As the Federal Government makes efforts to revive the railways, the name, Elder Nath Okoro, resonates. A railway worker, who rose from the lower position of Flag Officer, before Nigeria’s independence, to the top as Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Railways Corporation (NRC), he is one of those who took the railways to the pinnacle, before its eventual fall to nothingness.
As Nigeria celebrates 60 anniversary, The Sun sought out Elder Okoro, who turns 90 next February, to talk about the railways. Old but strong, Elder Okoro was at his best, as he told the story of the Nigerian railways, from the Nigerian Railway System era before independence to the Nigerian Railways Corporation of today.
Elder Okoro is a railway man to the core. He drew up, for the Federal Government, the 25 years Strategic Plan for Railways (2002 to 2027) during the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo. Sadly, nobody acknowledges him, even as the strategic plan is being implementation. He is one of the unsung and not honoured heroes of the railways.
This octogenarian was instrumental to the establishment of the Nigerian Institute of Transport Technology (NITT). He was on the team that developed the Abuja Rail Mass Transit Masterplan.
In this interview conducted by ONUOHA UKEH and CHUKWUDI NWEJE, Elder Okoro x-rayed Nigeria’s 60 years of independence and the genesis of the problems in the Nigerian railways and way forward, among others.
October 1 marks the 60th independence anniversary of Nigeria. What is your honest assessment?
Nigeria is a rudderless ship at 60. Mine has been lamentations of an octogenarian. I stand on the strong shoulder of the experience of life to remind me of the fundamental fact that ‘If everyone is happy with me, then surely I have made many compromises in my life’ I lament that even though my conscience was challenged by outside pressure to propose a toast of Nigeria at 60; yet, I could not submit to the temptation for fear that I would live a lie by sharing a lie. I accept that as a country, Nigeria is endowed all round, with potentials by beneficent nature to become Africa’s lodestar, even before age 60, but has made a shameful conquest of itself.
I am uncomfortable to propose a toast of the country that lives in denial by choice; a country that is comfortable to participate in politics; and elect alleged corrupt politicians, treasury looters and traitors seeking to occupy powerful positions at the mountaintop of governance; a country of complacent and compromising population, willing to collaborate with evil; and engage conspiracy and treachery in exchange for cash and position, and ever ready to suffer penalties as accomplices; and to trade even at the expense of future generations.
I hate to be seen to celebrate an infant who had every potential to grow and every opportunity to scale overall difficulties and challenges at the three stages of life’s journey; from childhood through youth – the scion of ‘brain and brawn,’ loaded with physical muscle and spiritual strength’ and inspiration and creativity’; to advance to adulthood expected stage to blossom at full maturity as ‘father’ to the 371 tribes of two kingdoms united in wedlock of “Northern Prince” and “Southern Lady of Means” by the British at British price to British benefit and at a cost to Nigeria that took no part at the negotiations.
I felt threatened by the disgusting picture I would donate to toxic friends and intimate enemies should I be seen to celebrate a toddler at 60; and to display a willingness to compromise the “I, Me and Myself” identity; which I always paraded and seen by friends and associates as the “man who does not travel incognito.” A radical rebel soldier, packaged outwardly as a silent activist driven by logical positivism when interrogating national issues but with no compromises.
I have no choice but walk in humility and in good conscience, as I reject to make the U-turn; but rather, elect to commit time, energy and experience to work with dedicated Nigerians of inspiration, vision and creative capacity; ready to confront the six wicked spirits – Brinkmanship, Collaboration with Evil, Compromise, Conspiracy and Treachery and Betrayal – that held Nigeria captive; and kept Nigeria in the valley of death for 60 years; and would not let Nigerians lie down in safety on the green pastures endowed richly by nature and donated to Nigerians with potentials to rework the Nigerian question and the might reformat Nigeria to glint as Giant of Africa.
I am persuaded that the route to a righteous claim of eldership, is willful submission and fear of God; and clinical obedience to spiritual commands, ethics and moral codes that have eternal values as guiding stars to the new Nigeria of our collective dream. I stand at one with the disappointed Nigerian with dashed expectations of the emergence of Great Nigeria at 60, and therefore reluctant to celebrate a toddler at 60 who chose to crawl on its belly and eat crumbs from the master’s table despite deposits of humongous human and material resources endowments by God Almighty in Nigeria’s geographical space.
I refuse to be seen at 89+ celebrating Nigeria at 60, and dancing on my wearied legs for a “setting sun” that was featuring increasing eclipse and nightfall; and showcasing diminishing returns by all metrics of development- safety of citizens/farmers and farmland; healthcare and welfare of ‘Indigent elders’ and ‘widows indeed;’ decreasing attention to education, election and national census reform; job creation and employment opportunities; GDP growth and dedicated fighting of corruption“ and inadequate commitments to transparency in governance; development of infrastructure/construction; and insensitivity to outcomes from miscalculations in foreign relations e.g., OIC engagement; but the unkindest cut of all – No ‘Moses’ in sight with rod in hand and wonders to perform a rescue mission.
I refuse to enlist in the brigade of toothless bull-dogs and army of lions led by sheep, seen to willingly carry a sword as the weapon of defence; rather than wield it as a weapon of offence. I suffer confusion observing marching troops ever ready to be roasted with family by overlords driven by ethnographic and ethnocentric spirits against national Interest.
I am peeved by the experience of Nigerians with no nation’ but yet non-ready to resist with civil might and protest marches against the devil interrupting maturation of the New Nigeria of our collective dream, to get ‘D-Evil’ take fright and flight and flee Nigeria.
I weep for Nigeria my country undergoing culture shock and psychotic disorder at 60; because it moved away from pre-civil war ethic of governance based on moral absolutes expressed as justice, equity and inclusivity; and as guardrails of national unity and safety belt of national freedoms and national loyalty.
I mourn for Nigeria my country, that seems to enjoy and celebrate, unfortunately, politics of ‘arrogance of ignorance’ right from immediate post-civil war years; and in the process opened the gateway for military invasions that scared psyche of Nigeria as a nation, and raised decibels of disloyalty that were deepened by political and religious correctness as the basics of allocations and instruments of reward and punishment.
How did we get to this point? Where did Nigeria get it wrong?
We lost everything because we did not know who our patriarchs were. The North had a dream championed by Uthman Dan Fodio. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo didn’t see it. Because the North was not ready for independence, the Sardauna of Sokoto refused to accept self-government in 1957, until the British convinced them that they would make it possible for the North to become rulers. The British had to deal with the census to make it possible. Nigeria is the only part of the world where you see the greater number of the population living in the areas with desert.
Secondly, Nigerians have metrics of politics, position, power, patronage and money as measures of success. However, some of us have inspiration, creative genius and capacity to deliver as measures of success. When I retired as chief executive officer of the biggest corporation in Nigeria, the Nigerian Railways Corporation, I didn’t have N5, 000 anywhere in the world because it wasn’t in our character to steal money; we didn’t even understand it. When I took over as chief executive of the NRC, the World Bank asked me what I wanted them to do for Nigeria; I was able to get the government to agree, for the World Bank to support Nigeria with 100 locomotives. I was holding my post thinking about how to help Nigeria and not how to enrich myself because of my experience.
What was life like growing up?
My father was a railway worker. I was born in the railway system and we had a railway family. Joining the railways was a passion I had. I left school in Class 4 to enable my three younger brothers to go to school. So when people talk about President Muhammadu Buhari not having a school certificate I laugh. I have no school certificate, but I hold several PhDs. I am a Fellow of the Nigerian Society of Engineers and a Fellow of the World Bank. I am recorded in the International Book of Honours, Men of Distinction, Who is Who in the world and so on. By the Grace of God, I went through the school of hard knocks. I went through from level anthropology through the plateau of latent potentials because everybody has one. Some hit it, fall down, grumble and complain; others find a way out and continue to level Z, Zoology. God gave me the grace and I was able to do that.
You were Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) 1985 to 1987, a period the railway was at its peak. Looking at the railways today, what comes to your mind?
Quite frankly, I am tired, talking to the brick wall; it has been heartbreaking to every stakeholder in the Nigerian Railway Enterprise to see the system destined and operated in the pre-independence era in the 1960s as the national transportation backbone by geography and history, become handcuffed and detained in the pit of vipers by the Nigerian Railways Corporation (NRC) Act of 1955 (as amended), with a stranglehold on cash base/freedoms; destabilised by federal character, quota system, 35 years/60 years retirement policy, distressed in the doldrums by political and military invasion; denied access to oxygen in funding, closure of training/ technical institutes and shift of Nigerian Institute of Transport Technology (NlTT) vision and mission away from ‘vision of founding fathers.
The Nigerian railways is deafened by studies as a wet blanket. Past railway interventions projects failed due externalisation of decision making in railway management environment, contrary to traditional railway culture. It was deadened and in groaning mode awaiting earmark dream projects to transmute to ‘eyespot’ as execution trademark.
What is the core of the problems in the Nigerian railways?
The nagging problems of the Nigerian railway system have two roots. One is internally grown rot embedded in railway construction history, which presents as inherited constraints i.e., the factors of truck gauge reverse, curves, train length, axle-load and communication system, political meddlesomeness from immediate past self-government in 1957. One stream of the challenges is represented by the externalisation of decision-making/funding processes nurtured through the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) Act 1955 (as amended). The other is traced to political correctness and the godfather syndrome injected into the management environment/ personal selection and appointments, and third party contractual engagement processes and operations. Their nuisance tended to compound the railways technical and engineering condition and management operation and efficiency. In the pre-independence British management period, the railway placed high priority emphasis on character, competency and body chemistry of the personnel to be recruited before academic qualification. In short, the emphasis was placed on merit as standard. Theses factors made a direct impact on railway productivity and sustainability, and by extension, delivered a positive impact on national development/economic growth.
The railways has a massive investment in property and others. Why the failure thereafter?
As I said earlier, the Nigerian Railways moved away from the traditions and culture of the railways, because of the NRC Act of 1955 that made it possible for the railways to become a parastatal under the Ministry of Transport. Imagine a giant being lead by a sheep. We lost the capacity to take decisions. I was already in the Railways in 1949. I was of the Nigerian Railway System and not the Nigerian Railways Corporation. Nigerian Railway System was the British. I served with the British; we took over from them directly. When it became corporation, this marked the beginning of the barrage of woes because it provided for one, supervision by the ministry and, two, it was infused with politics and abused by politicians, and three, it provided access to invasion by the military to bastardise the system during military rule.
There is 25-year railway development plan engineered by President Obasanjo. Are you aware of it?
In February 2002, then President Olusegun Obasanjo asked his Minister of Transport to fetch me and bring me to Aso Rock. He wanted a 25-year strategic plan, 2002 to 2027, for the development of the railways. We went to the Council meeting. I told them that there are two railways in the world that are over-studied – the Indian Railway and the Nigerian Railway. I was given six months to come up with a report, a 25 years strategic plan. Obasanjo instructed the Ministers of National Planning, Transport and Finance to give me all the assistance I need to deliver the report. I = produced the report, which they are following today.
We are barely seven years from the deadline. Are you confident that they will realise the vision?
They have completed some of them, but I am not confident because the people they are using for the work did some projects in Tanzania and the World Bank called me to go and review them. You know what that means.
After the Obasanjo administration commissioned the 25-year strategic plan, did subsequent administrations make contact with you?
Nobody made contact with me. They are working with the Chinese. As I said earlier, I was commissioned by the World Bank some years ago to review the work the Chinese did in Tanzania. I may not be in their good book.
How did you leave as the MD of the railways?
I was in Brussels on official assignment representing Africa with a colleague from Egypt. On my return at the airport at Ikeja, I was informed by the protocol staff that came to meet me that they had brought an Executive Chairman to the railways. I was Managing Director/Chief Executive, so how can you bring an Executive Chairman rather than a board chairman? I knew I was in trouble.
I went to see the new Executive Chairman, who used to be in-charge of Logistics for the army and used to come to me when I was Director of Operations, and the army needed to move something, so we knew each other. I went to see him in his office and he said he was asked to come to assist me since we had no board. I told him that I had no problem with that because our responsibility was to make the railways better, but that what bothered me was that he was Executive Chairman and I was Managing Director/Chief Executive. Who will take orders from the other? I told him the best thing was for us to go and see the minister and resolve the matter.
We went to see the minister, a military officer. I told the minister that we can’t have two chief executives in the same organisation, that one must give way to the other and that I didn’t mind giving way since that just appointed an executive chairman. The minister said they didn’t want to let me go. I was then appointed as their Technical Adviser to the Railway Corporation.
What is the way forward for the railway?
Bringing the railway ‘back on track’ would emerge when and only when, in the railway management environment, technical and operational decisions are made by those pre-eminently qualified and experienced to make them; and not decisions by those who may depend on political correctness as the basis for choice, imposition of briefcase consultants without practical experience or who have experience the size of a postage stamp.
In pre-independence and certainly, from immediate post-independence periods, the Federal Ministry of Transport hosted the office of Government Inspector of Railways (GIR) occupied always by a wizened engineer with a portfolio of experience in both railway civil engineering and operating fields. His stem visage was larger than life because of the discipline, experience and expertise he brought to that office. Nigeria is yet to position “the GIR” in the garment of the pre-1970s period GIR in the Federal Ministry of Transportation.
What is the way forward for Nigeria as a country?
First of all, Nigeria has to agree that it is not a nation. The difference between a nation and a country is that a nation is composed of one race, one religion, one tradition and one vision. You cannot have a nation of more than one race, but you can have a nation that is federal and recognises each of the units as though different, but all of you having one vision and moving in the same direction. Secondly, Nigeria must interrogate the line of best fit. We must sit at a table, and come out truly with all our fears, weaknesses and strength and discuss and draw the line of best fit, which will become our guiding principle.
What is your advice to young Nigerians?
My advice is that they take their eyes off money and position because these are not the measure of success. Inspiration, creative genius and capacity to deliver are measures of success.