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. . 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.
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