The surfacing of ancient caravan routes linking the Sahel and North Africa is rekindling hope that the once bustling trade between the two regions will be revived, help pave the way for African integration and so improve the lives of millions of poor people.
Six countries, organised under the Liaison Committee on the Trans-Saharan Highway (LCTS, or CLRT in French), are revamping part of the road network - some of which is nothing more than track. On 8-10 March, delegates from five of the participating countries, Algeria, Chad, Mali, Nigeria and Tunisia, discussed the measures they were taking to upgrade the roads, which pass through communities inhabited by 4.3 million people, to all-weather surfaces .
The original project was for a trunk road from the Algerian capital, Algiers, to Lagos, the old Nigerian capital. However, with time the project has become a network of roads.
One of the trunk roads runs from Algiers toward the northern Niger town of Arlit but only the segment from Algiers to a point 60 km south of the town of Tamanrasset in southern Algeria is surfaced. Algeria said the surfacing of the remaining 169-km stretch to the border village of Ain Guezam would begin shortly.
Niger, the sixth country, was not at the meeting to present the progress it has made on the section of the road that runs from Ain Guezam to Arlit.
The trunk road from Algiers ends in Lagos, while a branch road from Tamanrasset runs southwest into Mali - to Gao and on to the capital, Bamako. Caravans to and from Gao were an important part of the ancient trans-Saharan link and remain potentially so today. Mali informed the committee that the 558-km road from Gao to Sevare, near the trade town of Mopti, was being resurfaced. In partnership with the German NGO, GTZ, Mali has already completed 300 km and is looking to reinforce an additional 50 km to 100 km each year.
The GTZ advisor to the Malian Ministry of Public Works, Manfred Urschel, told IRIN on 9 May that since 1993 his organisation, which has a strong road maintenance team in Mali, has been upkeeping the Gao-Sevare stretch.
“The road is in good condition. There are no potholes,” he said.
Mali has approached the Islamic Development Bank to fund the technical studies on building a bridge at Gao, considered a major gateway to the south of the country. Surfacing the 350-km stretch from Gao to Kidal in the north remains a priority for Mali in 2000-2001. For now, the country spends 200 million francs CFA (US $293,100) each year maintaining the dirt roads from Gao to Kidal and northeast from Kidal to Tinzaouatine on the border with Algeria.
Tunisia completed the surfacing of its trans-Saharan section in 1973.
Nigeria, which is a new member of IDB, gave notice that it would over four years rehabilitate 20,000 km of surfaced road in segments of 5,000-km each year. In particular, it said, a 150-km road between Babura and Kano in the north would be reinforced, the Kano-Kaduna sector would be transformed into a dual carriageway and studies would be undertaken to double the link from Kano to the northeastern city of Maiduguri.
Two roads would link Maiduguri to the Chad, the first would go to the Chadian towns of Bol, Massaguet, Djermaya and Ndjamena, and the second would run to Djimtilo, Djermaya and Ndjamena. A 47-km improved road from Djermaya to Massaguet is due to be completed in June.
One of the main economic benefits of the Trans-Saharan network is that it would open up vast deposits of gold, uranium, tungsten and tin in Algeria; phosphates, copper, lead, zinc, tin, uranium and bauxite in Mali; and uranium, coal and copper in Niger.
In an expose presented in February, CLRT Secretary-General Mohamed Ayadi outlined other possible benefits of the network. Once the roads are surfaced, travel time and the cost of vehicles would be reduced. Users of other modes of transport would be attracted to the TSH. For example, a 1997 survey for the Arlit-Ain Guezam section showed that the 65 days its takes to transport goods from Europe to northern Niger by sea via the Gulf of Guinea and then by land could be reduced to 14 days overland if the goods are shipped to Algiers and then sent overland on the TSH.
Thus, for landlocked Mali, Niger and Chad, Ayadi said, “the trans-Saharan road constitutes another possibility of reaching the sea in extraordinary situations”.
An improved TSH would breath new life into Gao. For example, it could enable the town’s abattoir, unused for years, to resume processing meat for the Algerian market, Ayadi said. He added that livestock near Gao “would certainly have suffered less” from the drought of 1973 had the TSH existed.
Ayadi added that countries on the southern rim of the Sahara could provide cotton, beef, leather, skins and agricultural products to North Africa. In turn, the Maghreb could offer agricultural products, processed food, industrial goods such as petroleum products, electrical goods, textiles, construction materials, plastics, dates and salt.
The road would also encourage cultural contact between the Maghreb and the Sahel and the opening up of the Hoggar, Air, Adrar mountains to tourism.
Presently, trade between the two regions is weak for three major reasons:
the prevailing and extensive trade ties that link them to Europe; poor road and rail connections; and tarrif barriers that discourage business.
A concerted effort to upgrade the TSH and lower trade barriers would go a long way toward reducing the influence of European trade on Maghreb-Sahelian business, and rekindle a once bustling Saharan trade, Ayadi said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions