While President Muhammadu Buhari is working assiduously towards purging the nation of corruption, the menace seems to have eaten deep into the railway system.
Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) which is one of the oldest government institutions in the country; inherited from colonial masters to facilitate trade and ease of transportation across the country has been so effective in the movement of goods and services in other parts of the world but Nigeria’s case seems to be a different especially after the exit of the colonialists. The railway system in the country is a total mess in terms of facilities and operations.
The transport mode has become relatively unpopular among Nigerians to the extent that the Minister of Transportation, Hon. Rotimi Amaechi confessed during a tour to the NRC facilities in Lagos that he didn’t know that there was still a functional railway system in Nigeria. As a matter of fact, this is the impression of most Nigerians have about the railways.
Most worrisome is the fact that government’s relentless efforts in revitalizing the railway system which seems to be utopian, haven’t been able to address the fundamental problems of the railway industry. Since the return to democratic rule in 1999, subsequent regimes claimed to have invested billions of naira on railway rehabilitation but no meaningful results have been achieved.
The standard guage project initiated by Goodluck Jonathan hasn’t seen the light of the day aside the completion of the Kaduna – Abuja – Kaduna railway (standard guage) by Buhari’s administration, leaving the Abuja-Lagos, and others under construction.
In a bid to ensure that this project is a success, the Chairman Senate Committee on Local and Foreign Debts, Senator Shehu Sani and that of Land Transport, Senator Gbenga Ashafa paid a joint oversight visit to the NRC few weeks ago.
Senator Ashafa said the visit was to assist the Committee assess the project implementation plan for the recently approved loan request by the Federal Government from China EXIM Bank.
“This is in line with our constitutional responsibility to carry out periodic oversight functions to the Ministries, Departments, and Agencies under the supervision of the joint committee. It is our hope that the contractors on this project, (China Civil Engineering Construction Company CCECC) would keep to the terms and deliver this project.
Senator Sani in his address said the visit was one step in the fulfillment of the mandate and public trust the Senate owe Nigerians.
While reiterating the commitment of the Nigerian Senate to assisting the Executive arm in the actualization of every developmental project within their purview, he urged the federal ministry of Transportation and the project contractor to be transparent in executing the project.
“I wish to request, on behalf of the two committees that the Federal Ministry of Transportation submit to the secretariats of the two committees, detailed work plan for this rail project, with feasible timelines for actualizing the different stages of the work. This will be the basis upon which subsequent oversight visits will be made to monitor the progress of work being done”. Senator Sani said.
The two committees however expressed optimism in the economic benefits of the project as they called on China Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC) to maximize local content in the area of raw materials and labour force.
This of course attests to government’s serious efforts in the revitalization of the railway transport system in Nigeria.
Another recent measure is the Federal Government’s decision to concession the Nigerian railway management to General Electric (GE) an American based Consortium company which hs gained mixed reactions from stakeholders. Most especially, Nigerian Union of Railway Workers (NURW) that has expressed strong objection to the idea.
During an investigative tour to the NRC headquarters at Ebute-Metta and the Lagos District office at Alago Meji in August, MMS Plus discovered that the dysfunctionality of the system is a product of poor mismanagement, massive fraud, and corruption among top management staff of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC).
Despite four scheduled visits by MMS Plus to the NRC Public Relations Officer (PRO), Mr. Mahmood Yakubu, he couldn’t give any clue to the operations and activities of the agency.
“Look! I cannot say anything, just go there, look around and write whatever you see. Nobody will talk to you on anything. Nobody authorized me to speak on any issue, and on concession if you need information go to Abuja; Please I don’t want anybody to query me”.
All he could say was that within Lagos alone, the train conveys nothing less than 10,000 passengers daily. According to him, federal government’s ongoing construction of standard gauge from Kaduna to Lagos, Lagos to Ibadan will further transform the system. He is also confident that with the recent acquisition of new locomotives, trains performance will be improved.
However, the physical structures and operational framework do not to conform with the acclamations of Mr. Mahmood. Aside the old and obvious poor standard of the functioning locomotives of economic class, several abandoned trains and other decayed facilities were seen. About forty (40) Freight wagon trains acquired around 2012 were all abandoned and outgrown by weeds.
When approached, an Assistant Director, Operations, Mr. Omoneyi Omojola declined making comments because he believed all information required are in the Public Relations Department.
“The Public Relations Department is furnished with all necessary information that you need. Even if they needed us to speak, there are procedures in the civil service for that. The Director is on the seat and I hope you know I cannot be addressing any issue unless he directs me to do so, more so that he is on seat” He said.
All efforts to speak with the Managing Director (MD), Mr. Fidet Okhiria on the issue proved abortive as Mr. Mahmoud claimed the Managing Director was incapacitated “look the MD has legs problems, he cannot walk but when you tell people, they seem not to understand. There are lots of people that want to see him but I tell them that he is not on seat” He said
When quizzed on the matter, a senior NRC staff who spoke on condition of anonymity attributed the decay to the ongoing mismanagement and corruption among NRC officials who operates at the detriment of the government. The man who in his response was quick at throwing his support behind the FG’s concession move advocated for the payment of all staffs entitlements before the process is finalized. “I am fed up with the modus operandi in the Nigerian railway. A lot is wrong with NRC, and I think concession will be a good answer to the question.” he said
One passenger at the Ebute-Metta station who simply identified herself as Mrs. Stella shared her experience. She said the train only becomes necessary for her whenever she couldn’t withstand the traffic. For her, the experience in the train is ugly and embarrassing. “I only board the train once in a while because of traffic but the train isn’t conducive at all. Federal government has to do something about it”, she said.
Meanwhile, a junior worker at one of the Lagos district stations who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the whole system had been bastardized and only a concession of the railway could bring about its redemption. He noted that poor staff welfare condition and maltreatment of junior staffs was one of the major problems at the agency.
When quizzed further, he said “Wait For Your Time” is a common language used to console or possibly “threaten” junior staffs who raise eyebrow on any observed irregularity in the system. He explained that a stubborn staff would be transferred out of his initial base if he continued to ask questions.
According to him, the fraud is manifested through the activities of checkers on the train who gets posted on the basis of inducements and loyalty to some senior staffs. The checkers on train siphon government’s funds by not issuing the penalty tickets but collect the money from passengers and at the end of the day, share it amongst the syndicate.
Another junior worker confirmed that junior staffs were always told “Wait for your time” which is a common parlance in NRC. “You dare not talk here. You will always be told to wait for your time.” she said.
However, an insider at the district station while defending his support for the concession explained that there is massive shortchange of government revenue on the train as aided by senior management officers.
“It will be better for external bodies to take over the affairs of this place so that the tradition will change. The tradition in railway here is that you have to wait for your time. The fraud is majorly on the train where defaulters (passengers who refused to pay for tickets) are required to be issued penalty tickets which amounts to double of the normal fare.
“The senior members of staff in charge of posting send their siblings and loyalists there so that they can bring returns at the end of the day. That is why everybody is eager to be on the train but you just have to be loyal to one among the cabals. I was dropped from the train because I refused to compromise. I did my job thoroughly and ensured that the funds go to the right channel”, he said.
Another insider who spoke confidentially said the menace has become a culture in railway to the extent that it has crippled it from competing with its counterparts in other parts of the world. In a very bold manner he said NRC top officials including some directors and even the Managing Director are involved in the looting of funds which has made FG lose confidence in the railway management.
While attesting to the fraudulent acts, he explained that the NRC general rules only empower a staff to be posted on train for just six (6) months once in a year, but most checkers have been on board for over five (5) years as a result of their loyalty to the cabals and even the task force also work in connivance with the checkers.
“People have to lobby before being posted on train and also the so-called task force is working in connivance with the checkers because they are also posted on train by the same cabal. I cannot remember the last time a checker is caught for doing fraud. It’s only when you don’t support the cabal that they get you out of the system or post you somewhere very far”. He stated
A senior staff who reacted to the issue said junior members of staff are always willing to be posted to the train because within a short while they will become suddenly rich.
“What do you expect? Once they start working on train they start living big because I know their salary is pea-nut. Imagine a junior staff boasting of going home with nothing less than fifteen thousand (15,000) naira daily. You can see what that would be doing on the income. They ride on big cars and build houses. Where do they get the money from” the senior staff said.
Another source at the NRC headquarters said some members of senior staff live extravagantly above their salaries and become suddenly poor after retirement because their illegal accruals from the train are no more available.
“There was one Director who changes Jeeps regularly but when he got retired, within some months, he sold most of the vehicles because he couldn’t maintain them. We all know that our salary is poor, so where did get all the monies he used to spend any how when he was here?”
A staff mentioned in her comment that half of the funds generated from the trains are shared among top officials of NRC which has been a culture in NRC for a long time.
“They operate two accounts. They divide whatever money we generate into two, remit half into federal government’s account and share the other half among them. That’s why you see government complaining everyday that the railway isn’t generating enough money but in reality, we are making more than enough; it’s just that the money doesn’t get to the appropriate quarters. They share it here.
“Our salary is also very small and we are not even sure it’s what government pays that they are giving us. You need to help us investigate that. The young man explained.
Recall that the Minister for Transportation had lamented sometimes ago that government spends more on maintenance than the generated revenue on railway transport using the Kaduna-Abuja-Kaduna as example where less than thirty million naira as against fifty million naira spent on maintenance on monthly basis.
In a very aggressive and sad tone, one of the junior members of staff at the NRC headquarters lamented the poor management and oppression of junior NRC staff and insincerity of the part of the Nigerian Railway Workers’ Union (NURW) leadership.
“The junior workers are being treated like slaves. We are not getting the PenCom alerts and nobody is ready to give explanations. The union deducts dues from our salaries every month without carrying us along in their activities. In fact, we don’t even know what the money is being used for. They claim to be fighting for our rights yet they visit the management on daily basis to share from the loots” He said.
Aside poor wages and salaries, the junior members of staff complained of sideline by NURW who had refused to carry them along in its activities, and don’t genuinely fight for the workers interests. The union is said to have derailed from its objective but yet deduct monthly dues from the workers’ salaries without giving accounts on how it is been utilized.
The Secretary General, Nigerian Union of Railway Workers (NURW), Mr. Esan when approached in his Ekololu office, Surulere also declined reacting to the issue despite its sensitivity.
“I am very busy, I only allowed you in so that I can see your face. Let’s see some other time but as for today, I am very busy and cannot comment on any issue.” Mr. Esan responded.
The Lagos NRC Descript Public Relations Officer (PRO), Mrs. Khadijah Aroyewun-Adekomaiya when visited in her office at Alago-Meji admitted that the management has been receiving such complaints of checkers’ fraudulent acts in the train and always taken swift measures to handle such issue but she also debunked all other allegations. In her defense, she said the management having heard complaints on issues of checkers’ illicit activities in the train had put up several measures which included the change of ticketing mode to avoid duplication and the set up of Task Force that acts as watchdog on behalf of the management. She further explained that most of the allegations had always been without any proof and the management is handicapped since nobody had been able to back the allegations with evidences.
“It is not that the management is sleeping when we hear these reports, but most of the allegations come without proofs. We have put several measures in place like the change of ticketing mode and set up of task force to monitor activities on the train. Have you seen anyone do that? If you do, please let us know with evidence, the management is ready to sack anyone found guilty. Sometimes, when we hear these allegations we remove those ones there and replace them with new ones, yet we still keep hearing the same complaints. So we need scapegoats to help your investigation, each of the checkers are required to wear jackets and each of the uniforms have numbers. If for example, someone is engaging in this bad act, just take up the number and take the act. You remember what happened in Abuja. Some customers gave us reliable information and we were able to get them and they were sacked”.
In reaction to the allegations of Task force connivance with fraudulent checkers and the management retaining those due for posting, she said such allegations are mischievous and is only meant to discredit the management as it is not true that anyone is allowed to remain on the train beyond the assigned time.
“We are in a society where good and bad thrive. Sometimes, people see things and at times imagine things. Taskforce is constituted to balance the activities of checkers on the Train and they are changed on regular basis. The task force is an ad-hoc committee that works with the police and you know even the police are not static. The task force represents the management and they are constituted to ensure that the essence of the corporation is not jeopardized. When you say task force is working in connivance with the checkers, it also draws the inference that the management is working in connivance with the checkers. Does it make any sense to say that we are constantly shooting ourselves in the legs?
While appraising the activities of the district, she said there had been relative improvement in the first half of the year. Although no statistics was given on the revenue generated but she maintained that the Lagos district runs sixteen trains daily and has been helping in decongesting the ports at Apapa especially during this hard time when the Apapa road is under construction. She also said the district runs freight Trains and the inter-state Trains are intact.
Meanwhile, investigations revealed that most workers are in support of a genuine concession of the railway system. A lot of passengers on the train are used to the fraud. They no longer obtain tickets since it’s cheaper and easier without tickets. The task force truly works in connivance with the checkers as nobody questioned the obvious corruption in the train. They therefore are possibly working towards the same agenda.
However, a functional railway system would help decongest the roads and aid the successful movement of goods and services, most importantly petroleum products from the ports to other parts of the country.
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