Trans-African Highway remains a road to nowhere

A 2006 World Bank report blames “isolation from regional and international markets” for contributing “significantly to poverty in many sub-Saharan African countries”. Upgrading the continental network would yield an extra $250bn in overland trade within 15 years, with substantial benefits for the rural poor, according to the report.

Road deaths

But bad road conditions not only impede economic growth. They kill. An estimated 24.1 persons per 100,000 die in sub-Saharan Africa in traffic accidents every year, according to a 2013 World Bank report, partially because motorways are sub-standard. Traffic deaths here are predicted to rise by 80% by 2020. The region has the world’s highest number of accident injuries despite having the fewest vehicles.

“We can expect the situation to deteriorate with economic growth meaning that the number of cars and trucks is going to increase very fast,” says Jean-Noel Guillossou, manager of the World Bank’s Africa Transport Policy Programme. “If measures are not taken you are going to have more accidents.”

Why is it taking so long?

So why is building the highway taking so long? A regional integration project of this scale requires harmonisation to precede it. Lack of coordination between neighbouring countries means some governments have prioritised developing TAH roads and others have not. “You can propose that roads are completed by a certain time, but you can’t force a country to complete because it is according to their own needs,” explains UNECA’s Guiebo.

Many landlocked countries consider creating roads to ports more urgent than building a link to other inland cities. “For Rwanda it is better to have a good road to Dar es Salaam [Tanzania] port or to Mombasa than to have a road linking them to Burundi or the DRC,” Guiebo says.

Other governments such as those in West and North Africa have shown similar reluctance to prioritise the TAH. “Places where there are big gaps are ones like Mali and Libya, Niger to Libya,” she adds. “It is a desert and the countries are not ready to put a lot of money to complete this part of the TAH when they have no good road to go to the ports. That is their priority – all we can do is advise them to put the TAH on their priority plan.”

The absence of an institution mandated specifically to oversee the network’s development is another part of the problem, making construction piecemeal and slowing it down. “We created an agency to implement these highways but it collapsed in the 1980s,” recalls John Tambi, NEPAD’s infrastructure specialist.

No monitoring agency

Although it falls under NEPAD, the TAH lacks individual agencies to implement and monitor each highway in the network.

One such unit governs the Algiers-Dakar road, which UNECA says is complete except for a 200km stretch of desert track in Niger. (This is the same road section on which almost 100 migrants died of thirst last year after their vehicles broke down as they tried to emigrate to Europe.) This trans-Sahara highway is the only branch of the network to have had a continuously operating bureau since 1964. Put in place by the Algerian government, it is an example for others to follow, Guiebo says: “It is pushing for very important improvements. But if there is no special institution it is hard to follow up the process.”

The trans-Saharan highway is an example of how one country can “champion” road development for its region, NEPAD’s Tambi says. “These challenges are regional and not owned by one state so you need a champion to put this forward, because politically some may not appreciate the significance of these networks,” he explains.

UNECA and the African Union Commission have drafted an intergovernmental agreement covering road safety, harmonisation of construction standards and other related issues, which was scheduled to be submitted to transport ministers in April this year. “If the agreement is accepted that means this will be the guideline for improving or rebuilding the remaining part of the highway, because for now it is not harmonised,” Guiebo says.

Regional trade will only improve with an upgraded and expanded continental road network. Still, no one can dictate to poor countries how to spend budget dollars; and competing agendas are likely to hamper any rapid change on the TAH. Africa has waited 43 years for this road system. The delay has cost the continent dearly, but it will be a while longer before citizens get the roads they so pressingly need.

Eleanor Whitehead is a reporter at the Financial Times, focusing on business, policy and development. She has travelled extensively and has a particular interest in sub-Saharan African consumer markets. Her work is also published in Business Day, Forbes and The Independent.

This article was first published by Good Governance Africa.