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January 9, 2018

Chinese-built Abuja-Kaduna railway: Opening fresh vistas in Nigeria’s new economy

By Nigerian journalist Odinaka Anudu, originally published on Business Day Online (Nigeria).

Note: Following the publication of this feature on 24 December, on 28 December the The Federal Government of Nigeria, in order to address the corruption outlined in this feature, announced plans to increase the number of coaches and locomotives at the Abuja-Kaduna Railway to 12; the coaches were commissioned shortly hereafter and the price of train tickets has also been revised upwards.  

The Rigasa train station was bursting at the seams. Hundreds of passengers were waiting to purchase tickets for an Abuja-bound coach. This was Sunday, December 3, 2017, and many workers who came to Kaduna to spend time with their families at the weekend were desperate to go back to Abuja.

A ticket costs N1,050 ($3.5), which is at least N450 ($1.5) cheaper than road. This is one reason for the rush.

Another reason is that it is faster. I boarded a train at Kubwa station in Abuja at 7.55 am and got to Rigasa in Kaduna at 9.23 am, which was an hour and 28 minutes. Going to Kaduna from Abuja by road takes between two and a half and three hours.

But there is yet another reason for the rush. The Kaduna-Abuja land route has become a den of robbers and kidnappers. In June this year, the police confirmed that five persons driving along Kaduna-Abuja axis were attacked, with three of them robbed and the other two kidnapped.

In July, Zakari Mohammed Sada, a former board member of the Fiscal Responsibility Commission, was kidnapped along that road. In fact, road users say there are more unreported cases of kidnapping happening along the expressway.

Despite these reasons, the passengers at Rigasa station in Kaduna or Idu and Kubwa stations in Abuja are often not lucky during weekends. This is because staff members of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) collude with racketeers to hoard tickets, my findings show. The racketeers, taking advantage of demand overshooting supply, buy tickets from staff of the Corporation at the official rate and resell at between N1,500 ($4.91) and N2,000 ($6.5).

Tickets are kept for rich and connected passengers that are at home while the poor and those without connection, who are two to three hours earlier before ticket sales, are forced to use the dangerous Kaduna road because they cannot get tickets.

Frustrated Nigerians waiting to buy tickets at Kubwa station without success.

Mohammed Aminu Abdusalah works in the Court of Appeal, Kaduna. Abdusalah arrived at Rigasa train station at 11.17 am on Sunday, December 3 to procure a ticket for an Abuja-bound train leaving at 2.20 pm. He was asked to write down his name in a piece of paper. It was a list for the economy class and Abdusalah was number 49. Despite that the economy class would have 88 passengers, Abdusalah did not get a ticket. Yet the section was full to brim during departure. Frustrated, Abdusalah went back home and returned the following day.

The situation was even worse at Kubwa train station in Abuja when I visited the following Sunday. Tired and cheated passengers, who had seen tickets but were not allowed to pay for them, were ready to engage in fisticuffs with anybody causing those pains.

“I was number 45 on the list of the train containing 88 people. So ordinarily, I should have got a ticket, but no way. Nobody knows when they sell first-class,” a frustrated Abdul Mohammed told me.

The Abuja-Kaduna standard gauge railway was built by China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation and it covers a distance of 186.5 km. The railway has nine stations, including Rijana, Dutse, Kakau, Rigasa, among others.

The Chinese firm is also constructing the Lagos Rail Mass Transit System.

View inside the train.

It is designed to have a speed of 150 km per hour, linking the capital city Abuja and the north-western state of Kaduna. It has both first-class and economy sections.

The railway, stretching from Idu to Rigasa, has become one of the lasting legacies left for Nigeria by China, world’s fastest growing economy.

After the death of Lagos rail and Baro-Kano line, among others constructed by British colonial government, Nigeria has become heavily dependent on road transport. However, this has serious consequences. Today, Apapa and Tin Can roads in Lagos have become impassable owing to abuse by tanker drivers and poor maintenance by government.

The construction of the Abuja-Kaduna rail line began in February 2011 and was 85 percent completed by December 2014. It was eventually commissioned in June 2016.

Train departs from Idu at 7.15 am between Monday and Friday, and stops at Kubwa station at 7.30 am for passenger pick-up. It finally departs around 7.55 am, arriving at Rigasa in Kaduna before 9.30 am.

The same coach picks up Abuja-bound passengers at 10 am and arrives at Idu station before 12 pm. The next trip starts at Idu station at 3.30 pm, getting to Rigasa before 5.30 pm. Hence there are two trips on Mondays through Saturdays but only one trip on Sundays. If you miss the 12.30 pm train on Sunday, then you will have to come back the following day.

My findings show that there is only one coach plying the route, which is why corruption prevails at the railway stations.

Shola Gbamboye, one of the regular train users, said corruption has become endemic at the train stations because there is only one coach serving millions of passengers.

“If you have more coaches, you make more money and reduce racketeering. This is why management of the railway station needs to be privatised,” Gbamgboye said.

“If you privatise it, the ticket rate might go up slightly but passengers will always get tickets,” he said.

Away from corruption, the railway has opened new vistas of economic opportunities for Nigerians. Many small businesses that have something to do with the rail are seeing new opportunities.

While on board, I saw two young ladies in their early 20s selling snacks and soft drinks. They sold a piece of meat pie snack for N300 ($0.98) and a bottle of Pepsi and Coca-Cola soft drinks for N200 ($0.65). Outside the train, the piece of snack and the bottle of drink cost half their prices but the hungry passengers never bothered as they were only interested in quenching their appetite.

Passengers disembarking at Rigasa station.

I found that the ladies sold over 40 pieces of snack and 33 bottles of soft drinks from Kubwa to Rigasa. Hence they made N18,600 ($60.98) on a trip. Other things being equal, these ladies would be making N74,400($243.93) in a day.

The rail is also aiding movement of goods from Kaduna to Abuja or vice versa. Sanusi Monguno moves at least five baskets of onions from Kaduna to Abuja every two days via rail and he makes at least N4,000 each day, bar expenses.

Monguno confirmed to me that this was not the case before the railway resumed operations, as he often experienced theft, delays and exorbitant charges while moving his goods by road.

“I buy onions here and supply baskets of it in Jikwoi, Karu and other parts of Abuja. It is cheaper in Kaduna but expensive in Abuja,” Monguno said.

Civil servants and professionals are also using the rail, which they say is making all-round impact on them.

John Magudu, a civil servant in a parastatal under the Ministry of Environment, said the railway has improved his economic well-being and health.

“It is cheaper, so I save more money now than when I was paying over N1,500 to bus drivers,” Magudu said.

“You can relax on the rail and sleep, but it is difficult to do that if you are using the road. I am a hypertension patient and the insecurity situation at Kaduna-Abuja road was not helping my heart at all,” he explained to me.

Expatriates are also using the rail. I met Indrajit Sikh, an Indian engineer who works in southern Kaduna, on the coach. Sikh told me the railway looks like what he sees in his country and Europe.

According to him, if the railway model can replicated across the country, more economic and social opportunities will open up.

“You see, many perishable goods are moved by rail. Nigeria is serious with raising agriculture productivity and you can see some traders using the rail. Imagine if you have a railway from Kano to Lagos or from Kaduna to Onitsha,” said Sikh, who has lived in three major cities in Nigeria – Kaduna, Lagos and Enugu.

“I use the train because there is no gridlock anywhere, no insecurity issues and the ease with which we get to our destination is great,” he said, when asked why he uses the train.

Amina Fatima lives in Kaduna but comes to Abuja every two weeks. Fatima is a government contractor and goes wherever money is. She told me that the train has saved her a lot of hassles.

“I do not use Abuja-Kaduna road again because anything can happen. Where will I get N10 million to give the kidnappers if they hold me hostage?” Fatima asked me, rhetorically.

“It is so comfortable using this rail,” she said.

Twenty-year-old Samuel Haruna had never taken a trip by rail before October this year.

For Haruna, who lives in Kaduna, the rail has opened his eyes to what infrastructure development can do for Nigeria.

“Many of us do everything possible to use this rail. It lulls you to sleep and makes you plan better, because you are sure of getting to your destination on time,” he said.

The train is changing the economic narrative of Rigasa too. Rigasa stretches from Arewa, Mashi, Sabon Gari to Makeran. It has over one million inhabitants, making it a politically important community. Many residents believe that once a contestant garners high votes in Rigasa in a governorship or senatorial election, they are as good as winning.

This community is now seeing new opportunities in various sectors of its economy. Real estate players are smiling to the bank with land speculators raising prices five-fold.

One plot of land used to go for N300,000 ($983.6) in the town before the train station started operations last year. Today, a plot of land sells at N1.5 million ($4,918) and there are chances that the price will be higher next year.

A new set of real estate investors are already in town, buying up land from Rigasa natives.

Shuaib Alhaya, who owns a small shop close to the train station in Rigasa, told me that the cost of land in the community would rise twice or three times by the third quarter of 2018.

Alhaya’s projection is predicated on what he hears from villagers who are determined to raise the selling price of land.

“You can also buy land now and start erecting shops. Many people will be willing to rent your shops next year,” the 37-year-old Alhaya advised me during an interaction.

The Kaduna State government is also keying into the economic opportunities. Residents told me that Nasir El-Rufai, the state governor, would start erecting shops for traders next year.

Rents for the shops would be competitive and on first come, first served basis, a resident said.

Aminu Aliyu, one of the residents of the community, is using two plots of land he inherited from his father as a car park. Train passengers leave their cars under Aliyu’s custody, paying N1,500 ($4.91) for the whole day.

“If I had more plots of land, I would have expanded to accommodate more cars,” Aliyu told me.

“Someone told me about the development at Rigasa two years ago but I did not believe him,” he stated.

For small businesses, the railway has brought relief. At a corner outside the Rigasa station is situated a string of small businesses selling food items and providing skeletal services.

I found a couple sampling locally-made leather slippers. The husband and wife, who would not want to be named, are cobblers and shoemakers.

A pair of leather slippers sold by the couple originally cost N1,000 ($3.27) to N1,500 ($4.91), but now goes for N2,000 ($6.55) owing to high cost of animal skin, which is an essential raw material.

Chinese nationals, assisted by a Nigerian, moving their luggage to Kubwa train station.

“The sales are not regular but you make more than N500 ($1.64) once you sell one pair,” the couple told me.

At least two of the shops host fast-food joints. These are not the city-type joints but they serve noodles and rice within the shortest possible time. A plate of noodles costs N300. The same goes for rice.

The small businesses are creating opportunities for the jobless and the idle. Each employs at least one more person. For a city like Rigasa that has numberless unemployed people, this should be cheery news.

On its part, the railway station is providing job opportunities for people who work in different departments. I found at least 10 young men and women working as security guards and support staff at Kubwa station. More than 20 young people also work as support staff, cleaners, security guards and ticketers at both Rigasa and Idu stations.

A section at Rigasa where small and micro businesses operate.

This is also good news for Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, which has 34 million people roaming the streets in search of phantom jobs.

The bus drivers are also having a field day. Fares have risen two-fold as passengers pay up to N5,000 ($16.39) from Rigasa train station to main cities.

A taxi driver David Onyekachi, who hails from south-east Nigeria, said commercial drivers jacked up their charges because they had to maintain their cars to catch the fancy of passengers.

“You know some of the train passengers come from Abuja. They may be politicians or top civil servants or businesspeople. They are usually selective in their choices of cars and will reject you once your car is old,” he said.

Similarly, a new road has been opened up to connect Rigasa to other parts of Kaduna.

This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.

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