metro system, it was a projection into the future. The volume of activities driving movement at the time already exposed the need to explore largescale means of transportation. Lagos had shelved its role as the political nexus to begin to realise its economic potential. The civilian government of President Shehu Shagari, despite earlier reticence eventually backed the project and instructed the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to grant the required monetary support.

By then, a Japanese company and a consortium of 19 French companies, Interinfra — each of them first-class companies — had been engaged by the state government. A 10 per cent essential contribution of about $70 million was also readied with the expectation of more funding from the CBN. Preliminary preparations were ongoing until General Muhammadu Buhari came into the picture. A successful coup that terminated the civilian rule of Shagari enthroned Buhari as the military Head of State, leading to the beginning of the end of a high-impact project that would not only have equipped the state to solve the perennial traffic challenge it still faces, decades after, but would also have pushed other states to follow suit and propel the country’s development.

In what pundits have described as a decision induced by lack of will, poor appreciation and slushy judgment of the greater value of the project compared with his immediate suspicion that the project offered a source of corrupt enrichment by the then Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), Buhari called the project off.

CANCELLED BY BUHARI

“It would have addressed 80 per cent of the chaos we are seeing today,” explained George Etomi, the transaction lawyer who consulted for 17 of the French companies engaged to handle the metro system project in 1983.

“At that time, the Buhari government set up a mass enquiry against all the civilians because there was this notion that many of them were corrupt and needed to be brought to justice”.

In 2020, the transport challenge that should have been avoided persists, with the state population almost four times what it was in the 1980s

“The thinking was that the UPN government merely used the metro line as a cover to sponsor their political party. So, they [the Buhari government] set up what was called Justice Famakinwa Tribunal of Enquiry to investigate the project, check origins, check all the payments that were made and so on.

Naturally, it truncated the project because they then had to scrutinize everybody. We had to take all our papers and track how much was paid.”

George Etomi

Etomi was just seven years old at the bar when consulting for a consortium brought him to the centre of the project, worth some $700million. Interinfra needed to acquire property for its workers, acquire sites and do some preliminary work involving, in some cases, the rail path that had been chosen. There were houses that needed to be demolished, raising the need for compensation. The engineering, procurement, construction contract and the designing had begun in Paris. It was a ‘build, operate and transfer’ model and was meant to run a parallel railway bridge linking Third Mainland Bridge. The first phase was to go from Agege and terminate at the Tafawa Balewa Square (TBS). Ogogoro Island at Victoria Island was to be developed into a French village to accommodate workers. It was a comprehensive mass transit programme.

The French government’s support for the project was a decision drawn between giving export credit facility to either Nigeria or Algeria. Being export credit, it equally gave work to the French companies that were coming into the country for work.

“We had that full backing, which also meant the French government was committed to ensuring the success of the project. That’s why it’s a tragedy that the plan didn’t go through,” Etomi told BusinessDay.
But it didn’t take long before Etomi swung from merely representing them to fully defending the sanctity of the contract that bound the consortium and the government of Nigeria. The lack of precaution and poor tact that inspired the cancellation of the project gave little consideration to the potential punishment an abrupt breach was likely to attract.

BLINDNESS TO THE BIGGER PICTURE

Having a broader knowledge of the contract as the consortium’s lawyer, Etomi knew that the very act of setting up a tribunal was in breach of the contract and didn’t hesitate to point out that there were better procedures within the contract to settle a dispute, if the government had any. With the volume of investment that the project was going to gulp and being the largest project going on in the country at the time, it wasn’t entirely out of place for the government to raise brows if it suspected misgivings. But “failing to see the bigger picture on the altar of suspicion”, Etomi says, was an error too expensive to make. The implication was not just that it exposed how politically unstable Nigeria was or the risk of poor perception it faced in the international community, it was equally about the weighty penalty that the country faced at the International Court of Arbitration. Some observers of the event famously tagged it ‘payment for a project that was never had’.

“I still remember the tribunal judge almost threw me in jail for contempt because I raised some of these points — that we were not doing ourselves any favours by doing what we were doing. When you begin to parade foreign nationals in the name of an enquiry, first of all, you create fear in them. You de-market your country,” the lawyer said.

But despite being politically charged, there are also differing views which ascribe the cancellation to a reflection of the economic realities of the 1980s more than anything else. By 1985, a huge concern of sustaining the system in terms of manpower and technology had risen in technical and economic quarters, says Tajudeen Bawa-Allah, General Manager of the defunct Lagos State Transport Corporation, appointed in 1986. The general opinion was that the state was in no position to provide what was required to sustain the system and perhaps the financial flow that should follow to bring it to fruition.

Bawa Allah

“I disagree with the narrative of it being political decision because even Babatunde Fashola when he conceived the idea of rail mass transit and wanted to start the blue line and he went to three or four places to seek funds, they still asked him how he wanted to sustain the system,” Bawa-Allah, who is now almost 80, explained to BusinessDay at the home he retired to, in Ikorodu.

“Where is the capacity? He had already anticipated such questions and therefore established the school of transport in 2008. Technically, no matter what it takes an organization to bring up an idea, it must be backed by many factors, including funding and capability.”

Similarly, journalist Yakubu Aliyu argued in a 2015 article that it was sound economics to halt the project in the midst of a wider economy that was struggling to get out of debt. His primary premise was that General Buhari regime met a chaotic economic situation defined by a huge debt crisis.

THE TIMES WERE HARD

Nigeria’s debt had sharply risen from $11.99 billion in 1982 to $17.57 billion in 1983, according to the World Bank. Key commodities were scarce, accompanied by a loss of confidence in Nigeria’s Letter of Credit (LOCs) by foreign suppliers. The developments in global interest rates had raised the amount of the debt without any corresponding transfer of real assets, he said, adding that the shortened loan maturities and reduced grace periods of these loans led to a clustering up of debt service payments, as interest rates began to rise.

“The Lagos metro-line project might have suffered the same fate because the economic realities could not have supported its continuation given the onerous contract terms. General Buhari acted responsibly in respect of stopping all loan contracts that were haphazardly entered into, and focusing on debt repayments to regain the confidence of the international community,” Aliyu wrote.

In the end, it appeared the sound economics of halting the project abruptly could not suffice as legal soundness. It was the big picture Etomi earlier said Buhari failed to see, making the country cough up heavy funds of sanction under compulsion.

“We paid dearly for breaking the sanctity of contract. Even this P&ID case could have been negotiated,” Etomi said.

WHERE IS THE LAGOS METRO SYSTEM TODAY?

Following the termination of the great metroline project, the conversation about transportation in Lagos state switched to the need to seek alternatives that were less capital intensive. In 1986, Bawa-Allah was appointed General Manager of the transport corporation, with the task of mapping out the way forward.

The following year, the World Bank invited Lagos State delegates to its Washington DC headquarters to discuss alternatives. The objectives were to attempt to agree on the terms of reference for the preparation of a Mass Transit Study for the Metropolitan Lagos with the bank’s experts and to carry out a full evaluation of possible system options, taking into account the scale of congestion, mobility hardship of commuters, the ever-increasing population of the metropolitan and the economic climate of Nigeria then.

They came back with terms of reference that favoured rail mass transit as the best option; they only made bus and ferry as the supporting cast. It was agreed that the impact of each transport system should be critically examined, as only the combination of the systems could meet the mobility demands of the projected population in the state.

Lagos State has an area of 357, 700 hectares, 17 per cent of which comprise lagoons and waterways. In 1987, the state had a population estimated by the United Nations to be over 5 million. Out of this, Ebute Meta, Surulere, Apapa, Oshodi, Isolo, Ilupeju, Somolu, Ikeja and Agege harboured 4.5 million people, accounting for 89 per cent of the total population. Ironically, these areas constitute less than 20 per cent of the entire state.

Since the 70s, the population of Lagos has grown at a rate of 34 persons per hour, including migration and birth. Unfortunately, this spontaneous growth was not planned for, especially in terms of facilities such as water, electricity and transportation. The lack of schemed location of these activities has left the population distribution concentrated wherever dry land is available.

According to the ‘Finalisation of the Lagos State Mass Transit Study Procedure with the World Bank’, the experts noted that the transport system was suffering from inadequate systems integration and coordination, which results in street congestion as public transport does not provide such services capable of competing with private motorists.

Buses cannot keep their schedules, as they share road spaces with other vehicles. Public transport riders wait for long periods at stops due to delays experienced by the buses; travel times are excessive; interchange points are crowded and pedestrian movements unorderly. Fare structure is arbitrary.

The corporation eventually adopted the bus systems as a feasible solution and had its own framework to facilitate that. The plan was that the fleet of buses in the state would be increased alongside population growth. Bawa-Allah and his team projected that in 1986, the fleet strength would be increased to 400, as 278 buses would be added to 122 old buses. By 1987, some 222 buses would be acquired, 200 buses in 1988, 150 in 1989, and 150 in 1990. The total by 1990 was to be 1,000 buses in the state but that never happened. The plan was grounded on lack of implementation.

GOING BACK TO THE 80s FOR SOLUTIONS

In 2020, the transport challenge that should have been avoided persists, with the state population almost four times what it was in the 1980s. Lagos State has now had to fall back on the 1986 terms of reference that mass transit is a critical way out.

Pending the completion of the Lagos Mass Transit System involving building two light 12 rail lines, which are together expected to carry nearly 2 million passengers per day, Lagos has been among African cities where commuter services have generally been small in scale, typically one or two loco-hauled return services per day, that is into the city in the morning and back in the evening.

Whereas The Algiers Metro, serving Algiers, the capital of Algeria, is a rapid transit system conceived in similar period with that of Lagos in the 1970s and was designed to address the need for mass transport caused by the city’s growth. The project equally faced slow-down from financial difficulties and security challenges in the 1990s but recommenced in 2003 during the administration of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. At a total cost of €900million, the metro system, which spanned 9.2 kilometres and 10 stations, opened to passengers in 2011, making Algiers only the second capital city in Africa, after Cairo, to have a metro system. A 4-kilometre extension opened for commercial service in 2015.

The Cairo Metro was the first of the three full-fledged metro systems in Africa and was opened in 1987 as Line 1 with a length of 29 kilometres. As of December 2019, the Cairo Metro has 65 stations, three of which are transfer stations, with a total length of 77.9km, according to information on Cairo Metro website.

The first section of the Lagos Rail Mass Transit network, Phase I of the Blue Line, is now expected to be completed 2021 after many delays from funding shortfalls.

The shortfall of rail infrastructure has undermined the potential of the rail systems to play a strong contributing role in economic development. In fact, rail transport market share in most countries on the continent is below 20 per cent of the total volume of freight transport on lack of investment in infrastructure and the absence of a supporting institutional framework.

LAGOS COULD HAVE BEEN LONDON

Had Buhari sustained the rail project, Lagos might have been one of the most popular cities Nigerians can’t stop visiting abroad. In London, a city of 8.9 million people — less than half the population of Lagos — Nigerian journalist Hannah Ojo-Ajakaiye’s need to move around is not direly tied to owning a car. The residence of the Chevening scholar receiving a Master’s degree in Education in the UK is just a minute distance from Southern Railway, one out of the 270 stations serving the city.

Lagos State Governor declared that the state loses over N250 billion to traffic annually

In other locations, she has to walk for roughly 10 minutes to get to a nearby station with coach interiors that comfortably encourage reading or remote working. The metro line system is not only central to economic activities of the city, it is the saving grace for the working class.

“It is a disaster that there are no rail systems in Lagos,” says Hannah. “You don’t need to have a car because the public transport works like it’s the bedrock of economic productivity here. It is efficient. Compared that to Lagos, you spend a lot of productive hours in traffic. Here, you can predict your time and move around.”

LAGOS: BIG CITY, NO INTERNAL RAIL SYSTEM

According to Muda Yusuf, Director-General of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, while many businesses — especially investors in intra-city transport — within the city bleed from poor productivity and low turnaround time as a result of traffic congestion, there is increased exposure to air pollution from risky emission levels and attacks from traffic robbers.

“Having tons of buses won’t solve any problem if they will end up stuck in traffic,” he says. “There is no city as big as Lagos that doesn’t have a functional intra-city rail system. If you are talking about mass transit, the most effective means is rail. It helps productivity. And you know mobility has a way of increasing output because the speed of transactions is much higher. You need effective transport systems to facilitate those things so that they can contribute to growth.”

Average workers in Lagos spend the equivalent of 75 percent of a week’s total working hours commuting, according to a research finding by JCDecaux Grace Lake Nigeria, In 2015, Babatunde Fashola, former Lagos State Governor declared that the state loses over N250 billion to traffic annually. As of December 2019, Dangote Group had lost N25billion to the deplorable state of Oshodi-Apapa Expressway, its helmsman Aliko Dangote said after securing the federal government’s approval to reconstruct the road responsible for the Apapa ports congestion N72.9 billion.

For both the common man and the executive, these losses roll in day after day and will continue for a long time to come. Yet they could have been eradicated decades ago — if only Buhari didn’t cancel a project that would have transformed Lagos to a formidable economic force.

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