Sunday, October 28, 2012

China to Build West African Coastal Highway?

In the mid-1980s, I traveled with a friend by bush plane, bush taxi, canoes, and by foot along the coast of Liberia from Monrovia to Abidjan in Cote d'Ivoire. Anyone going along that same route today would probably have to use the same means: there is no continuous coastal road around the bulge of West Africa. In many places (see map) there is no road at all, and one walks, and fords the brown rivers by ferry or canoe.

About five years ago, I listed to a Chinese bank official tell me that his bank wanted to build a road around the coast of West Africa. The colonialist never built it: such a road makes no sense for trade or grabbing natural resources. Output from mines or forests usually goes from the interior out to the closest port, not along the coast.  But it makes sense in terms of getting from A to B. Think of the great Highway One along the east coast of America (being inundated by Hurricane Sandy, as I write).

I never heard about this road plan again ... until tonight, when Google alerts brought me this story from Ventures' Oluwabusayo Sotunde:
China signed an agreement on infrastructural development and economic cooperation with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Thursday in Abuja, Nigeria. The pact which was signed by the Vice Minister, Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China, Li Jinzao, involves China building a [2000 km] trans-West African highway (which will go through nine states).
This is the fabled coastal highway. Will it happen? As with any of these projects: follow the money. This would be hugely complicated, with nine countries responsible for repayment of any finance. Perhaps it will be tendered as a private-public partnership, with tolls. That's the Chinese model.


Tom said...

Well, it's not like the Chinese planned on having toll expressways. The original plan was to fund them with a fuel tax, but the State Council was never able to push the tax through the NPC. Tolls were the only option to fund the expressway buildout.

That having been said, toll expressways are probably the best way to go nowadays. The expressway networks in France and Italy were built as toll roads. Even the United States was well on its way to being connected by toll roads when Eisenhower stepped in and switched over to the German model. The interstates are now reaching their 50-year design life, and the US is having an awful time finding the money to renovate them for the next 50 years.

As far as West Africa is concerned, a single transnational toll road would help ensure its future viability. You wouldn't have one of the 9 countries skimping on maintenance and reducing its utility for the other 8. Also, if a coastal highway held no allure for the European colonialist, then it also makes it difficult for the Chinese to do one of their customary roads-for-resources deals. Geography is destiny.

Unknown said...

This is a useful post - I am doing a course on sustainable international development here in Scotland with special focus on sub-Saharan Africa and it is surprising that China's role and influence has not yet been mentioned in the lectures and seminars - yet everyone seems interested when the subject comes up in conversation. I note that a recent Economist article "Africa's economy, bulging in the middle", failed to mention China either and yet manifestly the ability of her companies to build infrastructure whether railways or mobile phone networks at affordable cost must be significantly contributing towards the impressive growth rates of some of the sub-Saharan countries.

Anonymous said...

It indeed is a welcome news for the building of a trans-West African Coastal Highway - no matter who ends up building it.

The highway will benefit the African people the most, and as the article has stated, it was never built because it never benefited the colonists nor those sole intention was/is to exploit Africa for personal profit.

Since this highway might end up be built by the Chinese, brace yourself, a new round of Anti-Chinese campaign is about to be launched !!

No matter what the Chinese does (and does not do) in Africa, there _will_ be people heaping criticisms and questioning the motive.

Yaw-in-Ghana said...

It seems that MOC is moving forward to study the feasibility of the project. I have some updates here.