Baboons, blocks and borders – Regional integration at 12kmph

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      African Unity, regional integration and 'Boosting Inter-African Trade' have been on the African policy agenda for decades in some form or another. The AU anniversary summit in Addis Ababa last month reiterated some big aspirations for African integration with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam proclaiming that “during the next 50 years, Africa must be fully integrated. We hope all member states of the AU will implement their people’s recommendations expeditiously”. But if the last 50 years are anything to go by, aspirations are nothing when faced with the complications of reality.

      More fragmented than integrated

      That Africa is not well integrated becomes clear on the short trip along the North-South Corridor from Lusaka to Chirundu, a trip we took recently for the ECDPM-SAIIA project on the Political Economy of Regional Integration in Southern Africa. The need for integration can be interpreted at many levels, and most African economies need them all: all farmers need to be connected to roads, water and electricity, villages need links to towns and markets, and towns to cities and ports. The lack of integration is both a cause and a consequence of under-development. But regional integration is perhaps where the biggest challenges lie, and where the gaps between policy and practice are most visible.

      Getting connected

      Linking North and South

      The North-South Corridor is a concrete effort to address this. Launched in 2009 as a pilot Aid for Trade Project for the EAC-SADC-COMESA Tripartite Initiative, it aims to link the ports of Durban in South Africa through Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia to Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, with spurs linking to Angola, the DRC and Mozambique. Combining investment in hard infrastructure and “soft” infrastructure to reduce bureaucratic burdens, the corridor concept conjures up images of smooth roads winding across the African continent with trucks effortlessly shifting goods in and out of ports and across borders, keeping society and the economy running. Indeed, with donor support, transport is improving, investment is rising, roads are being built and borders are becoming more efficient. Efforts are being made to improve border crossings, with the Chirundu border hailed as a model for the rest of the continent as the first One Stop Border Post in Africa. But while regional integration is often seen as a technical issue for trade negotiators, technocrats and engineers, the real challenges seem to stem from the practical reality on the ground: major transport arteries also serve as local pathways and markets; small economies mean road transport is the only real commercially viable option in the region; without regular, expensive maintenance road surfaces quickly deteriorate; addressing this takes Herculean efforts to coordinate and cajole a whole range of government agencies to work together within and between countries; and since reforms by definition upset the balance of political, economic and administrative power, these are often blocked or simply dragged out.

      Regional integration up close

      Our trip, on what is a miniscule stretch of the North-South Corridor, highlighted several of these challenges. Steep hills for heavy trucks coming down from the Zambezi escarpment to the Chirundu border had just caused an accident; at various points baboons, dogs, goats and cows were crossing or encroaching on the road; numerous abnormal, wide loads destined for the mines obliged on-coming traffic to pull-over; and holes in the road meant swerving and stopping and more than one accident spotted in this one short trip. And this is not to mention petty corruption – a small fee of 20 Kwachas was required to ensure smooth passage with a cracked windscreen. And still, these were nothing as compared to the 5-day wait endured by some truck drivers at the border, and the queue of 20-odd trucks queueing at the Kafue weighbridge, obliging cars to drive use the wrong-lane. Peering over the border to Zimbabwe from the nice new One-Stop Border building, there were more stationary trucks queued up than seen on the road back to Lusaka, and most of these had likely been through similarly long waits at Beitbridge, the major border from South Africa to Zimbabwe. Drivers reported taking one full month to drive the 4000km round-trip from Durban to Lusaka and back. That is around 140km per day, or an average speed of less than 12kmph for a 12 hour working day, little more than jogging pace!

      Integrating is complicated

      What does all this really tell us? Firstly, we should not conclude that reforms have failed and donor support has been wasted. The pace of reform and improvements simply need to keep up with the demands of booming African economies. But in addition, whatever the political proclamations, regional integration is extremely complex -  though expensive, building roads and border buildings actually seems to be the easy part. Even at the one-stop border there are 8 or 9 different government institutions controlling paperwork for trucks going from one side to another, in the absence of agreement on who should have the role of controlling a more simplified, coordinated process. When a government agency’s entire revenue depends on maintaining a strong presence at the border post, cutting the red tape can be “challenging” to say the least. There are bigger issues as well. For all the talk around PPPs in infrastructure, while Zambia had taken what could be seen as an innovative step to handing its DRC border over to a private concession to improve efficiency, the concession was recently taken away amid rumours and accusations of wrong-doing and claims of political score-settling.

      Cui bono?

      So what more can policy-reformers do? Regional integration is really about the reality of transport on those roads, getting government agencies to work together, and a good measure of politics. A good start then would be to better understand who benefits from the current state of affairs. If regional integration really is the priority that governments say it is, what would it take for politicians to get their governments to act in a more coherent way? Why can governments in the regions not agree on apparently simple things like a standard axle load for trucks? Is there simply no demand? Policies and support formed with a better understanding of these political, economic and inter-agency drivers and constraints might help get the average truck speeds up from a jog to a run.
      Created with flickr slideshow.
      Slideshow of images from along the corridor. Including the Chirundu bridge
      Bruce Byiers is Policy Officer Trade & Economic Governance at ECDPM. This blog post features the author’s personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.
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