By William Clowes
In July 2018, Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria at the time, boarded a gleaming new train linking the capital city, Abuja, with its airport. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Buhari hailed the system as “evidence that we are a government that delivers on its promises.”
Five years on, that promise looks empty. Train cars are locked away at a depot. Cavernous stations fully equipped with escalators, ticket offices, cameras and scanners stand empty, overseen by bored security guards. The faux leather couches in the VIP area are covered in bird and bat droppings. “It’s an abandoned project,” says Rowland Ataguba, an adviser to the government on rail strategy. “Quite clearly there was no plan on how to run the operations before they built it.”
The $823 million Abuja Light Rail—the first of its kind in West Africa—was closed in March 2020, ostensibly to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Since then, it’s remained shuttered, and there’s been scant progress toward a resumption of service on the 27-kilometer (17-mile) line. Meanwhile, Nigeria is spending $50 million a year paying down the project’s $500 million in loans from the Export-Import Bank of China. “The current situation is a mystery for the next minister to unravel,” says Nasir El-Rufai, who as minister in charge of the capital area signed the contract to build the railway 16 years ago.
The idea was to reduce congestion, helping the city avoid the polluted, traffic-clogged fate of the country’s commercial hub, Lagos—the capital until Abuja, a city newly carved out of the savannah in central Nigeria, opened for business in 1991. From the time planning started in the 1970s, Abuja was always meant to have urban rail, but it wasn’t until 2007 that China Civil Engineering Construction Corp. won the contract for the first leg, and it took another half-decade for the government to secure sufficient funding.
*_“The line basically avoided where people are, where people live, where people go”_*
The line was intended to be the first of a half dozen in a 290-kilometer network that would connect the city to the satellite towns where many workers live. Instead, it’s become a lesson in how not to create a mass transit system, says Mohamed Lawal Shaibu of Envicons Teams Ltd., an urban planning consultant in Abuja. The problem, Shaibu says, is that the train serves areas with little demand. “It has been very terribly executed,” he says. “The line basically avoided where people are, where people live, where people go.”
At one end lies the airport, a place where most people who can afford to fly typically arrive by car. At the other end is an isolated area of the so-called Central Business District, where the road in front of the station is more often filled with herders driving cattle to grazing land than anyone headed to or from work. Out back is scrubland where people fleeing violence in the north of the country have built shacks. An additional 18 kilometers of track was built toward the suburbs but never saw any service.
The first section was conceived about two decades ago as an airport link to bolster the capital’s bid to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games. But after Abuja lost out to Glasgow, local officials stuck with the plan rather than adapting it to create a system that might better serve residents, according to Tonami Playman, an independent researcher who studies African public transport. “Politicians just want something to ribbon-cut and don’t care what kind of utility the infrastructure will provide,” he says.
During the 20 months the line was open, a maximum of four trains a day made the 40-minute trip between the city and the airport in each direction, making just one stop in between while breezing through five other stations. The system failed because it was “neither a high occupancy nor a high frequency service,” according to a report prepared for Japan’s development agency in 2019, which estimated daily ridership at fewer than 1,000 passengers, compared with a forecast of 34,000.
Mohammed Bello, the minister who ran the capital area under Buhari, said in October that he was working “toward the imminent resumption of operations.” That didn’t happen. Bello left his post in May when Buhari retired, and the newly elected president, Bola Tinubu, waited until Aug. 16 to name a successor. Neither Tinubu’s office nor the capital administration replied to questions about the railway.
The new minister in charge of the capital region, Nyesom Wike, on Aug. 23 toured the line and vowed that trains would be back on track within eight months. And the city has signed a $6.6 million deal with the Chinese construction company to complete repairs. The project’s defenders say once the system starts running at full throttle—whenever that might be—it will boost development along the route, and starting with a line through more densely populated areas would have been more expensive.
The main reason for the ongoing closure is damage suffered during the shutdown, according to the state-owned company appointed to run the system in May. A project manager involved in the railway says thieves have stolen crucial equipment such as communications cables, copper wiring and signaling gear, and repairing or replacing that will take at least six months once work begins.
The plan is to integrate the train with a revamped public bus service that will ferry passengers from stations to their final destinations. Until then, though, the 3.8 million residents of the fast-growing city, and millions more who live nearby, are left with few options beyond the thousands of rickety shared taxis and minibuses that ply the streets and highways.
Nigeria is notorious for grand infrastructure projects that are ill-conceived, never completed or quickly abandoned. The Ajaokuta steel mill, for instance, has swallowed $7 billion since the 1970s without ever producing a sheet, rod or coil. The government has committed billions of dollars to restoring four oil refineries that have barely produced any fuel in more than a decade. And just a couple of miles from the train’s city terminus, the 170-meter-tall Millennium Tower—intended to be a cultural complex topped with a revolving restaurant—remains unfinished 17 years after construction began.
Any significant further investment in the rail project in the near term, either providing the needed subsidies for the existing line or constructing the next one, remains unlikely. Nigeria’s government spent almost all its revenue last year on debt service, and going back to Chinese lenders is getting increasingly difficult, as the government and banks there become less generous in the face of growing domestic challenges. Six years ago the Abuja administration awarded China Civil Engineering a $1.5 billion deal to build the second phase of the train system, intended to serve busier areas, but adequate funding has yet to be lined up, leaving the project in deep freeze. “Signing a contract is one thing,” says Najeeb Abdussalam, head of the city’s public transit agency. “Raising the money is another.”