Nigeria’s railway network serves only a small portion of the country. The country is 923,770km², with a railway network of 3,505km colonial narrow gauge and 669km modern standard gauge. Egypt, not that much larger than Nigeria, has a network of 6,700km.
There are signs that the government in Abuja has decided to address the inadequacy of the railway network. A number of projects are under way aimed at revamping and extending it. Over the last few years these have included the new rail corridor between Ibadan and Apapa port as well as the Abuja-Kaduna line (2016), the Abuja light rail network (2018) and the Itakpe-Warri line (2020).
In 2023 the Muhammadu Buhari administration introduced a new law that enabled states to build railway lines. This was previously the preserve of the national government.
As a Nigerian railway historian, I welcome renewed efforts to revitalise the rail network.
The return of rail transport is important. Railways brought many social, economic and cultural benefits. This is especially true of the colonial period and in the postcolonial era up to the late 1960s.
But efforts to revive the network won’t succeed unless four things happen. The government invests in existing lines and new ones, the railway corporation begins manufacturing some of its equipment and tools locally, the laws governing road transport are enforced to ensure there’s healthy competition in the sector, and foreign investors are encouraged to come in.
In 1896 the British colonial government in Nigeria started the construction and development of the local railway network. This was part of European “railway imperialism” in Africa, starting from the late 19th century. The key purpose was exploitation of the colony’s agricultural and mineral resources.
The first phase of the system, the Lagos Railway, began in 1898. Construction started from Iddo in Lagos. The line then extended to Abeokuta and got to Ibadan in 1901, a distance of about 190km.
Over time, rail transport became the backbone of the country’s import and export economy.
Railway routes were laid before modern roads. In 1916 a line was constructed between Port Harcourt and Enugu in eastern Nigeria to assist in transporting coal to other parts of the country. On completion of the Markudi Bridge across River Benue, the eastern line was extended northwards and reached Kaduna in 1932.
Rail led to a host of villages and towns becoming large commercial cities – like Lagos, Ibadan, Kano and Enugu.
There were also social benefits. By the early 1960s, the Nigeria railway carried on average 12 million passengers annually. The population was 45.26 million according to the 1962 census. From Iddo, Lagos in 1898 to Abeokuta and Ibadan in 1901, south-west Nigeria, to Jebba and Minna, the rail lines linked many cities and towns and facilitated movement of people from the rural areas to urban centres.
The transformation of the rail company itself had an impact on Nigerian society. From the late 19th century until 1955, Nigerian Railways was owned and managed by the colonial British government. It was transferred to a public corporation in 1955 when it became known as the Nigerian Railway Corporation. Nigerians assumed responsibility for managing the corporation in 1960. The railway workshops and stations became centres of multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-racial communities: oases of trading and socialising.
In 1964 the railway corporation achieved its best financial performance in the postcolonial era: revenue of about £16.30 million (US$19.90 million) and a working surplus of about £2 million (US$2.4 million). After that, the fortunes of rail transport in Nigeria began to decline rapidly and they have not fully recovered. This has been due to a number of factors, including ageing infrastructure, general neglect and mismanagement.
These days the railway and its facilities have lost their pride of place in the country’s social, economic and cultural life. Their value and importance are now limited to a few parts of the country.
The volume of freight transport by rail is increasing. But it is minuscule compared with the huge volume being carried by road and air transport.
There have been numerous efforts to reorganise and modernise the railway infrastructure.
In 1978, under the Olusegun Obasanjo military regime, the Railway of India Technical and Engineering Services was contracted to reorganise the corporation and rehabilitate its infrastructure.
In 1995, the Sani Abacha military junta unveiled a three-year, US$528 million agreement with the China Civil Engineering and Construction Company. The agreement was, again, to rehabilitate old assets. No new lines were constructed.
Then between 1999 and 2007, 124 billion naira (about US$158 million) was allocated to the project. But by 1999, when the civilian government of Obasanjo came to power, there was virtually nothing to show for it, or the almost US$600 million the Abacha government had spent on rail between 1995 and 1998.
In 1999, the administration appointed international consultants to develop a 25-year strategic vision for the Nigerian railway. This resulted in a report which was approved in 2002. The aim was to change the existing rail routes to higher-capacity standard-gauge tracks across the country.
A budget of US$60 billion was prepared for the work. This didn’t start until 2007, Obasanjo’s last year in office. In 2006, the government had signed an US$8 billion agreement with China to design, construct and manage more than 1,315km of new and standard gauge railway from Lagos to Kano within four years. The capital for the project would come from foreign exchange from the sale of petroleum and a US$500 million concessionary loan from the Chinese government.
In 2007, the government paid a US$250 million mobilisation fee to start the project.
It ran into serious political headwinds after Obasanjo left office in 2007. His successor, Musa Yar’ Adua, suspended the contract, claiming that proper procedures hadn’t been followed. The government decided, once again, to rehabilitate the existing narrow gauge network. But, in a sudden about turn, it decided to resurrect the abandoned 25-year modernisation project.
On 18 July 2012, the Goodluck Jonathan government approved US$1.49 billion for the Lagos-Ibadan double track railway line modernisation project. Scheduled for completion in the second half of 2015, it was completed in June 2021.
These improvements led to an increased number of passengers, from 1.28 million a year to about 5 million in 2014/2015. In 2021, 2.71 million passengers used the trains and 3.21 million did in 2022.
As to whether allowing states to build railway lines will revolutionise rail transport in Nigeria, I believe it won’t, for three reasons.
First, it will be difficult for many of the 36 state governments to finance and manage railway development. Second, unless states develop regional railways together, individual urban and light railway services will run at a loss. Third, foreign investors would only be interested if they could make profits. And the most profitable aspect is freight railway.
The central government should vote more money for capital and recurrent expenditures for railway operations.
The railway corporation should endeavour to manufacture some of its equipment and tools locally.
Abuja needs to enforce existing laws governing road transport in Nigeria, for healthy competition and efficient service.
Finally, foreign investors should be encouraged to invest in rail development, to help develop the Nigerian economy.