Railways liberate our geography, they cannot be driven by pedestrian thinkers

Monday March 22 2010

 

By JENERALI ULIMWENGU

Reports that the Tanzanian government has ended a contract putting the management of Tanzania Railways Ltd in the hands of an Indian railway operator have been received with jubilation by railways employees.

It is the culmination of a long and acrimonious argument during which the workers’ calls to have the contract rescinded received short shrift from the government.

A few years ago, faced with the unending and mounting problems afflicting the Central Railway Line, the government handed over the management of the railway to Rail India Technical and Economic Services (Rites) under terms that were seen by the employees as disadvantageous to the country.

Since then, they have been calling for a reversal of that decision.

In a way, therefore, the government has had to eat humble pie by going back on a decision that Infrastructure Minister Shukuru Kawambwa had vowed would never be reviewed, apparently because the government saw Rites as an infallible saviour.

Except in the sense that the government has demonstrated an undying love for foreigners running things for it, the stubbornness on the part of Kawambwa and company is surprising, especially as Rites showed from early on that they were intent on reneging on their commitments, including paying workers’ salaries, so that a scenario emerged wherein they would have the exclusive right to rake in profits, if any, but would not be bound to pay salaries.

Deals don’t come any sweeter.

Finally, though, the deal has come unstuck and the government is once again saddled with an unwanted baby, having to dig deep into its pockets to get the wherewithal to run a service that is crucial to the country’s economy but has been neglected for decades.

But more than the finances, the government is called upon to summon its intellectual resources to comprehend the absolute necessity of having a working railway system.

Need anyone be reminded of the importance of a sturdy and efficient railway network in buttressing the nation’s carrying capacity, servicing the interior and reaching out across our borders to link our landlocked neighbours to our ports?

Does anybody need any more lessons in infrastructural longevity than the fact that the central line, laid at the dawn of the last century by the German colonists, still lies there — defying age, the elements and a culture that knows nothing about maintenance?

Can any road, except those thoroughfares built by the Romans of antiquity, compete with this line, or with the Lunatic Line built by imperialist William Mackinnon to link Uganda to the Kenyan coast? The French word for railroad is chemin de fer, “road of iron,” and it’s not for nothing.

A major problem with our decision makers is that they hesitate to make decisions, real game-changing decisions that reinvent landscapes and liberate slices of geography to send the human spirit soaring through spaces hitherto unimagined.

In this sense, they have remained painfully pedestrian, tied to the treadmill of mundane pursuits, tinkering at the edges of whatever they propose to tackle.

Just imagine a railway network that would link, say, Tanga and Musoma (apparently in President Jakaya Kikwete’s plans); Dodoma and Mbeya through Iringa; Iringa with Mtwara through Songea; Mtwara with Dar es Salaam through Kilwa; and Kigoma with Sumbawanga , etc.

And, if the other East African countries did the same, in the not-so-distant future, we — if we engender progeny, we cannot die — should be able to ferrry the heaviest of goods from Voi to Gitega, from Butare to Lindi, from Gulu to Moshi.

A tall order, you say, a figment of a crazed imagination?

Yes, just like Mckinnon before, and the Wright Brothers before him, and Christopher Columbus before them, and (mythically) Icarus before everyone else.

As my friend Tajudeen used to say, those who cannot dream a beautiful dream are condemned to suffer nightmares forever.

As for the propensity of our rulers, some of them with impressive academic prefixes, to enter into agreements that even a blind man would not touch, the more said about it the better, but that will be for another day.

Jenerali Ulimwengu, chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper, is a political commentator and civil society activist based in Dar es Salaam. [email protected]