By Godwin Agaba
With DRC, Burundi road projects, Museveni tapping into American and Chinese futuristic thinking.
This week (Wednesday, June 16, 2021), President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and his counterpart of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), H.E Felix Tshisekedi, broke the ground for the commence of works on stretches of road spanning about 223kms connecting the two countries.
The two leaders met at Mpondwe, a border point between Uganda and DRC where they commissioned a bridge.
The roads to be built are Nebbi-GoliMahagi-Bunia (190kms), Bunia-Bogoro-Kasenyi (55km) and Rwebisengo-Budiba-Buguma-Nyiyapandam, including Budiaba Bridge across River Semuliki (49km).
Uganda and DRC will contribute 20 per cent of the total cost of the project each while the 60 percent will be met by the contractor, Dott Services.
The ambitious construction projectis like no other in the region; its significance lies in how and why the two leaders have been swift with this “controversial” scheme whose goals harbor interests beyond what meets the eye.
The vast DRC is a new entrant into the East African Community bloc. Rich with natural resources, the “sleeping giant” has suffered from endless insecurity and economic disrepair as much of its countryside is isolated, “ungovernable and unserviceable.”
Tshisekedi is eager to boost the DRC economy and improve trade relations between the two countries.
“I pray that we also build such relations in other areas such as security and agriculture,” he said at the venue.
When the idea of Uganda taking up road projects in DRC first came up last year, it was resisted and talked down in many circles. The key argument was that Uganda had its share of undone roads internally and could not afford to “go throwing money about.”
But the government was not swayed by such arguments and Museveni, ever the ideologue for controversy, insisted that great strategic benefits would be achieved for Uganda.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out in March last year and when Museveni announced total lockdown that saw all forms of transport banned, cargo trucks carrying merchandise into and through Uganda were exempted.
There was worry that the truckers would cause infections to spike; Museveni instated strict testing measures for them but said the trucks would not be stopped because that would choke the economies of Uganda and the neighboring destination countries.
It is in the same spirit that the road works are being pushed. Uganda and DRC are natural trade partners. Many Congolese flock Uganda, all the way from the border towns, to Kampala looking for goods and services they cannot find in their native country.
In one way, it can be said that in socio-economic terms, DRC and Uganda have one capital, and that is Kampala.
Most of the goods that feed Eastern Congo come through Kampala from Kenya’s Mombasa port. But for all this time, roads are the main transportation route due to the absence of reliable diverse means such as railways.
But the roads are none like America’s Route 66, an old highway connecting major cities starting in Chicago and terminating in California on the West Coast, with a length of2,448 mi (3,940 km).
This road was also known as the Will Rogers Highway, the Main Street of America or the Mother Road, was one of the original highways in the U.S. Highway System.
It ceased to exist in 1985 when it was replaced by the current network.
Neither are they like Route 312, China’s equivalent to Route 66 which crosses the country from East to West, covering 4824 km from Shanghai to the border with Kazakhstan.
And while what is called the Northern Corridor road network is none like the above American and Chinese stretches, the American’s and Chinese are working on super highways connecting from country to country, coast to coast.
The US is working on the NAFTA Superhighway project, a series of north-south interstate highways across the U.S, consisting of new and expanded roads that would stretch from Canada through the U.S. to Mexico.
According to Peaked Traffic, a legal strategy for transportation triage , the proposal has been expanded in scope to encompass several “superhighways on steroids” with“oversized roads for car lanes, truck only lanes, parallel freight train rails, passenger train rails and utility corridors (electricity, oil, natural gas, water, etc)”.
The NAFTA Superhighways are a key component of further “globalization” of commodity production intended to homogenize local communities and further centralize control over manufacturing.
American West Coast port terminals are clogged with the flood of goods entering the US from foreign countries, and there are limited access routes between those ports and the rest of the country.
If one bought something from China in a Wal-Mart in Indiana or Tennessee, it is likely first had to pass through Long Beach, Oakland, Portland or Seattle area ports. Upgrading highway and rail connections to Mexican Pacific coast ports would allow these importers to expand their reach, which is good for the consumer as prices would go down.
More freight routes to Mexico may facilitate increased movement of US factories south of the border, which is closer for distribution networks than Asia. The concept is regarded as the “corridor of the future”, signifying the foresight of project developers.
China, on the other hand, through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived, is working on connecting East Asia to Europe by road.
BRI is sometimes called the “New Silk Road” after the original one which arose during the westward expansion of China’s Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), which forged trade networks throughout what are today the Central Asian countries of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as modern-day India and Pakistan to the south.
The routes extended more than four thousand miles to Europe.Central Asia was thus the epicenter of one of the first waves of globalization, connecting eastern and western markets, spurring immense wealth, and intermixing cultural and religious traditions.
Valuable Chinese silk, spices, jade, and other goods moved west while China received gold and other precious metals, ivory, and glass products.
Use of the route peaked during the first millennium, under the leadership of first the Roman and then Byzantine Empires, and the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) in China.
The overall aim of cross-country projects is usually to expand economic and strategic interests of host countries.
President Museveni, a leading advocate of African strategic defense and economic growth, has sometimes touted a railway network spanning Cairo to Capetown route through the heartland of Africa is a response to the “missing link syndrome” among the “similar peoples with common interests” But pulling of such a project would take more than billions of dollars to execute and express political will among the leaders of the host states.
The whole thing would take many decades to conclude. Could Museveni be counting on smaller initiatives as building blocks for larger projects across the black continent?
He is also fronting a road project from Mutukula at the Uganda-Tanzania border, through northern Tanzania to Burundi as an alternative to the Katuna-Rwanda-Burundi corridor.
The mutual interest of President Tshisekedi and the Burundians by which costs are shared out could see the projects come to maturity sooner rather than later, without overburdening any one side, and bolster cross border trade, development and the stabilization of a region that is a nest of insurgent groups taking advantage of accessibility bottlenecks by the respective governments.
Within Uganda, Museveni has fervently fronted infrastructure development as a catalyst for rapid economic development. The roads and infrastructure sector has enjoyed preferential budget support through allocation of the lion’s share of the national purse in successive financial years.
By expanding his vision across countries and finding cooperative partners like President Tshisekedi, Museveni is combining both the American and Chinese dreams to give East Africa (and Africa) a greater standing in the economic equation of the fast globalizing world.
What alternatives have opponents of these projects have to propose so that we make comparisons and find middle ground?
The writer is a Ugandan who is based in USA .