Of Covid-19, old men’s memory and railways revival

For an invisible thing, this Covid-19 pandemic has a lot of power, mostly indiscriminate and destructive. In a very short time it has earned itself a place in history as the pandemic that changed the world and as a point of reference in the telling of the human story in future.

But that’s not all. It now appears to have other powers, like resurrecting long forgotten ideas, or at any rate arousing nostalgia. Not far from here, it has jogged the memory of an old man and made him remember ideas on transportation of bulk goods he had shelved all these past thirty five years.

 

The recollection came via cross-border truck drivers. It was discovered in the last few weeks that they were the single group testing positive for Covid-19 in East Africa and therefore posing the most danger for transmitting it across the entire region.

 

Something had to be done to stop this danger. That included some measures which the drivers did not like.

 

This realisation apparently reminded Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni of one of his pet subjects when he had just come to power in January 1986.  He would, at every opportunity, make a strong case for railways as the cheapest and most efficient form of transport for bulky cargo.

It made a lot of sense.

At the time Uganda had a railway line from Malaba on the border with Kenya to Kampala and then on to Kasese near the border with DRC, and a northern loop that went up to Pakwach near Lake Albert.

It was lucrative, too. A whole economy had been built along the whole stretch. It also had an East African character. Various nationalities from Uganda and Kenya had settled along the line and integrated with the local communities.

In the years that followed, he spoke less frequently and with diminished enthusiasm about the railway and finally fell silent altogether. Until now.

It is now 2020. President Museveni is talking of reviving Uganda’s old railway system. The arguments are still the same and compelling. But there is hardly any railway left. Not many remember where the old line used to pass.

The question must then be asked: what happened to the railways during those thirty odd years of silence?

The railway simply died.  It was not killed by a pandemic like the present one but by powerful road transporters, some of them in top government positions and security positions or with close links to them.

Those influential individuals and groups have not gone away. If anything, they have grown wealthier and more powerful. Truck drivers, too, are a very organised group and carry some threat judging by the disruptions they have caused in recent days.

This is not the first time the railway project is being revisited. A few years ago, leaders of countries along the Northern Corridor had a similar vision of a standard gauge railway line from Mombasa to Kampala and Kigali, and eventually to Burundi and DRC.

Things were going very well. Then some people scuttled the plans, particularly the expansion to Kigali. Ironically this was done by the same people touting the virtues of rail transport and calling for its urgent revival. Why did they do it? Spite, most likely. But it looks like a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face because their side of the SGR has not taken off. It actually remains in limbo.

The search for alternative transport of goods particularly for landlocked countries is not new nor unique to Uganda. Rwanda, for instance, is keenly aware of its importance.

The urgency this time, enough to prompt the recollection of a long abandoned idea, is the vulnerability of these countries to unpredictable acts of nature and planned actions of organised groups that Covid-19 and the truck drivers has exposed..

The last few weeks have shown that truck drivers could paralyse the economies of landlocked countries. Even a single rogue driver could. It has happened at Malaba on the Kenya-Uganda border and at Benaco close to Rusumo on Rwanda’s border with Tanzania.

In the case of Rwanda, it took delicate negotiations between the two countries’ officials to get the goods flowing again. The situation at Malaba is still under negotiation.

This experience with truck drivers in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic has also revealed a number of things that must be urgently addressed.

First, these countries must quickly find a secure alternative or additional means to transport vital exports and imports. Hence the importance of SGR or in the case of Uganda, restoration of the old narrow gauge line.

Second, they must find ways of reducing dependency on external supplies and raise domestic production capacity of some of them.

Third, regional cooperation seems to be dependent on the goodwill or personal relationships of leaders. While this is a fact in international relations, it should complement strong and functioning institutional bases of cooperation.

By exposing all these, Covid-19 and the truck drivers might be doing East Africans an unlikely favour – speeding up the search for reliable and secure transport of goods and plugging the gaps in existing cooperation frameworks.

The hope is that this will not die when Covid-19 ends.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

editor@newtimesrwanda.com

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