Lines Between Points

Image: Sola Osofisan

Cecil Rhodes dreamt of a highway linking Cape Town to Cairo, an ambitious project at the time but not impossible. After all the Egyptians built the Pyramids. Despite the immense economic benefits such a project would have had, I am however gladdened by his inability to achieve it. You might wonder why, what has Cecil Rhodes ever done to me? It’s nothing personal, I just prefer that Africans build what’s needed on their homeland instead of being spoon fed by foreigners. I’m no xenophobe, it just makes better sense for so many obvious reasons that we take control of our destiny instead of leaving it up to non natives. In short, every major world region with any repute was developed by local inhabitants and ours shouldn’t be any different. To be completely fair, Rhodes had an imperialistic streak to him and to me he was just another white man trying to take advantage of a race many of his peers believed  they were superior to, regardless of whatever side of the coin history views him on. He would probably have built the highway and claimed it for the Empire. #ColonyProblems

Image: Sola Osofisan
Image: Sola Osofisan

The seeds of that intra-continental highway were sown by a need for better transport systems which Rhodes recognized. Routes that would boost economic growth along cities in it’s path by reinvigorating the core of the continent and bringing unprecedented exposure to famished areas. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa had proposed a trans Africa highway system as far back as 1971, that we are yet to see the fulfillment of that proposal is still the subject of much debate, murky trade blocs and differing national agendas have certainly played parts. Starting as far as Tripoli on the Mediterranean to Capetown in South Africa, Dakar in Senegal to Djibouti and several similar routes crisscrossing the continent, these highways are the basis of potential regional integration in Africa. Costly transport services stall the growth of business and economies and are currently holding our continent back. When completed they would boost intra African trade immensely by allowing people and goods move easily to local and regional markets. How can this dream ever be fully maximized however, when the transport infrastructure within a lot of the individual states are still in deplorable conditions. The road networks in many of Sub-Saharan Africa’s prominent countries have been ignored to a fault and nothing seems to be happening to remedy the situation. People forget that distribution is actually half of anything a business offers. If you can’t get your product to where it’s needed then you can’t make sales, it’s that simple. Knowing this and looking at the situation on ground it’s fair to say a lot of work still needs to be done to improve the overall level of infrastructural quality around and ensure the various governments are adequately maintaining the road networks available. Innovative and adventurous expansion plans will have to be at the forefront of this goal if any progress will be made. Many states in Sub-Saharan Africa are guilty of shooting themselves in the foot because inadequate planning and coordination. Citizens spend a lot of time on roads due to poor traffic regulations and overcrowded motorways, hence suffering cumulative inefficiency. Take Nigeria my home country for example, the potential to be a global and regional hot spot is there, but the giants of Africa have been sleeping. Nigeria needs to step up as an economic power in Africa and lead the way for better transportation. The challenges are many but to honor our claims of being the Giant of Africa we must lead by example. Nigeria should indeed be a model for other countries in the region.

The problems of Nigerian transportation are not new and probably mirror the situation in most other African countries. There are too few good roads and the few available suffer from encroachment and congestion. Several major roads in Nigeria like the Seme-Mile 2 road or the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway have been abandoned by previous administrations and are very laborious to maneuver. These are federal and state highways that link different parts of the country together, talk less of local routes within cities and towns, most are filled with potholes which become de facto ponds in the rainy season and significantly increase traffic jams. Nigeria is not a very big country, so why does it take an average of three hours to make a journey that should really take forty minutes. It’s a waste of time and effort, time that would be better spent achieving things that are worthwhile, instead of wasting away in ‘go slows’.

Industrialization as we know it is a gradual process that develops in phases. Just like in the kitchen of any seasoned chef, there is a recipe to follow. It’s time to get serious about TRAINS. They provide a more efficient and affordable option to cars and buses for the everyday citizen, and because of their nature they are relatively efficient. Locomotives have been present in Nigeria since 1898, but only came under National control in 1955. To say the history of the National Railway Commission has been dysfunctional will be an understatement, asset mismanagement, bankruptcy and epileptic service has plagued the organization since it’s inception. It’s unreliable aura has ensured that Nigerians don’t even consider rail as a viable means of transportation. The trains in Nigeria have historically been used for inter-regional travel, but it is important for the growth of a nation with an estimated population of 140 million to establish local transit trains. The Jonathan administration in 2014 signed a $12 billion agreement with China Railway Construction Corp. Ltd to build a railway along Nigeria’s coast to link Lagos and Calabar. Ground was broken on this project recently with the Chairman of the CRCC saying “It will create up to 200,000 local jobs during the construction and a further 30,000 positions once the line is operational.” This, as well as the restoration of the Lagos-Kano line are welcome developments. More importantly I encourage cities like Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and similar regional hubs like Johannesburg, Nairobi, Libreville and Abidjan to establish local trains that will move people around the cities. This reduces the stress placed on roadways and decreases traffic congestion experienced by people who use the major roads.

There are practical examples from other countries with good transport systems. Germany for example has a public transport system that relies on two major modes of local transport: road and rail. The U-bahn is the underground train that moves around the city centre from midtown to downtown and the S-bahn is the suburban express line that operates mostly on the outskirts of town. These two are complemented by  buses and tramlines called Strassenbahn (a type of rail car that runs on tracks along a public street). Together, they ensure that movement within and around the city or town is as efficient and hassle free as possible for local inhabitants. Tickets on either of these are available for daily, weekly or monthly passes and for more convenience are also interchangeable, with train tickets being able to pay for bus rides on the same line and vice versa. Japan is another country with efficient transportation, in fact the most efficient public transport system in the world. A mix of above ground and subway train make the system very competitive and user friendly. The overground rails in Tokyo are mostly operated by the East Japan Railway or JR East, the largest passenger railway company in the world. There are seven other private lines operating within the city, linking Tokyo to other districts like Osaka and Nagoya. This railway network is the most extensive in the world and serves over 40 million passengers daily, it’s dense and convoluted mix of private and public rails ensures the world’s largest metropolitan area stays ticking. For comparison, Germany has the most railway use in Europe  and averages 10 million riders daily. Almost all Japanese cities have a bus system, these are essential for places that trains don’t go.  Trams are also common in cities like Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Kagoshima and Hiroshima, however they’re not used as much.

Certain infrastructure always need to be in place before the yields of any manufacturing industry can be maximized for profit. Manufacturers need distribution networks to get their products around and the ease of human movement underpins ease of cargo movement, this rail emphasis will have a domino effect on freight transport. The cost of transporting cargo in passenger trains will be too expensive for small businesses to bear so freight trains will lessen the costs of the transport industry which in turn keeps more money in the pockets of businessmen who could look for better ways to innovate and expand. It will boost economic growth by reducing the cost of goods and services all round and allowing people to spend more. Accessibility of markets is always a big issue if you’re a trader or business owner, for example Trader A wants to open a branch of his store in another part country  but due to high costs of freight movers and rigorous transport routes he’ll probably be discouraged. Another reason to want growth in this area is the efficiency of logistics companies, consumers can order products online from Trader B with the mindset that their purchases will arrive in a set amount of time. The bad conditions of some federal roads cause cargo vehicles to break down or be liable to stop and search by police or worse armed bandits, putting the traders livelihood at enormous uninsured risk. Having world class road and rail alternatives eases this burden, you can adequately plan a trip and know the time allotted for the journey is all that’s required and nothing more.

One of the comparative advantages nations like the United States, Germany and China have is the level of accessibility between businesses and markets in the different regions. The US Highway act of 1956 ensured that there were roads connecting every state in the country, a 70,000 km expanse. For a country the size of a continent that’s a tough task, but it was completed in 10 years and maintenance is being done on a road in the US almost every day. Nigeria is much smaller, and we have the populations that would be served by the new markets. Consider this, If every nation in Africa focuses on maximizing its transport infrastructure, there would be uninhibited growth in and around the continent and that intra-continental highway would be closer to being realized. To do this, leaders have to be willing to put the right people to work, people who will raise the collective good above their own short term personal gain. Looking at it from perspective of the phases I spoke of earlier will help you understand better. If we really want to move into the next phase of our development, these railways and highways (those we do have and future expansion projects) are essential to our national interest. Every part of the nation has to be easily accessible! We must demand better means of public transportation from our government.

Bus Rapid Transit in Lagos has been a relative success, and should be adopted by other states as a cornerstone for the future of Nigerian and African transportation as a whole. The only reservation is that the costs of building new busway lanes might be too much for smaller towns to bear alone. BRT or not, adoption of state or city run bus lines would reduce the number of privately owned commercial buses. In a city like Lagos, commercial buses (Yellow 14 seaters called danfo buses locally) are a primary cause of traffic jams and delays. These danfo buses disregard bus stops by making impromptu stops to drop and pick up passengers by the roadside, their lawlessness cause a lot of collisions and accidents. It is essential that their use is restrained, to provide a more convenient road system. The practicality of getting them off the road may be called into question, however simple laws and ordinances will have to be passed and enforced to be able to carry these out effectively, I’ll touch on this in the next  paragraph. Brands like Nova Buses or Motor Coach Industries can provide large buses that would comfortably seat 30 with enough room for 10 people standing. These buses will obviously have predefined routes and arrival and departure schedules to maximise efficiency. Ticketed fares will be an avenue of revenue generation for the city and will ensure all bus drivers remain accountable. Passengers can buy tickets on the bus or get weekly or monthly passes depending on their frequency of use. We have a large population that’s growing every day, it’s only reasonable the we provide predictable and timely means of transportation for them. Ideally most people would want to own a car at some stage of their lives, but before reaching that milestone, they should be benefactors of  convenient and comfortable trains and buses provided by the administration. It’s the citizen’s right as right holders and the leader’s jobs as duty bearers. Citizens do not live to serve government, A GOVERNMENT EXISTS TO SERVE ITS CITIZENS. It is for this reason that the administrative capacity of our transport system should also be reexamined, changes should be made to promote a culture of service and virtue.

Decreasing the use and presence of danfo buses is necessary to encourage use of the state run vehicles, but to do this some criteria will need to be met. The buses will have to pass two tests to be considered road worthy, the first is an emissions test which looks into the amounts of Carbon, Sulphur and Nitrogen being released by the vehicle’s exhaust. Emissions tests are being ignored in Nigeria and much of Africa, as long as your car rolls you put it on the road. Global warming is a cause and effect phenomenon and even if we have played a minor part in causing it, we still have a role to play in reducing its effects. Whether you believe in global warming or not, there is evidence that global temperatures are rising rapidly. it is a problem of our time and governments in Lagos and other major cities in Africa need to implement mandatory emission tests for vehicles, motorcycles and anything in between. Africans will say government is wicked *I’m looking at you Molue driver* but hear me out, the logic goes thusly,  emission tests will help us know cars that are road worthy from those that aren’t, and to play our part in reducing global warming we’ll have to reduce the number of unworthy cars. Enforcing this test will require a level of patience from the administration but could yield great dividends for the state. Documentation showing a passing grade in an emissions test will need to be carried by all vehicle owners. Vehicles failing to produce this could be fined or towed. This test will help reduce the number of cars on roads. Cities like Lagos, Accra and Nairobi are congested with too many taxis, motorcycles, Bajaj tricycles and buses. The second is an aesthetic test, how many times have you driven by or gotten on a bus or taxi that’s so rough and unsightly that you doubt it’s functionality. My rule of thumb is any commercial vehicle that’s been in so many accidents to look this way doesn’t have a safe driver and is a danger to other road users, such a vehicle shouldn’t be on the road let alone carrying innocent passengers. This test will also judge the condition of other functional parts of the car like windshield wipers, trafficators, side mirrors, rear mirrors, brakes, brake lights and headlights, to prevent abuse this law will only be for public transit vehicles. Last but not least, all private buses will have to purchase mandatory insurance, that covers life and property.  There will be a database of all the buses and they will pay a road tax to the authorities, it’s this give and receive relationship that will develop a healthy private transport system. These buses have to be in optimum condition because they’re private buses serving a public purpose. As always there will be critics saying drastic action like this will be tampering with the fabric of how things are and the livelihoods of many. I say to them change is scary, but change is the only constant in this world. Protest to your government to provide more city run buses to carry passengers that would have otherwise ridden on danfo buses, the government can employ qualified ex-danfo drivers to drive the buses, give them uniforms, assign him or her their routes, sit back and watch the money flow. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Implementing all these will not be easy, but what good thing is ever easy.

We can’t talk about modern transport systems without mentioning traffic lights, signs and symbols. It’s a testament to the adaptable nature of humans that many people survive on our crazy roads. Modern roads will need modern traffic symbols, it’s backwards to let a man pass traffic when a traffic signal can do the job more efficiently. It’s a shame that more roads don’t have traffic signals because there’s enough money in national & state budgets for solar powered traffic and street lights. Lights that will save lives and reduce commotion on roads. Statistics show that on streets with traffic lights there are much less accidents than on streets without. Even in cases where there is an accident there will clearly be evidence to point to who was wrong. Roadside symbols and signs to indicate different hazards and road conditions are also very important for road safety. So why remain in the dark, we need these upgrades and we need them now.

Enforcement of traffic regulation is the most important aspect of making any of these changes effective. Danfo buses are not out of control, it’s the men and women of the law who do not enforce but instead take petty bribes that give them the leeway to do as they please. Developed countries do not have more law abiding citizens than we do, neither do they have more criminals than we. The difference is in law enforcement. If a traffic violation is broken for example, a police officer who stops the offender in most developed nations will make sure said offender is either cautioned or punished. Nobody would like such a thing to happen to them obviously but having lived in a country where you don’t get cautioned or punished and your traffic crimes can be overlooked with a well placed N200 note I will pick the former all day long. The absence of rules leads to chaos and chaos is what we’re dealing with in Nigeria. I can boldly say that sometimes too much is a bad thing. NP, Road Safety, LASTMA, LAWMA how many of these do we really need policing the same issue, for me it all comes back to the dishonest and unaccountable nature of law enforcement because despite the presence of these authority figures, the same traffic problems still exist. One of the biggest problems in Nigeria is the lack of a proper database to keep track of anything. It’s because of this lack of database that we keep trying over and over with these different agencies in hopes of curbing a problem that’s not really big and definitely doesn’t need so much manpower to control. A proper database will allow law enforcement to keep track of road users and know serial offenders from first time offenders, traffic citations could be given or licenses could be suspended to promote order and discourage others. Instead of providing safety and security on the road, we have an avenue for men and women of these agencies to harass everyday citizens, slyly or blatantly ask for bribes and waste people’s time. Ideally we only need one of these agencies to monitor traffic and like most developed countries it should be covered as part of the duties of the NP, but the moral fibre of this group in particular is basically nonexistent. I’m sure there are few who are decent and  try to do their jobs honestly, nevertheless the acts of many have tarnished the reputation of the whole. A lot has to be done to repair the relationship between citizens and law enforcement, full scale reforms have to be made in these agencies and it all starts with a simple step towards sanity.

Finally, the problem with the roads should be the easiest to solve. We need broader roads and we need tarred roads, adequate capital to finance projects and construction improvements will help in developing Intra and inter-city links between urban and rural areas. Since we know what we need and we know what we need to do to get to where we want, why not take the necessary actions to put the processes in motion. The Trans-Africa highway network is still very much happening, and in a few good years progress could be seen on that front. For now focus on internal infrastructure is all we can do so as to perfect what we already have for efficiency and reliability. So that when that project is completed we already have the systems in place to benefit from it. How many times have you said you wanted to go from Ibadan to Lagos or from Lagos to Cotonou,  journeys that should ideally take 45 minutes to an hour and end up spending 3 to 6 hours on the road. Efficient transportation is a crucial engine of economic growth and social development, a necessary ingredient for any well functioning state. It’s a new age my people, we need to move on from the days of yore!

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