In the history of budget making in Nigeria, the 2016 Budget appears to be the most controversial. It all began with claims and counter-claims that the document had grown wings and disappeared from where it was kept. As the controversy gained momentum, two versions of the same document surfaced. At the end of the day, the truth was known to the public – some smart government officials had tampered with the original document and completely bastardised it. The President was enraged. An enquiry was set up which eventually led to the removal and repositioning of some top directors in the budget office.
If Nigerians thought that was the end of the story, they were mistaken. Some few weeks back, the document finally got back to the President for his assent. Many discrepancies were noticed in the document. It was discovered that the National Assembly had removed funds earmarked as counterpart fund for the coastal railway project running from Calabar to Lagos as well as tampered with several other provisions made by the executive. There was bedlam. This raised a fresh crisis between the legislature and the executive.
For the construction of the coastal railway project from Calabar to Lagos, the agreement reached between the federal government and the Chinese government which had agreed to finance the project, was that the federal government would provide a counterpart funding of N60 billion. This fund was incorporated into the 2016 budget. But the assembly members had, in their own dubious wisdom, cleverly removed this fund from the 2016 budget that was passed to the President for assent. According to the budget estimates submitted by the President to the National Assembly, there were two major rail arteries, among other rail projects, that were designed to ease transportation of commuters and goods in the eastern and northern parts of the country. They are, the Calabar-Lagos line and the Lagos-Kano line. Surprisingly, while the provision for the Lagos-Kano rail line was left untouched, the Calabar-Lagos was completely removed and obliterated. Similarly, the fund proposed for the Idu-Kaduna rail project which has reached advanced stage, was reduced by N8.7 billion, a development that will certainly make it extremely difficult for the project to be completed on schedule. Other provisions either removed or reduced drastically included that of roads, health facilities and others.
But by far, it is the issue of the N60 billion Calabar-Lagos rail line project which the lawmakers removed from the 2016 budget that has put the National Assembly members on the spot as it has portrayed them as a bunch of unpatriotic Nigerians who are merely using their exalted offices to stall an important project meant to alleviate the suffering of the people. Since the latest controversy broke out, there have been fireworks between the Senate and Rotimi Amaechi, the minister of transportation under whose ministry the rail project falls. The controversy borders on whether the Calabar-Lagos rail line was actually included in the budget before it was expunged or that a supplementary provision should be made if it was not initially included. This is a needless muscle-flexing.
The development of an effective and efficient transportation system is often regarded as very crucial to the process of the economic development of a country and Nigeria is no exception. This is so because transport in any form is essential to the execution of daily economic and social activities in any given society. The socio-economic development of any country is usually measured by the effectiveness of its transportation system. This is because most economic policies always consider transport as an integral part of the development process of a country. That is why any problem confronting transportation should be taken seriously. This is where the railway system comes in as one of the best system of transportation for economic development. This is the reason why there is a lot of concern when this system is not functioning as it should be.
According to Umeh Christain Ikechukwu, PhD, Head of Department of Marketing, Imo State University, Owerri, Imo State, Nigeria, “rail transportation began much before road and air modes of transportation came into being. The first railway line in the world was built in England in 1825. The Americans took up the challenge and the Baltimore and Ohio railroad in the United States of America started operations in 1930.” The idea and plan to establish railways in Nigeria first came up in 1879. Eventually in 1895, Mr. Chamberlans, the British Secretary of State, for Colonies, sanctioned the construction of a 1067mm gauge railway from Iddo (Lagos) to Otta (Ogun State). The track covered a distance of 32 kilometres. However, the actual construction work could not commence until 1898. From then on, the rail line has been extended to major cities in the south and the northern parts of the country including lbadan, llorin, Jebba, Kano, Zaria, Bauchi, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Makurdi, Minna, among others.
When compared with other modes of transportation, rail transportation is of great importance and advantageous to the Nigerian society and the world as a whole. The most prominent of this importance are as follows: Its high haulage capacity. The single trip haulage capacity of trains is very high and can be higher than that of any road vehicle, aeroplane or ship. This makes rail transportation to be the best means of mass transit. In terms of safety, rail transportation is safer than road transportation and less risky than water and air transportation. This is because trains are not known to be involved in frequent high rates of accident. An effective railway system can stimulate cash crop production and manufacture of goods for export especially in the West African sub-region. Above all, rail transportation will aid speedy movement of bulky cargoes on long distances. This is because trains do not have to stop in transit as often as motor vehicles. A single train can also carry, in one trip, the cargo which 10 trucks may require as many as 10 trips to carry.
Rail transport provides cheap transportation because it is cheaper than trucks and aeroplanes for transporting passengers and cargoes. That is why railways are generally preferred by companies and individuals who are transporting bulky items most especially when such items have to be moved frequently.
It is for the above reasons that the federal government needs to increase the allocation to the Nigerian Railway Corporation in order to make it possible to embark on capital projects that would enhance its services and revenue. In budgetary allocation for transport development, rail transportation should be able to get as much as road transportation. If rail transportation is to be brought out of its present stagnation, it has to be given more or at least equal attention with other modes.
In addition, for the organisation to move forward the present narrow gauge should be phased out and a broader one installed. The narrowness of the railway gauge constitutes a great draw back to the modern development of rail transportation in Nigeria. Fast and safer locomotives cannot operate on railway with narrow gauge; therefore if real development is to take place in the Nigerian railway industry, the gauge of the railway network must be expanded. This should be followed by the construction of new railway to serve the country. This is because since the completion of the last rail line in Nigeria in 1964, there has been a lull.
Today, the Nigerian Railway Corporation is suffering from the lack of political will by the nation’s politicians. What we need to understand is that transport improvement is indispensable to an acceleration of a country’s economic development. As far back as 1967, a United Nations study regarded transport as the formulative power of economic growth. Therefore, Nigerian politicians should not lose sight of the role which a well-developed transport system, particularly the rail system, can play in the socio-economic development of the country. That is the way to go in this era of diversification of economic dependence on oil.