Lessons of Nigeria’s coastal rail

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*Amaechi with CCECC officials

Sonala Olumhense

Few things advertise the chaos of Nigeria’s current administration than the Lagos-Calabar coastal rail, a vital infrastructure that would link all seaports from Lagos to near the Cameroon border.

In November 2014, the government of President Goodluck Jonathan signed the 10-state, 22-station, 1,402km project with China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC).

Its $11.97 billion cost provoked big headlines all over the world, but it was not difficult to see how it would provide a boost to the national, and indeed the regional African, economy.

The problem is that the project has barely moved forward, and in August, was re-announced, six years since it was taken over by the regime of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd). Speaking for the Transportation Minister, Rotimi Amaechi, Minister of Information Lai Mohammed, said the cabinet approved a memo on the matter concerning, “the ratification of the President’s approval for the award of the contract.”

He did not say when President Buhari had “approved” the contract, or whether it is now the practice that presidential approval precedes cabinet “ratification.”

Mr. Mohammed made certain to suggest that the preceding government be blamed, as is the standard practice. “You’ll remember that this is a very old project which we inherited,” he said.  “Under the former administration, an approval was given, but nothing was done.”

If he knew the entire story, Mohammed was not telling it, and this is probably why Mr Amaechi had taken the trouble to distance himself from the gathering.  I do not think it is one he could have told with a straight face.

“This particular project is very important, especially for our coastal economy,” Mohammed declared, making sure to spell out every kobo of the contract.  “The cost of the project is $11,174,769,721.74 and we have six years for the completion of this project.”

That $11.1bn was curiously presented as an announcement, but it is not. To begin with, the Jonathan administration could not have done much in the six months between the signing of the agreement and the arrival of Buhari.

What is bizarre is what has followed.  First, Buhari’s 2016 budget did not even mention the coastal rail project.  And then in July 2016, the government announced that it had renegotiated the contract, saving $800m, and signed a new agreement with the contractor. That called for a loud round of celebrations.  Here is Amaechi’s appearance on television for that purpose.  The government committed to completing the project in two years.

Said Amaechi:  “My expectation is that the project can be completed in two years since funding won’t be a problem.”  That was matched at the signing by CCECC President Cao Baogang, who said he hoped “to deliver in two years as expected by the minister.”

It was a win-win situation: a game-changing infrastructure to be completed in two years, in time to be used to prosecute Buhari’s electoral hopes in 2018.  That brings me to the second part of Mohammed’s claim, “we have six years for this project.”

I do not know if by “we” he meant Amaechi, the Ministry of Transportation, the administration, or their APC party.  He could not have meant the people of Nigeria.  Mohammed spoke in August 2021 as if July 2016, which was to lead to project completion in 2018, never happened.

Mohammed also pretended that March 2017 did not happen.  That was the month that Amaechi declared at the National Assembly that the government would complete all ongoing rail projects by the end of 2019.  According to Amaechi, “Construction of the Lagos-Ibadan and the $US 1.2bn Kano–Kaduna lines have been targeted in the [2017]budget, as well as the first phase of the Coastal Rail line.”

It was the first time the coastal rail project was being “phased” rather than scheduled for completion, but he did not say what the phases were.  Again—Mohammed probably does not know this—but only a few months later, in October, that same Amaechi would throw up his hands in Abuja, declaring that progress on the rail file was impossible.

“The money is not just there,” said the man who had broadcast in July 2016 that money was no longer a challenge. “It is a total of about $16 billion [that is needed] and you don’t just pluck $16 billion from the sky.”

Again—and Minister Mohammed may pretend not to know this—in May 2019, with just minutes to the end of Buhari’s first term, Amaechi was back announcing “a coastal rail line will run through coastal states in the country.”  And that the government had approved $2.3bn for it.

Keep in mind: that itself was one full year after the line was supposed to have been delivered under his July 2016 plan, and that in one month later, it became clear that China would no longer give Nigeria any money unless Nigeria agreed she would supervise their use. In retrospect, that was also the same month that CCECC—the Chinese firm with which the Nigerian government does most of its infrastructure business in rail and aviation—was disbarred by the World Bank.

In the past six years, no Nigerian official has challenged the story that Chinese officials reportedly supervise all funds released to Nigeria for infrastructure.

Against that background was Mohammed last month, in the curious absence of Amaechi, announcing as new, a project his government inherited in 2015, but has since then disowned, launched, re-owned, re-contracted and toyed with, only to be re-presented as “the ratification of the President’s approval for the award of the contract…”

He ended with the curious remark about “six years.”  I may be wrong, but it sounded as if he was saying that the government has six years ahead to deliver the coastal rail.  It does not.

To begin with, it is unclear that the cabinet meeting of August 4 has any legitimacy in the eyes of Buhari, who was away on one of his famous London visits, during which he refused to hand power over to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, who allegedly chaired the meeting.    In the past, Nigerians have seen strange things happen in such circumstances.

Even if he had handed over, where does Buhari—unless he commands the electoral commission to award him a third term—find those “six years” for a project he was supposed to have delivered three years ago?  And if INEC made such an award, how would that change a government which has no understanding of the concept of performance and believes the PDP should have done everything by 2015?

In my view, a key problem with this government is that it appears to suffer from an inferiority complex.  It loves tales of bombast and conquest, but not of self-application.  That is why it is content to make grandiose and colourful promises, forgetting that you do not collect water in baskets.   It mistakes bravado and chicanery for achievement.

Not only do Nigerians not owe the Buhari government one more year, but the evidence is also that even if they had 60, they would accomplish only greater chaos and deeper poverty.

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