‘Lapsset of 2063’: With love from Hobyo, through Ethiopia, to Matadi port in DRC

Monday November 13 2023

A cartoon illustration. PHOTO | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The African cross-border infrastructure affair is getting steamy again.

The latest, we learnt the other day that the US, European Union, the African Development (AfDB), and the Africa Finance Corporation launched a meaty $600 billion project to develop the Lobito Corridor to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Zambia–Lobito railway, which will together form a link across the continent.

Also, that the Chinese government had given a nod to the state-owned China Railway Construction Corporation to negotiate a concession for the operation of the Tazara railway line. The line was built by China in the 1970s, to connect Zambia’s copper-mining region with Tanzania’s port of Dar es Salaam. It fell into disrepair long ago, and today is an embarrassing shadow of its glorious old self.

Read: Roads, railways, bridges: Changing face of EA’s cities

The Chinese concession would bring Tazara back from the half-dead, to supply the world’s renewed hunger for copper.

In 2013, the African Union gave us the ambitious “Agenda 2063”, a futuristic blueprint of an Africa that stands tall in the world. Among its 15 projects is the Integrated High-Speed Train Network, which aims to “connect all African capitals and commercial centres through an African High-Speed Train Network thereby facilitating the movement of goods, factor services and people. The increased connectivity by rail also aims to reduce transport costs and relieve congestion of current and future systems”.


Read: AU ropes debt management into Agenda 2063

Unsaid in all this, are the political and economic security implications of these corridors and infrastructure. The point was illustrated dramatically recently when Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that the question of permanent port access for his landlocked country had to be addressed.

There was some nervousness because some of Ethiopia’s neighbours understood him to mean he would invade them and create access to the coast by force.

Abiy retreated, but he had a point. Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous nation and the world’s largest landlocked country. If it doesn’t self-destruct in fratricidal wars, it could become Sub-Sahara Africa’s third-largest economy in the near future. It is not tenable so must be resolved. We might hide our heads in the sand, and make all the noise in the world, but the situation will give. The question then is how it will get permanent port access.

The world dreamt in Agenda 2063 offers a solution of sorts, as do integration — and wild boldness. The makings of this wildness are already in place.

Read: Africa’s pledge to accelerate industrialisation

One of the solutions is in things like the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (Lapsset) Corridor project, from Kenya’s Lamu Port, linking up with South Sudan and Ethiopia.

Lapsset has had a long life of fits of starts, and its progress has been clouded by the threats of attacks by the Somali-based al Shabaab jihadist insurgents. But what if Lapsset was flipped and made more ambitious?

Move it up, and start the corridor to the port city of Hobyo north of Mogadishu, run it to Beledweyne, and then into Ethiopia. From there, run it along the Ethiopia-Kenya, Kenya-South Sudan, and Uganda-South Sudan borders, then cut through to southern Uganda’s border with Tanzania, and down to Rwanda and Burundi. From there the line would slice through the Democratic Republic of Congo, and on to the Matadi port on the Atlantic Ocean.

It would present a hundred problems to overcome, no doubt. How do you deal with al Shabaab and others? Well, you give them a share in the project, by bringing them into the legal constitutional process in Somalia.

How would the world’s potentially longest infrastructure project be funded? There we learn from Ethiopia. It set a goal of raising $1 billion from Ethiopians to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd), Africa’s largest hydropower dam, and quickly raised $450 million. When all the numbers are done, they could have hit the $1 billion target. Fifty per cent of the funding could be raised a la Gerd.

The East African population is very young and exploding. The region continues to produce children like it is going out of fashion. And there are tens of millions of them unemployed.

Read: GRYNSPAN: New opportunities for accelerating pan-African trade

To lower costs and speed up the project, East Africa can very easily throw five to ten million young people to work on the project on short-term contracts.

An even better thing would be to build a canal from Hobyo along the same route, and it would come into northern and lower eastern Uganda because of the River Nile. While the river has been a boon to countries like Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt, you can’t build any infrastructure across these countries without having to reckon with it. A canal from Somalia, Ethiopia, and on to Matadi, while technologically possible, would be nightmarishly complicated. This time, Egypt would surely go to war to stop the risk, however small, that it poses to the Nile.

A limited canal, however, would come as close as possible to providing Ethiopia with unfettered access to the sea within the constraints of Africa’s modern-day colonial borders. It would also change, for the better, Somalia’s, Ethiopia’s, and South Sudan’s strife-riven politics that continuously threaten to break these countries apart.

A railway linking the western end of DRC to the East African would have the same effect. As the Kenya-Uganda did, it would draw most people to live close to the line and create a prosperity corridor that partly cuts through the long-suffering and conflict-plagued eastern regions of the country.

What we need now is one or two leaders in the mould of 19th century prime minister of Prussia and the first German chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Ruthless, but shrewd, and competent unifiers.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the «Wall of Great Africans». X@cobbo3