Hawkers, scavengers take over $1.6bn rail tracks in Lagos

Faeces, refuse litter surrounding …

As small-scale businesses and other unpleasant activities continue to encroach the Babatunde Raji Fashola Train Station in Agege area of Lagos State, VINCENT KURAUN reports on the degradation such activities continue to bring to the railways in the country.

The $1.6 billion Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge rail project was conceived by the Federal Government as part of the plan to connect all 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) to convey passengers and goods  while easing traffic congestion on the highways, among others. When it was opened for passenger operations on June 10, 2021, General Muhammadu Buhari, who was the country’s president then, appraised the significance of the project to the economy, particularly along that critical economic corridor of Lagos and Ibadan.

According to Buhari, the Lagos-Ibadan rail line would provide “…an end-to-end logistic supply chain in railway transport within its short corridor, Lagos-Ibadan.”

The Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), while justifying the huge investment, claimed that it had added value to the nation’s transportation system.  Between 2021 and December 2022, it claimed the Lagos line had conveyed 693,226 passengers on the Lagos/Ibadan route, pointing out that Nigerians were gradually warming up to the idea of making their journey by rail.

Indeed, riding on the train from its Yaba terminus to Moniya in Ibadan was an enjoyable experience, especially given the hellish routine that travellers on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway undergo daily.

But that is as far as the beautiful story of jolly train ride goes, as the less than three years project has been turned into an eyesore at one of its critical stations. The Babatunde Raji Fashola Train Station in Agege, Lagos State, has become the capital of filth and taken over by squatters.

One of the over half-a-million passengers who have used the train is Adekunle (not real name). He had boarded the train at the Obafemi Awolowo Train Station Moniya, Ibadan to Lagos.  It was his first time using the train service. The pleasant feeling he had from watching the beautiful greenery on the route from the train window immediately dissolved into shock as they approached the Agege station.

Apart from the unpleasant activities of traders, hawkers, scavengers and squatters along the rail corridor, faeces and all kinds of wastes litter the surrounding of the station. The squatters have taken over!

“How could the authorities allow hawkers, traders, scavengers and other unhealthy activities on the rail corridor?” Adekunle asked no one in particular. He could see bewilderment on the faces of some other passengers as well as indiffrence on others’.

But how did these squatters take over the place? Did they get approval for occupying the area from the railway authorities or Lagos State government? Why did the railway authorities close their eyes to the obscene image the squatters present?

Sunday Tribune recalled that the former Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, during one of his routine inspections of the rail line in 2020 said that his ministry was in collaboration with the Lagos State government to arrest and jail traders selling on the rail tracks on the Lagos corridor. Amaechi further described the rate at which people defecate and abuse the rail in Lagos as worrisome.

What also became worrying was the careless manner people used the rail line which resulted in fatal incident in March this year. A mass-transit bus belonging to the Lagos State government collided with an oncoming train at PWD area in Lagos, leading to the death of six persons.

The Chief Mechanical Engineer and Lagos District Manager of NRC, Augustine Arisa, while reacting to the March incident, explained the danger of doing illegal business and squatting around the railway. According to him, anyone seen on the rail track is an intruder and has no business being there.

“I need to emphasise this and drum it into the ears of people that a moving train cannot stop immediately. So, no one has the right to stay on the track. You don’t have any business being on the track. For you being on the track, you are an intruder.

“If anyone dies on the track, your family members will have to pay a railway fine before retrieving your corpse, because no one is supposed to be there in the first place. When the flag bearers tell you to stop, please, stop.”

All these official assurances notwithstanding, the Agege railway station has become home to squatters who carry out all manner of activities that destroy the beauty of the station.

We pay money to squat here

One of the leaders of a section occupied by the squatters, who identified himself as Kabiru and claimed to be chairman of plastic-bags sellers, explained to Sunday Tribune that the rail line belongs to the Federal Government though no one assigned the space to them, they still paid levies to some officials of government who usually came there to harass them.

“We are Federal Government’s liability and this rail line belongs to the Federal Government but that does not mean we don’t pay money to some authorities. Here in Lagos, we have KAI [Kick Against Indiscipline]; police, military and even LASTMA, and they do come here to collect money from us.

“The officials of the train station are not exempted either. We pay a little amount of money to them to allow us to continue our activities here. Same for the local government officials,” he claimed.

When asked to provide the tickets of previous payments made and identities of officials he paid to, Kabiru declined.

“I don’t want any trouble for myself and other members,” he said cautiously, directing Sunday Tribune to talk to other leaders on the tracks. According to him, his jurisdiction covers a few meters from where he was seated.

At one of the sites along the train station which is very close to the popular Ashade market around Guinness, the leader of the area, who was simply called Baba Ganiyu, was not available but a source who spoke with Sunday Tribune confirmed Kabiru’s claim. According to him, an official who claimed to be from Alausa does come around from time to time to talk to them.

“We don’t pay daily revenue to the local government officials for doing our businesses on the rail corridor here, but we have a leader who is responsible for everything happening here and whenever we have people from the local government here, our leader will talk to them and give them something, a stipend and they will go back. Likewise the police and the soldiers.”

He also alleged that they give stipends to officials of the station including the security personnel attached to the station so as to allow them to go about their business activities in the area.

One of the sources told Sunday Tribune that, “our leader too doesn’t collect money from other people doing their business and living here. But, sometimes, they will offer to give him something once in a while so that he will continue talking to the authorities.”

It was observed during Sunday Tribune’s visit that some of the people in that area doing business on the rail corridor are residents of houses surrounding the tracks. Tents of the squatters and other household items along the corridor were sighted by Sunday Tribune.

A source also confirmed to Sunday Tribune that people pass the night around the rail corridor, adding it is one of the reasons faeces litter the area surrounding the track. He, however, called on the government to help maintain the area, especially during the rainy season.

Another trader, who sells household items told Sunday Tribune pointblank that without the approval of the railway officials, they would not be there in the first place, confirming Kabiru’s claim that they were indeed beholding to some officials of the NRC.

“People at the station are responsible for what is happening here. If they don’t want us to be here, we will not be here.

“They come here to collect money from us sometimes. But as you can see, there is construction going on here. You can see the overhead bridge in front here and the other one close to Pen-Cinema. It is expected that by the time they are done with work on this terminal, everyone one of us here will be moved out. We are still here because of the ongoing construction.”

Another squatter who specialises in aluminium fabrication, Baba Ibeji, said he has been doing business on the rail tracks since 1986 and has not paid a dime to anyone. According to him, he did not need anybody’s permission to transact his business here, likewise others. “If you want to display your business, you don’t need anybody’s permission to do so,” he said.

Sunday Tribune made efforts to speak with the NRC officials at Babatunde Raji Fashola Train Station but all the efforts were abortive as officials said they had no authority to speak on the issue.

But a staff member of China Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC), the contractor handling the rail line project, who spoke on the condition anonymity, explained that the company was powerless to do anything as it is the duty of NRC to enforce discipline and clear the squatters. According to the official, the squatters had claimed the rail line as their own.

“They live along those tracks. So they do anything they like on the track, particularly defecating openly on the tracks. The tracks have become their toilet,” she said, lamenting that it is dangerous for anyone to do business or live near the rail tracks. “For the sake of their lives, it is not safe to be selling on the train tracks or living too close to the tracks.

“More than that, the tracks are indeed in a messy condition, everything is dumped there. The place has become environmentally unfriendly” she stated.

Sunday Tribune also made efforts to speak with officials of NRC at their head office in Abuja on the issue. Though one of the officials promised to respond to the enquiry, there was no further information from the corporation as of the time of of filing in this report.

(Tribune)