There is a famous 19th century drawing of adventurer-businessman Cecil Rhodes standing like a colossus with one foot in South Africa and the other in Egypt. It symbolized his dream of a Cape to Cairo land connection. The British Empire that he represented wanted a road, but Rhodes preferred a railway. More than a hundred years later, that land connection is still not fully realized, and in the failure to complete it lays the explanation of why Africa’s transportation infrastructure remains inadequate.
The British saw this land connection as the key to advancing their commercial and military interests on the continent. The road (or highway) would link the British colonies of Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Nyassaland (Malawi), Northern and Southern Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe) and South Africa. Unfortunately for the British, Tanzania (then Tanganyika) was a German possession until after World War I, but soon after the so-called Great War, Egypt became independent.
Then there were the problems of climate and terrain. Furthermore, French ambitions to link their territories in West Africa to Djibouti in the East and Portuguese ambitions to link Angola and Mozambique also interfered with the land connections the British sought. After World War II, the struggles for African independence put a final cap on British ambitions (as well as those of the French and Portuguese).
What the colonial powers left behind when their African empires finally ended in the last half of the 20th century was a conflicting collection of roads that didn’t connect neighboring countries, railroads of different gauges that could not be linked, ports that were too shallow or too small for significant cargo handling and air traffic designed to serve the colonial powers but not the Africans themselves. All too often, to get from here to there in Africa, you run into dead ends, impassable rivers, vast deserts and other natural and man-made obstacles.
Now that we are entering the second decade of the 21st century, it is long past time to identify and correct the problems that hamper transportation linkages on the continent and allow more efficient movement of goods and people. In his book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” author Jared Diamond explains that Africa’s geography has led to its fragmentation. He writes that the continent’s north-south orientation, as opposed to Asia, Europe and North America’s east-west orientation did not facilitate the sharing of culture and intermingling of people that allows unity.
But we now have the technology to overcome the obstacles that prevented Africa’s forefathers from learning from one another and becoming stronger for this sharing of knowledge. The question is now: Does there exist the will to create transportation infrastructures that allow for progress in the modern world?
There are efforts underway to address the obstacles to freer transportation in Africa. For example, the Sub-Saharan Africa Transport Policy Program is a partnership of 35 African countries, eight regional economic communities, the United Nations Economic Community for Africa (UNECA), the African Union’s New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and the African Development Bank (ADB). The aim of this partnership is to better enable African governments to integrate their transportation strategies into their poverty reduction strategies. The driving force behind this partnership is a commitment to regional planning and cooperation.
The German Marshall Fund and the Hewlett Foundation are working on a Development Corridors program to stimulate the expansion of existing and creation of new transportation structures to allow African products, especially those produced by smallholder farmers, to be brought to market. The plan is to encourage public-private partnership that will allow currently underutilized economic potential to be realized more fully.
By the way, the Cairo – Cape Town Highway – envisioned by Rhodes more than a hundred years ago – has been taken up by UNECA, the ADB and the AU. When completed, it will link Cairo, Khartoum, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Nairobi, Lusaka, Harare, Gaborone and Cape Town and smaller cities and towns in between. Only this time, the road known as Trans-African Highway 4 will serve the needs and interests of Africans and not just those of foreign powers.
The positive cost-benefit ratio of investing in transportation infrastructure in China has demonstrated the wisdom of investing in roads, for example. At the G8 Summit in Gleneagles back in 2005, world leaders highlighted Africa’s lack of infrastructure as the main constraint on economic growth and development. The World Bank and other international organizations pledged create a diagnostic to determine the state of the continent’s infrastructure, but while we now know far more than we did before then about the limits of Africa’s transportation infrastructure, the financing of projects has been slow to materialize.
The World Bank estimates that US$93 billion in infrastructure investment is needed annually for African infrastructure to be brought up to date, but only US$45 billion are arriving. Now that African governments and regional institutions are cooperating in creating the necessary policy structure, perhaps lenders and investors will loosen the purse strings.
As the old saying goes: “God helps those who help themselves.” Apparently, international lenders and investors live by that motto as well.