In Nigeria, a dying railroad clatters back to life

Associated Press
In this Wednesday, March 2, 2011 photo, a passenger train passes through the Yaba neighborhood of Lagos, Nigeria. Railroad officials hope a $166 million plan will bring the rebirth of the long-moribund Nigerian Railway Corp., just in time for an election in April. But it's far from clear whether the railway will be a success or just another broken promise. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
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A stifling heat sat over the train car waiting at the Lagos terminal, its aisles a bazaar. Railroad employees hustled mobile phone recharge cards, women carried sweating bottles of soda atop their heads, and a man thrust packets of poison into passengers' faces, shouting: "Kill stubborn rat!"

Two minutes past its departure time, the new green-and-yellow locomotive at the front sounded its horn three times, bringing passengers sprinting across the aging concrete concourse to pile in as it pulled away. It passed an open-air market, with women's bras fluttering just past the train's open windows, then a bevy of idling cars stuck along a Lagos expressway.

This is the beginning of what could be the rebirth of rail in Nigeria. Officials hope a $166 million plan will open the line from Lagos to the banks of Niger River, then later all the way to the ancient northern city of Kano.

The attempted railway renaissance comes as Nigeria faces a crucial presidential election in April, and President Goodluck Jonathan is pointing to the trains as a major campaign promise. The railway is also China's first marquee program as it tries to make inroads in oil-rich Nigeria; the China Civil Engineering Construction Corp. has the contract to rebuild rail up to the city of Jebba.

Yet it's still far from clear whether the railway will be a success or just another expensive broken promise, in a country with a long history of expensive broken promises.

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In a nation where most people live on less than $2 a day, Nigeria likely has lost more than $380 billion to corruption since gaining its independence in 1960, analysts say. The result of that graft can be seen across the nation of 150 million people.

Road projects budgeted year after year by Nigeria's National Assembly go unbuilt as money keeps getting spent. In the country's oil-rich southern delta, shabby concrete-block hospitals have barren shelves and no lifesaving anti-malarial drugs. In the arid far north, concrete power posts lay shattered on the sides of asphalt hunks of what used to be highways.

It's the same with the trains.

"The Nigerian railway system has been moribund for decades," said Adeseyi Sijuwade, the managing director of the state-run Nigerian Railway Corp. "It has been neglected, starved of funds. It actually came to a standstill a few years ago."

At the Lagos train station, just to the side of the main ticket booth, a faded, water-stained and torn list of rules and regulations governing the railway sits behind two glass frames. The laws haven't changed since their passage in 1956, four years before Nigeria became an independent nation. The rules list fine amounts in British pounds.

Those regulations show how little has changed on the railway since the British opened the nation's first train track by 1900, connecting its colonial headquarters of Lagos to Ibadan. Twelve years later, Lagos was connected to Kano, the north's major city.

Instead of moving people, the British-run railway focused on exporting tin and other commodities to turn a profit for the empire. The market grew rapidly. Annual exports of peanuts grown in the north, for instance, jumped from roughly 1,000 tons to about 41,000 tons in just five years in 1915 due to the railroad's impact.

By the time the British left, Nigeria had more than 3,500 kilometers (2,100 miles) of railroads running across the country. The iron lines provided one of the few links between the oil fields of the south and the encroaching deserts of the north, where jobs and opportunities remain scarce.

Fifty years later, on paper, the Nigerian Railway Corp. still has the same amount of railroad. But the track simply disintegrated after years of neglect. Sijuwade estimates that as much of 70 percent of the track on the Lagos-to-Kano line simply does not exist.

Rains washed out bridges and culverts. The tropical climate of Lagos rusted through the rails. Sand corroded tracks in the north.

Administration of the railroad also staggered along under the revolving coups and military rulers that ruled Nigeria for much of its independence. The railway once had 33,000 union employees. Now roughly 6,000 employees are scattered across the country. Some employees died while waiting for retirement benefits that went unpaid.

Leaders from deposed President Shehu Shagari in 1980, military rulers Sani Abacha, Ibrahim Babangida and Muhammadu Buhari and former President Olusegun Obasanjo made promises to revamp the system. They brought in Romanians, Indians and later the Chinese to manage the promised improvements.

Yet, like each time before, money seemingly vanished into the maw of the failing railroad. Most recently, Obasanjo signed an $8 billion deal in 2006 with the Chinese to again revamp the line, with no visible effect.

"Corruption plays a very big role in it, just like in infrastructure in Nigeria," said Akintokunbo Adejumo, an amateur railway historian. "Why is our electricity not working? Why is there always a shortage of wells?"

Corruption allegations have arisen under Sijuwade's management, which he blamed on previous railway officials. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Nigeria's chief anti-graft agency, launched an investigation into railway contracts and bidding practices. The commission said investigators dropped the case after determining the contracts were never signed and completed.

Between government inertia and failing lines, the trains disappeared.

"It's like all of a sudden, something just died off," said Olusegun Adyodele, a 32-year-old accountant.

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Powered by one of 25 new diesel General Electric Corp. engines, trains now runs daily commuter trains in and out of Lagos to Abeokuta in neighboring Ogun state, 81 kilometers (50 miles) away.

The roughly two-hour one-way trip costs only 120 naira (80 cents) for a second-class ticket, while a seat in an air-conditioned car costs 500 naira ($3.33). Traveling in one of the crowded, steaming Volkswagen vans that drive into Lagos costs about 350 naira ($2.34), not considering time lost to traffic.

That low cost has passengers shoving into the trains for the morning commute, riding train cars and hanging off the sides.

"Before, come on!" shouted commuter Ebenezer Atansuyi, 33. "There was lots of troubles on the train. It would go and just stop."

Now, the trains ride along rebuilt rails laid by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corp. A Nigerian firm holds the contract to build the rest of the line, from Jebba to Kano.

Sijuwade said the line to Jebba should be open soon, while the route all the way to Kano should be moving "by the next few months." The railway corporation also wants to rebuild the country's eastern line, running from Port Harcourt in the southern delta to the northeastern city of Maiduguri. Sijuwade said estimates on the cost of that project have yet to be completed.

"Railway is actually back on track for good in Nigeria," Sijuwade said. "This is just a beginning and there are so many plans on the drawing board."

Despite Sijuwade's promises, observers like rail historian Adejumo view the project much more cautiously.

"It's an improvement. It's a beginning," the historian said. "We just wish, we just hope the government can sustain it."

On a recent Saturday morning, President Jonathan arrived at the railway headquarters in Lagos to look over some of the new engines and take an election campaign ride out to Abeokuta. Jonathan, who took power last year after the death of the country's elected leader, has held up the railway as a sign of his administration's good works. However, much of the plannning took effect before he came into power.

As he prepared to board, Jonathan stopped to admire the locomotive pulling the cars, with a silver plaque naming the engine after him.

In the distance, old locomotives bearing the names of Nigeria's past rulers sat, rusting reminders of promises never kept.

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