37 YEARS AFTER BUHARI ABORTED LAGOS UNDERGROUND TRAIN, STATE YET TO RECOVER FROM THE LOSSES

About 37 years after the Lagos metro-line project was aborted, the state has yet to recover from the colossal losses resulting from the action, RASHEED BISIRIYU reports

Expectations were high when the Lagos State Government signed an agreement with Interinfra, a consortium of 19 French firms, in the early eighties for the construction of a metro line.

Indeed, Nigeria was said to be heading on a path that would successfully address the chaotic traffic already being experienced then in Lagos.

Interestingly, the Lagos metro project commenced almost at a period similar rail projects were being developed in other major African cities including Cairo in Egypt.

The Lagos metro project initiated by the Lateef Jakande administration under the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria-led by the late sage, Obafemi Awolowo, at a total cost of N700m, was to be completed in two years.

Ironically, the contract was terminated in 1985, the year the rail project was meant to be delivered and the nation paid a heavy fine for this.

“We ultimately paid a heavy penalty, which could have been used to handle a substantial portion of the project,” said a professor of political science, Femi Otubanjo.

Dr Abimbola Ogunkelu, a former minister, in an interview with our correspondent, said the metro-line project was disrupted when the Muhammadu Buhari-led military regime came to power on December 31, 1983, adding, “Movement in Lagos would have been much better and ease the difficulty of transportation in Lagos State.”

According to Otubanjo, the general impression was that the cancellation was political and that the Buhari regime was said to be “unsympathetic to the UPN government, which was the party in power in Lagos that initiated the project.

“The other side, which the Buhari group tends to promote, is that Nigeria was already heavily indebted and that the country could not afford the indebtedness that would arise from the project.”

The civilian government that preceded the Buhari-led military administration was also said to be culpable as it was accused of laying the foundation for the eventual cancellation of the contract.

The Shehu Shagari-led Federal Government under the defunct National Party of Nigeria was said to be unenthusiastic about granting the required guarantee for the project.

It also reportedly delayed the approval of the 10 per cent first payment, amounting to N70m, to commence work.

Jakande’s successor, Air Commodore Gbolahan Mudashiru, who was favourably disposed to the project after the committees he set up to review it had recommended its continuation, became helpless when a more superior power ordered its cancellation.

The man at the centre of the project, Jakande, said many years later, “Reflecting on the metro-line project, I think it is a major disservice to many Nigerians. Imagine how many people would have benefitted. It would have made life easier and changed the face of transport in Lagos. Whoever cancelled it or gave the advice towards its cancellation didn’t do right.”

In a later interview, he bluntly blamed Shagari and his successor, Buhari, for the failed project.

He said, “President Shagari was angry for two reasons. First, I did not congratulate him on his re-election in 1983. Second, he stopped the funds because I was not his party member.”

He added, “I later approached him and explained the problem facing the execution of the project and that the CBN had refused to release the N70m reserved for its take-off.

“President Shagari said it was because there was fuel crisis. He said the CBN governor would visit him that evening and that he would get back to me after talking to him on the metro-line project fund. But the CBN governor said the funds could not be released at once. He asked me to withdraw as many times as possible, citing bad economy and increasing fuel crisis at the period as reasons.”

The former governor explained that he had resolved to withdraw the money in line with the advice of the CBN governor, “but the military coup of General Buhari stopped the process.”

Many have thus held Buhari responsible for the cancellation and this his political opponents used to taunt him, especially during electioneering.

But Buhari said the decision to cancel the contract was to avert plunging the nation into deeper financial mess of taking more loans, adding that it was unfair to continue to tag him as an enemy of Lagos for taking an action he considered was in the national interest.

He said, “Then, we didn’t know how much debt was (hanging) on us as a nation and we felt that we should not add another N100m to it.”

A former Minister of Petroleum Resources and diplomat, Philip Asiodu, also confirmed that the state doled out so much to settle the contractors without constructing a kilometre of rail.

The Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority also said, “The metro-line project was scrapped in 1985 by Muhammadu Buhari at a loss of over $78m to the Lagos taxpayers.”

This was more than the amount required for the phase one of the project, which the CBN failed to release. Investigation showed that as of the time of signing the metro-line contract, a naira was equivalent to about $1.5.

The metro line was designed to have 30 trains, each running 28.5km on raised concrete tracks from Marina to Agege. The 30 trains were expected to carry 88,000 passengers per hour to and fro.

Its execution was meant to be in two phases: the first from the Marina to Yaba; the second, from Agege to Yaba through Oregun and Ikorodu road. The two sections were to have 19 stations with two platforms.

While the Lagos metro was abandoned, Egypt and Ethiopia were reportedly making progress on their rail projects. They have not only been completed but continually improved upon for the benefit of their respective citizens.

Sadly, the traffic congestion the metro project was meant to address has defied several other measures introduced by the state government as more people continue to troop to Lagos, the nation’s commercial capital, in search of decent means of livelihood.

Gridlock has remained a horrible daily experience on major Lagos roads. Several studies have indicated that motorists and other road users lose huge amount to the perennial Lagos traffic.

The about 22 million people residing in Lagos rely on road transportation, which is said to account for more than 90 per cent of all intra-city movements.

Meanwhile, the abandoned metro line has metamorphosed into a light rail project being developed by LAMATA on behalf of the state government.

The state government in the early 2000s under Bola Tinubu felt a compelling need to revive the rail project. It came up with the light rail network as a major component of a Strategic Transport Master Plan.

According to LAMATA, the STMP is a 30-year plan put together after a series of intensive researches on the future transportation demand of Lagos as one of the world’s fastest growing mega cities.

It stated, “The new rail network covers seven major corridors of high commuter traffic demand within and beyond the metropolitan Lagos, extending to border areas of Ogun and Oyo states.”

The initial $135m proposal was part of the Lagos Urban Transportation Project to be implemented by LAMATA.

The new rail project is designed to cover the entire state under a seven-line network code-named Red, Blue, Green, Yellow, Purple, Brown and Orange lines.

Real financial commitment for the project came under Babatunde Fashola as Lagos governor in 2008, with the state government approving N70bn for the construction of the Blue Line.

LAMATA started with the Blue Line, a stretch of 27km rail line, connecting Okokomaiko to Marina, with an estimated completion date of 2011.

But the contract awarded to China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation has suffered many delays, which LAMATA attributes to paucity of funds among other challenges.

Fashola’s successor, Akinwunmi Ambode, also showed some commitment for the project before passing the leadership baton to Babajide Sanwo-Olu.

The Blue Line, a 27km railroad, is undergoing construction. It is also in the middle of Lagos-Badagry Expressway, which government is currently redeveloping into a 10-lane international gateway.

The Lagos State Governor, Sanwo-Olu, in December 2019 announced that the Blue Line would be fully ready at the end of this year and commercial operations to commence on the line in 2021.

He said, “We are committed to delivering this project next year and ensuring its operation starts in 2021.”

Apart from the Blue Line, the governor disclosed that his administration would be starting the construction of the Red Line (rail) project from Agbado to Marina, adding that advertisement had been made inviting investors for the construction of four other rail lines under a Design, Build, Operate, Maintain and Transfer model of Public-Private-Partnership arrangement.

Details of the first light rail line provided by LAMATA show that the proposed trains for the Blue Line are Electric Multiple Units, which are emission-free and not expected to pose environmental pollution problems usually associated with diesel locomotives.

It stated, “Initially, the Blue Line will carry 400,000 passengers daily with capacity increased to 700,000 passengers daily when the rail route becomes fully operational.

“To incorporate the use of the EMUs, a depot including power generating plant has been proposed for construction at the final station, Okokomaiko. The depot will serve as train maintenance and repair yard, sidings, final train destination, office complex and power station.

“The selected concessionaire will be responsible for providing rolling stock, operations and maintenance for a 25-year period.’’

Although no dates have been announced for the other five lines, there are fears that they may also suffer the same long-delay fate experienced by the Blue Line.

Otubanjo and Ogunkelu said funding for the other rail projects should not pose any problem.

They contended that rail project in a city like Lagos remained a viable business that could pay for itself, adding that that both international lenders and private investors would be willing to invest.

“Lagos is such a massive economy where those in the private sector would be willing to invest,” said Otubanjo.

Ogunkelu warned that government should only regulate the business and not control it if it must succeed.

He said, “With many millions of people moving on the train everyday paying about N100 per trip, there are financial institutions that will be willing to fund the project, provided that it is not government-run or dominated.”

Copyright PUNCH.