Unlike successive administrations in Nigeria since Independence who have proved not to be as farsighted, the British colonial administrators knew early on the role modern transportation was going to play in promoting and sustaining the expanding market economy that colonial Nigeria was fast becoming. Indeed, when Lord Frederick Lugard, in the wake of colonial rule, stated that “the material development of Africa may be summed up in one word – Transport”, he merely echoed the sentiments of the colonial authorities.
With this conviction, therefore, the British colonialists turned first to the waterways, which formed the main traffic lines between the coast and the hinterland. The second port of call was the railway, described as “the White Hope of the 19th century” because of its proven capacity to transform traditional economies and societies in Europe and America. And then roads. But it was the railway which practically “rewrote the economic geography of Nigeria”, to quote Onwuka Njoku, eminent professor of African History at the University of Nigeria Nsukka.
In his Economic History of Nigeria 19th and 20th Centuries, Njoku amply demonstrates the “considerable”, and sometimes “revolutionary”, impact of rail transport on the colonial economy of Nigeria.
In Njoku’s account, the earliest railway line running from Lagos into the Yoruba hinterland was to begin from Ebute Metta and run through Abeokuta-Ilaro. Construction work on the line commenced at Iddo in 1898, got to Ibadan by 1901, and from there to Jebba on the Niger in 1909. The line advanced to Kano in 1911, and the Lagos-Kano route was opened to traffic on January 1, 1912. Subsequently, a permanent bridge across the Niger was constructed and opened to traffic in 1914.
At the same time, Lugard, who was at the time the governor of the Northern Provinces, in 1901 began construction of a rail line from Zungeru to Kaduna. This was followed in 1907 with another line from Baro on the Niger to Kano via Zungeru and Zaria, and in 1914 the Bauchi Light Railway to Bukuru (Jos Plateau) was constructed to serve the tin mines.
On the Eastern axis, the discovery of coal at Udi (Enugu) in 1909 necessitated the construction of an Eastern rail line, coal being of strategic importance to British economic interests. Construction work began from Port Harcourt in 1913, got to the coal mines in 1916, advanced northwards past Makurdi after World War I, and joined the Western line in Kaduna in 1926. A bridge was built across the Benue River at Makurdi in 1932.
During the interwar years (1919-1939), new lines were constructed and linked to the skeletal national grid (the Western and Eastern lines). These include Zaria-Kaura Namoda, Ifo-Idogo and the extension of the main line northeastwards to Nguru in 1930.
“The lines magnetised the European firms from the coast to the hinterland and this resulted in the emergence of chains of the firms’ trading depots on the lines. In the West, such depots appeared at Abeokuta, Ibadan, Oshogbo, Ilaro and Ilorin; in the North at Kano, Kaduna, Kafanchan and Jos; in the East at Port Harcourt, Aba, Umuahia, Uzuakoli, Enugu, Otukpo and Makurdi,” Njoku writes.
“These locations became immediately the focal points of trade and new frontiers of economic opportunities, attracting local traders from the immediate and more distant communities. It is instructive that most urban centres which emerged during colonial times were to be found on the railways.”
The railway equally dramatically stimulated export production, especially where it traversed areas far away from the waterways. In the Northern provinces, for instance, groundnut export exploded from mere trickles into a flood. “In Kano, the export of groundnuts shot up from 955 tons in 1910 to 8,910 in 1915, and then 127,226 in 1925. By 1960, the export had exceeded half a million tons a year.” The same feat was replicated with cocoa in Yorubaland and palm oil and kernels in the East.
“Up to the 1940s, the railway played a central role in passenger and freight traffic in Nigeria. In 1924-5, the year reliable railway data began to appear, the tonnage of goods increased from 560,000 to 1,002,000 in 1927-8. In 1937-8, when the Great Depression began to ease off, the tonnage was 1,201,000. Passenger traffic increased in 1924-5 from 1,923,000 to 3,851,000 in 1929-30, and then to 8,426,000 in 1936-7,” according to Njoku.
In terms of revenue generation, “the annual receipts of the railway show a steady increase: £2,077,000 in 1924-5; £2,178,000 in 1930-1; and £2,854,000 in 1937-8”.
In a recent news report, BusinessDay quoted economic analysts as saying that Nigeria may be losing as much as N500 billion yearly to dysfunctional commercial freight rail service linking Apapa in Lagos to other parts of the country. That may be insignificant compared to what the country is losing currently due to the inability of successive governments since Independence to maintain or expand on the railway lines left behind by the British colonialists. The Muhammadu Buhari administration has a chance to make a difference in this crucial subsector of the Nigerian economy.
PS: This article was first published in BusinessDay on Wednesday, July 1, 2015. It is republished here against the backdrop of recent discussions and developments in the country’s rail sector.