On arriving in the United Kingdom (UK) to commence my undergraduate programme at the London South Bank University (LSBU), l first took up residence with my paternal uncle, Prince Akabudike Ochei, a Queen’s Counsel. My uncle and his young family lived in a four-bedroom detached house in a middle-class neighbourhood of North West London. I was the typical conservative Nigerian boy, with all the traditional trappings. I had not travelled outside the shores of Nigeria before that trip to London. My first culture shock came not from a white person; it had come from my uncle’s three-year old daughter, who would insist on my kissing her “good night,” every night with mum and dad merrily looking on. The three-year old couldn’t understand why a teenager would fight shy of the routine act of kissing. I soon adapted. (I am eternally grateful to uncle Akabudike and his family for hosting me in that critical initial phase of my UK experience).
LSBU is situated in South East London. Every morning, I walked the 15-odd minutes distance from my uncle’s Ebbsfleet Road residence to Kilburn underground train station to catch a Bakerloo Line train to Elephant and Castle station, located some five minutes’ walk from LSBU. Kilburn to Elephant and Castle is a 25 minutes ride, with 14 stations between the two stations. Stoppage time at each station is approximately one minute; so actual traveling time is estimated at 10 minutes; a seemingly comfortable trekking distance; or so thought the new resident.
So after a few weeks, and in a fashion reminiscent of a kitten sporting dove, I started toying with the idea of trekking to and fro LSBU. Quickly, I closely consulted that first acquisition of every new London resident: the London A-Z road map. My second shock; Elephant and Castle station was no where as near as I had imagined. The road map showed that I was commuting 20-odd kilometers to and fro LSBU every day; and part of this daily trip was underwater (River Thames). Trekking was clearly not an option in the circumstances. It was a significant discovery for my young mind; not only have the Europeans conquered long distances, but they have also acquired mastery of nature to the extent of traveling underwater at amazing speed.
In effect, London train commuters travel at an average speed of one kilometer per minute; and each of these trains has the capacity for approximately 1,000 commuters. Contrasting the London situation with what obtained back in Nigeria impinged on my young mind the true meaning of socio-economic backwardness. I had worked with the Nigerian Customs and Excise Department in Apapa, Lagos, before travelling to the UK. Then, I commuted between Apapa and my parents’ rented apartment at Costain, close to the National Arts Theatre at Iganmu. Approximately eight kilometers separated Costain from Apapa; and commuter-buses usually took upwards of 50 minutes to cover that distance, carrying mere tens of passengers at a time. Simply put, 1,000 commuters in London travel more than six times faster than a couple of tens of commuters do in Nigeria! The designers of Nigeria’s infrastructural projects need to spend some time pondering this contrast, if Nigeria aspires to compete globally.
It’s been over three decades since my Kilburn/Elephant and Castle daily train rides; yet, today in 2017, a bus ride from Apapa to Costain takes upwards of 90 minutes, in spite of the billions of U.S. dollars that have been expended, and that continue to be expended on road construction in Nigeria. In the 1980s through to the 1990s, the 300-odd kilometers distance between Lagos and Benin City in Edo State was traversed in about three hours. Some 15 years later at the turn of the century, commuters were spending over half a day to undertake the trip! Today, after multiple contract-awards and expended billions of U.S. dollars, commuters manage to make the Lagos – Benin journey in five hours or thereabouts. A federal works minister in the previous administration became famous for aspiring to cut down that travelling time from five to three hours. (So much sounds and sights for taking Nigeria back to her twentieth century status).
The foregoing speaks eloquently of our political office-holders’ sense of progressive development. It ought to be obvious by now that it is not the sheer quantum of money and fanfare that are expended on a particular developmental project that count; rather, it’s the measurable impact of such projects on national economic efficiency that counts.
This is why I often wonder at the essence of the elaborate annual budget-proposal reviews (read rituals) that go on at the Legislative Assembles. For these reviews to make any sense, the Executives must, of necessity, indicate the percentage improvements, say on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), that a proposed capital project will impact on the national economy before such an appropriation could be passed into law.
Consequently, new roads must cut down on the travel times on existing roads; otherwise they are not worth the money and labour of putting them up; ditto for other infrastructural projects. A couple of weeks previously the world’s highest bridge was commissioned some where in South America. It was an engineering feat by all accounts, connecting mountainous terrains; but it was delivered all the same, cutting down previous traveling time by four hours! These savings could easily translate into doubling or tripling of GDP, thus transforming a Third World country to a First World. Infrastructural efficiency is what makes the difference; ask the G20 countries. United States’ new president is depending on little else to “make America great again.” Hear him, “Our infrastructure is in a terrible shape; we are going to spend heavily rebuilding our roads; bridges; airports; seaports… We are going to make America great again!”
Furthermore, new and efficient cities should be developed near our existing mega cities with well-thought-out nationwide road networks to make Nigeria holistically viable. The clustered and uncoordinated state of Nigeria’s economic components are proof that political office-holders in Nigeria have yet to imbibe the crucial lesson that GDP is largely determined by the speed with which people and goods are moved around in an economic space; this explains in part the reductionist approach they adopt in administering the country. Thus, what is sauce for the North East region is not necessarily sauce for the South East region. As a consequence, our imported goods are gridlocked within the seaports, while our locally produced goods contend with inefficient road networks and poorly maintained trucks. If a ranking member of the G20 could bemoan the state of its infrastructure, it’s no brainer to figure out that efficient infrastructure is the key to competing in the global market place.
• Nkemdiche is an engineering consultant, lives in Abuja.