In recent years, a number of state governments – Akwa Ibom, Jigawa, Kebbi, Delta – have spent tens of billions of naira building airports, as part of their “development” agenda. They always have a nice supporting speech on the need to “open up” their states and “attract investors”, bla bla bla.
Now, airports are good, but, within our context, fail to make a lot of sense. And what is that context? It is that, one, our roads are awful and our railway lines are either painfully inefficient or completely non-existent. Airports are a great add-on when you’ve got the cheaper and higher-capacity modes – roads and railways – functioning perfectly. But to focus on airports for the one or two per cent, when the roads for the ninety per cent are in poor state, is one definition of madness. Two, most of Nigeria’s airports do not make commercial sense. Only about four of the more than twenty airports in the country are self-sustaining, the others are loss-making and dependent on government subsidies to stay open. I can bet that all these new airports currently suck plenty of money from the states that have built them, in subsidy payments to attract reluctant airlines to those routes.
If we had our priorities right as a country, the monies that went into these airports would more sensibly have gone into funds for roads and railway lines instead. And we’d only focus on new airports when we’ve got the basics – roads and rail – in place and functioning properly. The problem is that we always seem to get our priorities wrong in these parts.
This is one theme this column has touched on again and again. A century ago the British overlaid Nigeria with an ambitious network of railway lines: One line went from Lagos to Abeokuta to Ibadan to Osogbo to Minna to Kaduna to Zaria; from Zaria it splits north-eastwards to Kano and then Nguru, and north-westwards to Kaura Namoda. (From Minna there was a spur to Baro, a town on the Niger River). A second line ran from Port Harcourt to Umuahia to Enugu to Makurdi to Kafanchan to Jos. The two lines were connected by a line linking Kaduna to Kafanchan.
Now that was Enlightened Self-Interest at work. It was not from the benevolence of the British that those railway lines got built, but from their regard to their own interest. The groundnut and cotton and animal skins in and around Kano needed to get to the port in Lagos as quickly and efficiently as possible, as did the tin and columbite in Jos, and the coal and limestone in and around Enugu – all of these for onward shipment to Europe. The thing with ESI is that always carries a multiplier factor. Its two plus two always ends up greater than four; it always ends up throwing up benefits that its purveyors may not have intended when they planned it.
The British planned the railway lines to support the business concern that was ‘Nigeria Limited’. But it ended up becoming a lot more than that. It created thousands of jobs for Nigerians. At some point in our history, the Nigerian Railway Corporation was the country’s biggest employer of labour, with 45,000 staff. It also opened up several towns and villages along the railway routes, which hitherto had been locked away in the hinterlands of Nigeria. The railway system also allowed many ordinary Nigerians to travel cheaply and safely far from home, in search of new sights or a better life.
For all the stereotypes that we hold about one another’s ethnic groups, Nigerians are a remarkably practical people. We will travel any distance in search of economic opportunity; we will strive to make a legitimate living anywhere possible, regardless of dividing lines: religious, ethnic, linguistic or cultural. The first time I visited Yenagoa, a few years ago, I realised that all the tricycle taxis were operated by northerners. Last week, in an Ijaw town, accessible only by boat, I found kiosks run by northerners, selling the same bric-a-brac you would find them selling anywhere else in Nigeria. Two weeks ago in Yola I met a man from Borno, displaced from his home town of Gamboru-Ngala since last year by Boko Haram. As soon as he realised I was Yoruba he started to talk to me in almost flawless Yoruba, explaining that before Boko Haram struck he did most of his business in and around Lagos and Ibadan. He said he’d buy lace in Ibadan and coconuts in Lagos and Badagry, and travel back home to sell them. When next I visit Ibadan, he told me, ask for ‘Baba Junction’ at Iyana Adeoyo.
Nigeria is full of stories like that; people driven by the need to make economic connections and create economic value wherever they find the opportunity. Creating transport links is one of the best ways any government can support. In the spirit of enlightened self-interest, governments ought to realise that the more you help Nigerians create legitimate economic value, the less likely they will be to turn to kidnapping and robbery and economic sabotage. It will also be harder for militancy and insurgency – which depend on the existence of a large pool of disaffected, economically disadvantaged youth from which they draw recruits – to thrive.
Sadly, in the fifty-plus years since independence, no Nigerian government has managed to replicate that colonial feat of a railways revolution. The biggest achievement in half a century has been the resuscitation, under the Jonathan administration of the Lagos-Kano railway and Enugu-Port Harcourt lines – which we’d allowed to die under our watch (the decline started in the 1970s, and by the 1990s it was complete). Kudos should also go to the Jonathan government for almost completing the new Kaduna-Abuja railway line, conceived by the Obasanjo government.
We need to obsess with fixing our roads as well. The East-West Road that the Jonathan government kept touting as a major achievement during the presidential campaigns is still a long way from being completed. In recent weeks I’ve travelled twice from Yenagoa to Lagos by road. While sections have been upgraded commendably, the road is not yet in a state worth boasting about. The portion between Ore and Sagamu remains as hellish as ever. One of the projects that the Niger Delta is crying for (the amnesty deal was apparently supposed to deliver this as one of the infrastructure highlights) is the 650km coastal road linking Calabar to Lagos. When it was first mooted about five years ago, the cost was estimated at N1.8tn – approximately $12bn. It sounds like a lot of money until you realise how much money we’ve successfully squandered in the years since then, on an unending series of government-sanctioned scams. Five years on we have wasted several multiples of N1.8tn, but we still don’t have a coastal road. We don’t have a completed East-West Road.
The new government has its work cut out; its priorities pre-selected by circumstances, and by necessity. We don’t want to be here four or five years from now, still lamenting the absence of a Coastal Road, or an East-West Road, or of a high-speed railway link between Lagos and Kano, or Port Harcourt and Maiduguri, or (fill-in-the-gap-as-you-please).