All things being equal, commercial shuttle is expected to begin on the Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri Rail line in June. Will the government meet the target? ADEYINKA ADERIBIGBE asks.
One of the hurdles before Mr Rotimi Amaechi since he was appointed Transportation Minister by President Muhammadu Buhari would be crossed in June. This is when the Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri speed train system will be opened for commercial operation.
Since last year, Amaechi has been upbeat about delivering the rail route.
When it was conceived 31 years ago, the rail line would have been the first speed train line in Africa. But the government redtapism put paid to it breasting that tape and almost smothered the dream.
Since 1987, successive governments have continued to dither on the project, pushing it almost beyond reckoning until the Buhari administration reprioritised it and brought it to the front burner.
Ajaokuta is a local government area (LGA) in Kogi State and a town on the left bank of the River Niger. The headquarters of the LGA is Egayin.
The town is home to the multibillion-dollar Ajaokuta Steel Mill, the largest steel mill in Nigeria. Begun by the Soviet Union in 1979, under a cooperation agreement with the government, the complex reached 98 per cent completion by 1994.
The steel mill has been called the “bedrock of Nigeria’s industrialisation.”
However, the project has been mismanaged, and the steel mill has not produced a single sheet of steel as at last December.
Nigeria’s journey into steel prospecting around the Ajaokuta-Itakpe belt began 51 years ago. According to Wikipedia, the Soviet Union, under an agreement with the then Yakubu Gowon-led military government in 1967, had recommended the prospecting for iron ore in Nigeria. However, the Soviet experts stood down the move on the ground that the iron ore deposits around Ajaokuta were of poor quality for steelmaking.
However, in 1973, iron ore of the required quality was discovered in Itakpe, Ajabanoko, and Oshokoshoko, and with it, the dream of birthing Africa’s first steel mill took root. The Ajaokuta Steel Company Limited was incorporated in 1979.
To supply the Ajaokuta Steel Mill with raw materials and connect it with the world market, a contract was awarded in 1987 for the construction of Nigeria’s first standard gauge railway.
The Nigerian Railway Corporation has a network that consists of 3,505 km of 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) narrow gauge lines and 479 km of standard gauge lines.
From the iron fields at Itakpe to the steel mill at Ajaokuta and to the Atlantic Ocean at Warri, the standard gauge was conceived as the link. Invariably, the speed train was originally meant to service the Ajaokuta Steel Company as it was not until then connected to the rail network of the Nigerian Railway Corporation.
In 1987, a contract was awarded for the construction of a standard gauge railway from the iron mines at Itakpe to the steelworks at Ajaokuta, continuing to the Atlantic Ocean port city of Warri.
However, both projects have been mismanaged and had remained on the drawing board more than three decades later. The railway, for instance, is still incomplete as of August 2017, and the section from Itakpe to Ajaokuta has been vandalised.
Just as the Ajaokuta Steel Mill has not produced one sheet of steel since its incorporation 39 years ago, although 40 of the 43 plants at the facility was said to have been completed as at last December, the speed train, too, has remained a white elephant project 31 years after.
Though after several failed attempts at privatisation, the government took back control of steel company in 2016, the dust over its privatisation have refused to settle, with the Minister of Solid Minerals Dr Kayode Fayemi, stoking the ‘dead embers’ of the privatisation of Ajaokuta Steel Mills.
The railway segment of the project also remained abandoned till last August, with the line between Itakpe and Ajaokuta vandalised.
Worried about the continued delay, the Buhari administration cancelled its contract with Julius Berger and handed it over to China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), which, same year, completed the Abuja-Kaduna Standard Gauge railway.
CCECC ought to have completed its work in the first quarter, with test-run billed for the second quarter before it is opened for commercial operation in June.
On the project, Amaechi said recently: “The Federal Government had instructed that the project must be completed by the first quarter of 2018, and this was what we included in the budget.”
This means the contractor -cum operator and the regulator – NRC, is expected to address challenges in the line once it kicks off commercial services by mid-year.
It would be the second standard gauge line to be bequeathed by the Buhari government to Nigerians, after the Abuja-Kaduna speed line. The third, Lagos-Ibadan, which is part of the long stretch of Lagos-Kano standard gauge project is expected to be delivered by December.
“We deserve less crowded coaches, and faster trains,” Amaechi said, on his first day at the NRC headquarters.
Inspecting the Warri end of the project recently, the minister noted the mileage the nation would have covered over the last 30 years, had the project delivered.
“Awarded first in 1987, what we are committed to completing was, indeed, the first standard gauge in Africa, but for 30 years, it was abandoned.
“There are two phases of the contracts – the first was awarded in 1987. We have a directive from the Federal Government that we must complete the Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri rail line and it was put in this year’s budget.
“By the end of December last year, we had disbursed some money to the contractors; Julius Berger and others to commence work, so we have come to see how far.
“We are constructing 99 bridges along the route to reduce contact with human beings because this is a speed lane and once it starts, trains are going to be moving at between 120 and 150 kph.
“If this contract was completed within the time it was awarded, Nigeria would have been the first country in Africa to have had a standard gauge line.
“We need to get this place functioning and the directive of the Federal Government is, we should start and our target is that by June, commercial activities must start,” he said.
He said Julius Berger opted out of the project because it did not have equipment on ground after the Itakpe-Ajaokuta rail tracks was vandalised.
He said the track was awarded to CCECC because it has the facilities on ground to complete the project.
He disclosed that Julius Berger would, however, handle the civil engineering works. These, according to him, include construction of new yard, 99 bridges, flyovers and refurbish the 178km rail route.
Inspecting the railway village at Agbor, the minister ordered that the village with about 420 houses should be handed back to the ministry due to poor maintenance. He disclosed that the village to be rebuilt by Julius Berger would on completion be rented to workers.
At the Abraka site, the minister directed that the bridges be extended to accommodate two vehicles instead of one.
Julius Berger’s Site Engineer Mr David Imafidon assured that the project would be completed on schedule. He said 99 bridges and 12 railway stations are to be constructed in the project, adding that the overpasses to Agbor town were completed.
Mr Chiedu Nwazojie, the Consultant of Team Nigeria Limited, said the company would make the adjustments indicated by the minister to expand the bridges to accommodate more vehicles.
He said the June date given to them by the minister was feasible.
Before it was abandoned, the Federal Government invested in the infrastructure on the route. Among abandoned facilities are wagons, communication towers, locomotives workshop, rolling stock, depot, and clinic. Though the rail site was constructed 1994, it was not completed. At the Agbor, Abraka and Warri railway sites, the tracks and the environment had been covered with thick bush.
Last Wednesday, the Federal Executive Council awarded a N13 billion contract for the dredging of the Warri and Escravos seaports. The project, which has a one year span, is to address destination/landing point of the Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri rail project. With the dredging, bigger vessels that carry steels in and out will be able to berth.
Either by public-private partnership, or privatisation, the Buhari administration seems determined to make the Ajaokuta Steel Mill work. With the railway back to life, the corridor, reputed to be the nation’s productive belt, with its rich agriculture and solid minerals deposits, may be back on its feet.
Until its fortune were affected, the railway was hitting over 11 million in passenger traffic while freight traffic hit 2.9 million tons as at 1964. This, however, declined gradually over the years until 2003, when its passenger traffic stood at 1.3 million while its freight traffic was less than 100,000 tons.
The Buhari administration believes that it is on its way to rewriting the rail history because of its interventions. Though the government, like its predecessors, seems to have stayed with the nation’s 25-year railway development rolling plan, it has, unlike its predecessors, remained committed to its deadlines.
Amaechi seems the right man to push the country with an estimated population of 195 million in the right direction, but it seems his steam comes from his boss, President Buhari, whose love for a fully-revamped railway sector the minister never stopped talking about.