Opinion: Railways as Facilitator of African Continental Free Trade

African railway system must be rapidly developed to serve as requisite platforms for trade facilitation and movement of goods and services,writes Olawale Rasheed

By Olawale Rasheed

The recent signing of African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) is a landmark development requiring of complementary growth and development in logistic and infrastructure  sectors of the continent.Harmonised development of railway at national and continental levels holds the critical key to trade facilitation and human connectivity which are imperative for the success of the AfCFTA.

Discourse on the AfCFTA cannot be complete without strategic attention to the role of railway in African development. As railway contributed immensely to the growth and development of Europe and North America,  its invaluable role in the successful implementation of AfCFTA cannot be under estimated.

The level of rail connectivity among African nations is presently absymally low. The pioneered Tanzanian-Zambia railway executed by the Chinese  is not functioning well. The Trans Namibia rail remains a pipe dream. And the Kenyan led SGR designed to link Kenya to Uganda, Rwanda,  Tanzania, Burundi and even South Sudan remains bugged down in sovereign crisis, presidential egos and funding challenges.

President Yoweri Museveni recently advanced a vision of a railway line from Uganda down to Cameroonian coast. Sometimes ago, Presideht Al Sisi signed agreement with deposed Sudanese president for a rail link between Cairo and Khartoum. That dream too is virtually dead.

Last year,  there was the gladdening news of a revival by the Margreb Union of a trans Margreb railway line connecting Morroco, Algeria,Tunisia and Egypt. The Algerian political crisis seems to have stemmed that agenda. The most striking was the plan by the Kings  of Morrocco and Spain to link Africa with Europe by rail line. That plan is in the pipeline.

Similarly,  two years ago, the governments of Chad and Cameroun agreed to a plan to link both  countries by railways. The plan is yet to take-off. May be the two countries are too preoccupied with political upheavals to address the project. 

The West African region has several trans national railways projects that are proceeding well even though with elements of hiccups here and there. Nigeria is funding railway line from Kano to Maradi in Niger republic. The project is a landmark as it will link Nigeria directly by rail to a country in the Shaelo Sahara axis of the continent. If all went well, it may in the future be possible to move goods and services from West African port of Lagos to the landlocked Niger republic.

Ivory Coast is also rehabilitating her rail line with Burkina Faso, another landlocked nation that import and export through the port of Abdjan. Ghana and  Burkina Faso are  also jointly  rebuilding their old railway line  while Senegal is also pressing ahead with the upgrade and rehabilitation of the Dakar -Bamako railway line.A drawback though is the failure of an earlier project that was to link Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso and Ivory coast. Legal tussle equally stalled the very brilliant proposed line between Benin and Niamey. 

Worst still, the Economic Community of West  Africa (ECOWAS) has failed to initiate a West African coastal railway to run from Nigeria to Benin,Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Senegal and finally Maurutania. The project is not even on the agenda of the commission. The African Development Bank (AfDB) appears interested in funding a trans west African coastal road instead of the more beneficial  coastal railways.Nigeria appears to be taken the bull by the horn in this respect by its ongoing coastal railway which will run from Lagos in the west and Calabar in the south-south. The project if successfully executed may lay the groundwork for the much needed rail connectivity among the West African states.

On this , AfCFTA faces the hurdle of division and dichotomy between Franco and Anglo sections of the continent. Many observers felt the West African  coastal rail is being frustrated by external influence. How true this is,  is difficult to verify.

Like West Africa, the South African region has recorded many firsts in railway connectivity. TAZARA is a great model needing restructuring and capitalisation. South Africa has also upgraded rail links with many countries within the SADC. Recently Zambia,  Zimbabwe  and Namibia inked a railway agreement. Even when the old dream of  Cape to Coast line is still a plan, recent developments also raise a gleam of hope.

The debut of African high speed rail project with six corridors covering the entire  continent is a commendable development. The NEPAD agency that is handling the project has conducted extensive studies, design and  consultation. Against all odds,  it promises to be a magnetic touch the continent has been waiting for to fast track connectivity among Africans. The timing of the high speed project in relation to AfCTA is simply a welcome development.

Having said all these, African leaders still have serious challenges at hand especially in the area of transforming rail dreams into reality. Whatever, Africa should not settle for the lowest. Having being this backward for long, its developmental reach must be ambitious to bridge the wide gulf and deficit of infrastructure slowing down the continent’s development.

The high speed project is however not a substitute for regional and national railway plans. Each regional economic commission’s should have a railway master plan to ensure connectivity across the blocs. While the high speed rail is the continental six corridors line, each regional and national plan should be built to ensure maximum linkage and connectivity with the main line continental line.

SADC has advanced far ahead of other regions in this respect. East African region followed closely with ambitious Kenyans under Uhuru Keyatta. West Africa is still far behind in terms of integration despite commendable national plans.

Certain basic issues must however be addressed by  African leaders especially on railway development. First is that the high speed project is a great initiative deserving of support of all Africans. Secondly, there is a need for the creation or revival of African railway Union. 

Can the great guys handling the high speed be the nucleus of the new railway union? That may be a decision for political leaders to make when the time comes.

But that as it is,there is the urgent need for the  continent to have a railway body. The reasons are basically obvious. There is need for interoperability and compatibility of systems. Different signalling systems plus incompatible rails systems are the bane of the continent.

Aside the prevalent of narrow meter gauge,  the increasing presence of the Chinese rail system raises question of seamless rail connectivity between different national railway systems. As the Chinese systems have been installed in several African  countries, the issue is how to align such with the many European systems on the continent.

While technical people may be working hard on a continental policy to address that technical challenge, an ad hoc plan cannot work. There is a need for a technical continental railway body to set African standards across various value chains of the railway sector. Such standard may require national upgrade by several national governments. It may also imply compliance by several national governments in future railway expansion and modernisation projects.

The preceding is just scratching the surface of this very huge topic. I only attempt to refresh our policy memories that AfCFTA needs a functioning railway systems to succeed. Movement of goods and services across borders and nations is best handle by freight and passenger rail services not to talk of huge boost for rail tourism, rural development and closer interaction and relationship among Africans.

NEPAD as the African Union development agency probably needs to convene a special conference on the above subject. That conference will involve all national railway agencies  railway and transportation ministries, logistic experts and railway suppliers and stakeholders. The subject will be beyond the high speed rail. It will be about alignment, compatibility and master plans for regional economic blocs and national governments.

A functioning continental railway system is a must for the successful take off of implementation of the AfCFTA

*Olawale Rasheed,  Director African Railway Roundtable writes from Abuja Nigeria.

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