The Nigeria-Niger Republic railway project may be at risk after the rupture of the diplomatic ties between Nigeria and Niger following the July 26 coup in which President Muhammed Bazoum was ousted from office by military officers led by Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani.
This came as over 1,000 trucks conveying goods worth over N350m to Nigeria other West African nations have remained trapped at the borders for over one week following the closure of the respective gateways to the two neighbouring countries.
The Federal Government and the Nigerien junta had ordered the immediate closure of all land borders between the two countries after the political development in the landlocked country.
In 2021, the Federal Government revealed its plan to construct a 284km rail line to the Niger Republic.
According to the former minister of transport, Rotimi Amaechi, the project will cost the country about $2bn and would be funded by Nigeria through loans from external sources.
Earlier in March, the Muhammadu Buhari administration agreed to release an additional N454bn in public funds to continue the construction of the Kano-Niger Railway and other capital projects.
According to the former transportation minister, the N454bn would be used to purchase rolling stock, operation and maintenance equipment for the Kano-Maradi standard gauge rail line, which is currently under construction.
The sum also includes N510.93m for the purchase of four customised fire service/search and rescue vans for seaports in Port Harcourt, Lagos Port Complex, Tin Can Island port, and the Nigerian Ports Authority’s Marina headquarters.
The 248-kilometre rail line will connect Kano to other cities such as Kazaure in Bauchi State, Daura and Mashi in Katsina state, Dutse in Jigawa state, and the border town of Jibia before terminating in Maradi, Niger Republic’s trade and agricultural hub.
The line has 15 stations along its route and is expected to carry 9,364 passengers and 3000 metric tonnes of cargo per day.
The contract was awarded to MSSRS Mota-Engil Nigeria Limited for $984,722,302, which was inclusive of seven and a half per cent VAT with a completion period of four years.
However, the project met with opposition, particularly from lawmakers.
The proposed rail project was criticised by the National Assembly joint committee on land and marine transport in November 2021.
In June 2021, Buhari defended his government’s initiative to build a railway to connect Nigeria and Niger Republic during an exclusive interview on Arise TV.
He said, “I have first cousins in Niger. There are Kanuris, there are Hausas and there are Fulanis in Niger Republic, just as there are Yorubas in Benin Republic.
“You can’t absolutely cut them off. But the rail, look at the plan. If you read the plan, how we are rehabilitating that rail. Niger, they discovered oil too as you know and we don’t want to allow them to go through Benin Republic. We want them to come through Nigeria.
“We hope they will decide when we take the rail up to Maradi. Then they will send all their exports and so on through Nigeria rather than through Benin.”
Recently, Mota-Engil Nigeria Limited stated the 400km railway line would be completed by 2025.
Speaking to journalists while taking delivery of the over $200m heavy-duty equipment to be deployed for the rail project, the company’s Logistics Manager, Mr. Nuno Colaço, disclosed that the construction of the rail project has commenced even as over 300 Nigerians have been employed with a projection to hit 100,000 at the peak of the project.
“We partnered with Shoreline in 2018 to start investing in the country. We have been awarded the Kano-Maradi railway project, which is an investment of $2bn and 400 kilometres coming from Dutse all the way to Maradi in Niger Republic. We had to buy a lot of equipment and we believe in state-of-the-art equipment and brand new equipment,” he said.
However, following the coup, Nigeria cut electricity to the Niger Republic as a result of the sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States.
Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, depends on Nigeria for 70 percent of its power.
In response, the military junta cut off ties with Nigeria, France, and other countries, after the delegates sent by the ECOWAS failed to convince the coup leaders to reinstate Bazoum to office.
Last week, the World Bank became the latest international organisation to announce it was suspending aid to Niger “other than private sector partnerships.”
Meanwhile, as the military leaders continued to dig in, trans-border traders have said that about 60 per cent of Nigeria-bound goods were trapped at the different sections of the borders within the region.
In a bid to force the junta to restore democracy, the Economic Community of West Africa Countries led by President Bola Tinubu had ordered the closure of all borders shared by member states with the Niger Republic.
Nigeria had closed the four borders with Niger-Kamba borders, Ilela, Jibia and Maitakari borders.
Giving an update on the situation on Monday, the President of the Trans-Border Traders Association, Nasiru Salami, said over N350m worth of goods were currently rotting away at the borders to Nigeria.
He explained that just three days after the coup took place, over 100 trucks loaded with onions and other agricultural products heading to Nigeria and other West African countries were trapped at the borders.
Salami stated, “Three days after the coup took place, over 100 trucks carrying onions and other agricultural products were trapped. Currently, the trucks trapped there are running into thousands. And a truck of onions containing about 300 bags worth around N3.5m is for onions alone.
‘’So, if you multiply it by say the 1000 trucks you will find out that about N350m worth of agricultural goods are rotting away there and 60 per cent of these products are coming to Nigeria. And remember that 300 bags of onions in one truck belong to 20 traders. And if that problem is not resolved it means those traders would be out of business because onions are perishable goods.’’
He added, “So, I may not be able to give you the number of trucks trapped so far but I can assure you that it runs into thousands of trucks carrying agricultural products trapped at the Niger-Republic borders that are going to different West Africa countries including Nigeria.
‘’So, I feel the government can assist poor people and see how that can help us. We know it is illegal to plan a coup but it is important that our people should know what is happening now and assist us.”
Salami urged the ECOWAS to have mercy on over 2,000 petty traders who are currently on the verge of losing their goods to the border closure.
“This problem will create a lot of economic challenges between the West African countries because when you talk of trade facilitation, some of the goods go to Niger and some to the northern part of Nigeria. So, the ECOWAS commission should please assist us.
‘’The poor women who have the onions in the trucks are the people suffering. We are only begging ECOWAS to assist us. When the border was closed, what I have done so far was to visit two important borders. Today, those who are suffering are petty traders, not those in power. Those who are in power do not have a problem.” he explained.
“The poor are suffering because of the coup, we have agreed they have seized the accounts that they are using. They can’t do any financial transactions between the 15 countries and they have also banned export and import within these countries which is not good,” he maintained.
As the prospect of military intervention increases following the expiration of the seven-day ultimatum issued by ECOWAS to the military junta, the Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has rejected external military intervention in the troubled nation.
“A military intervention could ignite the whole Sahel region and Algeria will not use force with its neighbors,” Tabboune said in an interview with local media on Saturday.
The Algerian leader insisted that no solution was possible without the involvement of his country which he said was concerned by the political situation in Niger
“No solution is possible in Niger without the participation of Algeria, as it is concerned by what is happening in this neighbouring country. Algeria is willing to help the Nigeriens restore constitutional legitimacy,’’ he assured.
In the meantime, the Chairman of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of the ECOWAS, President Tinubu, has convened another Extraordinary Summit of the Authority on the political situation in the Republic of Niger.
The summit will be held in Abuja, on Thursday, a statement published on the website of the West African regional bloc on Monday said.
“The ECOWAS leaders will be considering and discussing the political situation and recent developments in Niger during the summit,” it noted.
The junta had on Sunday closed the country’s airspace, warning that any attempt to violate it would meet with “an energetic and immediate response.”
“Faced with the threat of intervention, which is becoming clearer through the preparation of neighbouring countries, Niger’s airspace is closed from this day on Sunday… for all aircraft until further notice,” the country’s new rulers said in a statement.
In the light of the closure of the Nigerien airspace and the expected impact on the aviation sector, stakeholders have said intending travellers should brace for airfares hike and flight delays.
They also said the development might lead to more losses for carriers.
Speaking with one of our correspondents on the matter in Abuja, the Chief Executive Officer, Finchglow Holdings Limited,Bernard Bankole, said airlines would need to navigate through alternative routes to mitigate any delays caused by the airspace closure.
He said, ”It has no impact at all on the travellers, the journey is just going to be a bit longer. It is part of what we consider as operational hazards. When they say something is operational, do you now start making your clients pay for it? No, the airlines are just going to take it. They can’t just be changing fares because there is an operational hazard, they are just going to navigate through another end.”
Similarly, the CEO of Westlinks Airlines, Ibrahim Captain Misheila, highlighted that as a result of the airspace closure, all airlines flying through Niger’s airspace would need to carry almost two hours of additional fuel, adding that with Sudanese airspace closed as well, airlines overflying Africa would face a tough situation.
He said, “The closure of the Sudanese airspace is already stretching the operational costs of flights crossing our airspace from the Middle East to South America and back. The effects of war might run some airlines out of operation with Mali and other countries threatening to join Niger.
“Europe to destinations in the West African States from Lome eastwards covering Benin and destinations in entire Nigeria will have increased flight times based on the current airways available. Particularly coming to Nigeria will be toughest if that airspace is closed.”
The CEO of Centurion Security, Group Capt John Ojikutu, expressed concerns regarding the closure of the Nigerien airspace and its impact on flights destined for North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.
He said, “It will add to the flying time on each route by about an hour or two and therefore the fuel consumption and other operational costs including ATC navigational costs.”
Meanwhile, Atedo Peterside, Nigerian entrepreneur, investment banker, and economist, has said Niger Republic airspace closure will bring further hardship to Nigerians, especially those who intend to travel to Europe.
In a post on his social media page, Peterside noted that the case may be worsened if Burkina Faso or Mali joined Niger in declining over-flight rights to Nigerian-bound aircraft.
He wrote, “Closure of Niger Republic airspace will increase the cost of flights from Nigeria to Europe. If Burkina Faso and/ or Mali join Niger in declining over-flight rights to Nigerian-bound aircraft, then inbound and outbound flights from Nigeria to Europe will become very expensive.”
In furtherance of its opposition to the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Niger, the French government has announced that it was suspending financial assistance to Burkina Faso over the West African nation’s position on the coup in Niger Republic.
The decision to halt financial support to Burkina Faso comes a few days after the ruling juntas in Burkina Faso and Mali declared their support for Niger’s coup leaders and threatened to treat any armed intervention against Niamey’s new military leadership as a declaration of war.
This was as Air France announced on Monday that it had suspended flights to and from Burkina Faso and Mali until August 11, following the closure of Niger’s airspace.
“France suspends, until further notice, all its development aid and budget support actions in Burkina Faso,” the French government said in a terse statement.
In a related development, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzakky has warned the Federal Government against leading an attack on Niger over a successful coup which brought in a new government saying “they are our brothers.”
According to him, it was very shocking that France and the United States ‘’wanted to use Nigeria to attack Niger.’’
A statement issued on Monday by the media office of IMN said El-Zakzakky stated this while addressing a group of Qur’an reciters who visited him in his Abuja residence.
He said, “The cultural ties that Niger and Nigeria share are closer than people imagine. We are twin brothers, sharing the same roots and values. I hope this is clear. They are our brothers, since the hometown of our founding father is located in their country. It is unimaginable that we would one day end up fighting against each other. It is shocking that these ruthless people want to use this country to attack our brothers, just to engage in fratricidal genocide, right?”
“All of a sudden, France and the US want to use Nigeria to attack Niger. This is very shocking given the fact that Nigeria and Niger are one people. Even if Southern Nigeria does not see it that way, we, in Northern Nigeria had empires founded by Shehu Usman Danfodio and Kanem Borno. It was the territories of such empires that were carved out to create Niger and Nigeria.’’