Ethiopia-Djibouti Electric Railway — The Beginning of Trans-Africa Railway?

UPDATED August 20, 2019 07:51 am .

Francis Cordor
August 20, 2019 07:51 am

Nearly 150 years ago, on May 10, 1869 in remote desert location in Utah, the last spike of America’s transcontinental railroad was driven into the ground — and America was forever changed. The country, and the world for that matter, grew smaller as intercontinental trade soared. Meanwhile, the railroad stimulated public discourse and intellectual life. Today in the United States, railroads may seem like quaint relics of the past, but they keep chugging along. In fact, U.S. railroads move 54 tons of freight per person each year.

150 years later, on the other side of the world, an electric train recently rolled out of Djibouti City, heading toward Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on its inaugural run. As Africa’s first electric transnational railway, this was a historic moment and thoroughly modern. The prime minister of Ethiopia expressed confidence that this line would change the social and economic landscape of both Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Not only does the railway cut what would normally be a three or four-day trip by truck down to about 12 hours, it is part of a much larger vision involving three ports, two airports, a water pipeline, and potentially several coal-fired power plants. With Djibouti’s prime seaport location, many believe that the tiny nation could become an international shipping hub similar to Hong Kong. Officials are hopeful that the new railroad is the first step toward making the dream of a trans-Africa railway linking the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic a reality.

As you can imagine, a trans-Africa railway would be transformative, just as the transcontinental railroad in America was. The Ethiopia-Djibouti Electric Railway has already had a positive local benefit as thousands of laborers from Djibouti and Ethiopia were employed during its construction. Plus, in five years, local conductors are expected to take over system operations. As freight and passengers move across borders, as more ports open, and as more power plants come online, problems like poverty and chronic unemployment will improve. Perhaps, they, too, could become relics of the past…

The catch? There’s almost always a catch, and sometimes more than one. Construction and funding for the modern electric railway came from China, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing per se. Africa’s future requires a fair amount of foreign investment. However, Djibouti’s portion of the debt is massive — about 60 percent of its gross national product according to the New York Times. If the government’s calculated risk pays off and growth continues at its current 6.7 percent rate, Djibouti should be able to pay its loans.

Another serious concern involves a familiar problem that has plagued African governments for decades: corruption. Djibouti opposition leader and former presidential candidate, Mohamed Daoud Chehem, has voiced concern about transparency and potential malfeasance. He’s right to be concerned. After all, Djibouti consistently scores low on the Corruptions Index; plus, China is pumping in more than $14 billion toward infrastructure projects in Djibouti — is some of that money lining corrupt officials’ pockets?

Ongoing maintenance and associated costs are another matter of concern. Will maintenance be a priority or an afterthought? This certainly isn’t Africa’s first railway. Plenty have come before, and fallen into disrepair due to a lack of maintenance. It would be a shame to see the dream of a trans-Africa railway transform into a pile of rubble and rust due to neglect or a lack of foresight and funding.

Currently, the $4 billion railway runs 466 miles, which is huge when you consider the challenges and time requirements involved in traveling between the two capital cities. To reach the western coast of Africa and become the Trans-Africa railway many Africans are hoping for, the railway will eventually need to be extended by more than 4,000 miles. Daunting, yes. Doable? Where there’s a will, there’s a way. You can bet other nations will be watching.

With the inaugural run from Djibouti City to Addis Ababa, spirits are high and the future looks bright. If local governments are as serious as China is in transforming Djibouti’s ports into an international business hub, they’ll work to become more transparent and ensure that this investment pays off in both the near- and long-term. As Djibouti and Ethiopia begin to thrive economically as the result of the railway, we expect to see growing interest in extending it. The seeds of the Trans-Africa railway have been planted.

In 1869, when the last spike was driven into America’s transcontinental railroad, a signal from that spike was carried across wires to San Francisco and New York, triggering celebratory cannon blasts and putting the world on notice that America was on the move.

We didn’t hear any cannon blasts last month as the train left the station, but we did hear joyous singers and plentiful voices of hope and praise for the electric transnational railway. We applaud the completion of this ambitious project and understand the euphoria and hope that many are feeling right now. The railway has the potential to change this small corner of Africa for the better, and if successfully extended to the Atlantic, it could help to transform the continent.

Featured Photo:  A train runs on the Ethiopia-Djibouti railway during an operational test near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Africa’s first modern electrified railway—the Ethiopia-Djibouti railway built by Chinese firms, became fully operational on Wednesday. XINHUA PHOTOS  -LI BAISHUN

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