By Stephen Wandera

The powerful idea African countries and cities should be connected with strong transportation networks, particularly road and rail, is one that can sometimes be over-romanticized as a pan-African vision of the independence struggle.

But officials in African governments, multilateral agencies and development financing are usually pretty clear-eyed about the huge economic potential that could be unlocked by getting Africa better connected. Most Africans would instinctively understand that given the arbitrary nature of borders across the continent.

In a publication by Quartz Africa magazine, South African academic Cobus van Staden, frames it nicely in a paper on the possibility of an East-West transport link in Africa: “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.” He notes the difficulty of moving goods around “weighs down” trade between African countries and as we’ve noted previously it also hampers international trade.

It’s worth remembering there has been a vision in place since 1971, with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, to build a Trans-African Highway, consisting of nine highways traversing the continent for a combined 60,000 kilometers. They include ambitious routes from Dakar to Cairo (8,636 km), Lagos to Mombasa (6,260 km) and yes, from Cape to Cairo (8,860 km).

So why don’t we have them some 60 years after independence? Well, funding for one thing. This is where China comes in, as they now frequently do. The Chinese government, in line with its Belt and Road Initiative, sees the potential and opportunity of a market, or rather, 54 markets, with over one billion, much more easily accessible, people. As van Staden notes, China helped with the one completed highway, Highway No.5, which runs for 4,500 kilometers through seven countries from Dakar, Senegal to N’Djamena, Chad.

Many analysts will rightly be concerned about African governments and rising debt to China, a topic that will be top of mind as Chinese president Xi Jinping visits three African countries this week. These concerns will be weighed against the potential economic return of better infrastructure rather than whether these road networks fulfill a long-held pan-African dream.

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