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Accounting for Buhari’s rail monies

On May 25, 2017, as reported by Reuters, the Board of Directors of China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC) announced a contract with Nigeria’s Federal Capital…

On May 25, 2017, as reported by Reuters, the Board of Directors of China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC) announced a contract with Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory Administration for the construction of Phase II of the Abuja Rail Mass Transit, at a cost of US$1.473 billion.

For some reason, this fascinating story did not make it into the local media.

CRCC, you probably know, is the parent company of the well-known China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), which won the contract.  It had constructed Phase I, which was commissioned by President Muhammadu Buhari in July 2018, and would construct Phase II in 54 months.

The CRCC announcement read in part: “The agreement is the Abuja Rail Mass Transit Phase II Construction Contract. The contract is the second implementation contract of Abuja Rail Mass Transit Contract Agreement entered into on 25 May 2007 at a consideration of US$841million. The first implementation contract (Abuja Rail Mass Transit Phase I) with a contract amount of US$823 million was entered into on 24 August 2012.

“For the signed phase II construction of Abuja rail mass transit… the project contract amount is approximately US$1.473 billion…

“Both parties entered into Abuja Rail Mass Transit Agreement for Supply of Rolling Stocks and Depot Equipment for Phase I and Abuja Rail Mass Transit Agreement for Services for Operation of Phase One at the same time…The contract amounts are US$194 million and US$126 million…”

How and when did the Abuja rail project itself become a $3billion monster?  When President Jonathan signed the $3 billion loan of which it was a part in Beijing in July 2013, the rail project was valued only at $500 million.  Is it conceivable that the $500m for the Abuja rail project in that particular loan was IN ADDITION to the contracts CRCC reported against 2007 and 2012 in the May 2017 announcement?

There are a lot of questions the Buhari administration must answer about the Abuja rail file before it leaves office.

What makes this even more messy is that in Abuja today, residents have no experience of traveling by rail around the city: as is often the case with the governments of the PDP and the APC, the system collapsed almost immediately it was commissioned, there being neither will not ability to operate and maintain it.

Commissioning what became known as “Phase I” four years ago, President Buhari described transportation as the “live wire of any city,” but in April this year, the Abuja-based Daily Trust reported that his federal capital light rail “live wire” had been abandoned right under his nose for two years and was rotting away.  The newspaper was sufficiently concerned to write an editorial about it the following month.  The project continues to rot away.

If Phase I of this project has been abandoned and Abuja residents have enjoyed no rail service for over two years, where and why has CCECC constructed Phase II for $1.473 billion?

It is important to phrase that in the past tense because its 54-month construction contract ended last year and the project ought to have been delivered by now.

The Buhari government must publish a full account of this transaction and explain why, in the federal capital city in which all the organs of the government have extensive presence, this project has become a joke at which nobody is laughing.

The menace of lazy and compromised governance that afflicts the Abuja Rail project is evident in the entire body of work of the Ministry of Transportation in the rail sector, which floats on a regime of heavy Chinese loans that nobody in Abuja seems to understand beyond signing up for them.

When Buhari queried a similar Jonathan-era loan as early as August 2015, three months after he took office, saying that it had been diverted to other ends, I urged him to “start early and hurry hard” to try to understand Nigeria’s rail loans from China.  Sadly, Nigeria has done far worse under his control, borrowing hungrily but delivering little.

We continue to spend endlessly, for instance, on the Lagos-Kano modernization project.  In 2006, China agreed to build the rail line at a cost of US$8.3 billion.  In July 2012, the Jonathan government approved a $1bn Chinese loan for it, his Minister of Transport, Idris Umar, announcing that CCECC would construct it, beginning with the Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge double track.

But then in August 2016, Rotimi Amaechi, Buhari’s Minister of Transportation, signed two new contracts valued at $5.1bn, also with CCECC, for the construction and modernisation of rail lines in the country, including $1.68bn for the Kano-Kaduna segment.  Despite all that, by October 2016 when President Buhari was prospecting for $30bn in new foreign loans, one of his justifications was the Kano-Kaduna segment, for which he wanted another $1.1bn.

In March 2017, the Lagos-Ibadan rail effort was relaunched by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo.

Think about this: in May 2018, Nigeria gave CCECC another 48-month contract, worth US$6.681, for the Ibadan-Kaduna segment of the line.

Think about this as well: in February 2020, Nigeria awarded CCECC a 36-month contract for the Minna-Abuja segment of the line for US$1billion.  Minna to Abuja, by the way, is a distance of 160 kilometers; compare the $1bn Nigeria is spending on that distance with the US$824.87 that Zambia is spending on a similar project of nearly 650 kilometers!

Finally, I have written about the chaos and confusion of the Lagos-Calabar coastal rail, another excellent project that, in the hands of the current administration, has become another political joke.

Only last month, new Minister Muazu Jaji Sambo blamed CCECC for the failure to make progress on the project.  Ignoring every song and dance his government has manufactured in the past seven years, he announced that it is now discussing with a new investor that will share the scope of work with CCECC allegedly to facilitate the delivery of the rail line.

This is confirmation that the Buhari government neither understands the contract into which it entered nor has any intention of implementing the project.

In effect, the Lagos-Calabar rail would simply be another project the government failed at.  But before it walks away, it must provide full accounting for it, and for every other project, loan and contract.  There is a heavy stench on this file.

Speaking of China, the government must also update Nigerians on the US$6 billion deals it made during Buhari’s visit to that country in 2016.

Where, for instance, has it built the $1 billion Abuja-Ibadan-Lagos greenfield expressway?

For instance.

[I welcome public response, in 100 words or fewer, to this column.]

This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials.     

• sonala.olumhense@gmail.com

• @Sonala.Olumhense