The 10:24 a.m. train out of Djibouti’s capital drew some of the biggest names in the Horn of Africa last month. Serenaded by a chorus of tribal singers, the crush of African leaders, European diplomats and pop icons climbed the stairs of the newly built train station and merrily jostled their way into the pristine, air-conditioned carriages making their inaugural run.
“It is indeed a historic moment, a pride for our nations and peoples,” said Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister of Ethiopia, shortly before the train — the first electric, transnational railway in Africa — headed toward Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. “This line will change the social and economic landscape of our two countries.”
But perhaps the biggest star of the day was China, which designed the system, supplied the trains and imported hundreds of engineers for the six years it took to plan and build the 466-mile line. And the $4 billion cost? Chinese banks provided nearly all the financing.
Having constructed one of the world’s most extensive and modern rail networks at home, China is taking its prodigious resources and expertise global. Chinese-built subway cars will soon appear in Chicago and Boston, Beijing is building a $5 billion high-speed rail line in Indonesia, and the Chinese government recently christened new rail freight service between London and Beijing. Another ambitious system in the works, the 2,400-mile Pan-Asia Railway Network, would link China to Laos, Thailand and Singapore.
But few places are being reshaped by China’s overseas juggernaut like Africa, a continent that has seen relatively little new railroad construction in a century.
Despite years of steady economic growth, sub-Sahara Africa remains hobbled by an infrastructure deficit, according to the Africa Development Bank, with only half of its roads paved and nearly 600 million people lacking access to electricity.
Chinese companies, many of them state-owned and grappling with an economic slowdown at home, have stepped unto the breach, spending some $50 billion a year on new ports, highways and airports across the continent, according to the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Many of the projects are part of Beijing’s new Silk Road initiative, a $1 trillion effort intended to deepen ties between China and its trading partners in the developing world.
Much of that spending has been directed at rail projects that planners hope will transform the way Africans travel and do business with one another, and the rest of the world.
Chinese-built and -financed projects include a two-year-old light-rail system in the Ethiopian capital; a $13 billion rail link between the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and the port city of Mombasa that will open later this year; and an ambitious rail modernization project in Nigeria that includes an urban transit system for Lagos.
“For the longest time, railroads across Africa were limping along and in decline, but with the Chinese, that’s definitely changing,” said Andrew Grantham, the news editor at Railway Gazette International, a trade publication.
China’s enthusiasm for constructing railroads, schools and stadiums in Africa stands in marked contrast to the role of the United States, which has largely shied away from financing infrastructure on the continent. One of the few exceptions, Power Africa, a $9.7 billion initiative announced by President Barack Obama in 2013, has fallen far short of its goal of providing electricity to 20 million households within five years.
When it comes to trade, China surpassed the United States in 2009 to become Africa’s biggest trading partner.
It remains unclear how that calculus might change under the Trump administration. President Trump has questioned the benefits of free trade agreements, and a questionnaire from his transition team that was sent to the State Department last month expressed skepticism for foreign aid and development efforts in Africa.
That worries some African officials and longtime experts, who fear the loss of American influence and largess — and the good will that is often produced by desperately needed infrastructure projects.
Amadou Sy, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said the United States was also missing opportunities to cultivate loyal customers.
“If you’re looking for new markets, Africa is the place to be,” he said. “But right now, the U.S. is not leveraging Africa’s huge potential. By contrast, the Chinese are there, and they are willing to take risks.”
China is placing more than $14 billion worth of bets here in Djibouti, a geopolitically strategic speck of a country beset by soaring poverty and unemployment. The projects include three ports, two airports and a pipeline that will bring water from Ethiopia, its landlocked neighbour and a regional economic power that depends on Djibouti’s ports for 90 percent of its foreign trade.
Also on the drawing board are a series of Chinese-built, coal-fired power plants that would ease summertime electricity failures and help fuel a new tax-free manufacturing zone that officials hope will turn Djibouti into a Hong Kong-style entrepôt and international shipping hub.
Aboubaker Omar Hadi, chairman of the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority, said he hoped the new railway linking his country to the Ethiopian capital would be just the first leg of a long-dreamed trans-Africa route, from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.
“The train is already a game-changer,” he said, noting that it will cut to 12 hours what until now had been a grueling three- or four-day trip by truck.
Mr. Hadi praised the Chinese for going all in after Western banks declined to help finance the nation’s glaring infrastructure needs.
“We approached the U.S., and they didn’t have the vision,” he said. “They are not thinking ahead 30 years. They only have a vision of Africa from the past, as a continent of war and famine. The Chinese have vision.”
Not everyone is comfortable with China’s vision. Some worry about the leverage China wields and what happens when countries fall behind on loan payments.
For Djibouti, the debt is especially daunting, amounting to 60 percent of its gross domestic product. But Ilyas Moussa Dawaleh, the country’s finance minister, dismissed such concerns, saying Djibouti’s heady 6.7 percent growth rate would allow it to meet its loan payments.
“If we don’t take this risk now and develop our infrastructure, we will remain stuck in poverty,” he said. “Come back in a few years, and you will find that Djibouti has become the logistics hub of the continent.”
Others worry about the Djiboutian government’s lack of transparency, its authoritarian impulses and a vexing legacy of official corruption. Mohamed Daoud Chehem, a leader of Djibouti’s embattled opposition and a former presidential candidate, said the lack of information about the terms of China’s loans raised questions about potential malfeasance.
“We’re talking about billions of dollars and complete opacity,” he said. “Have there been kickbacks to government officials? There is no way to know.”
Others wonder what will happen to the system after the Chinese leave. European imperialists in Africa built a skein of lines, most of which fell into disrepair in the decades after their colonies achieved independence.
Jamie Monson, the author of “Africa’s Freedom Railway,” a book documenting the legacy of the Chinese-built train linking Tanzania and Zambia, said long-term maintenance could be more challenging than initial construction. Built during the Cold War and hailed as a symbol of Chinese-African friendship, the train, the Tazara Railway, has struggled to maintain regular service, prompting talk of a Chinese takeover.
“Without proper maintenance comes problems, which can have a huge impact on a regional economy and local people’s livelihoods,” she said.
For now, however, much of nation is euphoric over the completion of Djibouti’s first modern railway, which follows the path of a creaky French-built line, completed in 1917, that met its demise several years ago after generations of neglect.
Although workers from China did much of the technical and engineering work, thousands of Djiboutian and Ethiopian laborers were hired to lay tracks and dig tunnels, helping to head off some of the local resentment that has dogged other Chinese projects in Africa. The system will be operated by Chinese conductors for five years and then turned over to local citizens, many of them trained in China.
After a boisterous opening day ceremony in the broiling sun, only the best-connected attendees were allowed to board the train, which filled with applause and song as it glided out of the station.
Daha Ahmed Osman, 34, a tech specialist who works for the Djiboutian government, displayed a wide grin as he watched the arid, harshly beautiful landscape spill across the train’s picture windows.
He predicted that the new train would transform Djibouti and Ethiopia, and eventually all of Africa. “For this, we have the Chinese to thank, because they shared with us their money and their technology,” he said. “More than anything we thank them for showing confidence in us.”
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