A Clue For Clueless

Posted: July 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

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By Jaafar Jaafar

When writing about the web of problems that entangle Nigeria, I always find it difficult to locate the starting or finishing line. I suppose the best way is to start in an inverted pyramid style of news writing, thus from the most important to the less important. But what is not important to us in Nigeria? Stable electricity supply, security, healthcare, infrastructure or education? Pray, which is more important? I am, almost like Nigeria, entangled in a web of dilemma.

As the Central Line tube from Stratford to Notting Hill Gate in Central London fed itself into the underground tunnel, we began chatting about Nigeria. Leaning against a lustre cradle next to me was my Nigerian friend, who is resident in UK. Overwhelmed by the smooth ride, I turned to him and asked: why can’t we have this train in Nigeria? Isn’t this good for Nigeria? Is it so much beyond the reach of Nigerians like peace, quality healthcare, electricity? Is establishing these train lines also guided by UN treaty as uranium enrichment? The inquest muse in me was at play during the 30-minute ride.

Rather than appease the inquisitive sense in me, the question sparked a fireworks of questions than answers. His answers also made me understand the depth of Nigeria’s problem. “If you have this train in Nigeria,” he said, “some people will board alongside their goats and sheep to market. A trader will enter with a large poultry cage full of birds. A daddawa (a kind of local seasoning) hawker will also force her way into the train with her large bowl,” he said.

Before I interjected, he continued: “And you know wearing nappies for children is exclusively for the privileged ones in Nigeria. So cases of children excreting in the train will be rampant, and it will cause a serious inconvenience to commuters. After all, Nigeria doesn’t have the electricity to power the trains.” He went on and on.

My friend’s explanation just left me in awe, seeing clearly the sense in his reasoning. He said again: “Most of the tracks here are open at the stations. And so children need to be properly guided. How on earth can a woman in Nigeria control, say five children, she commutes with everyday to her market stall? Here, you hardly see a woman with more than two children,” he said, noting that most people in the UK are literate enough to read the signs and operate a ticketing computer/machine.

But I argued that despite these challenges, Nigerians need the trains. To own the horse, according to a witty Hausa adage, is better than to master the horse. The logic here is that when we get trains, we will ‘learn’ how to enter! We will also wrap a piece of cloth and nylon around our children. We can be educated if the state gives us the education. We can be reoriented if the state shows commitment to that. After all, we had exhibited some sense of orientation during the glorious days of War Against Indiscipline (WAI). So we can use the trains, I inferred.

Of course, establishing modern train line is an expensive project, but I believe Nigerian government can still afford the project. Thankfully, Lagos is about to blaze the trail by awarding contract for the first two lines at the estimated to cost $1.4bn. The line will be 30km long, and will run between Marina and Agbado. I salute Governor Babatunde Fashola for this but I rap the Federal Government for failure to do similar projects in our major cities, or at least the Lagos-Kano transport artery.

Less than five years ago Australia added another line in its rail transport lines. I gather that the new metro line in Perth, named Mandurah Line, cost $1.4 billion (same as Lagos) to build. The cost included a fleet of trains and other works. The line has 11 stations, two of which are underground. It took them only three years (2004-2007) to build. But since the coming of this democratic dispensation, successive governments put nothing in a pragmatic shape.

However, if Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement is the snag, let us source the money from within. We can use the confiscated Alamiseigha, Ibori and Abacha loot to finance the project in at least our capital city. If the recovered loot was eaten by some predators, let us dip into our foreign reserves. As at June 27, our foreign reserves stood at $36.829 billion. If I were to give a clue, taking $1.4 billion from the $36.829 billion is, to me, nothing. We have no basis to starve with ‘reserve’ lying outside our shores.

Since we have 36 billion dollars as reserves – and we have 36 states – the government can use the money for the projects in each state before the money fizzles away. At least Nigeria will have something different from that of the previous century. But before you accost me, let me give reasons for suggesting this pedestrian theory. When Olusegun Obasanjo left power in 2007, Nigeria’s foreign reserves were about 80 billion dollars. Obasanjo himself recently blamed his successors for squandering about 35 billion dollars from the reserves he left.

More worrisome is the fact that these reserves seem to be depleting by the day owing to the “dwindling prices of crude oil in the international market.” Only between June 1 and June 27 this year, Nigeria’s reserves dropped by 857 million dollars. This amount can build at least 45km rail line with its accompanying infrastructure in Abuja. With hindsight, we should have made hay while the sun shone. Isn’t it?

I know economists would laugh at me for this Kurmi Market economics. But the fact is that the foreign reserve is depleting by the day without building the rail line or improving our roads or healthcare system. Dear Mr economist, please tell us the best thing to do. To let the reserves deplete or use it to build infrastructure?

To say fact, even if the dollars are reserved for foreign ‘economic fashion parade’, the inner ugliness of our economic situation cannot be concealed by the foreign reserve makeup.

This is just a clue for the clueless.

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