Residents pay premium bus fare as rail system stagnates

On July 12, 2018, the then President Muhammadu Buhari commissioned the multibillion-naira Abuja Rail Mass Transit. Since then, the $824 million project, also known as the Abuja Light Rail, has not functioned.

It has been abandoned by the government, becoming a typical Nigerian white elephant project that sucks in billions of naira and produces no value – a dazzling monument to government waste and corruption.

The project was originally conceived to resolve the recurring transportation challenges in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and its adjoining towns and cities.

It was beautiful in concept but horrid in its implementation.

The objective, noted Roland Atugba of Bethlehem Rail Infrastructure Limited, was “to create a transit system that meets with the highest standards of excellence which harnesses efficient operations and best management practices of the private sector, fundamentally, to ensure that Abuja is an excellent place to live and work, a capital city in which Nigerians would be proud of and projects Nigeria’s status as Africa’s giant and economic powerhouse.”

“Now as with a lot of projects in Nigeria, the concept looks great on paper but when we come to delivery, things head south into incoherence and disappointmen,” he said.

Proposed to cover a total distance of 290km, Abuja Rail Mass Transit was to be developed in six phases or lots. It was also expected to generate revenue for Nigeria’s government. It isn’t however.

After its launch, the Metro Line commenced a three-trains-per-day service opened for passengers the following week.

According to an online source, the 42.5km (26.4 mi) first phase has two lines and 12 stations but on opening, only the section between Abuja Metro Station and the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport was operational, with an intermediate station at the Abuja-Kaduna Railway station in Idu. The remaining stations were originally scheduled to begin operations in 2020, but haven’t.

The rolling stock used for the line consisted of only three diesel rail coaches initially. Three more were scheduled to be delivered in mid-2020.

From the opening, the rail line operated on a significantly reduced timetable compared to other worldwide light rail systems, three daily departures from Idu to Abuja Metro Station, with two running the full length to the airport, on weekdays only.

In early 2020, passenger service on the line was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and till date has not resumed.

Meanwhile, the loan taken to fund the abandoned light rail project is already being paid, even though the project has been abandoned. Repayment of the China EXIM Bank loan commenced in early 2020, according to records from the country’s Debt Management Office.

In August 2022, Nigeria’s federal government announced it had awarded N718.19 million worth of contracts to two companies to secure the non-functioning Abuja rail tracks and stations.

As the well-funded project lies idle, residents of the FCT are forced to spend a large chunk of their income on more expensive means of transportation including taxis and buses.

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Workers who have to convey themselves from the suburbs like Gwagwalada, Kuje, Kubwa, Mararraba-Nyaya, and Bwarri to the city centre have to rely on commercial buses and cabs to transit from their home to their workplaces.

This has placed a heavy burden on commuters who are forced to pay exorbitant fares – fares they can ill-afford to pay at the moment.

Transport fares and prices of essential goods and services have shot up significantly across the country since President Bola Tinubu announced an end to petrol subsidy in late May.

With no light rail and few public transportation modes in the capital city, many private vehicle owners who are workers have become ad-hoc cab drivers picking and dropping passengers along the way before getting to their places of work.