Mr President Rev the Railways

by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku
Tinubu addressing Nigeria

Now that the long wait for the unveiling of who is going to be who in the Tinubu administration is over, we start our discussion this week on that subject. And to say that the choice of individuals that the president has selected to work with him as ministers appear to be an indication that Mr Tinubu is not prepared to depart from the abnormal norm. In a deft statement indicating that choice of ministers in the Tinubu administration is a radical departure from the expectations of Nigerians, there is no way I could have put it better than with how Usman Massallachi, in his article titled, Imperative of Merit in Political Appointments, published in The Guardian newspaper of July 27, 2023, put it. According to Mr. Massallachi, and I quote, ‘I ascribe the extremely high rates of poverty and unemployment in Nigeria today to the inability of our leaders to appoint square pegs in square holes. The people they employ or appoint are usually incompetent individuals who specialize in diverting public funds meant for tackling issues of poverty or implementing projects. Some of these leaders commercialise government jobs to the extent that only those with deep pockets and who have strong political ties get appointments’.

With the tapping of some of these fellows, it then does appear that we will be seeing more of one of the badly-thought out decisions of the Tinubu administration, that is, the decision to yank off fuel subsidy in Nigeria without giving a thought to the negative spiraling effects that that decision would have on Nigerians. As we speak, Mr Tinubu has practicalized that very old idiom of putting the cart before the horse – and when the cart tried to move with the horse, it came with another badly-thought out ‘palliative’, – favouring the very rich and taking the breath out of the middle class and poor.

There are already some ironies arising from the removal of the ‘subsidy on fuel importation’. One is that while Mr Tinubu and his people move around in very long convoys of up to 100 or more vehicles, most Nigerians are trekking to their places of endeavor, entertainment and homes.  The other irony is that the Tinubu people are already asking Nigerians to go buy bikes with which to move around, even though there are no dedicated bicycle lanes in Nigeria, and that the stipend they are proposing as ‘palliative’ cannot even buy one of the tyres of a modern bicycle. That is not even the problem per se. The problem is that there will be not one of the recently appointed ministers who will be riding a bicycle around to work or to go home, as an indication that they mean what they are saying.

But perhaps what demonstrates that the present administration appears bereft of ideas with which to tackle many of the bye-problems of the removal on fuel subsidy, was the speech by Mr President on Monday, 31st July 2023. Even though a lot of people are saying that the president did not address issues around our comatose refineries, I believe that it is in his plan for transportation that he shot himself in the foot. At a time when Nigerians have problems with moving around to conduct economic activity, Mr Tinubu says that his administration would be providing three thousand 20-seater Carbon Neutral Gas, CNG buses, to ferry over 100 million people. Does this cohere with prevailing conditions in Nigeria?

Over the weekend, I visited the Idu Railways in Abuja. While there, it was easy to find out why the Nigeria airways, and pretty much why other public institutions in Nigeria do not work. The same system of appointing very incompetent persons to man critical public offices persists. Some of the chaps at the only counter for ticketing cannot speak English. Others are dressed in T-shirts and have no organizational capacity. Information we gathered about the Idu Train station indicated that the part of the station that should ferry Nigerians within the city of Abuja is dormant, and some parts of the facility are already gathering cobwebs.  The station was built by the Chinese for inter and intra city transportation. While the section for inter-city seems to be working at very average capacity, the intra city section – that part that should work within the city of Abuja – is under lock and key. The guard there told me that it is under lock and key because of the train kidnap incident in Kaduna.

During our visit to the Idu Railway station, we were to find a multitude of Nigerians – the extremely rich and the extremely poor – all using the train from Abuja to Kaduna. Some of the persons we interviewed told us that with the security issues in Nigeria, high costs of transportation arising from increase in fuel subsidy and air transport, the train is a viable alternative. They told us that it is cheap as well – Abuja to Kaduna at the economy class is just N3,000 for a three-hour journey. The plan was for those using the trains to Kubwa and to the Airport to pay N500.

This is where we think that Mr President should focus on. He should have revved the trains before suspending payment of fuel subsidy. Therefore, we suggest that he give the incoming works and transport minister marching orders to open up the railways and rev the engines. With one trillion naira saved from suspension of payment for fuel subsidies, Mr Tinubu can invest more in getting the trains to work instead of buying CNG buses. We flare our gas daily, and do not have the resources nor the technology to harness it, thereby making the CNG buses unsustainable.

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