Rail transportation and the promise of AfCFTA
By Okofu Ubaka
Now that almost all 55 countries of the African continent have signed the Africa Continent Free Trade Agreement (AFCFTA), it is expected that concerted effort should be tailored along proper trade integration. One way this can be achieved is by connecting all major cities in Africa by rail. It has been argued that the reason we have more cities in Southern Africa which are connected by rail than in Sub-Sahara Africa is because of the difficult terrain in West Africa. Constructing roads in the tropics cost more than doing so in a Sahel or drier regions.
Pundits have hailed the decision of the federal government of Nigeria to extend railway transportation to Niamey in Niger at a cost of over N67billion. The rail option is expected to trigger exponential trade growth, and by extension, an increase in the GDP of respective regional states. Admittedly, road transportation comes with some relishing advantages. In addition, we may also not undermine the flexibility and accessibility of the road transport system. Nonetheless, it cannot be impugned that in the haulage of large volumes of goods between countries of a homogeneous region, this may be better done using rail transportation.
Apparently, the focus of the African Continent Free Trade Agreement centers on the removal of tariffs in intra-Africa trade. The Pan-African free trade zone promises to be the biggest business agreement in the world considering the numbers of countries that are signatories to the trade agreement. However, a lot has to be done to ensure its’ success. Beside warding off undue interference from our former colonial masters and America, we must do more in the areas of boosting trade integration and dependable railway connectivity across all the major commercial cities in all 55 African countries.
Vehicular transportation of goods is as old as the railway system. However, advancement in railway technology and it’s suitability to commerce and industry have shown that the rail transport system is no longer inferior to vehicular haulage of persons and merchandise. More especially in conveying large volume of goods and passengers over considerably long distance, and within recorded time. Time and space had since removed rail transportation from the domain of rigid, unscientific and analog medium of transportation where it has long been subsumed. All over the globe, there are ample evidences that rail transportation system is crucial to every fast growing economy. No doubt, the road system had dominated the economic activities of most, if not all 54 countries of the African continent for a long time now. Apparently, this is as a result of the flexible and accessible nature of the road transport system.
In spite of the foregoing, it is my humble opinion that Africans do not have any option but to embrace modern rail transport system if the goal of a pan African free trade zone is to be achieved within the shortest possible period . Already, a few African states are blazing the trail of modern rail technology. For instance, the Tanzania government has acquired fast cargo trains with capacity to do 120/per hour. South African Blue luxury trains must also be mentioned alongside fast and modern rail operations in other parts of Africa. We have also witnessed some giant strides in rail transportation in Ethiopia. Nigeria, the supposed giant of Africa has been too casual and lackadaisical with that sector for a very long time. However, the last lap of the of Dr. Jonathan Goodluck administration witnessed some potent policies in revamping the Nigeria rail. But, full credit must be given to President Buhari led administration that has gone beyond mere talk to resuscitate the hitherto moribund Nigerian rail system. The administration has also gone ahead to establish a Railway University in Daura.
Urbanization and industrialization has not only subjected our roads to litmus test, but has gone further to show that vehicular transportation in Nigeria has come a long way, but it is no longer convenient and suitable for conveyance of bulk mineral products and commodities. From the extreme end of Northern Nigeria to the Southern region, through the Middle Berth region and down South-western Nigeria, the story of the Nigerian road is the same. The roads are overstressed and impassable. Let me quickly add here that the twin factors of industrialization as well as escalating numbers of urban population were treated with kids gloves. Successive Nigerian administrations had also received back lashes for faulty economic and development plans. From the long term plans of the 1960s to the 1970s, the fixed medium development plans of National Economic and Empowerment Development Strategy, ( NEEDS), to the present rolling budgetary plans, none has been sincerely implemented. The debauchery in implementation of development plans share paternity with the Nigerian Railway Corporation. The Nigerian Railway Corporation was allowed to slip into comatose because those in authorities were, and still shortsighted. Our roads would not have been in the deplorable state that they are today if the Nigerian rails were operationally effective, even in the 1990s. It is imperative to note that all three refineries in the country became moribund in the early 1990s , and since then the importation of petroleum products has led to an unprecedented movement of the products by heavy duty vehicles to the nooks and cronies of the country, including neighbouring countries. In developed system, petroleum products are conveyed by rail. In some cases, pipeline conveyance is engaged to ease off undue pressure on the rail tracks. What will it cost to have railways from Dangote’s factories to its’ various distribution chains across the country? This will be a great relief to our roads which are already congested. Why would a Chinese tile factory in Benin-city, Edo state spend so much connecting Koko harbor, first by road, and Douala by sea just to get its finished products across to Cameroon and other regional market when a straight trip by a railway could have been be engaged from the location of the factory to Douala or Yaounde.
While a few African countries are getting it right through Public Private Partnership (PPP), most land border-countries in the continent are slipping into the age of Methuselah in rail technology. To state the obvious, most African countries are poor, hence, private participation through concessionaries look very much the way to go in resolving the rail challenges in Africa. In Nigeria for instance, the Build , Operate and Transfer (BOT) in road infrastructure has been applauded. Lekki and Ikoyi road concessionaries are on-going and relatively hitch free. We are not only to learn from this, but can repeat such feats in the rail sector. The Nigerian government can partner with Dangote Group and have the latter construct railways as distribution channels from its refinery ( which is still under construction though) to connect major cities in the country as well as neighbouring Benin Republic, Cameroon, Mali, Ghana, Togo, and Niger Republic. This way, gridlocks on our roads will be a thing of the past. It amounts to a faux pas, if not abominable to build a sea port without rail tracks, and the only reason the Apapa gridlock may never be resolved is because a rail facility was omitted from the original plan of the wharf. .