At creation, all men were equal but the circumstances of birth and the accident of geography played major roles in determining the final outcome.
In graduate school, we were at par with other students from the developed world, so-called. The difference only came in after we graduated and parted ways: while they were devoted to advancing their electoral process, we were assigned with the responsibility for seeking the best ways to rig elections. This was replicated in virtually all aspects of our society. In essence, while they moved forward, we moved backwards.
Government and governance have become like one continuous campaign trail where politicians dish out some deliberate falsehood and we still clap for them. A presidential candidate would mount the rostrum and announce that if elected, he would air-condition all our roads and we applaud him to the high heavens.
After victory and on assumption of office, he would not even lift a finger to fulfill the promise. Instead, he gets pre-occupied with smart thoughts on how to justify the promise, albeit dubiously.
It soon occurs to him that, after all, all Nigerian roads have been air-conditioned by nature. He quickly engages a smart professor, not to find ways and means of air-conditioning our roads, but to embellish the fact that, truly, all Nigerian roads have been air-conditioned by nature. This is what he now records as a major achievement in the proverbial first 100 days in office and we applaud him.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration suddenly came up with a transformation agenda in the transport sector, which seeks, among other things, to connect all state capitals with railway lines. My grandson asked if they had carefully considered the cost implication of the promise as well as the clumsy nature of the rail network that would result from that achievement.
He quipped: Do they think the map of Nigeria is drawn on a straight line? Or, are they doing some of the connections from the air?
Our friend has tried to draw a distinction between the locomotive and the train. He owned up the other day that he had not bothered to check on the dictionary definitions of both words but rather, he has depended on their sound to know that the locomotive is Nigerian while the train is foreign. We intend to adopt his approach in the remaining part of this essay.
Since the lowering of the Union Jack on October 1, 1960, not only has Nigeria not added an inch to what we inherited from the colonial masters, most of the tracks have also been vandalised and turned to trading posts in our cities. Lately, though, the much-touted transformation agenda may have succeeded in exhuming some of the rail lines that had been buried in the sands of time.
Rather than add even a single coach to what we inherited from Queen Elizabeth at independence, the transformation agenda may have been procuring more colours to paint up the Elizabethan coaches to make them look new.
This is a cosmetic approach to railways. But William Shakespeare has not forgotten to remind us that: “Anything that is amended is patched”.
Our locomotive is known for its cranky and noisy nature, understandably so. After all, Nigerian railways may not have been lifted far beyond the James Watts experimental level of the 18th century. Even the deaf is forced to hear and feel its presence because of the menacing noise and deafening horns.
Over the years, our population has exploded and imploded but the growth of the locomotive has remained dwarfed. Consequently, a ride in the locomotive from say Alagbado-Apapa has become an ordeal. The congestion in those locomotives is simply horrendous.
The overcrowding has reached the dangerous proportion where it is a rare luxury for a passenger to be able to secure the toilet compartment where he sits throughout the journey. What this means is that any passenger who loves himself should take care of his bowel before boarding the locomotive as the toilets are permanently encumbered.
By comparison, an overcrowded molue bus is a lot better than the locomotive, particularly if by any stroke of hard luck, you are unable to sit by the window where you can get some semblance of air, and you end up on the seat edges, otherwise known as “sorry zone”, where all manner of people trample upon you from head to toe and all you ever get is “sorry”.
Essentially, a ride on mass transit locomotive is almost akin to a self-inflicted death sentence because once you are there, the fans and the lights never work. All you have is total darkness while you sweat like Christmas goat. At destination, your white shirt struggles between black and brown.
Elsewhere, the modern trend is that train stations are built into airports so as to make arrivals to, and departures from, airports easy.
Modern trains are powered by electricity and so they are clean, fast and noiseless. A few examples will do here: one, those smooth machines that sneak up on you at Heathrow Airport; move you between terminals; and from there link you up with any part of the country, are trains.
Two, when Norway won the right to host the 1994 Olympic Games, many good things followed. The Norwegian authorities built the Oslo Airport and also built a modern train station into it. The result today is that the two-hour train ride from Oslo Airport to Lillehammer is sweeter, smoother and safer than any flight in an airplane.
If any transformation agenda is to move us from the locomotive to the train’s level, a few quick steps must be taken – resuscitate our railways, at least, to the pre-independence level, from where genuine expansion would begin; and the idea of building train stations into airports must transcend the level of their sleeping in the master plan into concrete reality.
We must draw from our experience in road transportation where private participation has succeeded tremendously. All told, government has no business in rail business!