By Ismail Hashim Abubakar
Only a few among 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 all 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, on the Nigerian soil, 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 were being subjected to by multi-layered fears of armed robbery, kidnapping and other security challenges bedeviling Nigeria. 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 Buhari government.
Meanwhile, as security issues are daily worsening in the country, patronage to the railway service has kept on increasing, so much so that some travellers feel joining the train is the only safe option available for those who cannot afford to buy 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 patronizers of the railroad and those who used to spend weeks without visiting their families now no longer find it feasible to go back home at every weekend. Despite that cars and buses still operate along the dreaded Kaduna-Abuja road, many people insist that motoring on that road is not safely advisable. Whatever the case may be, the train is a tangible option and it seems to, more or less, allays the fears of those who decry that road travel is highly risky. It was likely in this context that one of the top government officials is 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 to the railway service is rapidly increasing, fears and anxieties cannot yet be said to be completely absent. Besides the unpublicized rumour that the train was once unsuccessfully shot at by an 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 neglecting ordinary 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 coach 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, only a few passengers on the queues can practically get it, while the crude market of the tickets operate openly. In a broad daylight, officials and their cronies freely bypass queues and hoard huge bundles of tickets for resales 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. I was one day waiting on the queue, despaired by the tickets-have-finished announcement, while the engine of the train was revving as its way of telling everyone that it was about to go, when a tall, dark-complexioned man waved at me.
When I looked at him, he asked me if I was alone and I answered in the affirmative. I then followed him until we reached the departure lounge. He quickly handed a ticket to me and instructed me to pay “just N5, 000!”. I declined by giving him back his ticket, but he further asked how much I was going 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 in 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 was not having an urgent assignment on the Sunday on which I was traveling.
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 (a doubled amount meant to guarantee respectable distance by reserving empty seats between passengers). While passengers buy tickets at the doubled amount, in most cases, the social distancing protocol is observed in the breach and the seats due to be unused are also marketed and sold to desperate travellers. The tactic is simply that those who are on the queues but could not get tickets at the regular price must be compelled to, at dying minutes, negotiate their ways into the train through the facilitation of greedy railway agents.
Nigerians including the leaders who travel outside this country are most aware that accessing ticket to travel by train has never been an issue of concern in other countries. 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 a shameful exception of Nigeria. Nigerians 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 writes from Kano, Nigeria
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