By Ismail Hashim Abubakar
Few Nigerians will disagree with one popular Islamic cleric who lamented that Nigeria is a laboratory for experimenting all forms of nuisance and untoward dispositions which are not attuned to human norms of social relations at both bureaucratic and informal levels.
Perhaps if the late cleric who articulated this salvo would be raised from the grave to see what is going on in Nigeria, he would probably assume that his criticism of the country’s affairs was a mere child’s play and it is now that real vituperations against the state of affairs should be expressed.
The commencement of railway service to and from Abuja/Kaduna was meant to ease the hardship travellers along the road to these important destinations as citizens who were being subjected to by multilayered fears of armed robbery, kidnapping and other security challenges bedeviling Nigeria thought they now have an alternative. Though the railway project started during the Jonathan administration, it was completed, inaugurated and put into full operation during the early years of President Muhammad Buhari. Perhaps this explains why some Nigerians tend to passively ascribe this development as one of the achievements of the Buhari government.
Meanwhile, as security issues are daily worsening in the country, patronage of the railway service kept on increasing, so much so that some travellers feel that joining the train is the only safe option available for those who cannot afford air tickets for their frequent journeys to and from Abuja to Kaduna. Civil servants working at different ministries and parastatals in the FCT are in the forefront among the regular patrons of the railways and those who used to spend weeks without visiting their families now no longer find it infeasible to go back home every weekend.
Despite the fact that cars and buses still operate along the dreaded Kaduna-Abuja road, many people say that motoring that road is no longer advisable. Whatever the case may be, the train service has become a more attractive option and it seems to, more or less, allay the fears of those who see road travel as highly risky. It was likely in this context that one top government official was said to have replied to the travellers who complained about the exorbitant ticket price that it was still better to pay the high amount than to risk abduction!
Now that patronage of the railway service is rapidly increasing, fears and anxieties cannot yet be said to be completely absent. Beside the rumour that the train was once unsuccessfully shot at by unknown gunmen, recent reports of exchange of gunfire between security men and suspected kidnappers/armed robbers on the way to Rigasa Terminal in Kaduna State undergird the ambivalence surrounding the neglect of roads in favour of railroads. Can Nigeria afford to put all her eggs in one basket?
But the threats triggering the anxieties of travellers are not only caused by precarious security situations; officials and workers involved in managing the railway institution and administering the sales of tickets to prospective passengers contribute chiefly to the growing tribulations faced by travellers.
A traveller can now leave Maiduguri or Yobe and escape the traps of insurgents and evade the snares of kidnappers, with the aim of catching the train at the Rigasa Terminal, but be thrown in greater fear of impossibility of accessing ticket even if he happens to be among the first 100 passengers waiting on queue.
The train has more than 10 coaches, with each having the capacity for 80 passengers. Even on busy days like Sundays, Mondays and Fridays, passengers waiting on queues to buy tickets experience untold hardships spending hours without being able to get the tickets. When ticket issuing officers begin their sales, it is only a few passengers on the queues that can get it, while the black-market sale of the tickets operates openly. In broad daylight, officials and their cronies freely bypass queues and hoard huge bundles of tickets for resale at ultra-expensive prices. Before one can say Jack Robinson, one can hear announcement that tickets have finished, not minding the hours passengers have spent sweating despondently on queues.
While waiting on the queue on a particular day, I experienced first-hand the despair of the tickets-have-finished announcement. However, while the engine of the train was revving as its way of telling everyone that it was about to take off, a tall, dark-complexioned man waved to me. He asked if I was alone and I answered in the affirmative. He led me to the departure lounge after which he quickly handed a ticket to me and instructed me to pay “just N5, 000!”.
I declined, giving him back his ticket, only for him to inquire how much I was willing to pay. I told him point-blank that I was going to pay the amount written on the ticket, which was N2,600. I refused this offer, not because I was convinced my action would contribute to bring sanity to the corruption galore that has become a normal culture in the railway sector, but because I preferred to wait for the next schedule since I did not have an urgent assignment on that Sunday.
The initial price of ordinary ticket was N1,300. But as a protocol to ensure social distancing inside the train, the price was hiked to N2, 600 to guarantee respectable distance between passengers. While passengers buy tickets at double the amount, in most cases, the social distancing protocol is observed in the breach and the seats expected to be unused are also marketed and sold to desperate travellers. The tactic is to ensure that those who are on the queues but could not get tickets at the regular price are compelled to, at dying minutes, to negotiate their ways into the train through the facilitation of greedy railway agents.
Nigerians including the leaders who travel outside this country are aware that accessing ticket to travel by train is never a big deal. Passengers in other climes usually book and pay for tickets online and those preferring to buy the tickets manually do not have to suffer on the queues before they get tickets. In countries like Morocco, a prospective passenger can buy ticket at any hour of the day and can manually or electronically, book for his or her journey a week ahead. Instead of one to think of any rise in price, in Morocco, paradoxically, passengers get 50% discount if they buy tickets three days or something like that ahead of their journeys. Nothing like hoarding of tickets ever exists and the presence of railway staff is only meant to accredit genuine passengers and facilitate smooth accessing of locations and specific directions in the railway terminal. This same atmosphere is found almost everywhere in the world with the shameful exception of Nigeria. Nigerans are at liberty to interpret the refusal to automate the accessibility of tickets and the insistence to maintain the status quo as one of the ways through which leaders derive pleasure from the suffering of their subjects.
Abubakar (email@example.com) wrote from Kano.