I belong to a generation that saw something of the then railway system in Nigeria. Embedded in my childhood memories are recollections that revolve around the railways. As big as Lagos was then, it was divided into towns. The railway town was one of them. It existed between and among Iddo Terminus, Yaba, and Ebute-Metta where I spent my early years. In more human terms, my grandfather worked in the Railways. And the ensuing situation was such that all my uncles and aunties could speak the Hausa language since they lived up North with my grandfather. Our family house was also next door to the large and expansive Railway Compound in Ebute Metta, Lagos
The Compound was a sight to behold. Acres and acres of greenery stretched before you. It was a place unto itself. There was the famous Saint Saviour’s Primary School, the residential quarters, the golf course, all of which catered to the senior staff of the then Nigeria Railway Corporation. Some of my adventurous age-mates served as aides to the white men and the black white men who indulged themselves with the pastime of golf.
Then, something happened. The railways stopped working. The railway compound became a deserted village. Such was the desiccation that individuals of my children’s generation only saw railways in movies and TV programs. This is because the Railway system had been eaten up by a bankrupt and wayward elite.
However, it appears that the railway is about to return, courtesy of the efforts being put in place by this administration. But this is only half the story. What my cursory investigations revealed was that the Obasanjo administration had put in place a plan to revive this vital and national infrastructure. However, it did not get off the ground. The succeeding administration of Goodluck Jonathan also slept off on the issue. And now Buhari can be credited with the actualization of this blueprint. It is against this background that one can appreciate the various depositions and efforts of Rotimi Amaechi, Minister of Transport on the issue.
A little while ago, the Kaduna-Abuja rail line came on stream. Very much the same thing can be said about the line from Itakpe end of the rail line. And as the minister has said, the popular Lagos-Ibadan railway will operate soon. And according to reports, it was already functioning.
Given the central place of this facility in my childhood, I decided to go by rail from Lagos to Ibadan where I had a critical and filial engagement to attend. Thus, I passed off the normal route to Ibadan by road, and I chose the railway. I arrived on time with some of my family members one hour before departure which was 4 pm. This gave me ample time to look around. I was surprised that the railway police, which is an integral part of the national police, was still in place. But the facility in use was begging for attention. The disused place served as offices for the police personnel. However, I noticed that the spirits of the police personnel were still high. Cheerful and exhibiting a lot of confidence, I could see that the police knew their onions. But one could also see that they were virtually working with their bare hands. A situation that may prove to be demoralising in the long run.
In short order, it was time to board the railway coach. This was when it became clear that the nodal point for boarding was not ready. One had to walk a fairly long distance before doing so. And if you lack stamina, chances are that by the time you enter the train you will be breathing heavily. Ultimately I entered. But I could see that the coaches were very old. But this particular situation was virtually neutralized by the air conditioning system. It was working well. Almost too well that, my wife was complaining that the cooling system could do with different clothing than she put on. Such was the level of discomfort that a pair of socks came in handy under the circumstances.
At exactly 4pm on the dot, the train moved, which was something good. And then, it was time to take in the scenery. As the train rolled along, different parts of Lagos, almost unrecognised, came into view. Yaba, Mushin, Idi-Oro, and before one knew we had reached Abeokuta. But one thing was clear, the commissioning date of June as promised by the Transport Minister remains something of an optimistic spin. Starting from the Lagos end to the various stops along the way, it was evident that construction work was still ongoing.
Even, when we got to the Ibadan end, the same situation obtained. As we alighted to enter our waiting car, which had been sent ahead, there was a kind of hop, step, and jump to access the car in a makeshift scanty car park. Well, so to say, all is well that ends well. We were now at our destination and we did not have to go through the torture of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway.
However, as we moved from one station to the other, I noticed that the new masters in town were very much in charge. These were the Chinese. The mind goes back here, that the earlier railway system was put in place by the British. And as good as it was, the system was put in place for their own purposes of exploitation. And in a perverse way, it is possible to commend them. This is because in doing so, they put in place an enduring infrastructure which the black elites ate to the ground.
Now the Chinese are the successors. At what price may I ask? There are loud observations about the price in the form of loans. But then if this is the price, so be it. For in a vast country like ours, a rail system is a necessity in this modern age. But the more thoughtful consideration is that earlier on, the rail system was owed to the British at a price, now the same facility is being midwife by another set of external forces.
The implication is that from 1960 till date, we continue to lack the technological savvy to birth this critical facility. Ideally, one should not think too much about these things. Rather, one should just enjoy the novelty of the old new ride. Still, the thoughts persist. And they go back to an old cover in The Economist Magazine. The title of this edition was: Africa and The New Colonialists. And certainly, China is in this new league. Thus despite the novelty of the rail system, the discerning cannot but appreciate that Nigeria as a country has merely exchanged one hegemon for the other. Still dear reader, enjoy the ride and do not think too much about these things. After all, the sage has opined that: for those who think too much, life is a tragedy!
Prof. Kayode Soremekun, the immediate past Vice-Chancellor of Federal University Oye Ekiti, is the chairman of Editorial Board, BusinessDay Newspaper.