Spotlight on Nigeria’s forgotten railroad history

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LAGOS, Nigeria — Train horns now sound again across Nigeria’s lush south and the encroaching desert of its north, but the history of the nation’s 100-year-old railroad still sits rusting away.

Old steam locomotives and railway cars that hold special places in the story of Nigeria sit in large storage barns at the Nigerian Railway Corp. headquarters, a huge compound inside the megacity of Lagos.

One car once carried Queen Elizabeth II during her 1956 visit to Nigeria when it was still a British colony, historian John Godwin said. Another nearby transported Nigeria’s first and only prime minister, the assassinated leader Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, through the country’s northeast, Godwin said.

Today, though, much of the legacy of the railroad continues to rot away, including large locomotives bearing the names of Nigeria’s military rulers, including the feared dictator Sani Abacha, whose death while in power ushered in a return to democracy for the nation in 1999.

Some, like Godwin and the historical preservation society Legacy1995, have made preserving the railroad’s past a priority. Working with the state-run railway company, they have remodeled a colonial-era building to house a museum. Talks continue about how to save the other memorabilia and huge train cars and locomotives hidden in the tall grasses and barns at the railway’s headquarters.

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