East Africa's tangled rail tracks.

Author:Williams, Steve

Whether the three East African countries that came together to form an economic co-operation last year, can successfully coordinate a regional transport system, is a question that remains to be answered. So far, as STEVE WILLIAMS explains, things have not got off to a terribly good start.

In May 1996, a tripartite agreement was reached in Nairobi to re-establish the East African Railways and Marine Services (EAR). This was inspired by the establishment of the East African Cooperation (EAC) two months earlier, which emphasised cross-border movement of passengers and freight on the Kenyan, Tanzanian and Ugandan rail networks and Lake Victoria's marine services. The three Governments and in particular, Lake Victoria's surrounding populations, had all hoped that the regional agreement would stimulate trade and economic growth.

Barely had the ink dried on the EAR agreement however, when disaster struck. On 21 May just a few hours after dawn, the ferry "m.v. Bukoba" of the Tanzanian Rail Corporation (TRC), capsized and sank 8km off the port of Mwanza. Many hundreds lost their lives - estimates put the death toll at more than 700 - in East Africa's worst marine disaster. Following a period of national mourning, subsequent commissions of enquiry discovered a catalogue of mismanagement and safety infringement. Blame, however, was attributed to the 17-year-old vessel's inherent instability, inadequate ballast, improper stowage of cargo and an over-load of passengers.

Partnership with SA railways?

The blow to the TRC itself, and of course the fledgling EAR agreement, was profound. Lake Victoria's communities were already struggling to contain water-hyacinth pollution because of the disruption it causes to ferry travel and the fishing industry, an increasingly vital export product for the region. However the EAR continued to pursue regional co-operation, resuming Uganda/ Kenya and Kenya/Tanzania passenger train services for the first time since the dissolution of the old East African Community in the mid-1970s.

The relevance of the EAC trading block may seem marginal. After all, the EAC accounts for only 3.5% of sub-Saharan manufacturing production and Kenya alone is reckoned to contribute three-quarters of this tiny share. But the bare facts of the matter show that all three states and their 75m citizens need the strength of 'trading block' status to meet the challenge of South Africa's post-apartheid economy. The new EAC knows from past experience...

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