By Kenechukwu ANDEH
Ten years after the Federal Ministry of Transport released the sum of N19.2 billion to Messrs. Eser Contracting Industry Company Incorporated, for the rehabilitation of one part of the Eastern Rail Line, which cuts across three eastern states, our reporter followed the train service from the oil-rich city of Port Harcourt to the Coal City of Enugu to ascertain the status and quality of rehabilitation work awarded in March 2011 and commissioned in 2014.
IT was 6.00 a.m. on a Tuesday, said to be the best time to catch a 7.00 a.m. train at the Port-Harcourt Railway Station. Once full of life, the building, which still maintains its colonial architectural signature, is now a shadow of itself. Few passengers loitered around waiting for the ticket sales to begin while engineers serviced the old locomotive engine ahead of the day’s journey to Aba in Abia State.
“It’s now a daily ritual. The locomotive is old; it has broken down severally and takes weeks to repair,” said Mr. Okeke Ikechukwu, a trader residing in Port-Harcourt who prefers to use the train to avoid the longer and dilapidated Port-Harcourt-Aba Expressway, which is also characterised by exorbitant fares.
“Once, we had to stay in the bush for several hours because the rail lines were bad at a spot. But I have no choice; it’s better than using the road to Aba. That one is a death trap,” he continued.
While commuters who travel by train pay as little as N200 for the train fare and N400 if they prefer to sit in the VIP section, a road trip to the neighbouring city of Aba by bus, cost about N2,000 excluding charges for luggage. This price is ten times more when compared to using the train and has endeared many, especially traders, to patronise the train service despite its unpredictable operations.
Following the train unearthed the decay in the Eastern District of the Nigerian Railway Corporation, with little or nothing to show for the rehabilitation done by the contractor, Messrs. Eser Contracting Industry Company Incorporated.
Our reporter met the same old structures, abandoned buildings, and machinery with most offices under lock at the once bubbling Port-Harcourt Terminal.
The Public Relations Officer of the station, Mr. Samuel Atoyebi, told our reporter that the train service has been operational since April 2021, but services were rescheduled. Now, the train makes two trips a day, departing Port-Harcourt in the morning by 7.00 a.m. and returning by 5.00 p.m. due to unrest caused by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
Atoyebi said the train services were also greatly affected by the Covid-19 and gun-wielding hoodlums specialising in vandalising rail tracks, especially at the Komkom axis in Obigbo Local Government Area of Rivers State. He said the train was once derailed but was fixed a few weeks later.
When quizzed on the rehabilitation work done, Atoyebi declined to comment, stating that he was not in the office when the rehabilitation was carried out. Further investigations revealed that the 65km journey to Aba was the farthest the train could go.
The claim by the Port-Harcourt station PRO that vandalisation by gun-wielding hoodlums was the primary cause of their operational inconsistency was, however, not entirely true.
At a spot after the Imo River, the old locomotive, which had huge rocks and woods lined up on both sides to keep its balance, came to a partial halt for minor works to be done. The train was fixed a few minutes later, and it continued its final journey to the Aba train station.
The rest of the journey from Umuahia up to Enugu was shaky. A man who liked to be addressed as Dr. Femi said he has been plying the route for a long time.
“Yes, there was a time they said hoodlums vandalised the tracks, but I doubt if proper rehabilitation was done,” he said.
“The train used to move up to Enugu in 2014 when it was commissioned. Later, it became inconsistent and finally stopped. The question that needs to be answered is, are the hoodlums also disturbing beyond Aba and in Umuahia, since the railway management claim that as the reason why the train service to Enugu is not operational? Dr. Femi asked rhetorically.
Though Covid-19 protocol was observed at the Port-Harcourt terminal before boarding the train, there was zero compliance onboard by passengers and the staff of the NRC.
The staff were checking tickets with no nose masks, gloves, or hand sanitisers. The inside of the train was littered with dirt. And passengers avoided most of the filthy, dilapidated coaches and cramped up in a few clean ones swept by students and hawkers.
At the Aba Railway Station, the PRO, Mr. Isreal Owalekwu, disclosed that the only challenge they were facing was the single overworked locomotive which has been in use since 2015, which frequently breaks down. Like his Port-Harcourt counterpart, Owalekwu declined to comment on the rehabilitation done by Messrs. Eser Contracting Industry Company Incorporated. He instead requested that the reporter should send his question to the headquarters in Enugu.
Aba to Enugu left to rot
With Aba being the furthest the rickety train could go, the rest of the carriageway running through N’bawsi, Umuahia, Uzuakoli, Ovim, Afikpo, Nomeh, Agbani to Enugu town can best be described as a death trap. Our correspondent gathered that owing to years of negligence; the bad road has been overtaken by armed robbers who lay siege for travellers.
There are no gates, warning signs, or flashlights at major railway crossings on the network. While most of the buildings at the halts have been leased to individuals for businesses, others have been abandoned and overgrown with weeds. The rails have begun to rot a long time ago.
Most offices were under lock and key at the Umuahia Train Station, which was no different from the others. Businesses around the station located in the heart of the state capital appeared nearly lifeless. The rail tracks, which were fast eroding, had no evidence of any rehabilitation work done since the colonial era. Though the PRO was not on the seat as at the time of visit, the station superintendent, Mr. Joseph Odo, in a phone conversation, said he was not in a position to answer such sensitive questions but promised to forward the PRO’s number, but he never did.
A staff of the corporation who pleaded anonymity disclosed that though work was done, it was shabbily executed by the contractor with just a few places earmarked where the rail tracks were worked on. Moving further from Umuahia, at the decade-old Afikpo Train Station, a few clicks away from the Federal College of Agriculture, Ishiagu was an abandoned structure that used to be a halt but is now an eyesore.
Constructed with woods that have now decayed, the building in the rural community of Ishiagu in Ebonyi State, which once was a beehive of rice farmers who used the train service to transport their products across the region, were supported by tremulous pillars. One can easily misjudge the environment as a colonial conservation area for wildlife with the rail tracks covered by bushes. The Afikpo Road Train Station, according to investigations, has long been abandoned. So, the villagers are unaware of any rehabilitation work done on the track. A passerby at the nearly deserted road leading to the station disclosed that youths from the village usually come together to clear bushes and shrubs on the rail track, but that was a long time ago when the train used to run through the community.
A visit to the District Headquarters of the Nigerian Railway Corporation in Enugu confirmed the level of decay of what used to be a bubbling hub and economic gateway to other regions in the country. Old, burnt coaches litter the station, rusted, and abandoned rails showed that the station has not been in use for years, with the only lively area at the headquarters being the administrative building.
Walking through the passage that connects the empty ticketing area to the waiting bay and the loading point, one could smell the stench of abandonment. Damped walls were filled with patches and holes.
The District Public Relations Officer (DTRO), Mr. Onovo Onyedikachi, who spoke to our correspondent in the absence of the District Manager, disclosed that the train service has not been functional for many reasons, citing vandalism as the reason.
When asked about the rehabilitation work awarded in 2011 and purportedly completed in 2014, he replied: “The information at my disposal then was that what Eser did was spot renewal.”
According to him, the process involved changing specific materials like sleepers, fasteners, and in some cases, rails at selected spots on a rail network.
Onovo said a new contract has, however, been awarded following the virtual flag-off of the groundbreaking ceremony on March 16 2021, to a Chinese company, China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), for the total reconstruction of the eastern railway network; running from Port-Harcourt through Aba and Enugu up to Maiduguri.
Ten years after the contract that beamed a light of hope for residents and businesses in the southeast was awarded, economic activities that heavily relied on the operation of the train service from Enugu to Port-Harcourt has ceased to be operational. This signals that the rehabilitation work had failed despite billions allocated and disbursed for its execution. At the heart of this economic setback are traders who used to sell their wares at the train stations when it was fully operational. Nnenna is one of them as she now manages a nearly empty shop without her mother. “Apart from the Covid-19 pandemic last year, business has not been as usual since the train no longer operates. The train station is always empty now, so we rarely make sales because there are no passengers to buy,” she said, shying away from the camera.
In 2013, Ex-President Goodluck Jonathan represented by his Vice, Namadi Sambo commissioned a project in Port-Harcourt which signaled the completion of the contract for the rehabilitation of the 463 KM Port-Harcourt – Markurdi section of the Eastern Railway Line. But what many did not know which may have also eluded the presidency at that time was that there was procurement fraud in the buildup to the award and the shabby execution of the contract.
During the procurement selection process, Eser Contracting and Industry Company Incorporated, owned by three Turkish nationals, was inconspicuously issued a certificate of no objection by the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP). This paved the way for a N19.2 billion contract to be awarded to the company by the Federal Ministry of Transportation. In the invitation-to-bid advert for the contract placed in the November-December 2010 edition of Federal Tenders Journal, the Nigerian Railway Corporation had required prospective contractors to submit a valid certificate of incorporation as a statutory requirement.
However, a search on the Corporate Affairs Commission website, showed that the company, Eser Contracting and Industry Company Incorporated does not exist in Nigeria and as such had no certificate of incorporation. Yet, a “certificate of no objection” was issued to the company by the Bureau of Public Procurement. This was in clear breach of Section 16 of the Public Procurement Act 2007 which mandates that to be eligible to bid for and execute a public procurement contract, every bidder must possess the legal capacity to enter the procurement contract.
Interestingly, three months after the contract was awarded to the non-existent entity, a company, Eser West Africa promoted by the same Turkish syndicate, was registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission. Three directors were listed under the company; two Turkish brothers, Ilhan and Can Adilogu, and the third, Eser Contracting Industry Company Incorporated, the company to which the contract was awarded.
CAC details of Eser West Africa
Even when it was established that Eser West Africa had not been registered at the time the contract was awarded and it was not the entity that was formally awarded the contract, according to records from BPP, NRC, Ministry of Transportation, State House, and the Federal Executive Council, dealings on the contract were subsequently transacted with the new company in violation of section 17,18,21 of the procurement act 2007 which clearly states that “no procuring entity shall require mandatory joint ventures, subcontracting, or other forms of association or corporation between firms whether domestic or otherwise”.
Despite this, the Federal Government under President Goodluck Jonathan through its Ministry of Transportation headed then by Alhaji Yusuf Sulaiman turned a blind eye to the infraction. The BPP, however, seems to be the major player in the fraudulent activity as it also failed to properly scrutinise the company as required by law during the procurement stage.
A legal expert, Barrister Kenneth Jideofor faulted the BPP for their inaction as, under the statutory description of their powers in the procurement act 2007, they are mandated to declare a mis-procurement and withdraw the certification given to a bidder if it discovered that its certification was issued based on false or misleading information.
Possible Family Ties
According to a publication by Premium Times Nigeria, the cancellation of the initial procurement process for the Eastern line rehabilitation contract by then transport minister, Mr. Yusuf Sulaiman, over allegations of fraud and irregularities, saw the emergence of a company that benefited from the process; Eser Nigeria Contracting Company Limited, registered on March 2 2009, just before bidding opened.
Though different from the legally non-existent Eser Contracting and Industry Company Incorporated and Eser West Africa, Eser Nigeria Contracting Company Limited according to incorporation filings has among its owners and directors Project Niche Limited. Project Niche is owned and directed by Mr. and Mrs. Alokolaro, who represents the company as directors on the board of Eser Nigeria Contracting Company Limited, according to incorporation filings. The investigation by Premium times Nigeria further revealed that a possible link may exist between Mrs. Alokolaro, a daughter of the late Ooni of Ile-Ife, Okunade Sijuwade, who shares family ties with Mr. Sijuwade that oversaw the procurement process.
This claim was, however, refuted by a law firm, Advocaat Law Practice representing Mr. and Mrs. Alokolaro in a statement in November 2020. Advocaat stated that their clients were wrongly accused as they have no involvement in any company handling any railway project.
Eser reacts, denies any wrongdoing
When the headquarters of the Turkish firm involved in the saga, Eser, was contacted, it expressed disappointment over the allegation, noting that the firm had been subjected to investigations by Nigerian authorities, had responded accordingly, and wondered why none of the information it shared had been made public.
According to Can Adiloglu, a director and Head, Technical Division of the company, in 2010, the Nigerian Railway Corporation opened an International Competitive Bidding (IBC) for the eastern railway network. This meant that any qualified international company could bid without registering in the country hence his company’s involvement in the bid with a competitive offer which it subsequently won.
After signing the contract with NRC in 2011, Eser, he said, proceeded to establish a local branch in Nigeria but could not as it was not legally possible for international construction companies to do so hence they were directed to establish a subsidiary company. This birthed ESER West Africa Ltd, which he disclosed is 100% owned by the parent company Eser.
Adiloglu also added that all guarantees and liabilities to execute the contract, including bank guarantee letters were provided from Turkey, through Eser Contracting Industry Company Incorporated with the parent company bearing the liability to execute the contract.
“We don’t know why, but I assume due to internal political issues, some newspapers started to claim that Eser West Africa was a fake company, owned by Nigerians, and it was a corrupt practice and etc. This has led to many investigations. These were especially introduced with the change of the government in Nigeria. All of them were answered with the same documents, which are evident that the claims are nothing to be true.” he said.
Mr. Adiloglu further disclosed that while the firm had completed the major part of the works and opened the mainline to rail traffic, supporting works necessary for line safety could not be done due to lack of funds as their approved payments had not been remitted since 2015. Consequently, they had to stop the works last year, he stated.
“NRC in its bid to finalise the contract as it is also promised to pay us their debts. But these are once again still not paid.”
“We don’t understand the dynamics of politics in Nigeria, but as a foreign company, we are also not interested in daily politics. It is unfortunate that such competition even affects foreign companies like us; as it only discourages competitive companies. As a company operating in over 16 countries, with major investments, we were planning to make over 250 million USD of investments in Nigeria. But seeing all these difficulties, we decided to allocate our resources to other countries.” Mr. Adloglu added.
While silence is golden as the popular saying goes, staying quiet on an issue that bothers taxpayers’ funds is a close second to the devastating effect of foot-in-mouth. These may be the consequences of the inaction of the government agencies involved as they did not respond to inquiries on information about the award of the Eastern Railway line contract, signaling their possible involvement in the procurement fraud. While efforts made to reach the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) through their contact lines were futile as none were reachable, the BPP did not reply to the initial email sent to them over the issuance of a “certificate of no Objection” to Messrs Eser Contracting Industry Company Incorporated. However, following a last-minute reminder before going to press, the bureau wrote back stating that only the Director-General can respond to such an inquiry, therefore our correspondent should direct a letter to the DG. This contravenes Section 4 of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 and the Open contracting disclosure guideline seen on the BPPs website which stipulates among others, that a public institution shall ensure that information relating to any contract is widely disseminated and made available to the public through various means including print, electronic, and online sources.
The Federal Ministry of Transport, Abuja, on its part as the awarding agency did not reply to the Freedom of Information request sent to them on September 20 2021 acknowledged on October 5, 2021.
Following the FOIA request, a reminder was also sent on October 11, 2021, but no response has been received from the ministry after it officially received the document three days later on October 14, 2021.
Gloomy Expectations President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday March 9 2021, flagged off the long-promised reconstruction of the 1,443 km narrow gauge Eastern Railway Line. The project awarded to the China Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC) which will cover a distance of 2,044.1km is designed to have 61 stations and loops and is expected to be completed in 36months. While the virtual flag-off was met with resounding applause, expectations are still gloomy with criticism in some quarters over the Federal Government’s decision to construct a $3.2 Billion narrow gauge railway in the Eastern corridor. This is coming at a time the government was constructing and commissioning faster and more standard rail lines in other regions like the recently launched 157km Lagos-Ibadan railway service and the ongoing $2billion rail line to link Nigeria with neighbouring Niger republic.
Despite all these, it remains unclear if and when this multi-billion-dollar reconstruction which currently exists on paper will be executed. At the time of this investigation, the Chinese company, CCECC was still conducting feasibility studies, no equipment had been mobilised to the site, and the reconstruction of the Eastern rail line expected to boost commerce in the region was yet to commence, eight months after it was flagged off.
Hon. Ndudi Elumelu Calls for Investigation
In a motion of urgent national importance, the minority leader of the House of Representatives, Hon. Ndudi Elumelu had on December 21 2020 called on the green chambers to investigate the Eastern Railway project awarded to Messrs. Eser Contracting Industry Company Incorporated in 2014 by the Goodluck Jonathan administration.
While addressing the house, Elumelu insisted that Eser Contracting Industry Company Incorporated neither had the required tax clearance nor audited statement of account for the preceding three years, therefore, had no legal capacity to do business in Nigeria.
“Further worried that after the contract was awarded in March 2011, the promoters of Eser Contracting and Industry Company Incorporated, knowing that they have deceitfully gotten the contract, devised a way to smoothen the irregularities by registering Eser West Africa Limited in June 2011, three months after the contract had been awarded” he added. The Delta lawmaker also hinted that if these consistent abuses of procurement laws and incessant corrupt practices by government agents are not put to check, it will continue to ridicule the fight against corruption as canvassed by President Muhammadu Buhari thus bringing the country under disrepute amongst other nations.
Notwithstanding Elumelu’s disapproval over the actions of the present government chiefly because there were no certainties that anyone would be made accountable for the regulatory failures and corporate fraud that characterised the failed contract, three months later, in March 2021, President Buhari’s administration through the Federal Ministry of Transportation signed a fresh contract with CCECC worth $3.02 billion for the reconstruction of the eastern railway line.
“This investigation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting.”