Bureaucracy, poor infrastructure stall regional connectivity in West Africa
• Experts insist on ports, rail linkages
• Beninoise envoy turned back at Nigerian border over passport leaflet row
Until Nigeria and her West African neighbours collectively tackle wide spread bureaucracies, the region will continue to have an unwritten restriction in movement and undeveloped economy. International ports and rail experts, who met in Lagos this week, were unanimous that the West African countries are by landmass closer to one another than in other regions. Yet, they are farther apart for trade mobility and effective integration till date.
While they recognized the efforts of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to bridge the yawning gap, the stakeholders reckoned that Nigeria and her neighbours must continue with intermodal transport development in-country and beyond to connect the region for mutual economic benefits.
Speaking at the two-day West African Ports and Rail Evolution Forum in Lagos, themed: ‘Defining the future of transport infrastructure, maintenance and expansion in West Africa’, the experts regretted that very little had changed in terms of road and rail connectivity in the region.
In fact, a particular case said it all. The Nigerian Immigration Services (NIS) was alleged to have refused to grant passage to the representative of Benin Republic and one of the key speakers at the forum, Joris Albert Thys.
The Guardian learnt that Thys, who is also the Managing Director, Port Autonome de Cotonou, was turned back at the border because his passport had only two blank leaflets left and not the mandatory minimum of four.
The Director General of Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC) Nigeria, Chidi Izuwah, regretted the development, adding that the region would continue to lag behind with such unnecessary barriers.
Izuwah, who chaired the keynote session, said the matter should have been resolved without preventing the diplomat an access into Nigeria.
He also emphasized that transportation is not all about the movement of goods and services but also the factors of production. But unfortunately, the rail lines in most parts of Africa are concentrated more in the coastal area and grossly inadequate for wider connectivity.
Apparently in agreement with Izuwah, Director of Rail Services, Connect Rail Services Limited Nigeria, Fidel Agunbiade, observed that the rail system is still largely at the level the colonialists left it at independence.
Agunbiade noted that rail project and its development are high-capital intensive and long-term – two critical components successive governments in Nigeria often lack.
“Successive administrations wanted quick fixes to make impacts. Hence, they all focused on roads and left rail lines in comatose.”
He, however, urged government to begin to tweak the legislation to attract private sector and Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) to rail projects. He added that West African countries must also use in-country development to drive regional transport system.
Managing Director of Nigerian Railway Corporation, Fidet Okhiria, admitted the gross infrastructural gap, though with the assurance that the current administration has prioritised rail transport development.
Okhiria disclosed that the government’s approach was more strategic and holistic this time. Among the decisions is the choice of standard gauge line as model for all rail projects, at least 40 per cent of contracted wagon and coaches will be manufactured locally, and connection of rail lines to ports, beginning with the Lagos-Ibadan rail line.
Okhiria’s counterpart in the Nigerian Port Authority (NPA), Hadiza Bala Usman, observed that the volume of trade among the African country is still not commensurate to the potential that abound in the region.
But to enhance trade facilitation, Usman said, the region must begin to ensure that relevant government agencies work in line with the integrative vision, and tackle bureaucracies across the countries.
“We need to cut down on red tapes. We don’t need to fill 50 forms just to move our goods from one country to another. So, besides the need to develop infrastructure, we must begin to tackle bureaucracies.
“We must improve on intermodal transportation. Rail and port must be linked and should be developed together. As much as you get all the Chinese loans for rail, you also need to develop the ports through which the cargoes only get to the rail. Our dry ports need to be operational and run efficiently,” she said.
Usman said further that the Federal Government is not relenting on intermodal transport synergy, citing the reclamation of rail paths to link standard gauge lines to the ports and raw material sites across the country.
Belgian Ambassador to Nigeria, Daniel Dargent, said the African region has a lot to learn from the experience of Europe to enhance free movement of goods and services.
Dargent, who is one of the panelists that discussed the topic: ‘A road map to delivering efficient, sustainable cross border transport’, said the European Union (EU) was created for the free movement of goods and services, people and capital, as part of the plan to develop the region at the end of the World War II.
“Every country was looking at what they could do well, but they needed efficient transport infrastructure to move them around. Connectivity at all levels is important and West Africa must ensure this in the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCTFA),” Dargent said.
Managing Director of National Port Authority Liberia, Bill Twehway, however, reminded all of the importance of removing artificial boundaries to enhance partnerships and cross-border investments among the African countries.
Twehway said that with African continent in possession of 30 per cent of world mineral resources, its resources are enormous, but must ensure that it stays within “by Africans investing in themselves rather than wait for United States or European.”
He added that Liberia and Guinea have already begun the connectivity drive with the reconstruction of a major international road to enhance efficient movement between the two countries. The highway project upon completion will cut travel time from three days to some hours.