West Africa: New rail­way net­work to boost in­ter-re­gional trade

Rail to link Benin, Burk­ina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Niger, Nige­ria and Togo

Africa Renewal - - Contents - By Franck Ku­wonu

On the dual car­riage­way link­ing the main air­port to down­town Ni­amey, the cap­i­tal of Niger, work­ers are busy dig­ging trenches in the mid­dle of the is­land sep­a­rat­ing the lanes, and lay­ing tracks where rows of lamp­posts once stood. They are rac­ing against the clock to build a thou­sand-kilo­me­tre stretch of a re­gional net­work that will con­nect Ni­amey to the West African sea­port of Cotonou, Benin. The project is ex­pected to be com­pleted by the end of 2015.

“We’ve waited so long for the train to ar­rive,” quipped Nige­rien pres­i­dent Mo­hamadou Is­soufou as he ush­ered his coun­ter­parts from Benin and Togo into a brand-new car­riage on a muggy day in April 2014. The sym­bolic ride lasted for only a few min­utes. “His­tory is in the mak­ing,” said Pres­i­dent Is­soufou.

Build­ing a rail­road net­work along the West African coast from Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire to Lomé in Togo has been talked about for years. The net­work is ex­pected to boost trade among Benin, Burk­ina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger and Togo. After sev­eral de­lays, the project is now firmly back on track fol­low­ing the decision by the ex­clu­sively fran­co­phone Con­seil de l’En­tente (Coun­cil of Ac­cord), the old­est West African subre­gional co­op­er­a­tion fo­rum, to start con­struc­tion. Niger and Benin started work­ing on their stretch of the project in April, to be fol­lowed by Burk­ina Faso and Togo shortly there­after.

Sur­face trans­port slow

Land­locked Niger de­pends on its neigh­bours’ sea­ports and road in­fra­struc­ture to move its ex­ports and im­ports. Much of its in­ter­na­tional trade is con­ducted through Cotonou and Lomé sea­ports.

Un­til re­cently, road tran­sit across the re­gion has been un­re­li­able. The sit­u­a­tion, how­ever, is im­prov­ing grad­u­ally as in­ter­na­tional trade cor­ri­dors are be­ing re­ha­bil­i­tated and many po­lice check­points that were slow­ing down traf­fic and be­ing used to so­licit bribes have been re­moved. Yet even in those im­proved con­di­tions, a pri­vate car could take up to 18 hours to travel the 1,050-km trip from Ni­amey to Cotonou. For freight trans­port, travel times are even longer; driv­ers could spend up to three or four days on the road.

A 2011 study of in­fra­struc­ture within the Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity of West African States ( ECOWAS) re­gion found that road freight across the West African re­gion moves at an av­er­age of 9.6 km per hour, almost half the av­er­age ve­loc­ity in south­ern Africa. The study, which was done by the World Bank’s Africa In­fra­struc­ture Coun­try Di­ag­nos­tic ( AICD), a project that ex­am­ines phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture in Africa, also found sur­face trans­port to be more ex­pen­sive than in the rest of Africa and other de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. It costs US$0.08 per kilo­me­tre to move one tonne of freight, twice the av­er­age cost in the rest of the de­vel­op­ing world. The pro­jected re­gional rail­road net­work is ex­pected to speed up tran­sit times for freight and re­duce the prices of con­sumer goods for land­locked Sa­he­lian coun­tries such as Burk­ina Faso and Niger be­cause most im­ported goods will be shipped by train. Those coun­tries are also ex­pect­ing the re­gional rail­road net­work to boost their ex­ports of nat­u­ral re­sources.

Net­work to speed up tran­sit time

Niger’s min­eral re­sources con­trib­ute a very small amount to its gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (GDP), although they rep­re­sent more than three- quarters of its to­tal ex­ports. Ac­cord­ing to Ox­fam In­ter­na­tional, a UK-based char­ity, Niger’s ura­nium ex­ports, which con­sti­tuted 71% of the coun­try’s to­tal ex­ports in 2010, con­trib­uted a pal­try 5.8% to its GDP.

Over the next decade, how­ever, the gov­ern­ment hopes to quadru­ple the rev­enue from ura­nium. Au­thor­i­ties rec­og­nize that re­duc­ing pro­duc­tion costs is key to max­imis­ing prof­its and tax ad­van­tages.

This will en­tail shift­ing to mov­ing ura­nium ore to the Cotonou sea­port by rail wag­ons, rather than truck­ing it over the 2,000 km from the North­ern Agadez re­gion.

A 2013 study by Con­seil de l’En­tente projects min­eral ex­ports for the en­tire re­gion will rise from 109,200 tonnes per year over the 2012–2020 pe­riod to 3.4 mil­lion tonnes per year over the 2020– 2030 pe­riod. Since shipping goods to and re­ceiv­ing them from Niger and Nige­ria ac­counts for 90% of the Cotonou sea­port’s ac­tiv­i­ties, Benin stands to gain from im­proved trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture.

Not every­body in Ni­amey is con­vinced that build­ing the trans­port net­work should be a pri­or­ity. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions went on the air­waves in May 2014 to voice their op­po­si­tion to the project, ar­gu­ing that Niger should spend its re­sources on guar­an­tee­ing food se­cu­rity and lifting its peo­ple out of poverty. The coun­try is ranked last on the lat­est UN De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme Hu­man De­vel­op­ment In­dex. The gov­ern­ment, how­ever, has the support of the coali­tion of op­po­si­tion par­ties.

“We are con­vinced that a rail net­work is very im­por­tant for a land­locked coun­try like ours. But rush­ing it over the first 140 km…is very sur­pris­ing,” said Seini Ou­marou, the leader of the coali­tion.

Niger’s gen­eral elec­tions are sched­uled to be held in early 2016. Mr. Ou­marou sus­pects au­thor­i­ties of be­ing in­flu­enced by “po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency,” as Pres­i­dent Is­soufou has vowed to ride the train to the events com­mem­o­rat­ing Nige­rien in­de­pen­dence on 18 De­cem­ber.

Ex­plor­ing in­no­va­tive fi­nanc­ing

The new tracks be­ing laid from Ni­amey will con­nect to an ex­ist­ing sub-net­work in neigh­bour­ing Benin. That seg­ment is part of a big­ger West African rail track project that will loop back to Abidjan with the ad­di­tion of a coastal rail line run­ning through Cotonou (Benin), Bada­gry (Nige­ria), Lomé (Togo) and Ac­cra (Ghana).

Ex­perts es­ti­mate that the Niger-Benin sec­tion will cost $1.6 bil­lion, a sum that has long de­terred in­vestors. Gov­ern­ments have now started ex­plor­ing in­no­va­tive fi­nanc­ing al­ter­na­tives. Be­cause of the eco­nomic po­ten­tial of th­ese projects and Africa’s ex­pected growth over the com­ing years, re­gional au­thor­i­ties are ea­ger to let pri­vate in­vestors take con­trol of the “strate­gic in­fra­struc­ture” for as long as nec­es­sary to re­coup their ini­tial in­vest­ments and make prof­its. They are invit­ing the pri­vate sec­tor to invest un­der build, op­er­ate and trans­fer (BOT) ar­range­ments. Un­der such an ar­range­ment, pri­vate com­pa­nies build and ini­tially op­er­ate the in­fra­struc­ture, then hand over op­er­a­tions and own­er­ship to the gov­ern­ment.

Bol­loré Africa Lo­gis­tics (BAL), the French company that has been awarded the Niger-Benin con­tract, cur­rently op­er­ates pub­lic ser­vice con­ces­sions in Côte d’Ivoire and Burk­ina Faso through a sub­sidiary, the So­ciété In­ter­na­tionale de Trans­port Africain par Rail.

Once the coastal rail line is com­pleted, the whole net­work will be 3,000 km with 1,200 km of new track, in ad­di­tion to the ex­ist­ing 1,800, which are to be re­ha­bil­i­tated. Other coun­tries in the re­gion are look­ing at sim­i­lar BOT ar­range­ments. Lead­ers from Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nige­ria, and Togo re­cently called on both BAL and Pan-African Min­er­als, a UK-based min­ing company, to fi­nance the coastal rail line link­ing Côte d’Ivoire to Nige­ria. The pro­jected cost for this rail project is about $58.9 bil­lion.

Since 2009, ECOWAS has been push­ing for in­ter­con­nec­tion of the rail net­works that ex­ist in 11 of its 15 mem­ber states. But un­like in South­ern Africa, where in­tra-re­gional rail net­works are well de­vel­oped and in­te­grated, in West Africa the rail sys­tems are mostly frag­mented and op­er­ate on three dif­fer­ent rail gauges (widths). Most fran­co­phone coun­tries’ rails are 1,000 mm wide, but Ghana­ian and Nige­rian rails are 1,067 mm wide, while Guinea and Liberia use the stan­dard 1,435 mm width. The coastal rail line project car­ries hope for the en­tire re­gion, in part be­cause its com­ple­tion would demon­strate that once-in­sur­mount­able tech­ni­cal chal­lenges can be over­come.

We’ve waited for so long for the train to ar­rive. His­tory is in the mak­ing.

Ado Yous­souf

Work­ers lay rails at a train sta­tion out­side Ni­amey, Niger.

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