East Africa’s railway project: Nyerere’s dream in the hands of foreigners?

Fecha 23/02/2018 por Raimundo Gregoire Delaunoy

If someone still doubts about China’s important influence in Africa, the best is to point out that the Asian country is the first economic partner of the African continent since 2009. This is a fact that is well known (inside and outside of Africa) and one of the dimensions of this phenomena can be seen through an analysis of the infrastructure issue.

Raimundo Gregoire Delaunoy | February 21st, 2018

(Fotografía: Peter Ulrich)

Last year, in September, Zambia launched a mega-road project, which was financed by a Chinese company and through a loan of China’s EximBank. Previously, China financed other massive infrastructure projects in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Angola, Tanzania, Algeria, Egypt, Djibouti and Democratic Republic of Congo, among others. 

But one of the most emblematic projects is the Tanzania-Zambia Railway (Tazara), which was funded by China and was inaugurated in 1976. It was one of Julius Nyerere’s dreams for the integration of Eastern Africa and, luckily, he was able to see the results of such an important railway. Nearly five decades after it was launched, the railway will be modernized –with access to a mega-port in Bagamoyo- thanks to the Chinese and Omani funds. Therefore, the connectivity of the Tanzania-Zambia section will be improved.

But the good news continues in Eastern Africa, as other key railway projects have been constructed or announced. For example, Rwandan and Tanzanian governments have committed to concretise the Isaka-Kigali Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project, while Nairobi-Mombasa high-speed railway started its activities in 2017. This latter may be connected in the future with the recently launched Ethiopia-Djibouti railway –also funded by Chinese companies-, which has strengthened the trade route that has been used by landlocked Ethiopia since the independence of Eritrea in 1993.   Also, there is the intention of linking up the Nairobi-Mombasa railway with Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.

At the same time, there are studies that currently examine the viability and the possibilities of other railway projects, which would link up the existing lines with other in countries that, until now, have not been part of these mega-projects. For example, Burundi and Democratic Repúblic of Congo should be taken into account for the next initiatives.

In this context, Eastern Africa should face, in the nearby future, a full of expectation scenary, as the railway map of the region would improve the trade conditions and the people’s mobility. Thus, the commercial balance should be bigger and the economic resources should rise. And this is what Julius Nyerere wanted in the 60’s and 70’s, when he dreamt of a one-country Africa or at least an Africa of regional integration blocks. He always vowed for African unity and against the fragmentation of the states and/or the continent. One of his key projects was the railway but he was aware that to develop this dream it was nearly impossible without counting with loan from foreigner countries. And this is what is currently happening in Africa and, particularly, in Eastern Africa. The biggest loaner is China (82.5 percent of the costs of the railway projects between 2000 and 2014 were covered by China’s EximBank) but there are countries like Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Oman and, lately, Morocco who have shown interest in exploring Eastern African market.

So, the big challenge for Eastern Africa will be how to balance the need of funds with the independence of the region. As Julius Nyerere said, in 1968, “once that a nation has sold its freedom in exchange of economic assistance or when it has accepted the control of the foreign forces, that nation is lost”.

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