31 August 2013

Uganda: Railway to Boost East African Unity

In 1896, a team of workers from India were organised at the Indian Ocean coastal town of Mombasa to help in laying a railway line to the interior.

These Indian coolies, as they were known, toiled day and night to set down the major link from the coast to Uganda. When the railway line reached Kampala by 1933, movement of goods to and from the coast to the hinterland became much easier.

The major exports at the time that included copper, cotton and coffee would be ferried faster by rail to the ocean liners waiting at Mombasa port. The passenger trains equally improved transport in the area.

The British government reportedly spent an estimated 5.3million pounds (about Sh21b) to construct the railway line. Some of the cash was spent on rails and locomotives procured from UK and USA, then there was expenditure on recruiting the labourers from India.

However, the benefits made the investment worthwhile. Records show that trade through the Kilindini harbour shot up from 1.6million pounds in 1908 to almost 3.7 million by 1912.

The journey from the ocean shoreline to Kampala, which had hitherto cost pioneer missionaries almost four months of travel, became a less-stressful movement of barely two days.

Also worth noting is the fact that when the Uganda railway was set up, the cost of transporting cargo dwindled drastically. Initially, it took about 300 pounds to move a tonne of coffee which could bring in just 80 pounds per tonne on the world market.

This state of affairs was turned round with the faster trains and the much-cheaper provisions like textiles and exotic food ferried in put smiles on several faces.

Over 100 years later, a rendition of the historical task is to be carried out by the East African Community states in a bid to improve cargo traffic in the region.

According to what transpired at the second infrastructure summit in Kenya recently, the construction of the Mombasa-Nairobi line is expected to kick-off in November with the entire Mombasa-Kampala-Kigali link to be set by March 2018.

The five states of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan and Burundi are in agreement to make this cause a reality. Apart from improving cargo and passenger traffic, the move is bound to definitely go a long way to tighten the knots of East African unity.

Rail transport is comparatively cheaper, reliable and dependable. When the deadline on visas is beaten by January 1, 2014, most East Africans would start looking forward to hassle-free travel most probably by railway.

Commitment by the regional leaders to have the Kenya Railway Training Institute and the Tororo Railway Polytechnic revamped is certainly great news. These are to become regional training centres for railway construction, maintenance and operations.

Hence, East Africans would train their very own to sustain the railway building as well as regular maintenance. Given that the workers in the past had to come in at a cost from India, this is a step in the right direction.

As locals are we not starting to take charge of our own affairs in the true East African spirit? When the community fell apart in 1977 because of Idi Amin's crazy ways that put him at loggerheads with Uganda's neighbours, some pessimists argued that it may never be revived.

All that is behind us and now with common communication via railway linkage, member states are unanimously focused on the exclusive goal of working together for years to come.

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