Circles in the sand?

The West African Rail Loop is a part of a mammoth project aiming to connect Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire to Cotonou in Benin, via Niamey in Niger and Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.  It’s being built in sections: a seven-year effort was announced in 2013 to build the Cote d’Ivoire-Niger section[i]; work started on the Niger-Benin section in February this year.  The first phase will connect Cotonou and Niamey. Work will then move on to extend the line 137km from Parakou to Gaya.  It will eventually reach all the way to Niamey and link up with the West Africa Railway and a coastal line running through Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana,[ii] an incredibly exciting prospect for anyone who loves to travel in the region.

The main aim of the railway is to boost trade – a 2011 study by the Economic Community of West African States reported that road freight across the region travels at an excruciating 1.6km an hour,[iii] hardly surprising to anyone who has passed along these often narrow, dusty, potholed roads, despite the improvements in recent years.

One beneficiary will be a profitable manganese mine at Tambao in north east Burkina Faso – French engineers have dreamt for years of linking the raw materials to ports on the coast. The extension of the line on to Niger will be a massive improvement to the infrastructure of the country, which currently has no working railways[iv] and no easy access to the sea.  Niger depends on its neighbours’ ports and roads to move its main export – uranium – to the coast, and the government hopes to quadruple the revenue earned from this trade over the next ten years.  The uranium industry made up only 5.8% of GDP in 2010, despite comprising over 70% of Niger’s exports. Reducing transportation costs will play an important part in redressing the balance here.

But the benefits will be felt more widely, it’s hoped, with reductions in transit times leading to a decrease in consumer prices as most imports will come by train. The coastal countries ought to prosper too – the passage of goods from the centre accounts for a whopping 90% of Cotonou’s work alone.[v]

For the Benin to Niger section, up to 40% of the cost of the project is likely to come from partners, 10% each from the governments concerned and 20% from Nigerian and Beninese private sector partners, according to officials in Nigeria.[vi] Bolloré Africa Logistics has won the contract for this part of the line, thought to be costing some $1.6 billion, under a build, operate, transfer arrangement, where private investors put in the initial investment and run the project at first, before passing ownership to the government.[vii] The company also plans to restore the track between Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire to Kaya in Burkina Faso.[viii]

The Niger to Ivory Coast section is reportedly being paid for by France and the EU – with substantial investment coming from Romanian financier Frank Timiş, who owns the mining rights at Tambao and will benefit exponentially from the railway.

The project has apparently been delayed in part due to a conflict between Timiş and Vincent Bolloré, the man behind the aforementioned Bolloré Africa Logistics, as they battle for control of the line.[ix] It’s thought that Niger’s upcoming elections (due next year) will move things on though as the government seeks to demonstrate its ability to get things done.[x]  Plans have been mooted for these continental rail networks since in the 1950s so this will be quite an achievement!

A West African rail loop will really boost trade, competition, cooperation and tourism in West Africa, let’s hope the governments of the region can maintain the momentum to keep this thing on track.

[i] Niger to Ivory Coast rail link lays tracks for African infrastructure expansion, The Guardian, 19 August 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/aug/19/niger-ivory-coast-rail-link

[ii] Benin-Niger railway project launched, Rail Journal, 20 March 2015, http://www.railjournal.com/index.php/africa/benin-niger-railway-project-launched.html

[iii] West Africa: New railway network aims to boost inter-regional trade, Africa Renewal Online, December 2014, http://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/december-2014/west-africa-new-railway-network-aims-boost-inter-regional-trade

[iv] Niger to Ivory Coast rail link lays tracks for African infrastructure expansion, The Guardian, 19 August 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/aug/19/niger-ivory-coast-rail-link

[v] West Africa: New railway network aims to boost inter-regional trade, Africa Renewal Online, December 2014, http://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/december-2014/west-africa-new-railway-network-aims-boost-inter-regional-trade

[vi] Rail line work between Niger and Benin to begin next month, African Review, 25 March 2014, http://www.africanreview.com/transport-a-logistics/rail/construction-on-railway-line-between-niger-and-benin-to-begin-in-april-2014

[vii] West Africa: New railway network aims to boost inter-regional trade, Africa Renewal Online, December 2014, http://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/december-2014/west-africa-new-railway-network-aims-boost-inter-regional-trade

[viii] Rail infrastructures in Africa: Sitarail rehabilitates the railway between Abidjan and Kaya, Bolloré Africa Logistics, 17 May 2014, http://www.bollore-africa-logistics.com/en/media/medianews/rail-infrastructures-in-africa.html

[ix] Niger to Ivory Coast rail link lays tracks for African infrastructure expansion, The Guardian, 19 August 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/aug/19/niger-ivory-coast-rail-link

[x] West Africa: New railway network aims to boost inter-regional trade, Africa Renewal Online, December 2014, http://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/december-2014/west-africa-new-railway-network-aims-boost-inter-regional-trade

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