By Sam Adzegeh –
Even as the federal government continues to expend billions of Naira in efforts to repair the railway system, a vital backbone to the nation’s economy, such efforts continue to be sabotaged by deliberate activities of individuals in certain parts of the country.
Sadly however, part of the blame for this unfortunate state of affairs falls squarely on the federal government through its careless attitude to projects as well as harsh and unfriendly economic policies which have negatively impacted on its citizens over the years.
Long years of neglect of the rail system as well as poverty of Nigerians occasioned by harsh economic policies have exposed the rail system in the country to widespread vandalization by thieves and desperate scavengers looking to eke out a living through whatever means possible.
In Makurdi, the Benue State capital, for instance, investigations have revealed that these have led to the almost total destruction of the rail line, a development which has currently cut off the rail link between the northern and southern parts of the country. In addition, residents of some communities along the railway line were forced to punch large holes directly under the railway line which runs through Makurdi and leads to the Eastern part of the country.
This happened because the federal government abandoned a strategic drainage canal it started in the Benue State capital some years ago.
The exit of the state through the Eastern axis along the Makurdi – Naka – Aliade highway passes through a vast and heavily populated area which is fadama land and prone to heavy floods which occur annually, usually bringing in their wake large scale destruction of farms, houses and other property; it is a yearly source of much grief to the generally poor inhabitants of the several settlements located on the outskirts of Makurdi along that axis. Settlements like Agber, Iorbee, Kighir Village, Adeke and several others are usually worst hit by these flash floods. Most of these villages are located alongside the north – east railway line.
Following prolonged hue and cry over the perennial destruction by floods in these areas, the federal government was moved to award a contract for the construction of a gigantic drainage carnal cutting across the State capital from the Wurukum part of town, through High Level and the settlements under discussion. The canal was supposed to cut right across the federal highway leading to Naka, Aliade and further to Otukpo and the Eastern part of Nigeria.
However, the concrete canal, contract for which was awarded by the Federal Ministry of Water Resources sometime in 2018/2019, was abandoned in a village called Ghana, located just beside and before the railway line leading to Naka. It was gathered that irreconcilable differences between the Nigerian Railway Corporation and the Federal Ministry of Water Resources over jurisdictional authority over the rail line led to the project being left untouched. This phase of the contract was thus deemed completed and was therefore commissioned.
Though dredging of the canal continued on the other side of the rail line and ran behind Agber Village, the construction of the concrete walls was left undone. It remains abandoned to this moment.
The torrential rainfalls of 2019 resulted in large bodies of flood waters which completely submerged the railway line. Damned in by the inadequacy of the twin tunnels under there line, the rampaging waters flooded and almost washed away half of Ghana and Agber settlements. Luckily however, while extensive damage was done to farmland and hundreds of residential houses were washed away, no lives were reported lost in the carnage that year.
Several efforts by hapless residents of the area to draw government’s attention to the disaster and pleas that the abandoned canal be completed to forestall further similar occurrence went unheeded.
As it is, the rail line runs over the yawning space of the excavation.
An even more potentially dangerous situation exists a few kilometres further down the same railway line heading eastwards towards Otukpo and Enugu where long stretches of railway tracks have been forcefully uprooted from their moorings and carted away by what appears to be a well-organized syndicate which operations appear to traverse and even go beyond Nigeria.
A visit by this reporter to the area revealed that the destruction begins at a settlement called Kighir village located beside the rail line on the outskirts of Makurdi where more than 15 kilometres of rail tracks have been forcefully removed and carted away. Similar stretches of the vandalization continue further down as one heads towards Otukpo.
Investigations further showed that the vandalization is carried out mostly by jobless and frustrated youth of the area who sell the heavy metal to merchants who readily buy them from them. It was discovered that the merchants who come from the northern and southern parts of the country, commission their agents who buy the rail lines from the youth.
It is a common sight to usually observe pockets of youth sitting on the rail line in the day time mostly in deserted areas, seemingly whiling away their idleness chatting to one another. What is actually going on is however a well-orchestrated operation multi million naira operation.
While appearing to be merely chatting to one another, these youth pour lubricating chemicals on the thick bolts and noughts that firmly hold the rails to their moorings. Through the day, the usually fierce Makurdi sun and the corrosive effects of the lubricating substances combine to loosen the bolts and nuts. These youth return later at night, well-armed with screw drivers and other implements to loosen the nuts and cart off both the iron cross beams, the rail tracks as well as the thick wooden moorings. They neatly stack these in barely hidden places and wait for buyers who arrive with heavy duty vehicle; loading is usually done between midnight and three o’clock in the morning and the heavily laden vehicles then depart the settlement and Makurdi for destinations in other States.
It is a carefully protected business which sustains a large part of the impoverished peasant Benue population living in villages along the Makurdi – Otukpo railway line.
When this reporter visited the area at high noon recently, he observed groups of wild-eyed youth loitering under tree shades in several locations, openly consuming copious quantities of ‘ogogoro’, several already obviously high on the stuff as well as other intoxicating substances, their very alert eyes suspiciously securitizing every strange looking individual.
The reporter observed tens of removed rail tracks carefully stacked beside round huts in at least two places, obviously awaiting the arrival of buyers.
Some residents confided to the reporter that the business thrives because of the ‘huge’ profits, collusion of some unscrupulous security personnel as well as intimidation by youth and even some elders and community leaders who profit from it.
The reporter was told that one police officer resident in the area had once attempted to stop one of these midnight operations by confronting the thieves and shooting in the air to scare them off. A week later, his house was razed to the ground. Luckily, no life was lost in the inferno!
He has since relocated with his family.
The traditional ruler of the area, a taciturn elderly gentleman who was obviously scared to speak on the development, simply referred the reporter to police authorities.
“I have nothing to say on this matter,” he told the reporter. “You can go and talk to the police at the Railway Police Station. The railway is not under our authority,” he concluded, obviously in a hurry to see the reporter go.
Palpable fear, hostility and apprehension perpetually hover over the environment, especially when the subject is broached. One beer parlour operator told the reporter that persons who appear to take too much interest in the railway business usually received threats of midnight visits by some faceless youth.
He explained that youth of the area consider the rails as their own share of the national cake and are openly hostile to and violently confront any elders who oppose their operations.
Reasonable residents are thus vowed to forced silence.
It was gathered that a full length of rail line measuring about eight feet usually goes for between N20,000 and N25,000, depending on one’s bargaining power. The iron cross beams, bolts, knots and thick wooden slats are all sold off for varying amounts of money.
To the abandoned and impoverished Benue rural folk, bearing the full brunt of the State government’s neglect of an economy now suffering from long months of unpaid salaries, pensions and other allowances, it is a lot of money and could well mark the difference between life and death or one’s child being in or out of school.
As one young man, glass of ‘ogogoro’ in hand, told this reporter, “Or vesen, tso se er ne na?” (Senior, what else do we do?).
His words sum up the deep-felt frustrations of millions of Benue people residing in rural areas as well as others stranded in internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps. These are the groups of people about whom the State’s Governor Samuel Ortom recently spoke about who he said have been forced by prolonged Fulani attacks to resort to shameful acts of stealing to survive. Some may add that his own failures in government have not helped the situation either.
Officers at the Railway Station Police post said they were not competent to speak on the matter and rather directed the reporter to the Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO) of the Benue State Command, who was unavoidably absent when this reporter visited.
The reporter however observed hundreds of railway tracks, thousands of sleepers as well as gas cylinders stacked in several places in the Railway station grounds including in buses and commercial tricycles.
Some personnel who spoke on conditions of anonymity disclosed that the goods were seized during operations from several persons operating along the Makurdi – Otukpo axis, and allowed that several of such persons were being prosecuted in courts across the State.
Several persons however advised community leaders to work closely with police authorities to uncover the syndicate behind the racket.