• Kees Kibinda

Trans African Railway from Dakar to Djibouti

Updated: Feb 21, 2019

Did you know that the African continent has the lowest per square kilometre usage of railway compared to any other continent? Well, the AU has grand plans to change all that with the Dakar-Djibouti line being but a small piece of the puzzle.

African countries all seem to want to trade outside of the continent. Amongst the 55 countries there is little to no trade being done with each other even though the AU is blessed to have all 55 states as a member. Infrastructural obstacles are a major reason why this inter trade is not picking up steam yet.

This is looking to change soon with the aim to realise an ambitious plan that will connect west with east Africa by means of a railway and a road network. This network system will pass through ten countries. The countries are Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Besides this network, there are also other railways planned across the continent, however only the above-mentioned railway and road net is what will be discussed in this article.

Railway transportation was brought to Africa around the late 19th century and from its introduction it saw strong expansion for about 50 years. One of the biggest names in this infancy period would be Cecil Rhodes (A man that you have seen/heard me mention before in other articles). He had an ambitious plan of connecting Africa from Cape Town down in the South, all the way up to Cairo in the East. Sadly, that railway has not been built yet.

Past objectives of carrying prime commodities such as minerals, wood and tropical products from the interior of the continent to the ports to carry those products to European metropolises generally influenced the network of these railways. This starts at the seaport; to penetrate the hinterlands.

Till date, the entire African railway network is estimated at about 75,000 kilometres on a surface of 30.2 million square kilometres. This translates into a density of approximately 2.5 kilometers for per 1000 square kilometres which is far below other regions and the world average of 23 for 1000 square kilometres.

As stated earlier, this article focuses on the railway plans between Dakar and Djibouti, however, I must also state that the African Union has stated that they have plans of setting up more railway networks that will interlink with one another across the entire continent. There are some big obstacles to overcome before making this a reality.

The Dakar-Djibouti line is no exception to having obstacles and I have come up with 5 main obstacles that I see, that could hamper the progression of this lovely railway project. Here they are:

African railways mostly consist of single lines, penetrating inland from the coastal seaports with little interconnections apart from Southern Africa and some parts of North Africa. The average technical speed of African railways is roughly 30-35 kilometres per hour. The commercial speeds are even lower than that. I know this all too well because I once took a trip with some childhood friends from Zambia to Dar es Salaam. The trip took us a whopping 46 hours!

16 countries do not have railway lines or sections of international lines. The national railway networks in sub-Saharan Africa are mostly independent of each other except some parts in the east and southern African railway systems which are interconnected. Other interconnected railway systems are those of Burkina Faso - Ivory Coast, Senegal - Mali and Ethiopia – Djibouti.

Technical characteristics also come into play. You see, the African railway networks are characterised by different gauges; metric and standard (much like my writing, I do apologise), as well as a whole other host of divergent specifications and standards. This has resulted in Africa not being able to come up with an interoperable and interconnected railway network across the continent.

There is also the issue of funding. Instead of having one big budget or pot into which every member state contributes a sum, the projects are handled separately, with every individual country being made responsible for the building of their parts of the railway. As you would know; this is easier said than done.

The next point on my list is that of political instability and terrorism. Sadly, there are quite a bit of militants and terrorists active in different parts of Africa. A thing that these terrorists usually do is that they go for important landmarks and destroy them. You have guessed it; the railway lines would be a prime target.

The political instability in the region speaks for itself; when a regime is ousted, rules can easily be chased and then people could decide that the railway is not as important as the previous regime thought. This outcome would completely derail the project, even if it was upheld by an AU mandate. This last statement ties back in with my earlier point of funding being an issue.

The final big obstacle I foresee is that of corruption. To be able to pinpoint or show to you why I mention this, I can provide you with an example by looking into another railway project on the continent. I am referring to the railway network between Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger and Ivory Coast. The owner and former CEO of Bolloré Africa Logistics, the Frenchman Vincent Bolloré, has been detained over a corruption probe with regards to his business in Africa.

The reason why has not been confirmed, but I believe that it was tied to the above-mentioned project because back in 2010 Samuel Dossou Petrolin Group won the tender in Benin to build a railway from Benin to Niger. However, the Bolloré group started building with the backing of the governments from both Benin and Niger; getting straight to work by paying employees 20 months of wage arrears.

The Petrolin Group contested this action by Bolloré, and as a result; the whole project was put to a grinding halt, waiting for the outcome of this objection in court. As you can guess, this court procedure has taken up quite a bit of time. And time costs valuable money.

The network between Senegal and Djibouti will be a whopping 8715 kilometre road and railway project which entails combining Trans African Highway 5 (Dakar to N’djamena) and Trans African Highway 6 (N’djamena to Djibouti). The estimated total cost comes to 2.21 billion USD for the road network and another 5.95 billion USD for the railway section.

At present, 1276 kilometres of the missing link falls in the Trans-Atlantic Highway 6 Corridor of which 611 kilometres is in Sudan and 665 kilometres is in the Ethiopian-Djibouti stretch. There are no missing links on the Trans-Atlantic Highway 5. Its railway component entails a construction of a new railway network with standard gauge. This missing links are located between Ati in Chad and Ad-Damazin in Sudan which is 3686 kilometres. As well as between Bitkine and Mondo in Chad and Al Qadarif in Sudan; which is 4056 kilometres.

The completed railway line will run through Dakar, Tambacounda and Kedougou in Senegal. It will also run through Mali and Burkina Faso; covering approximately 3871 kilometres.

Though it could take years (if ever at all) to complete this project; once it stands, the outcome will be nothing but positive. I say that because the infrastructure would be getting a massive boost which will have a ripple effect on the economic development in the region by enhancing it.

Also, inter trade amongst the countries connected to the network as well as those slightly surrounding the region will be heightened as well. I have mentioned in previous articles that infrastructure is a major obstacle on the African continent with our standards falling far behind that of other continents. We are ranked at a mere 12%. This can and should be a lot higher. Once we start trading with each other, we will start manufacturing more instead of simply creating raw materials. Which is somewhat ironic since the idea of these railway lines came about due to former colonisers wanting to transport raw materials from inland to the seaports.

In sales we like to talk about low hanging fruit and when you compare inter trade amongst African borders with that of exporting produce to other continents; this would be a low hanging fruit. We are closer to each other and more homogenous compared to other countries outside of Africa; which makes inter trade between African countries the better option. Let us start focusing on inter trading amongst the 55-member countries.

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