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“Amid Political strains we must see to the Kano-Maradi Railway Project” — Professor Peter Onah Thompson

The recent political tension between Nigeria and the military government of the Republic of Niger has raised significant concerns about the progress and implementation of the ambitious Kano-Maradi railway project, casting a shadow of uncertainty over the project’s future. This crucial infrastructure initiative, aimed at enhancing economic ties and facilitating efficient transportation between the two countries, now faces potential setbacks due to diplomatic strains. Against this backdrop of geopolitical complexities and diplomatic challenges, Valuechain turns to Professor Peter Onah Thompson, a distinguished expert in Political Science, to shed light on the implications of these tensions for the Kano-Maradi railway project. With extensive knowledge of African geopolitics and economic development, Professor Onah brings invaluable insights into the interplay between political dynamics and infrastructure initiatives. In this encounter, Valuechain’s William Emmanuel Ukpoju explores the multifaceted dimensions of the current political climate and its potential impact on Nigeria’s strategic railway project.


Impact of Political Tensions:
How might the recent political tensions between Nigeria and the military government of the Niger Republic affect the progress and implementation of the Kano-Maradi railway project?

The political tension can cause substantial disruption to the many vested interests between the two countries. The first casualty of this tension might be the breakdown of the diplomatic relationship between the two countries. This could be in the form of a pause in ongoing negotiations or a delay in the approval of ancillary projects related to the Kano-Maradi project. Even if an agreement is already in place, either or both parties can suspend the agreements which ultimately complicates the completion of the projects. Note that this project has significant infrastructural implications for both countries as it promises to boost economic ties by facilitating more efficient transportation of goods and people between Nigeria and Niger.
Secondly, there is the possibility of heightened security risks due to the increased political instability in the region. As construction workers on this project become less safe, the likelihood of the project going on as planned diminishes significantly.
Thirdly, the tension can affect economic and funding opportunities. The sheer size of this project will attract and require some type of investment. Investors may be more willing to pull out their money with heightened risk. We know that the project is funded by a consortium led by the China Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC). How much this consortium is willing to stay with the project will partly be determined by a stable political climate between the two countries.

What are the potential risks and challenges posed by these tensions to the bilateral cooperation required for this project?
There are multiple risks and challenges. One of such challenges is the threat to the longstanding historical and cultural ties between both countries. These two countries share a long border of approximately 1600 kilometres with five of Niger’s eight regions bordering Nigeria. These deep-rooted connections have helped maintain a relatively stable relationship despite occasional tensions, but the current political tension have the ability to upend this relationship including the prospect of the Kano-Maradi railway project.

Beyond these, there is the resource/infrastructural risk.
Secondly, both countries are longstanding members of regional organizations like the ECOWAS and AU. They also participate in joint commissions and agreements focused on managing shared resources, such as the Niger River and Lake Chad, and addressing environmental challenges like desertification.

Diplomatic Strategies:
What diplomatic strategies should Nigeria employ to ensure the continuation and success of the railway project despite the current political climate in Niger Republic?

Nigeria can draw from multiple diplomatic instruments. One, Nigeria should engage in high-level diplomatic talks with the current leadership in Niger. This might include things like regular visits by Nigerian officials to Niger and hosting Nigerien leaders in Nigeria to reinforce the importance of bilateral cooperation. Two, reactivate or strengthen the Nigeria-Niger Joint Commission for Cooperation (NNJC) with a view to addressing project-specific issues. Three, develop a joint security initiative to protect the railway project from potential threats. Examples of this initiative will include the following: cross-border security patrols, intelligence sharing, and coordinated efforts to address banditry and insurgency.

How can Nigeria leverage its diplomatic channels to mitigate any adverse effects arising from the political situation in Niger?
Nigeria can leverage its longstanding relationship with Niger to establish some type of back-channel negotiations for immediate solutions.
Additionally, Nigeria should seek support from international partners and financiers, such as the China Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC), and other stakeholders to apply diplomatic pressure for the continuation of the project.

Contingency Plans:
Should Nigeria consider developing contingency plans in case the political situation in Niger Republic deteriorates further? If so, what should these plans entail?

Definitely! I am sure the Nigerian president and his security council are already examining various scenarios. The most important contingency plan is to secure the border and prepare for the challenges of refugees and the forced migration of thousands of people. This will include both military and civilian contingency arrangements. From a civilian perspective, there will be plans to minimize the economic disruption that violent conflict brings to a region. There should also be plans to address humanitarian challenges. Depending on the level of deterioration, there may be a need for regional peacekeeping forces to be activated as well.

How can the project be adapted or restructured to minimize dependence on the political stability of Niger Republic?
In truth, that is a tough ask. Even if both countries do nothing to formally cancel or suspend the project, work can only go on in a safe and secure atmosphere. The emphasis in my opinion should be on ensuring political stability or at minimum, an arrangement that guarantees the safety and security of construction workers.

International Relations:
How might the current political tensions between Nigeria and Niger Republic affect Nigeria’s relations with other neighbouring countries and international partners involved in the railway project?

This is a tough question to answer. It depends on a number of variables. Firstly, the choice of action (diplomatic or coercive) that Nigeria elects to take. Secondly, the interests of countries like China and the West who are currently at a major geopolitical war. Thirdly, the interests of other regional countries or trading partners. finally, the domestic political interests in both Nigeria and Niger. The government of the day will be more likely to make a decision that is politically expedient but may not be economically sound. Each of these variables have more than one option, so a predictive model will depend on what combination of options are at play at any given time.

Could this situation influence broader regional dynamics and the role of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) in mediating conflicts?
Definitely. Nigeria is the biggest player in the security architecture of ECOWAS and as such any conflict affecting Nigeria will be felt by the entire region.

Economic Justification:
Given the political instability, is the economic justification for the Kano-Maradi railway project still valid? How do the benefits weigh against the potential political risks?

From a Nigerian perspective, it is crucial to keep the project alive. Remember that cross-border trade between Nigeria and Niger was worth roughly $226 million in 2022. Most of these cross-border movement of goods and services were inefficiently done by trucks. The Kano-Maradi railway project will provide a more efficient way to conduct business between the two countries and increase the value of trade relations to significantly more than the current amount. Especially when we consider that Niger is a landlocked country, and we can give them access to the sea through the port in Lagos. This type of arrangement can provide a deeper dependence on Nigeria by Niger which among other things gives Nigeria an increasing strategic advantage in diplomatic, political, and security interactions with Niger.

Public Perception and Support:
How might the political tensions influence public perception and support for the railway project in both Nigeria and Niger Republic?

This is an important question. Many Nigerians especially in the south have limited knowledge of Nigeria’s historical ties with Niger and have viewed this project as an unnecessary waste of limited resources. Also, these Nigerians have viewed energy/electricity trade relations as suspect and wonder why Nigeria keep supplying Niger with electricity when we do not produce enough for local consumption. The simple truth is; Nigeria has convinced Niger many years ago not to build a dam over the Niger River. In exchange for not building a dam, we will supply them with electricity (of course it is not free).
You see, water is one of the most important resources for any country and many countries consider any threat to their water a national security issue. To put this in context, we need to examine the ongoing feud between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile which when completed will significantly reduce Egypt’s access to the Nile but connect about 60 per cent of Ethiopians without electricity to the national grid. Note that Egypt relies on the Nile for more than 90% of its water supplies, which is used for households, agriculture, and filling Lake Nasser. If we draw from that scenario, we can imagine what will happen to Nigeria if Niger decides to begin the construction of a dam over the river Niger. So, I think that our governments need to do a lot of public awareness on the strong interdependence that both countries have and that projects such as the Kano-Maradi railway projects are actually one with socio-economic and political benefits to both countries.

Historical Context:
Are there historical precedents of similar infrastructure projects facing political challenges in Africa? What lessons can be drawn from those experiences?

There are a couple of cases that come to mind but the South Africa-Lesotho one is particularly interesting to me. There was a time when South Africa was facing critical water shortages, negotiated in vain with Lesotho for thirty years to divert water from Lesotho’s mountains to the arid South African province of Transvaal. Then, South Africa supported a successful military coup against Lesotho’s tribal government in 1986. South Africa stated that their support of the coup was mainly because Lesotho was providing sanctuary to the African National Congress guerrillas. Yet, within months after the coup, the two governments reached an agreement to construct a Highlands Water Project to meet South Africa’s water needs. Some observers argued that the sheer dominance of South Africa’s military might forced an infrastructural project to go ahead that may otherwise not have happened.
The lesson here is that every country or entity will selfishly look out for itself. In the case of the Kano-Maradi railway project, Nigeria should be willing to activate military, diplomatic, economic, and political levers to ensure a competitive advantage for Nigeria (if the overall benefit outweighs the cost).

Dr. Onah Peter Thompson is a faculty member at Appalachian State University, specializing in Political Science with a regional focus on Africa. His thematic expertise encompasses computational politics, decision sciences, migration, environmental policy, and security studies. He joined the Department of Government and Justice Studies in 2022 as an Assistant Professor. He earned a Ph.D. in Public Policy from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching expertise are African Politics, forced displacement, development, climate change, and violent conflicts (including climate change-induced conflicts). Because of his passion and thematic expertise in these areas, he has been involved in high-level research supported by both the U.S. Army Research Office and the National Science Foundation. Dr. Thompson’s research contributions are widely recognized, with publications in renowned journals including the Journal of Contemporary African Studies, Proceedings of the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behavior (AISB), and the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH). In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Dr. Thompson has served in various administrative roles, including as a member of the Scholarship Committee of the Government and Justice Studies Department and as a Judge for the Center of Judaic, Holocaust, and Peace Studies Student Research Prize at Appalachian State University. Currently, he is a trustee of the UK-based EdFord project that seeks to use education as a tool to reduce inequality in Africa.