Baro-Kano Railroad Begins Operation in Nigeria

The Baro-Kano railroad provided access to Nigeria’s hinterland and expanded colonial trade in commodities and raw materials.

Summary of Event

Baro is a railway terminus on the northern bank of the Niger River. The city of Kano, farther north, is landlocked. Prior to the completion of the Baro-Kano railroad in 1911, access to the interior of what later became Nigeria was limited. The Baro-Kano line promptly opened up a vast hinterland to colonial trade. Baro-Kano railroad[Baro Kano railroad]
[kw]Baro-Kano Railroad Begins Operation in Nigeria (Mar. 28, 1911)[Baro Kano Railroad Begins Operation in Nigeria (Mar. 28, 1911)]
[kw]Railroad Begins Operation in Nigeria, Baro-Kano (Mar. 28, 1911)
[kw]Nigeria, Baro-Kano Railroad Begins Operation in (Mar. 28, 1911)
Baro-Kano railroad[Baro Kano railroad]
[g]Africa;Mar. 28, 1911: Baro-Kano Railroad Begins Operation in Nigeria[02770]
[g]Nigeria;Mar. 28, 1911: Baro-Kano Railroad Begins Operation in Nigeria[02770]
[c]Transportation;Mar. 28, 1911: Baro-Kano Railroad Begins Operation in Nigeria[02770]
[c]Trade and commerce;Mar. 28, 1911: Baro-Kano Railroad Begins Operation in Nigeria[02770]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Mar. 28, 1911: Baro-Kano Railroad Begins Operation in Nigeria[02770]
Lugard, Lord (Frederick John Dealtry Lugard)
Girouard, Sir Percy
Imoudu, Michael

The need for a railroad to Kano was cardinal in the colonial scheme. For centuries, in the old trans-Saharan trade network, Kano had exported woven textile and leather goods to distant markets in North and West Africa by animal caravan. The merchants of Kano also traded southward to the banks of the Niger and Benue Rivers. By 1854, owing to the advent of steamers, European merchants had joined in the river trade. The trade with the hinterland, however, still depended on animals and human porters.

As the colonial impulse quickened in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the rivalry among European traders heightened in the Niger area. The merger of four United Kingdom firms in 1879 secured for them an advantage over their German and French rivals. Owing to the manual transport system, however, and to the fact that private initiatives in 1878 to build a railroad had failed, trade expansion to the interior had to wait. Railroad construction finally began in Lagos in 1898, after years of hesitation, with funds from the Imperial Treasury. The hasty inception of the project coincided with the consolidation of colonial rule in Nigeria. On January 1, 1900, the British Colonial Office proclaimed protectorates in northern and southern Nigeria. Shortly afterward, the Lagos-Ibadan railroad, Lagos-Ibadan railroad[Lagos Ibadan railroad] consisting of 120 miles of track across western farmlands, was completed and opened to traffic.

The success of the colonial enterprise depended on cheap and reliable access to raw materials. Unlike the coastal southern region, the landlocked northern portion of the Nigerian protectorate depended on imperial grants-in-aid for support. The system of direct tax in the north allowed for payments in kind rather than in cash. Kano, as the principal collection point of the northern protectorate, needed a cheaper and reliable outlet to the sea so that these crops could be sold.

Sir Frederick Lugard, Northern Nigeria’s influential high commissioner, stressed to the Colonial Office the importance of railroads to the viability of his administration and the entire colonial enterprise. Lugard wanted the shortest link to the Atlantic seaport of Lagos as well as a share of the customs revenue. The coast, he argued, must support the interior and must be connected with it for military and logistical reasons. Before leaving for Hong Kong to assume duties as governor, Lugard had established a basis for the railroad. Sir Percy Girouard succeeded Lugard in 1907. Girouard, former railroad executive in South Africa, Egypt, and the Sudan, recommended that the northern railroad exploit the commercial advantages offered by the Niger River. In Girouard’s opinion, the inland waterways were potential resources for the north’s development.

Approval for construction of the Baro-Kano railroad was granted by the secretary of state for the colonies in August, 1907. A team of royal engineers, whose salaries were charged to the railway budget, arrived shortly afterward. The capital appropriation came from the southern area, and interest payments were met from the north’s share of southern contributions to customs revenue. The south also secured permission from the secretary for a northward extension of the Lagos-Ibadan rail line, the intention being for the latter to link up with the Baro-Kano line at Minna.

Two rival railroad systems thus had emerged, separated only by the Niger River. The two railroads promoted the different goals of the north and the south. In 1909, the Lagos-Ibadan line reached Jebba, on the bank of the Niger River. The north-south rivalry would eventually lead to the amalgamation of the two dependencies. The immediate controversy, however, concerned the territorial control and operational policy of the Lagos-Kano line. Would policy and control issue from the north or from the south? The answer seemed to lie in the unification of the two sections, which finally occurred on October 3, 1912, when the systems were merged as the Nigerian Railway. Nigerian Railway

The Baro-Kano project set an example for future construction, particularly because of its low cost and timely completion. The railroad was opened to traffic on March 28, 1911, after forty-four months of work. The line, constructed at an estimated cost of almost fifteen hundred pounds per mile, had 356 miles of track. Unlike the earlier Lagos-Ibadan line, the Baro-Kano project was locally supervised by public works officials such as Girouard and John Eaglesome. The latter later became the director of railways and works. Under the system used for the Lagos-Ibadan line, procurement and supervisory details were preset abroad by agents of the British crown and consulting engineers, then passed down to a resident engineer who was not accountable to local officials.

The Nigerian railroad was profitable, like most colonial systems. The system was built with loans and appropriations from the colonial revenue and reserves. The total cost of railroad construction amounted to more than 8.6 million pounds by 1918. Despite the interest on capital and payments to the sinking fund, the railroad profitably paid its way. As Lugard observed, Nigeria was colonized at no cost to the British taxpayer. Critics of the colonial enterprise, however, speak in terms of the exploitation of Africa.


The Baro-Kano railroad expanded the existing channels of transportation and became a profitable link in the network of colonial trade. The improvement in transportation facilitated the large-scale procurement, marketing, and distribution of goods from the hinterland. The railroad increased the volume and value of transactions, particularly in the commodities trade. The tonnage export of groundnuts, which were second to palm produce in overseas shipment, increased by a factor of eighty-seven between 1911 and 1928. In 1900, the year Kano came under a protectorate government, Nigeria exported only 599 long tons of groundnuts. The volume of trade increased from 1,179 tons in 1911 to 103,161 tons in 1928. By 1946, groundnut exports exceeded a quarter of a million tons. Railroad transportation also increased the scope and frequency of trade and communication. Prior to completion of the Niger bridge, cargo trains from the northern hinterland were ferried across the Niger River. By 1929, more than fourteen thousand miles of telegraph wire ran in connection with the railroads.

The domestic economy, however, increasingly became subject to the vicissitudes of war, worldwide instability, and price fluctuations abroad. Between 1914 and 1915, partly as a result of diversion of steamships to the war effort, groundnut exports dropped by nearly 50 percent. In 1915, Nigeria exported 8,910 tons of the produce, in dramatic contrast to the 50,368 tons exported in 1916. Crises in the European oils and fats industries in the interwar years also affected domestic Nigerian trade. In 1926, for example, Nigeria exported 126,799 tons of groundnuts, 427 tons less than it exported in 1925 and 36,026 tons more than it exported in 1927. During World War II, as during World War I, pricing controls of the colonial government fixed the terms of trade in commodities as well as fixing farmers’ incomes.

The impact of the railroad on industry was significant. The railroad allowed greater production and sales in agriculture and mining, but the incomes of producers in these sectors went toward purchase of imported consumer goods and the payment of colonial taxes. Little was left for saving or reinvestment, so industry grew slowly. The Women’s Riots of 1929 were a revolt against the taxing policy of the government and the monopolistic terms of trade in produce. Some business historians have argued that the colonial cash-crop policy, which depended on the railroads, turned skilled craft workers into farmers and miners who fed raw materials to factories overseas. The railroad project, they maintain, stultified the manufacturing base and suffocated infant industries.

Hundreds of miles of track passed through farmlands acquired by the government on the basis of eminent domain (the right of the government to claim land). Rural populations eventually drifted to the railway towns, which had become trading centers. The population of Kano, for example, grew from one million in 1903 to three million in 1959, even though the town did not offer such amenities as an adequate supply of pipe-borne water. Generally, colonial railroads in Africa were uncoordinated, except to the extent that they linked the sources of raw materials with the sea.

Because trade, banking, and finance were controlled and dominated by British firms, whose directors resided overseas, business policies and practices did not coincide with local business aspirations and growth. In a report submitted to Parliament in December, 1919, Lugard condemned a system in which British merchants who depended on the colony for their wealth perceived little responsibility to the colony and its inhabitants.

The railroad projects affected the economy in other ways. In the absence of a comprehensive banking system, railroad construction workers became unofficial agents for the circulation of money in remote areas. The workers thus aided government authorities in retiring the existing money, which in some areas included seashells, and replacing it with new money.

The colonialists in Nigeria have been criticized for employing “political labor” in railroad projects, as was also the case in German, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Belgian colonies. The system involved conscription of workers, with the aid of local chieftains. Conscripts walked hundreds of miles in several months, and, as in the Kano project, were typically paid an average daily wage of six pence after tax. A junior clerk in the southern civil service received an average monthly wage of two pounds (twelve hundred pence) in 1912 and belonged to the Civil Service Union. The “political laborer” was far removed from the seeming luxury of clerical service and regular employment. Several thousand forced laborers died all over Africa in the colonial era from accidents, starvation, and other perils. Forced labor was much loathed because of its brutal and enslaving form and the separation it caused for family units.

Railway workers, including clerks and mechanics, sowed the seeds of activist unionism in Nigeria. Labor unions;Nigeria Under the leadership of Michael Imoudu, the workers’ union, after a decade of conflict with management, successfully resisted an hourly wage system introduced in 1931. A miners’ strike over conditions of work resulted in the death of twenty-one miners in Iva Valley on November 18, 1949. In Northern Rhodesia, colonial troops killed six miners and wounded twenty-two others in 1935. In 1940, in the same colony, seventeen Africans died and sixty-four others were wounded in a miners’ riot.

European appropriation of land, labor, and raw materials in the colonial era is often blamed for the continuing underdevelopment in Africa. Business historians have described the colonial enterprise, including railroads, as exploitative and as the originating cause of economic nationalism in contemporary Africa. Baro-Kano railroad[Baro Kano railroad]

Further Reading

  • Burns, A. C. History of Nigeria. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1929. An account by a former deputy secretary to the colonial government of Nigeria. Well written despite the author’s narrow understanding of the Nigerian society.
  • Ekundare, R. O. An Economic History of Nigeria, 1860-1960. London: Methuen, 1973. Business and economic analysis of Nigeria’s experience from the colonial era to independence provides useful statistical and comparative data.
  • Falola, Toyin. The History of Nigeria. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Comprehensive history includes discussion of the colonial period in Nigeria. Features maps, time line, selected bibliography, and index.
  • _______, ed. Britain and Nigeria: Exploitation or Development? London: Zed Books, 1987. Informative collection of essays discusses a pattern of managed exploitation in Nigeria. Chapter by S. A. Olanrewaju, “The Infrastructure of Exploitation: Transport, Monetary Changes, Banking,” is especially interesting.
  • Lugard, Frederick J. D. The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa. London: Frank Cass, 1965. Chapter 5 discusses principles of colonial administration, particularly in relation to the amalgamation of the Nigerian dependencies.
  • _______. Lugard and the Amalgamation of Nigeria: A Documentary Record. London: Frank Cass, 1968. Contains a reprint of the report by Lugard on the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria presented to Parliament in December, 1919. Also includes previously unpublished materials on the amalgamation and administration of Nigeria. Excellent compilation.
  • Martin, Susan M. Palm Oil and Protest: An Economic History of the Ngwa Region, South-Eastern Nigeria, 1800-1980. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Examines the effects of the growth of palm oil exportation on Nigeria and Nigerians. Includes maps, statistical appendix, bibliography, and index.
  • Orr, Charles. The Making of Northern Nigeria. 1965. Reprint. New York: Hyperion, 1986. Chapter 10 discusses the politics surrounding the railroad’s construction.
  • Osaghae, Eghosa E. Crippled Giant: Nigeria Since Independence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Focuses on Nigerian politics since 1960, but provides background on the country’s colonial history in an opening chapter. Includes maps and index.
  • Wogu, Ananaba. The Trade Union Movement in Nigeria. New York: Africana, 1970. Provides interesting insights into the origin and nature of labor unionism in Nigeria. Chapter 3 examines the emergence of Imoudu as a railway labor leader.

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