Sleaze on rails, By Wole Olaoye


Reading Time: 5 mins read

Nigerian corruption is aeroamphibious. It permeates the air, land and sea. 

The other day, when it was reported that an aircraft was — mercifully— grounded because its tank was laden with a mixture of aviation fuel and water, nobody laughed. I can swear to that because the usual “happiest people on earth” who cobble online jokes out of every disaster were, for once, dumbfounded. They didn’t want to imagine what could have happened if that plane had taken to the skies. There are some things you can’t joke about. 

Contrast that with the hilarity that attended the posting of a photograph of an Aero Contractors Boeing 737 aircraft disembarking passengers in Bauchi in December 2015, with the aid of a LADDER, because the motorised staircase was reportedly ‘unserviceable’. Yes, the same good old ladder defined by Britannica Dictionary as “a device used for climbing that has two long pieces of wood, metal, or rope with a series of steps or rungs between them”. 

I am still trying to verify if the Guinness Book of World Records has anything close to that feat. The authorities threatened hail and brimstone, but as usual the issue was overtaken by more urgent existential tragedies elsewhere, and we simply moved on. Someday soon, one of my compatriots is going to climb a ladder to heaven!

Our aviation sector has its fair share of carcasses in the netherworld, starting from Nigeria Airways and scores of private airlines that have bitten the dust. We have made a tourism spectacle of so many disused aero-carcasses littering sections of our airports which ought, really, to be redesignated as ‘air cemeteries’. One word that is a recurring decimal in any serious diagnosis of the problem of the aviation sector: corruption.

Having said that, however, air travel is still the safest mode of journeying in Nigeria. Many of the major interstate highways have regressed to the state of nature and road travel has become a high risk expedition. If the craters, gullies and muddy lava don’t do you in, the wide assortment of terrorists, ‘ungun knownmen’, bandits and kidnappers who are looking out to have a good day in the office, will.

I did listen to Works Minister Dave Umahi, the other day, lamenting the humongous cost of projects he inherited. He insisted that he would not append his signature to any deal which appeared to have shortchanged Nigeria. The minister is rightly reiterating the same thing that Nigerians have been saying on social media for a long time. If we have truly spent trillions of naira on road construction in the last eight years, where are the roads? The same question can be asked of state and local governments. 

As corruption had dogged both the aviation and road sectors, the hope of Nigerians, when the immediate past administration pursued the rail programme started by the Jonathan government, was that, for once, the rejuvenated service would be run professionally so that there could, at least, be one means of transport that is reliable and safe. Alas, corruption has, again, attached its own coaches to the engine, and is sharing the takings at the till with the government.

I witnessed the scam going on in the railway sector last year, on a trip between Abuja and Kaduna. To begin with, a racketeering group controlled the (especially first class) tickets. The cartel warehoused the tickets and sold the premium seats at a 300 per cent profit. It was robbery in plain sight. And the surprise of the scandalous situation was that even senior government officials and legislators patronised the touts, while commoners queued at the ticket booths to buy their economy tickets.

Having experienced the shameful situation, I advocated for online ticketing and the removal of touts from the railway stations. As always, no one in authority could be bothered. Considering that the rail infrastructure was procured with huge loans from the Chinese government, which had to be paid back, I wondered how the government could ever hope to break even, talk less of making a profit, if the open thieving going on at the stations was allowed to continue.

Just last week, an outraged passenger who was witnessing the sleaze going on at the railways took to social media to give a detailed account of the organised thievery he witnessed at the Obafemi Awolowo Train Station, Ibadan. Her video narrative went so viral that it was sent to me 17 times via various sources.

Travelling in a party of five, she was accosted by a uniformed railway official who chaperoned her group to the screening point, ignoring her protestations that she needed to buy tickets first. The crook told them that the tickets would be available before boarding but that they should go through the security check first. He then handed them over to a lady accomplice who took them to Coach 7. 

The crooks played hide-and-seek with our narrator for long enough to eat up the whole time until the train left the station. Then, an official showed up to announce that the passengers were to pay cash. In all, the lady estimated that there were more than 60 people in her coach and each paid N3,000 cash to the official rogues.

The Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) has since suspended some of the workers it identified. The organisation issued a press statement: 

“Following a viral video that has been trending on various social media platforms, vividly showing Railway workers negotiating with our esteemed passengers onboard Lagos-Ibadan Train Service (LITS) to pay without obtaining official boarding tickets, the general public is invited to note that the NRC seriously condemns such acts of misconduct which is a flagrant disobedience to laid down rules and utter betrayal of the confidence reposed on such workers, especially at this time that the Federal Government is making all efforts to revitalise and modernising the Corporation.

“This misconduct is regrettable and unacceptable as it negates the tenets and norms of the Corporation. The Corporation has therefore placed the identified erring officers on immediate suspension pending the outcome of the in-depth investigation already ongoing by the management committee set up to look into the issue.”

We’ve heard such ‘official lingo’ before! It is usually done to buy time. Corruption is so intricately woven into the fabric of many government agencies that the best way to solve the problem is to limit the government’s role to regulation, not commercial operations. NRC ought to simply be the regulator of the rail sector, while the service is concessioned to private entities who can run it efficiently and profitably in such a way as to enable repayment of the Chinese loan.

If history is any guide, there is no magic wand that the management of NRC can wield to run the rail service efficiently and transparently. When we took our sleaze to the skies, we grounded Nigeria Airways; now the private sector fully runs the show, while the government regulates. Also, I hear that some major highways in the country are to be concessioned soon so that professional outfits can handle them on a Build, Operate and Transfer basis and collect tolls over a stipulated tenure. That is the way to go. 

And that is what we should do to arrest the entrenched sleaze in the railways.








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