When President Muhammadu Buhari wrote the National Assembly in April, seeking a $5.8 billion Chinese loan to finance some rail projects, he apparently had no inkling the request would soon land in controversy.
While everyone applauds the need to revive the nation’s comatose railways, there cannot be a consensus on a project of that magnitude excluding some sections of the country. Thus, rather than get the buy in of all stakeholders, the proposed massive railway projects got a big thumb down from Senators of the South East on Tuesday. Their argument was that why the region would be excluded from projects that would be executed with foreign loans which eventually would be raid by all sections of the country.
In the letter read on the floor of the National Assembly on April 26, 2017, President Buhari had intimated the lawmakers of the essence of the loan and the rail projects stating that the timely approval of the loan request would enable Nigeria access the China-African fund provided for in the 2016-2018 external borrowing plan.
He said that the projects form part of the overall plan to resuscitate the rail sector across the country and drive economic growth.
The President’s letter read in part: “I wish to refer to my earlier letter with respect to the above subject and to inform the distinguished senate that the China Exim bank has approved our request for a loan to execute the Lagos-Kano railway modernisation project, Lagos-Ibadan segment for a sum of $1.231 billion.
“The China government has also informed us that the approval of the Lagos-Kano railway modernisation project, Kano-Kaduna segment and coastal railway project, the Lagos-Calabar segment are imminent.
“China Exim supported projects; Lagos-Kano modernisation projects, Lagos-Ibadan segment $1.231 billion; Lagos-Kano railway modernisation project, Kano-Kaduna segment $1.146 billion and coastal railway project, the Lagos-Calabar segment 3.474 billion, making a total of 5.851 billion.”
On Tuesday however, leader of the South East caucus in the Senate, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe alerted the Senate to the marginalisation of the zone through the planned projects.
He urged the Senate to summon the Minister of Transport, Rotimi Amaechi to explain the exclusion of the Eastern Corridor of Nigeria’s Rail Lines from the proposed Lagos/Calabar rail line valued at $5.851billion.
While moving a motion titled, “Outright Omission of Eastern Corridor Rail Line in the request for approval of Federal Government 2015-2016 External Borrowing (Rolling Plan),” Abaribe said that the South Eastwas dismayed that the proposed loan was being sought for projects that excludes the region.
According to him, the Federal Government had on April 26, 2017 laid before the National Assembly a request seeking an approval for a loan of $5.851 billion from China Exim Bank to execute the rail project.
He said that though the loan would be repaid by the entire country,the South East was excluded from the benefits derivable therein without the execution of any such projects in the region.
He said: “The Eastern section of the rail segment, which has a link between the South Eastern and North Eastern parts of the rail line, is completely excluded from the request” adding that “the loan being a Federal Government borrowing would be paid for by all sections of the country; therefore every section of the country should be taken into consideration.”
The Senator further said that the project neglects the Railway Master Plan developed by the Ministry of Transport, adding that ordinarily, railway projects have a meaningful impact on the development of the country and should be made to cover all parts of the country.
According to Abaribe, it is inexplicable that the proposed projects would completely exclude the Eastern section which he said links the four zones of South-South, South-East, North-Central and North East as well as other key cities such as Port Harcourt, Aba, Enugu, Makurdi, Lafia, Gudi, Jos, Bauchi and Maiduguri.
Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu who supported Abaribe’s submissions said that although he was aware of a plan by the Federal Government to rehabilitate and upgrade the railway infrastructure in Nigeria since the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, he lamented that the South- East has been neglected in the scheme of things.
He also told his colleagues that in 2011, the Federal Government awarded the contract for the rehabilitation of the Eastern rail line from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri to three contractors in three segments with the projects valued at the sum of N64 billion. He added that the contract has, however, become stagnant as a result of the failure of the government to pay for the matured job certificates.
The Senate’s number two man said: “The truth is that the contract the government has with General Electric is only in relation to the coaches for goods and not for passengers and GE is only interested in supplying the coaches and not to fix the lines.”
The chamber was getting swayed against the Federal government at this stage. But the Chairman, Senate Committee on Land Transport, Senator Olugbenga Ashafa offered some explanation. He declared that the information provided by Abaribe and Ekweremadu were inadequate and inaccurate.
According to him, the administration of President Muhammadu Buhariinitially approved the Lagos /Calabar and Lagos/ Kano rail line,taking into cognizance the Aba and Onitsha rail projects.
He said|: “The Lagos/ Kano and Calabar/Lagos railway projects cover all the geo-political zones and I will show you how. On the Lagos-Calabar coastal, you will find the rail cutting across Obudu Cattle Ranch, Calabar-Uyo, Aba-Port Harcourt, Yenagoa-Otuoke, Yenagoa-Ughelli, Sapele-Benin-Agbor, Asaba-Onitsha connecting Benin,Ijebu Ode, Ore, Shagamu, Lagos seaports.
“Until it (the project) is finished you can deduce all the parts of the country it passes and from this, you can see that two major states were from the South East, including where Senator Abaribe comes from have been covered. Until this is finished you can’t see it on ground.
“On the concessioning, the General Electric has been summoned by the appropriate committee here in the senate to come and explain the content of that particular concessioning if it has already been given.”
Senate president, Bukola Saraki would not allow the discussions go messy or cause division on the floor of the Senate. He told the chamber that the leadership of the National Assembly had already entered into discussions with the executive arm of government adding
that the discussions so far were responsible for the amendment of letter from President Buhari on the project.
He said: “The first letter that came from the President did not specify that the South East, North East axis must also be standard
gauge and in that one that was not the case. We insisted at the leadership level that every part of the country must benefit with standard gauge and that has been done.
“The second thing is that we have referred it to the Committee on Foreign and Local Debts, and I think today or yesterday the Minister was before them. I think the point we just need here is to follow the spirit of the President’s letter.
“There should be standard gauge everywhere. In processing the loan, there must sincerity and there is commitment in the spirit of the president’s letter.”
The Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, who also appeared before the Senator Shehu Sani-led Senate Committee on Foreign and Local Debts the same day also offered some insights into the scuffle over railway projects. She disclosed that contrary to earlier submissions by the Senators, the South East was not excluded in the rail line development programme of the Federal Government. She said that the railway development programme of the government covers all segments of the country adding that the South East was covered in the Federal Government’s 2016-2018 external borrowing rolling plan for rail infrastructure.
The Minister submitted that the Senate had earlier rejected that request for about $30 billion from the China-Exim Bank and advised the government to apply for the approval of the loan in bits.
She stated that based on the advice the loan request of $5.815 billion was requested, adding that the Port Harcourt /Maiduguri rail line is planned to be captured in the next loan request.