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Jebba: The Rise and Fall of a Railway Town

Jebba, however, shot to prominence when the idea of a railway station was put forward, leading to the place metamorphosing from its dark era of…

Jebba, however, shot to prominence when the idea of a railway station was put forward, leading to the place metamorphosing from its dark era of underdevelopment  to a commercial city and a one-time capital of  Northern Nigeria Protectorate, between 1900 and 1902.

The advent of locating the town, with a population of about 22, 411 people, shifted the attention of the colonial masters from Lokoja,  which was the first capital city of Nigeria, to Jebba,  for ease of administration and business.

Many will, however, be persuaded to believe that the railway station at Jebba, which was established in 1909, was to perpetuate trade, especially the movement of slaves and the legendary groundnuts from the north. But most won’t know that a misfortune informed the whole process.

It is true to conceive that the presences of the Europeans on the shores of Africa, Jebba inclusive, was for the purpose of trade. It is, however, important to note that the idea of putting a railway station in Jebba was because Europeans had hit a cul-de-sac faced, as the the River Niger showed signs that it could no longer guarantee the massive movement of ships on it.

The relics from the propellers of SS Spring Voyage, a merchant ship owned by Mungo Park, is still being displayed at the ancient station of Jebba, therefore, marking the move towards the establishment of a railway route through the town from Lagos.

As the reader continues to ponder on the link between the wrecked ship of Mongo Park and the railway station, this writer can state that the only way goods could be moved across from the north to the south was by having a rail link if the river must be avoided.

The flow of River Niger along the island made the place a veritable trade link between the northern and southern parts of the then British colony of Nigeria, as goods from agricultural produce were sailed along the channel to London and other parts of the developed world.   The wreckage of the ship of the Scottish explorer and merchant along the Jebba channel of the River Niger made the colonialists to think of having a rail line, linking the two divides of Nigeria, for a hitch-free movement of goods, since there was no road link at that time through Jebba.

Apart from losing so many valuables, the merchants discovered that the river was becoming precarious for the steamers journeying that part of the waters, as fanglike rocks jolted out in unexpected parts of the river with menacing and life threatening effects on the sailors and their ships.

As the panic and fear continued to rage in the minds of the sailors who were Mungo Park’s compatriots, the burning question of how to move their merchandise to Europe dominated their minds, as the only link from the island to other parts of Nigeria was through the river.

The roads were only reduced to foot paths which ended up disappearing into a dead-end  and considering the haulage drawn from the Northern parts of Nigeria,  especially Kano, the colonialists had to evolve a means of transportation that will stand the test of time  and accommodate large movement of goods.

This tragedy, therefore, heralded the conception of a railway station in Jebba which later became operational in 1909, carrying groundnuts, beniseed, soya beans and cotton, from the northern region to the station for onward movement to London and other parts of Europe through Lagos.

For about seven years into its operations, an unusual partnership existed between the rail service and seamen, as the trains were ferried across the river until 1916, when a rail bearing bridge was constructed across the Niger.

After crossing the bridge, the rail line continued upwards to the north, leaving the rail workers and ferry handlers,  the tasking job of lifting the bulky coaches on and off,  as many times  as possible,  until succour came in 1916.

The river link which sustained light movement of goods on boats and ferries with a functional railway service, Jebba became a mega port with great influx of traders, foreign and local, with the establishment of warehouses to keep goods awaiting movement to Lagos.

Corroborating the tale of how the then Jebba port basked in the rhythm of business prosperity, 90-year-old staff of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), Alhaji Latifu Iyonda, stated that the place was prosperous, as all sorts of trades were carried out on a large scale.

He said that he joined the railway service in 1958, adding that he served a total of 35 years before retiring,  recalling that then in the 1950s no one could get close to the station without a boarding pass.

He explained that the railway station in Jebba was so organised,  that apart from the fact that it was kept sparkling clean, it had a security law in place  that stipulated that none- travellers were not allowed to roam the place without a legitimate pass for travelling ticket to do so.

“In those days, you dare not step into the station without due authorization either as a traveller or someone with something doing, as security operatives were constantly watching out for offenders.

The place was filled with all sorts of personalities travelling or attending to business,  as whitemen and blacks from all over the world converged to engage in trade, with assorted wares stacked in warehouses”, he revealed.

The 90 year old who was soaring in nostalgia smiled toothlessly as he recollected the magic accompanied with working as a railway staff, saying the glamour and the money from the job was more than a young man could contain.

He stated that in the sixties he was paid a monthly salary of 6 Pounds, an amount he explained was more than enough to fend for a family and its extended  wing in Nigeria of that time .

Pa Iyonda revealed that then it was fun to work, as he revealed that the hooting and puffing sound of the trains as they come and go brought business , which they as staff of the railway , could manage to engage in  as far as their finance could take them.

He added that their wives had supermarkets with assorted wares from London, adding that they had so much money then to stock pile and keep the business going, as the rate of turnover was good since the influx of people into the town was at its peak.

Iyonda said that as a track technician he was revered by so many,  as people rated them as high as the present aircraft pilots are respected , revealing that they took wives as many as they could afford, since the money and the respect was there.

The glitterati in the railway town of Jebba, as described by Pa Iyonda, cannot be said to be the case today, as the place sleeps in years of recession in the area of train movement.

In the words of 68 year old Lukman Adesanya the glory associated with the town, from the basking days of the railway station in Jebba, started when the Indians left the management to Nigerians in the early 1980s.

He explained that working from the early seventies to the last days of his service in the NRC, the activities started to witness a negative turn, as Nigerians got the full grasp of positions to manage the place.

He lamented that the change of baton was not in the best interest of the station and railway services in Nigeria, saying that they had reasons to believe that some people intentionally moved into the core of the transport system, to sabotage railway operations in the country for their selfish interests.

“We were enjoying the best of what a railway station could offer in any part of the world, but for the handing over of the Jebba station to Nigerians, the place continued to decline as the care and services given it by the Indians could not be sustained.

We noticed the worst of the service over here in Jebba when in 1983, the whole station ground to a halt  as the daily wake up hooting of the trains ceased, leaving most of us who have been used to such sounds to wait for years in vain to get our nostalgic feel of the place”, he lamented.

He said that the railway quarters that used to house railway staff have been given out to private owners, adding that the staff strength continued to decline from a complement of 30 people to three.

He said that the place has become  a ghost of its former  self , as the three staff manning the once busy station,  now sit for the length of their official working time only to go back home doing nothing at the end of the day,  he retorted.

The station which has been overgrown by weeds, has also had its rails submerged under the drainage movement of sand and pebbles, which has nearly swallowed up tracks making any train movement a risk to its users.

As the station gropes in the mystery of what years of decadence and despondency can offer, people like Adesanya are reduced to drinking liquor to ward off their heartbreak, as they continue to watch the empty station which was once the love of their lives.

The once bubbling station estate with fast running tap water and an all round electricity , has only relics of its crumbling structure to tell a tale of better days,  as the walls of the shaggy buildings is greased with human sweat and soot from burning coal.

As the federal government moves in to revive the rail transport service in Nigeria and committing the sum of over N12 billion to the resuscitation of the sector, the retirees are sceptical as they recalled that they have seen such moves too many.

The stench from human and animal waste stings the nose at the train station in Jebba which only persuades a visitor to bolt in haste, either to avoid the agony of bearing the smell, or fear of attack from hoodlums, who have found a harem in the near discarded place.

Investigation by this reporter showed that the road transportation which was not available in that area when the station commenced operation, became stronger proportionately to the speed at which the rail declined.

The reporter had to summon the courage to travel through the less than 300 kilometre journey from Minna to Jebba, as the large trucks dived in and out of the huge craters, oblivious of smaller cars.

For a journey  that would ordinarily last less than three hours , the condition of the road stretches it to more than four hours , as the road cuts off in dangerous areas,  forcing vehicles to move at snail speed , except for dare-devils drivers who ram their vehicles through the killer potholes.

Trailers could be seen in their numbers carrying behind their articulated flanks, huge haulage of merchandise which were years ago the business of the trains to convey to their destination, up and down the south and north of the country.

As the Peugeot salon car the reporter was travelling in , continued to weave between the massive craters that littered the roads in precarious positions, the over weighted trucks rumbled menacingly from all flanks , desperately avoiding the ditches without much ado about the smaller cars.

The mangled relics of crushed vehicles reminds road users that the place has been reduced to an avoidable slaughter lane, where throttle happy truck drivers display recklessness at its peak.

The trucks which number in their thousands move through the road with their goods grinding and peeling off the asphalt, leaving the tarred road bare of the natural earth, which has made the less than three hour trip from Minna to Mokwa, something akin to   an endurance trek.

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