‘Plan to link Africa by rail still on drawing board’

Comrade Raheal Bejamin Okoro , President, African Union of Railway Workers

The rail transport has been widely acclaimed as the safest and cheapest mode of moving goods and passengers from one point to another. In this interview with FIDELIS UGBOMEH, President African Union of Railway Workers, Comrade Raheal Bejamin Okoro said that African leaders have been unable to harness potentials of this mode by constructing rail lines linking African Countries due to lack of political will amongst others. Excerpts:
Please can you tell a brief history of African Union of Railway Workers and how many countries in Africa are members of the Union?
African Union of Railway Workers is a Chapter of International Transport Federation (ITF) and it was established 20 or 25 years ago. Nigerian Railway joined the body in 1978 when Trade Unions in the Country were been amalgamated. International Transport Federation is a body that seeks for the welfare of in the Transport industry worldwide. In 2013 members of the African Union of Railway Workers gathered in Ethiopia where I was elected Second Vice President. By 2015 in Botswana I became the Vice-President following the resignation of the then Vice-President. In 2015 at Bulgaria members of the ITF also gathered and I was elected President of the African Union of Railway Workers. The tenure of office will elapse in 2018 when another election will be held.
How many Countries in Africa are members of the Union and what is your vision for the Union?
There are about 30 African Countries as members. My vision is to see that African Railways especially Nigeria operates efficient, effective and viable Rail system. The Headquarters of the Union is in Kenya and member countries meet on a quarterly basis to brainstorm on how best African Railway can compete favourably with Railways all over the World.
Which Country in Africa is managing its Railways effectively and efficiently, the way you want other African Countries to emulate?
South African and Ethiopian Railways are the best in Africa has speed trains like what obtains in Europe America and some Asian Countries. In South Africa trains make up to 100 trips per day and there are about 1,000 engines readily available to convey passengers and freight. The number of Locomotive engines in fleet of South African Railways which has less Rail network cannot be compared to 25 refurbished Locomotive engines imported from Brazil in 2010 and another batch of 4 from China two years later.
What are the factors militating against development of Railways in other African Countries apart from Nigeria? I asked this question so that Nigeria can probably learn from the mistakes of other African Countries as regards development of Rail transport.
What actually hampered the development of African Railways is privatization and Concession of Railway which embraced by Countries like Cameroun, Gabon, Senegal, Mali, Madagascar, Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Togo. In all of the aforementioned Countries only Cameroun survived as others have gone comatose. Studies conducted about the Countries rail system that could not survive the concession and privatization era shows that they were better managed when funded by government. The Concessionaires in the earlier mentioned African countries threw caution to the wind as accidents were recorded intermittently. The Concessionaires tried to maximize profit at the expense of safety. Countries like Britain and Venezuela adopted the Concession policy but it failed and these countries have since reverted. Railway development worldwide is capital and Labour intensive and it is the responsibility of government of government in most countries to provide rail service because it is regarded as a social service. There is no way an individual can invest in the provision of Rail service; it is the responsibility of government to invest in the construction of Railway lines.
What are the other challenges faced in the management of Railways in Africa?
The bane of Railway development in some African Countries including Nigeria is poor maintenance culture and inability to constantly monitor rail tracks thereby leading to derailments. The rail lines and locomotive engines have lifespan just like a tarred road which also has a lifespan depending on the quality of Asphalt used. The Locomotive engines and other rail infrastructures need to be changed at regular intervals and not wait until there is complete breakdown. The Locomotive engines especially when they are refurbished need to be maintained constantly. When the Rail India Technical and Engineering Services (RITES) came to manage the Nigerian Railways in the late 70’s and early 80’s the Railway was doing very well and making profit as the Indians were given financial support and the fund was utilized judiciously. But no sooner than later some Senior Railway officials clamored for their exit. While exiting from the Nigerian Railways the RITES advised that there was need to purchase Locomotive engines, Coaches and Wagons as well as maintain the tracks. But as soon as RITES left, the advice was not heeded and there was no proper funding from government compared to the era when RITES managed the Corporation.
Can you compare the development of Railway in Nigeria with Countries where the Rail system has either been concessioned or privatized?
Nigerian Railways is better than the countries where the Rail system were either concessioned or privatized because it has not adopted any of the policies presently. In other words Nigerian Railways in better managed because it is funded by government. Today Nigeria can boast of Standard Gauge Rail line from Kaduna to Kubwa/Iddu near Abuja and there is another Standard Gauge Rail line from Ajaokuta to Itakpe as well as plans to construct Lagos to Kano, Kano to Port Harcourt and Lagos to Calabar Standard Gauge Railway line. In some African Countries they are still they are still using the Narrow Gauge due to system incompatibility and inconsistency in government policies.
Why is it that African Countries don’t have a rail network linking one Country to another like what is obtainable abroad?
There is a body called Universal Railway Network established by African Heads of State to stream line and work out modalities for the networking of Rail system in Africa but the plan has since remained on the drawing board. Most of the African leaders complained of paucity of funds even as they lacked political will to embark on the project which will no doubt boost the African economy on the long run.
The Federal government recently requested for approval of $5.8billion loan from Exim Bank of China by the National Assembly for modernization of Lagos to Kano, Kano to Port-Harcourt and the same government has concessioned the Nigerian Railway Corporation to General Electric for $2.2billion investment. What is your comment on this development?
That was why I said that the Nigerian Union of Railway Workers (NUR) was not carried along in the whole gamut of the concession agreement. The Union representative only met once with members of the Steering Committee on the Concession of Railways immediately after its inauguration on August 12, last year by the Vice President Prof Yemi Osinbajo. Since then no meeting involving the Union has been held and yet report of the Committee has been submitted and approved by the Federal Executive Council without any input from the Union. So we don’t know the details of the Concession agreement whether General Electric is expected to procure Locomotive engines, Coaches and Wagons as well as maintain/modernize the existing Narrow Gauge Rail tracks. It is however contradictory to request for loan to modernize Lagos to Kano Railway Line and at the same time Concession the Rail line to General Electric. One important thing in all of this issue of concession is that there was no transparency. However there is nothing wrong in requesting for loan but it should be monitored and judiciously expended for its primary purpose.
How will you compare welfare of Railway Workers in Nigeria compared to that of other African Countries?
The Nigerian Railway Workers are the poorest paid in the whole World. Hitherto staff of government parastatals earns more that workers in the Federal Ministries. Under normal circumstances Railway Operations break even and make profit. Railway workers in other African Countries earn a living wage because of the hazardous nature of the job. Workers in other Countries are also given the necessary tools so as to perform their functions effectively but the reverse is the case in Nigeria where Railway workers beg for Rain Coats and Rain Booths to work during the rainy seasons. Railway workers should be given first class treatment

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