How Chinese-built railway projects are easing mobility, saving lives in Nigeria

With an initial loan of $500 million and another $1.3 billion borrowing from China, Nigeria constructed 186-kilometre Abuja-Kaduna and 156-kilometer Lagos-Ibadan rail projects, respectively.  The ICIR’s Niyi Oyedeji writes on how the project is easing mobility and serving as an efficient means of transportation to many Nigerians.

SINCE 2015 when her cousin was abducted by an armed gang during a trip on Abuja-Kaduna highway, Ahmad Khadija has stopped travelling through the dreaded road. Her fears were obvious  − she didn’t want to be the next victim after her cousin was released following the payment of a heavy ransom to the kidnappers. 

“We sold some family lands and our personal belongings before we could cough out the N5 million ransom demanded by the kidnappers,” she said.

Khadija’s nuclear family is based in Kaduna, about an hour and a half drive from Abuja where she works. Due to the prevalent insecurity on the highway, she resorted to travelling by air to see her family, which was expensive for her. This often restrained her from seeing her three children regularly.

“There are weeks I don’t even travel home to see my husband and children because of the high cost of airfare,” Khadija said.

The Abuja-Kaduna Expressway has been described by travellers as a death trap, owing to the security risks associated with the route.

Idu Train Terminal, Abuja

Abduction and killing have become routine, as travellers lose lives and property almost on a daily basis when armed gangs who operate at will attack. Commuters have been targeted repeatedly by gunmen who abduct victims for ransom and, in some cases, kill them.

Several reports of terrorism have been recorded along this highway over the years. These have persisted, despite orders by President Muhammadu Buhari to increase surveillance and patrol along the route.

One such incident occurred in July 2018, when gunmen carried out an onslaught on travellers along the expressway, killing former Commissioner for Education in Katsina Halimatu Sadiya, a policeman, an army officer and his daughter. Many others had been abducted during the attack.

Barely three months ago, former FCT Director of Protocol Sagir Hamidu was killed while travelling along the route.

In December 2021, one traveller was killed and about 30 others abducted by gunmen who had laid ambush along the highway.

The routine escapades of terrorists along the highway have made many travellers like Khadijah avoid the route as much as they can.

While those who have the means resort to travelling by air, others have abandoned the route completely.

Where it is inevitable to travel, they are left with no other option but to risk their lives along the dangerous road, hearts in hands.

Abuja-Kaduna train to the rescue

Two years after Khadijah’s cousin’s harrowing experience, the Abuja-Kaduna standard gauge railway was commissioned for use. The 56-year-old woman said her joy knew no bounds knowing she could move between the two cities any day of the week.

“It was as if the train was an answer to my prayers. It made travelling very easy for me,” she said.

Many travellers who cannot afford airfare also regard the train as a welcome alternative.

Prince Abdul’s family is based in Kaduna, while he lives in Abuja. He has never had a personal encounter with the terrorists along the highway, but the horrible experiences of relatives have made the thought of plying the route unpleasant.

“Why I choose to travel by train is the insecurity in the country. Kaduna road has become very, very scary. Train is safer than other means of transport you can think of for now,” Abdul said.

Prince Abdul

Beyond the security situation, some travellers have identified comfort as a factor influencing their preference for train travel.

Abuja resident Francis Fredrick told The ICIR that travelling by train was relaxing as there was no need to worry about bad drivers or road accidents.

“For the train, you feel so relaxed, and you are not thinking of any oncoming vehicle or anything. I feel much more comfortable going by rail. 

“Because of the construction going on, you see the roads are being collapsed. So they force the drivers to take one way and it’s not always safe. You see a lot of crazy and psychedelic driving on the road, so it’s good to know that I’m safer,” he said.

Another traveller, who identified herself as Fatima Yusuf, also said the journey to Kaduna was more comfortable by train and has improved her travel experience.

“It is much more comfortable going by train than road,” she said.

Fatima Yusuf

Five years of commercial operations, comfort for travellers

The Abuja-Kaduna railway lines began commercial operations in July 2016 as the first phase of the Nigerian railway modernisation project.

Constructed by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), the Abuja-Kaduna railway was largely funded by project-tied loans obtained from China.

It has a carrying capacity of 928 passengers with an operating speed which was increased from 90km/h to 130km/h in 2017.

Upon commissioning of the rail lines for use, most residents in Abuja and Kaduna now travel by train.

Due to the comfort of the trains, travellers from various social strata, ranging from students, business persons to professionals and politicians, have been attracted to the service.

In 2019, the Federal Government said that 3,700 passengers were travelling by train daily.

Though the construction began under the previous government, it was commissioned by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who said all states would be linked to commercial cities in the country by rail.

The service also operates with passenger and cargo trains, thereby easing transportation and inter-state businesses for residents of both cities.

Same project, similar intervention

Mobolaji Johnson train station Ebute Meta, Lagos

In South-Western Nigeria, the Lagos-Ibadan train service is also easing transportation for travellers in the region.

The double-track standard gauge rail connects Lagos to Abeokuta in Ogun and Ibadan, Oyo state. It has 10 stations in between, some of which are still incomplete.

The rail lines were commissioned in June 2021 to decongest the Lagos-Ibadan highway and the Apapa seaports by moving cargo across cities through rail.

According to Nigeria’s Minister for Transport Rotimi Amaechi, commercial operations at the train station were delayed largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jane Okoro is a businesswoman who owns a shop in Abeokuta, Ogun State and visits the Marina market in Lagos at least once a month to purchase wares for her business.

Okoro told The ICIR that she used to contend with the traffic congestion associated with transportation in Lagos and it had negative effects on her business.

“I used to spend more days in Lagos whenever I came to the market and that means my shop would stay locked. But since I started travelling by train, it’s been just two days,” she said.

Beyond traffic gridlocks, other factors worsen transportation along Lagos roads, including kidnapping and road accidents.

According to a report, about 500 people died from accidents along the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway in 2018 alone.

Economic impact

Cross-section of people waiting for the train at Mobolaji Johnson train station Ebute Meta, Lagos

Beyond providing safety and comfort for travellers, the railway lines have improved business and trade between cities in Nigeria. It is also contributing to the economic development of the country.

Due to the increasing number of Nigerians buying train tickets, it now serves as an alternative means of revenue generation for the government.

The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said 565,385 passengers travelled by rail in the second quarter of 2021, as against 108,238 recorded in the second quarter of 2020.

The NBS also pegged revenue generated in the second quarter of 2021 by train travels at N1.084 billion against N892.467 million in the first quarter of the year.

The Abuja-Kaduna and Lagos-Ibadan rail lines have significantly contributed to the revenue.

Nigeria’s Minister of Transportation Amaechi said during an interview in December 2021 that at least N300 million was being generated monthly from the Abuja-Kaduna train service.

He noted that the Lagos-Ibadan railway was being run with revenue generated from the Abuja station.

“We make N300 million per month from the Abuja-Kaduna train. Currently, we are running Lagos-Ibadan from the money we are making from the Abuja-Kaduna rail service. At the end of the day, we pay back over N100million to the Federal Government,” the minister said.

Room for improvement

Regardless of the respite that train travel has brought to travellers, some have raised concerns over certain aspects of the service.

Kolawole Ajao, a resident of Lagos, told The ICIR that the cost of train travel was a major challenge, saying that he paid almost double the price of going by road.

“I travel to and from Ibadan at least twice a week and I use the train because it is more convenient. But the train actually costs me more. If I am going by road, N1200 should be enough for me, but for the train, it is N2600 and above. That’s double,” Ajao said.

Also speaking to The ICIR, a resident of Lagos, Hannah Adah, who has travelled by train on three occasions, said the coaches were often overcrowded, with some passengers standing throughout the trip.

“I’ve used this train three times and on two occasions, three or four people are squeezed into a space that’s meant for just two. Sometimes, people stand. It usually isn’t nice,” she said.

For Nicholas Baba, who lives in Abuja and travels to Kaduna regularly, the location of the terminal in Kaduna was a problem.

He said the distance between the terminal and most locations in Southern Kaduna made train travel a tiring experience and suggested that passengers be allowed to alight at the Kakau station.

“You pass your location and then you start coming back again, it doesn’t make sense. It is hectic. By the time you find your way from the train station to your base, it is like moving from Abuja by car to Kaduna,” he said.

Similarly, Femi Olarenwaju, who travels to Kaduna for business, also complained about the location of the Idu terminal in Abuja.

“The only thing I enjoy about the rail system is just the safety. If not for safety, nothing will bring me here. The time you take from town to this place is enough for you to pick a taxi that will take you down to Kaduna. Before you can get here with a cab, you need to have up to N2500-N3000 for Uber,” he said.

This highlights the importance of a metro train within the city.

Though the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) had commissioned the Abuja Rail Mass Transit (ARMT) in 2018, the project is still largely incomplete and operations are yet to commence in most stations.

However, in December 2021, Secretary of the FCT Transport Secretariat Zankari Angulu said the ARMT service would resume operations soon.

Olarenwaju also spoke on the lack of a waiting area for travellers who sometimes had to wait in front of the station before purchasing tickets.

“We are customers, but we cannot gain access inside. Look at the way people are littering all over, it’s not supposed to be so. Ordinarily, if you go to the airport, you can always wait for five, sixhours. But look at passengers all over,” he said.

He also decried the problem of ticket racketeering, which he said had frustrated his journey on several occasions.

“You come here, to get tickets is another stress. I was here at 1.05 p.m, and they were telling me the ticket for 2 O’clock had finished, and I should buy the one for 6 O’clock.

“But the most annoying thing is there are hawkers who approached me saying that if I want, I should bring N5000, they will give me for 2 O’clock,” he said.

The menace of ticket racketeering has persisted in train stations, despite the launching of an e-ticketing platform in 2021, targeted at curbing it.

Concerns over Chinese loans

While the Chinese-built railway project is easing mobility and serving as an efficient means of transportation to many Nigerians, concerns have, however, been raised over the growing rate of Chinese loans.

According to the Debt Management Office (DMO), as of September 2021, Nigeria had an outstanding debt of $3.5bn from Chinese loans, having repaid the sum of $1.0bn in principal and interest.

The total amount the country had borrowed from China as of then was $4.084 billion.

The document accessed on DMO’s website gives the breakdown of the payment as: $565.23m (Chinese loans) being part of the principal, while $477.98m has been paid as interest.

According to an economic expert, Martins Afolabi, Nigeria is sitting on a time bomb with all sorts of loans it had accrued over the years.

“Nigeria has been borrowing from the Chinese government for over 10 years now. Sadly, the country is yet to repay a significant percentage of the total loan.

“I am afraid the country might end up losing some of the projects financed by this money to the borrower if we find it difficult to repay them,” he said.

Nigeria’s House of Representatives had also expressed worry over the Chinese loan, saying the terms were dangerous.

An investigation by the Reps revealed the existence of a Sovereignty Guaranty clause in some of the agreements the country entered with the Chinese.

The clause empowers China to take over the assets constructed with the loans in case of default by Nigeria.

Minister Amaechi has explained that the sovereignty clause is only there to assure payback according to the terms and conditions of the loan.

“The waiving of immunity simply means in trade parlance that I am not giving you this loan free of charge. Just like if you go to take a loan from the bank, the moment you don’t pay, they go after the assets you put down.”

He, however, said the loans were currently being repaid to avoid any future problems on the projects.

This investigation was supported by the Africa-China Reporting Project (ACRP) at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.



'Niyi worked with The ICIR as an Investigative Reporter and Fact-checker from 2020 till September 2022. You can shoot him an email via [email protected]. You can as well follow him on Twitter via @niyi_oyedeji.

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