Waziri Mohammed: Railway Boss and the Plane Crash

“It will be worthwhile if aggressive promotional campaigns are embarked upon by Chairman, Nigerian Railway Corporation, Alh. Waziri Mohammed to encourage members of the executive, legislature and judiciary to travel by rail.”
-June 2002

This was one of my recommendations in a piece published in some national dailies in June 2002, with a title “Another Plane Crashes.” Coincidentally I had late Waziri Mohammed in mind when I advised on how the Nigerian railway can be revived because of its advantages over other means of transportation. The only other person I mentioned in the article was the then Minister of Transportation Ojo Madueke who was “busy championing the cause of bicycle riding in cities to decongest hectic roads and reduce air pollution.”
Just three years after that counsel the calamity of air travel consumed the amiable and humble Chairman of the Railway Corporation. This is surely a period of mourning and paying of tributes…dirges for the lost souls in one of the darkest weekends in our national life when the lives of 117 victims perished in the BellView plane crash and that of the first lady Stella Obasanjo in a Spanish hospital on complications arising from surgery.
My first chanced meeting with Waziri was during the First Annual General Meeting of African Export Import Bank(AFREXIM) in Cairo. While I was an official observer by virtue of my position with the then former Minister of State for Finance, Alhaji Abu Gidado who was the Chairman at that session, Waziri was to be nominated to the board of governors of the bank. As usual with such high wire politics of regional members, especially when a Nigerian was the chief executive at the Egypt-based continental bank, I observed the intricacies of occupying a sensitive office in multilateral institutions just as was the case of African Development Bank (ADB) election in 1996 and later when similar politics reared its ugly head this year in Abuja and Rwanda to deny us of a slot. Since then, while he was a Director of Pacific Merchant Bank, we had established and sustained mutual relationship. Surprisingly, and this is very uncommon in Nigeria, as he kept on rising as a successful politician and businessman, we still remained good friends and I had the honour, even as a bloody civil servant, of my introduction by him to some of the political juggernauts in the nation’s landscape.
In that article I mentioned that soaring in the air, away from potholes on deplorable roads and with less likelihood of hijacking, which is not prevalent in Nigeria, does have its lure, but the possibilities of survival in plane mishaps is very remote. Even the professional air hostesses, the best advisers on precautionary and emergency landing, hardly remember their training to escape the pang of such disasters. I recall mentioning in the piece that the miraculous escape of Thisday editorial team in 2001 when the aircraft crashed in Maiduguri (Waziri’s home town) made one wonder whether the editors had used that African magic called juju.
Similarly I mentioned the scary road traveling where armed robbers reign supreme, sometimes with the connivance of staff of commercial transport companies. I also stated that traveling by road on long distance, had forced many passengers to always keep life-insurance-packages, i.e. enough sums of money and acceptable items with which to trade off their lives when confronted. That the not-too-rich but smart passengers must wear tattered and dirty clothes to disguise and win the sympathy of the wicked, undesirable elements. I even wondered why we are not blessed with rivers that we could be cruising peacefully on boats and ships, concluding that that too may have been a nightmare since it takes the effort of the navy to control the excesses of pirates in the riverine areas and territorial waters.
It was in view of the above that I recommended the revitalization of the ailing railway service that is full of fun, thrilling excitement and has proved the safest form of transportation; noting that nobody in his right senses can attempt to attack the heavy machine whether in daylight or night. I mentioned that it was easier to provide all luxury and official amenities in the train than other means of transportation. This may include television set with satellite channels, bathroom, library, drinking bar, conference room, living and bedroom. In fact, it could be luxury on land.
There were attempts by him to revive the railway business; he had taken public officers, editors and businessmen on railway tours to appreciate its advantages and assess its feasibility as it is in other developed world. But the truth which must be told is that the Nigerian Railways Service was not adequately funded as he battled till he died in his second tenure as the chairman, using government’s subvention and meager internal earning to pay the pensions of teeming rail workers.
Another meeting I had with him was after my write-up over Dangote and Transcorp, which was also published in some national dailies and popular Nigerian websites. I had sounded a note of warning over the alleged attempt by some Nigerian billionaires to float a private sector mega company with the name Transnational Corporation of Nigeria (TCN), which then was alleged “may acquire government-owned refinery, operate strategic state-owned coys and pioneer status in Agriculture and IT.” I pointed out that even Bill Gate is never allowed to monopolize the computer world as the richest man and the originator of software that is used by almost all the computers in the universe. I therefore warned the promoters of Transcorp to be careful of the evils of retrogressive monopoly, which weakens government regulations, and kills healthy competition. “It is better to have a fair share of the market through deployment of infrastructural facilities and equipment than acquiring public institutions at giveaway prices,” I wrote. A situation where the nouveau rich find it easy to bid and acquire public enterprises while the poor, ordinary citizens remain without an option for even meager acquisition may not be fair enough in a republic. We discussed this issue with Waziri, who was one of directors of the mega coy, and he maintained that my perception of the philosophy behind the mega coy was completely wrong. Happily when President Obasanjo later inaugurated the company my fears were allayed as the company by their new vision and mission has brighter hopes for Nigeria and Nigerians.
The last meeting we had, which was before the Ramadan fasting, he had text me and asked, as usual, his Secretariat Aide in Abuja, one Isiaku Ibrahim to invite me. We discussed my review of Segun Adeniyi’s book I entitled “Reading Abacha Politicians Again.” It will be very unfair to divulge his personal conviction on the political terrain as he was a respected young northern star and lawyer, who had been active and remained till he died one of the youngest members Board of Trustees of People Democratic Party (PDP). He was sincerely concerned about the political and economic stability of the nation. A man of few words, I could read his dilemma as a businessman and politician who belonged to collective alliances but he was very frank and honest on his dreams for a prosperous and peaceful country. Some people judge him by his association but they cannot pin him down on reckless public statements.
As the Chairman of Presidential Committee on Trade Malpractices, he used that position to protect Nigerian entrepreneurs and industrialists against unscrupulous tendencies of foreign merchants. Waziri was a man who didn’t believe in destructive political contests especially with friends. While his friends from other regions and states vie for electoral offices and got offer of juicy political appointments, he was contented with supporting his friends. Even where there were underground political campaigns against him from a section of his home state, he took it cool and always refused to utter a word. I had to persuade him to defend himself when I discussed and arranged for the Group Business Editor of Daily Trust newspapers, Ahmad Shekarau to interview him directly. That interaction may likely be one of the last interviews he granted on his vision for Nigerian railway, his political aspiration and dream for Nigeria. A similar interview was being coordinated with finance correspondents before his untimely demise.
Some critics may dislike his politics of association, but his politics of friendship… of brotherhood with Nigerians from different ethnic and religious background stand him out as truly a detribalized young Nigerian that had the nation at heart. Ironically he died with other Nigerians from diverse backgrounds in a remote area, which almighty God had destined for them. We can have our dream; we may not change the course of destiny just as it was mentioned that amongst the victims of the plane crash was a man who traveled to Lagos to give a testimony on his miraculous escape from flying bullets only to perish on his return journey in a flying plane.

This article by Yushau A. Shuaib was originally published in Daily Independent November 15, Tribune November 21, Daily Trust November 29, 2005


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Yushau Shuaib

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