The train that got stuck

I LOVE trains. Remember those halcyon days when the trains in this country were really moving right on track. The crowded railway stations, the hooting of locomotives, the chuck chuck of the wheels on the tracks, etc., have an immense nostalgic value. And the ride across the country, with the train hurtling through the hamlets and villages, over narrow bridges, stopping once in a while to pick up passengers. It was lovely. Somehow, somewhere, all that stopped, gradually at first, until the trains reached a station from where they could no longer roll. Of course, once a while you hear the hooting of train passing somewhere, but it’s not like the old days. Big problems have made the Nigerian Railways Corporation to merely exist without offering its requisite service – the rolling trains conveying passengers and goods – the main purpose of its being. The problems are said to be due to corruption, negligence and misplacement of priorities.

Somehow, there is an uncanny comparison between the Nigerian trains and the Nigerian democracy. During the long interregnum of military rule (1983 – 1999) Nigerians had yearned for democratic rule. During the hey-days of the Abacha regime it was foolish to even hope for it; it was better to pretend or act for it. Many prayed for it. Many were hounded into exile because of it. Many, such as Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, were imprisoned on account of their struggle for it. Many even died for it. Then God intervened suddenly. He took away some of the characters that constituted a stumbling block in the path of the march to democracy. And democracy came on May 29 1999, with Chief Obasanjo, a former military head of state, as president. His inaugural speech is a document I still love to read. It, together with his initial actions, gave folks like me hope that a new nation would be built. The promises he and his lieutenants made were legion. After his natural demonisation of the Abacha regime, he vowed to fight corruption, restore confidence in government, alleviate poverty, resuscitate manufacturing industries, etc. He even promised to bring the railways back to glory, among other things. Water, electricity, petroleum supply, health care, security, etc., would be adequately catered for. He vowed to appoint only “good men and women of proven integrity and record of good performance” into his cabinet. Please go back and read that speech, the title of which was “A New Dawn.” You would then see that we have been living in a fool’s paradise these past eight years, imagining an Eldorado that is yet to materialise.

To be fair to the president, he didn’t underrate the task ahead of him. “The entire Nigerian scene is very bleak indeed. So bleak people ask me where do we begin? I know what great things you expect of me at this New Dawn. As I have said many times in my extensive travels in the country, I am not a miracle worker. It will be foolish to underrate the task ahead,” he said on that bright day at the Eagle Square, Abuja. The situation was grim. But Obasanjo was not let down by God or by Nigerians. To begin with, he was opportune to have at his disposal an unspeakable quantum of human and natural resources to use to take the country out of the woods. God also made it possible for him to retain power in 2003, thereby giving him chance to make amends where he made mistakes in the previous four years. But what happens? The last eight years have seen more noise than substance. A lot of the promises the president and state governors made have not been fulfilled. You might cite some road and water projects executed by your governor, for instance, but what happens to the vast sums of money collected by your administrator with the responsibility of making life better? Is quality of life better today than in 1999? Are the roads no longer full of potholes? Has insecurity reduced? Are Nigerian masses richer? Is potable water available everywhere? Is education more accessible and cheaper? Are electricity, fuel, medicine, food and shelter available as promised? What of the trains? Are they back in their glory?

The truth is that Nigeria is back to square one in its hope for progress under a democratic rule. There is more despondency and uncertainty among the citizenry. Worse, political violence is back with renewed ferocity reminiscent of the latter days of the first republic. The great hope ignited by the prospects of civil rule in 1999 has vanished. Governance has been reduced to a deadly Tom and Jerry game of personal vendetta and attrition. We are at the crossroads where almost every Nigerian wants Obasanjo to just go away under whatever form of arrangement in order to try and see another “dawn”. If the president had fulfilled his election promises, he would be greatly missed. The furious opposition to his bid for a third term was instructive. Now a ‘Obasanjo must go’ spirit has consumed the nation just like the ‘soldiers must go’ campaigns of the IBB/Abacha days.

In concluding his first inaugural address eight years ago, Obasanjo said: “I shall end this address by stressing again that we must change our ways of governance and of doing business on this eve of the coming millennium. This we must do to ensure progress, justice, harmony and unity and above all, to rekindle confidence amongst our people. Confidence that their conditions will rapidly improve and that Nigeria will be great and will become a major world player in the near future.”

Well, well, well… We didn’t “change our ways.” Progress, harmony and unity have eluded the country. Nigerians have lost confidence “that their conditions will rapidly improve” because it didn’t in the Obasanjo years. Nigeria is still not a major world player, with US forces stationed in our ocean to oversee Africa.

On 5 June 2003, in his inaugural address (titled “Fast Forward into the Future”) to the joint session of the new National Assembly after “securing” a second term in office, Obasanjo simply rehashed his 1999 promises. He said, “Let us thank God that the hope is still alive as manifested in the enthusiasm in the last elections. The expectation may even be higher, now that allowance has been made for the lessons of the past four years, that the National Assembly and the executive, working together, should deliver dividends of democracy.”

Please, for how long should Nigerians live in hope and expectation of the so-called dividends of democracy? Can’t there be better food on the table than mere hope?

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