Can Nigeria's renovated railway unite north and south?

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Train at Kaduna

The railway linking the economic powerhouse of Lagos and the conflict-hit north of Nigeria has reopened after more than 10 years. The BBC's Will Ross made the 31-hour train journey and asks whether the train line can help unite this divided country.

Nigeria's railways are making a comeback after virtually grinding to a halt.

The first sign of progress is the reopening of the long defunct rail link between Lagos in the south and Kano in the north.

"This is my first experience on a train since I was at school in the early 1990s. I heard about it through BBC Hausa service so I'm giving it a try," says a Lagos-based businessman, as the train rumbles along at a steady 45km/h (28mph).

"Credit to the government, although we need a better service," he says.

Another passenger shrugs at the 1,100km (685 mile) journey to see his relatives in Kano. He will have just more than a day with his family before having to catch the weekly return service.

"This is a development. I once spent five days travelling by train from Lagos to Kano. The engine would be removed from the train and it be taken for a service whilst we would stay on board," he says.

The state-owned Nigeria Railway Corporation says the rehabilitation of 1,126km of track has cost 24bn naira (£98m; $153m).

With a one-way ticket starting from 1,930 Naira (£7.50; $12), it is far cheaper and, some say, safer than travelling by road.

"Last year an armed robber attacked us on the road. There was shooting but thank God we escaped. I feel safe on the train," says passenger Bukola Ogunbanjo.

En route, we pass abandoned relics of the once thriving railways - rusty, dilapidated carriages and goods wagons as well as crumbling stations.

Image caption,
Women traders at Agege Station in Lagos
Image caption,
The scene at Minna Station in Niger State
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Passengers buy food and other goods through the train window
Image caption,
A young trader counts money at Minna station in Niger State
Image caption,
The train slices through Kaduna market

The first steam engine to have worked in northern Nigeria sits at Minna station in Niger state. It was built in Leeds in the UK in 1901.

At that time, the British colonial powers were keen to expand the railway mainly as a way to make money through agriculture and mineral exports.

Palm oil dominated. It was wanted as lubricant for the machines in Britain's factories whilst palm kernels were used to produce soaps and margarine.

Colonial reports show that 18 million gallons of palm oil were exported from southern Nigeria in 1908.

For the same year, the British colonial authorities budgeted £2m for expansion of the rail network.

By 1913, £6m worth of Nigerian palm tree products alone were being exported every year to Britain.

In order to harness the agricultural potential in the north, the railway was extended to Kano and Nguru.

Image caption,
A rusting engine sits abandoned on the platform at Minna Station in Niger State

Sir Bryan Sharwood-Smith was a young employee in the colonial administration in 1927 and gives this insight into the train journey north.

"We lurched and jolted onward, sleeping a little, but never for long, until daylight brought the twin blessings of a cool breeze and an attendant with early morning tea," he recalls in his book, But Always As Friends.

He helped supervise 500 locally recruited labourers constructing the railway in the north, and became the governor of northern Nigeria in the 1950s.

By the time of independence in 1960, Nigeria had about 3,500km of railway track.

That figure has barely changed in over half a century, although most of the track has been rendered redundant, as political turmoil and massive corruption have taken their toll.

There have been false starts but now the Nigerian government says a modern, extensive network is on the way.

"Policy flip-flops were the main reasons for the delays in sorting out the railways. As governments changed, their approaches to the same problem were sometimes markedly different and were not decisive," says transport infrastructure consultant Rowland Ataguba.

"But the last six years have witnessed the most concerted capital investment in the railways by the government in decades.

"Over $10bn has been committed to the railways in this period," says Mr Ataguba.

'Become friends'

Most of the contracts will go to Chinese firms. Last year, the government signed a $1.49bn contract with the state-owned China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) to build a railway between the commercial capital Lagos and Ibadan.

The train journey offers a real chance to see Nigeria's diverse landscape. After slicing through the hustle and bustle of Lagos, the landscape turns green and in some areas the thick bushes touch the sides of the carriages.

Each hour we head north it becomes drier and harsher.

The city of Kano is in the mostly Muslim north. With illiteracy high and poverty deep, it is fertile ground for the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, which is seeking to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria.

The group has been blamed for the deaths of some 1,400 people in central and northern Nigeria since 2010.

On board I met 21-year-old Israel, a Christian from the south, heading to join the police academy.

"I really hope I can fight Boko Haram because I've noticed what they've done to so many families," he says.

The conflict has deepened the divide between the mostly Muslim north and largely Christian and animist south.

But in addition to boosting trade, some think this train can help unite Nigeria.

"I see all of us as passengers - Nigerians, northerners, southerners, Christians, Muslims. Everybody is the same - we are just one," says a man on his way to visit his family in Kano.

"Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo - with the help of the train we become friends."

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