Railway will test tenacity of ‘coalition of the willing’

Most observers have backed Rwanda’s tripartite alliance with Uganda and Kenya as a good move but will it live up to the expectations? Everyone hopes so. Hopes aside, the answer will depend on whether the partners maintain the energy with which they have started implementing major agreements and presidential pledges that have been made since July 2013 when the tripartite deal was sealed.

Most observers have backed Rwanda’s tripartite alliance with Uganda and Kenya as a good move but will it live up to the expectations? Everyone hopes so.

Hopes aside, the answer will depend on whether the partners maintain the energy with which they have started implementing major agreements and presidential pledges that have been made since July 2013 when the tripartite deal was sealed.

But today’s high optimism in the tripartite invokes the nostalgia of July 2009, when Rwanda joined the EAC. The development then, thrilled many and inspired a chorus of expected benefits after the country gained admission to the community.

A larger market for Rwandan exports, free movement of capital and people to invest within the region, residence and employment opportunities were among the many anticipated benefits. 

Yet five years on, Rwanda is resettling hundreds of nationals expelled from a partner state. Countries are still inward looking and protecting their national interests rather than promote regional integration.

Five years later, businesses are still impeded with cancerous non tariff barriers that have made EAC one of the most expensive regions for trade. A 2011 EAC business climate index survey found majority of traders lamenting that bribery at customs and ports had worsened.

The same survey was told by 53 per cent of Rwandan traders that efficiency in cargo handling by the port authorities had deteriorated with 89 per cent of them suggesting that congestion at the border stations is the cause of delays in clearing imports and exports.

The survey also found that the northern corridor was infested with multiple police roadblocks, 31 on the Kenyan side; 21 in Uganda, 22 in Tanzania with only two in Rwanda and four in Burundi, all these defeated the aspiration for free and fast movement of goods and people.

Many critics of the EAC have blamed these shortcomings on half hearted governments of the region who have failed to back resolutions with committed implementation.

What the tripartite seems to provide is this much needed commitment and sense of urgency in getting things done. So far, the speed is right but the question is can it stand the test of time?

At the inaugural tripartite meeting in Kampala, the presidents agreed to build a railway network, construct two oil pipelines, invest in Uganda’s oil refinery, clear non-tariff barriers by among others accepting national IDs for travelers from the three states and also issue a single Visa to promote tourism.

Staying true to their word, on Wednesday Jan 1, 2014, the use of the Identity card as a travel document and the single tourist visa came into force. Travelers just have to present their identity cards to the immigration officers at border to verify validity before being issued with a stamped coupon to cross the border.

It took just two months from October 28 when the decision was taken (during the Integration Projects Summit that was held in Kigali) and January 1 when implementation started. The speed was splendid. 

Under the single tourist visa that also came into force on January 1, a tourist to say, Kenya would pay $100 (about Rwf 66,500) for a 90-day Visa that would also enable them to access Rwanda and Uganda with the allies sharing the fees on a 40-30-30 basis.

The scheme is tipped to increase the number of tourists as well as marketing the region as a tourist triangle. 

But if these two were the simpler projects, the tripartite’s tenacity will come under test when it comes to implementing the railway network and the construction of the two oil pipelines. These two projects require mega funds.

Arguably, the poor road network between Rwanda and Uganda to Kenya is one of the factors holding back trade benefits for Rwandan traders.

The railway line project has failed before (but without Rwanda) when in 2005 Uganda and Kenya handed a 25-year concession to South African firm Sheltam as the lead investor but failed to generate the capital needed for the investment.

Will the hoodoo be broken this time round? Hopefully yes. 

Finally, the pipeline also has bad history to overcome following a 2007 contract that was handed to Libyan firm Tamoil but ended in turmoil. 

Tamoil was to build a pipeline for petroleum products from Eldoret to Kampala but discussions over the design and the acquisition of the land where it would pass hit a snag forcing the two countries to terminate the contract.

All said though, Kenya’s new president Kenyatta and Rwanda’s membership to the tripartite alliance are the two major factors to base on for the current momentum to stick. 

With the tripartite, the unofficial maxim that ‘whatever Kigali touches succeeds’ could be under test.

The author is a journalist currently on post-graduate studies at Communication University of China, Beijing

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