Can China Realize Africa’s Dream of an East-West Transport Link?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 6

Map of a proposed trans-Africa highway network, ca. 2003 (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

African development hinges on a maddening paradox: its greatest asset—the sheer size and diversity of its landscape—is also the greatest barrier to its development. Landlocked countries are cut off from ports, and the difficulty of moving goods from country to country weighs down intra-continental trade (only 15% of African trade is within Africa. (African Development Bank, 2017) African consumers bear the brunt of these difficulties. [1]. Costs are driven up by a host of factors: tariffs, border delays, corruption. But the biggest challenge is that no streamlined transport route exists between West and East Africa – only a decaying and underdeveloped road and rail system which pushes up costs and drags down efficiency.

Several ambitious schemes have been proposed to link Africa’s east and west coasts, some of which are closer to full realization than others. Most notable in this respect is a plan to expand the existing Trans-African Highway 5 (TAH5) into a true cross-continental road and rail link, the early stages of which China has helped bring to fruition where Western consortiums failed. Likewise, Chinese investment in African infrastructure through Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) may help create expanded sub-regional linkages, particularly in East Africa, that could help facilitate the emergence of an eventual, true East-West link in the long term. However, in the short-to-mid-term, the obstacles to a truly robust set of East-West transport links are formidable, and it is unlikely that China’s involvement will be a panacea.

Long March to the Red Sea

Portions of the proposed East-West link already exist, in the form of the Trans-Africa Highway 5. The most credible proposal for a full continental connection builds on these, and plans to link them.

TAH5 is the most significant precursor to a full transcontinental African transport corridor. It is part of a proposed nine-highway network originally put forth by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in 1971 (We Build Value, November 8, 2017,) and currently undertaken by the agency in conjunction with the African Union, and the African Development Bank, and external stakeholders. The highway connects Dakar, in Senegal, to the Chadian capital of N’djamena, about 4,500 kilometers, or a little further than the distance from New York to San Francisco. It runs through seven countries, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad.

The TAH5 is the only one of all the Trans-African highways to be fully completed and it represents a major development victory for that reason. However, sections of the road are dilapidated, and upkeep across national borders remains a challenge. The proposed East-West link, supported by the African Union, but still in the process of finding financing, would connect Senegal on the Atlantic to Djibouti by on the Red Sea by building new roads and upgrading degraded sections to extend the existing TAH5, with matching rail links. The finished project would add Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti to the countries already connected by TAH5, and would span 8,715 kilometers, or a little less than the distance between New York City and Midway Atoll.

The rail component is even more challenging than the road component, since most of the preexisting rail connections would have to be upgraded from narrow to standard gauge, and massive gaps—in some cases as large as 4,000 kilometers—in the proposed route would need to be bridged.

The first phase of the project will be an estimated $2.2 billion upgrade to 1,228 kilometers of existing rail between Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and Bamako, the capital of neighboring Mali. This section will be directly implemented by the African Development Bank’s Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) and enjoys the support of the West African Economic and Monetary Union, which bankrolled feasibility studies. Construction is expected to begin later this year (How We Made It in Africa, May 29, 2014.)

China has been crucial to getting the rail portion of the project off the ground. After more than a decade of disagreements with a Franco-Canadian consortium, the governments of Senegal and Mali signed separate agreements with China Railway Construction Corporation in 2015. Senegal’s deal comes to $1.24 billion, and will be funded by a Chinese loan, payable over 30 years at 2% interest (Economist Intelligence Unit, January 6, 2016.) Mali signed a $1.5 billion deal with the company (Reuters, December 26, 2015.) The latter deal formed part of a larger set of railway deals signed the year before with China, including an $8 billion deal for a railway link between landlocked Mali and the Guinean port of Conakry (Centre for Chinese Studies, November 24, 2014.)

The current estimated delivery date for the Dakar-Bamako section of the project is 2022 (PIDA. November 24, 2017.) If completed, the project will improve goods transport speeds fourfold, and provide a vital new link to the sea for Mali, improving the prospects of its gold mining sector. However, the difficulties facing even this relatively short stretch underscore how challenging the full Dakar-Djibouti multimodal transport corridor will be. Full completion will be hampered by security concerns in Chad and Sudan, and rocky terrain in Ethiopia. Another issue is the pressure cash-strapped individual governments face to focus their limited resources on projects that would secure them immediate direct connections to ports; this could make it difficult to convince them to work together on trans-frontier developments whose benefits for intra-continental trade lie in the relatively distant future. Transfrontier infrastructure, such as the Standard Gauge Railway, has the potential to mitigate some of these pressures, especially in tandem with Belt and Road-related developments like new ports. However, concerns are being raised about how sustainable the resultant debt would be for some of these lowest income countries.

That being said, UNECA’s proposal for a Trans-African Highway Network, which sounded like science fiction when it was first announced in 1971, has now begun to move towards reality. The completion of TAH5 and a growing network of railway lines in East Africa have made African mega-projects feel more feasible now than in the past. This is partially thanks to the impact of Chinese infrastructure investment in general, and the Belt and Road Initiative specifically.

Changing Narratives, Building Connections

The Belt and Road Initiative is a sprawling transnational infrastructure expansion project that has rapidly become the centerpiece of Chinese outward investment. It essentially uses infrastructure provision to connect China to Europe via two routes: the Silk Road Economic Belt runs overland from China to Germany via interlinked rail connections through Central Asia, and Central Europe. More pertinent to Africa, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is a sea route from China to Greece. It travels via the India Ocean to Mombasa, Kenya, and then through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean. On paper, BRI only grazes Sub-Sahara Africa before moving north to Egypt. However, Mombasa also becomes the node where the Belt and Road Initiative meets East Africa’s Standard Gauge Railway. This connection enables a host of development opportunities that in turn could help to fund some of these trans-continental rail networks.

The clearest case in point is Ethiopia. The railway line between Addis Ababa and Djibouti was funded by Chinese lenders and constructed by Chinese contractors. But China’s involvement didn’t end here. Ethiopia has eagerly embraced a Chinese model of centralized economic planning focused on manufacturing and assembly in special economic zones. Several such zones were funded by China, and initially populated by Chinese apparel and shoe manufacturers (Brookings, January 30, 2018.) These have since been joined by European counterparts like H&M, setting Ethiopia up as a low-cost assembly hub exporting to Europe (H&M Group, May 26, 2016.) While Ethiopia isn’t formally on the Belt and Road route, cross-frontier rail infrastructure still enabled it to become an exporter along BRI arteries.

In addition, BRI-related projects in East Africa have also proven that it is possible to build this kind of infrastructure, and in the process has arguably improved investor confidence. For example, Tanzania recently put out tenders for its own section of the standard gauge railway, and struck a deal with a Turkish contractor at a significant saving per meter of track compared to Kenya’s Chinese-built section (Daily Standard, November 8, 2017.) While one can fault the Kenyan deal, I would argue that the success of these early developments broke down entrenched biases against funding African infrastructure among a wider range of funders. This could potentially also speed up the completion of a connection between East and West Africa.


The dream of a connection between East and West Africa, and a resultant increase in Africa-fueled trade and development has long haunted the continent. The evolution of unified development goals such as the African Union’s Agenda 2063, shared regional and continental institutions enabling measures such as the recently decided continental free trade agreement, and the presence of new sources of development funding make this dream seem more possible. However, Africa will have to ask hard questions about debt, sovereignty, and foreign power influence. The recent case of Sri Lanka losing control of a Chinese-financed port is already raising worried discussion in Africa (Daily Standard, February 26, 2017).Achieving the dream of unifying the continent is going to demand complex choices. Any East-West connection across the width of Africa would function as a de facto extension of the Belt and Road Initiative to the Atlantic Ocean. Such a connection would significantly increase Chinese presence on the continent, especially if Djibouti is its eastern anchor, because also houses China’s first overseas military base. While this might worry Western powers, Africa would arguably see it as a small price for a long-cherished dream.

Cobus van Staden is a senior researcher with the South African Institute for International Affairs, and the co-host of the weekly China in Africa Podcast and co-moderator of the China Africa Project’s popular Facebook community. You can follow him on Twitter @stadenesque


[1] For example, the World Bank famously calculated that it is less expensive to get a car from Japan to Addis Ababa than it is to transport that same car overland from Addis Ababa to Abidjan. See: UN Economic Commission for Africa, African Union and African Development Bank. 2010. Assessing Regional Integration in Africa IV: Enhancing Intra-African Trade. Addis Ababa: UN Economic Commission for Africa.