In May 2017, my first daughter had just completed her West African School Certificate Examination and was home when I got a message that her siblings were at the National Children’s Park and Zoo on excursion from their school. She decided to accompany me to see them. As we drove into the park, I said, “I am sure you don’t even know a place like this exists in Abuja”, thinking she had never visited the park before. “I have been here several times. Mummy used to bring us here when you were working at the Villa. But the place was better than this then” she said. After a few seconds, she then asked, “Daddy, why is it that things in Nigeria were usually better in the past?”
She was just 17 at the time and I had no answer to her question that speaks to how things consistently regress in our country. Take for example the Abuja-Kaduna train. I first experienced the train ride two years ago and was impressed that everything worked perfectly. The trip took exactly two hours. The convenience was neat and nearly all the facilities were in good condition. As I continued to travel the route, I noticed a steady decline in both operations and facilities. Clocks stopped working, breakdowns occurred en route, cockroaches appeared, seats were torn and racketeering and touting of tickets became obvious. My experience last Thursday has compelled this intervention.
Billed to attend the board meeting of the Kashim Ibrahim Fellowship (KIF) in Kaduna that morning, I arrived at the station by 5.55am for the 7.00am train and joined others on the queue waiting for the officials who only began selling tickets at 6.10am. Meanwhile, it was drizzling and that led to a rush. While contemplating whether it was worth the trouble, a man who recognized me told me to leave the queue. He said someone would bring him tickets and he would give me one. Since I had promised to secure a ticket for Kadaria Ahmed, I told him I needed two. The man obliged and gave me the two tickets, free of charge.
Soon, boarding was announced. At this point, many were still on the queue trying to buy tickets. Pandemonium ensued. We eventually left them behind at the station. During the journey, I made mental notes. One, the majority of passengers in the Business Class compartment did not queue for tickets (which meant they secured them through ‘other way’) and two, the journey that took exactly two hours on my first experience was now two hours, 25 minutes. But that is just the beginning of the story.
Having been booked on the 2pm train back (or so we were told), the moment our meeting ended about 12.40pm, I decided to head straight to the train station. But Governor Nasir el Rufai, whose conference room we used for our meeting, invited members for lunch. In requesting that I wait, he said we needed only 20 minutes to get to the train station where our tickets would be ready. I replied that I don’t take chances when travelling within the country. My aburo, J.J Omojuwa decided to join me.
We arrived at the train station early enough but because it was raining, there was confusion everywhere. To compound matters, tickets were being sold in only one small cubicle. That led to hundreds of people pushing and shoving in their attempt to secure tickets. Omojuwa and I thought we would be spared the ordeal. We were wrong. The Kaduna government official could not get our tickets though he ran from one place to another. And for those who did secure the elusive tickets, it was another battle accessing the platform. Policemen, who had created their own melee by the entrance, beat back desperate passengers. When it was almost 2pm and we saw that the train had roared to life, we joined the madness. In the process, Omojuwa and one of the policemen nearly resorted to fisticuff. Eventually we fought our way to the platform even though we had no tickets. By then the train was about to move. Then we heard a woman shouting, “Where are the two men from the Government House?”
We rushed to her thinking she would give us tickets. She simply said, “follow me” and took us inside the first coach where she found seats for us in a rather dramatic fashion that is a story on its own. Once we sat down, the ‘action woman’ bade us goodbye and alighted. Then the train moved. So, we travelled back to Abuja without tickets! Those that were left behind at the Kaduna train station far outnumbered those who made the journey to Abuja. Ironically, when I went through the numerous coaches, several of them were nearly empty.
My observations. One, we like to complicate simple things in Nigeria. In the disorder created by inept management of the train, corruption is bound to thrive. Two, the best way to eliminate racketeering is for people to buy their tickets online. We have chosen a primitive method that is not working, cannot work and is open to abuse. Three, when shall we do something about our maintenance culture? Even a simple thing like the clock on the train doesn’t work and nobody pays attention. Four, the fare is ridiculous. It is being heavily subsidized. This is a $876 million project partly funded with a $500 million loan from the Exim Bank of China. The way we are going, we will soon run the train aground while still saddled with the loans.
I wrote the foregoing on 15th August upon my return to Abuja with the intention of publishing it in my column the next Thursday. As it so ever happens in Nigeria where we experience one day, one drama, other more important issues cropped up and I discarded this draft. When on Tuesday the Presidential Election Tribunal decided to deliver its verdict yesterday, I felt another sense of De Javu. But after reading a story published Saturday by Blueprint newspaper, I believe election matters can wait (In any case, can someone please wake me up when Justice Garba Mohammed concludes his reading?). Titled “Insecurity: Tension mounts as politicians ‘hijack’ Abuja – Kaduna trains”, the Blueprint report details how, with the Kaduna-Abuja road now practically taken over by kidnappers, rail has become the only secure means for commuting, especially for the high and the mighty. With that also, tickets are no longer available to ordinary citizens.
The newspaper had sent undercover reporters to train stations at both ends to observe for two days and their report is damning not only about how the facilities have deteriorated but also on corruption of the management. Their story on how the only readily available tickets now are “for those who want to stand”, with the others taken over by politicians, senior security personnel, public officials and those who are ready to pay premium prices reveals how officials of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) have gamed the system.
Given the huge investment in transport infrastructure by the current administration (mostly from Chinese loans), there is need for a management strategy, especially since other lines will soon come on stream. It seems we are using the old failed railway model that is also bound to crash. Elsewhere, the railway line belongs to the government as public infrastructure while the railway coaches and locomotives belong to an operating company. If we are not to run the Abuja-Kaduna train aground, maintenance should be outsourced to a company that works with the Chinese suppliers of the rolling stock. Passenger handling and station operations could then be run by a private entity. The same should go for the new lines being built.
Using the Abuja-Kaduna line as an example, the NRC Managing Director, Mr Fidet Okhiria recently spoke to both the challenge and prospects. “When we started, we were earning about N16 million and spending about N56 million, but right now, we can comfortably say we earn over N80 million although we still spend over N100 million, which is closer to breaking even”, said Okhiria. What that means is that if there is efficiency in operations, the railway system can at least sustain itself while we look for other means to repay the loans.
We cannot be borrowing to build the railway and be managing it the way we currently do. It makes no sense. The NRC should retreat into a regulatory and supervisory function while outsourcing the management (ticketing, maintenance etc.) to competent third parties. If that doesn’t happen, knowing the way Nigeria works, a time will come when train tickets will be available only to people who know somebody at the Villa!
El-Rufai’s (Un)Spilt Milk
As the first to arrive for the KIF Board meeting in Kaduna on 15th August, I waited in the office of Governor El-Rufai who was having a meeting with some foreigners. As he greeted me the moment his meeting ended, it was obvious something was amiss. I asked whether there was any issue with the meeting he just held. He didn’t dissemble. “The regulatory environment in the country can sometimes be very frustrating”, he said and added, “Those guys are from the globally renowned Danish company, Arla Foods and we have been negotiating with them for the past two years on a public-private partnership that will help resuscitate the local dairy sector industry in Kaduna State. But the recent statement by the federal government has put spanners in the works.”
The statement El-rufai was referring to was the ‘directive’ by President Muhammadu Buhari for the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) not to sell Forex to persons in the business of importing food products into the country. El-Rufai—who explained to me how President Olusegun Obasanjo was able to ensure Nigeria produces enough cement for local needs and is now exporting the product (through a well-articulated and scrupulously managed import substitution policy)—believes the same could be done in pastoral agriculture in the country. But he also added that it would require different phases and timelines. Given how despondent he sounded, I decided I was going to write on what I thought was a botched deal with the Danes and I already had the headline in my head: El-Rufai’s Spilt Milk!
I am happy I did not rush to write given that a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was finally signed on Monday between Kaduna State government and Arla Foods. I am encouraged that El-Rufai eventually found a way around the challenge. While the state government will offer 1,000 nomadic dairy farmers permanent farm lands with access to water, Arla will be the commercial partner that will purchase, collect, process and bring the local milk to market. The project will primarily be funded with CBN loans guaranteed by the state while Arla, as the commercial partner, will invest in establishing the milk collection centres.
The collaboration between Kaduna and Arla is envisioned on a five-year project called the ‘Milky Way Partnership’ to develop a sustainable dairy value chain. “The partnership and project have demonstrated a viable scalable business model that has created both an increase in income and job opportunities for local farmers and employees in the dairy sector. At the Amana Dairy Cooperative in the outskirts of Kaduna, the farmers see the benefits of being part of the Milky Way Partnership. They now have steady access to water and a milking parlour has been installed to ensure that the milk is cooled down immediately after milking to preserve quality” Alhaji Sani Aliyu, one of the dairy farmers at Amana Dairy Cooperative, said on Monday.
Mr Jesper Kamp, the Danish Ambassador to Nigeria, was also effusive about the project. “The ongoing collaboration between Arla and Kaduna State Government is a great example of the positive impact EU companies can bring when they engage with local producers…This project has great potential to develop the local dairy sector and make a real difference in many farmers’ businesses and lives” he says. Mr Steen Hadsbjerg, Vice President Sub-Saharan Africa Region for Arla Foods shares his sentiment: “Bringing local milk into our product portfolio is part of the way we believe that our business will be long-term successful in Nigeria. We will only succeed in growing local farmers’ incomes, building Nigeria’s dairy sector and achieving Arla’s ambitions in West Africa if the project and its activities are commercially viable. This is a great example of business and development going hand in hand to ensure long-term sustainable solutions that are built to last.”
As things stand in Nigeria today, the domestic dairy industry is supplying less than 10 percent of our current demand, leaving a huge gap that is filled by importation. Aside the fact that investments in this sector will help to create wealth and put many of our people to work, it also has a potential to resolve a serious national security problem. If we get it right, the idea of some people roaming the bush with herds of cattle would gradually be eliminated. That will also reduce their incessant clashes with sedentary farmers. I commend El-Rufai for seeing through the initiative.
AbdulRazak’s First 100 Days
On a Sunday afternoon about six weeks ago, I got a call from the governor of Kwara State, Alhaji AbdulRahman AbdulRazak, asking whether I was at home. When I replied in the affirmative, he asked me to send the address as he wanted to visit. I did and within an hour, the governor was in my house. He came in just one car without any protocol and entered alone. He left after spending almost three hours during which we discussed what he met on ground in our state and how he intends to turn around the fortune of our people.
As at the time the governor visited, he had only just spent two months in office but he had already visited every part of the state as he shared with me potentials that I never knew existed in different areas. He started with Kwara North where, as he told me, the first rice mill in the entire northern Nigeria was built (in Patigi) by the late Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello. He told me of an abandoned farm settlement within the area. With agro-processing as his idea for empowerment, his eyes are trained on sugar and its by-products, including power generation.
In Kwara South, the governor sees cashew, cassava and poultry as the areas to pursue while maize production will be encouraged essentially for feed mills. As he talked about each area and what could be done, the governor reeled out statistics to back his point. From education to health and other sectors, there is no area that we did not cover in our discussion. The state, he assured me, is currently embarking on the enumeration of workers, teachers and pupils to be able to work with accurate data. By the time the governor left my house, I had no doubt in my mind that he has started on a good note. What is now left is for him to put in place his own team (he has thus far relied on staff inherited from the previous administration) and begin to work for our people. I wish the governor well.
Adieu Tijjani Yusuf
When Major General Abdullahi Mohammed (rtd)—who remains a father figure to many of us—called sometimes last month to inform me of the death of Mallam Tijjani Yusuf, I felt a deep sense of loss. The 40th day prayer for the late admin officer held on Monday. There is hardly anyone who has worked in the Villa in the past two and a half decades (or had been sworn in for a cabinet position in Nigeria within the period) that would not know Tijjani Yusuf. Yet I doubt if anyone can say anything unkind about him. He was a model of simplicity, respect for authority, dedication to duty and friendliness. May God comfort the family he left behind.