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February 13, 2013

Tazara: Railroad in the red

In the hallway of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority offices hang three black-and-white portraits of the national leaders who created Tazara. To the left is Nyerere who looks exactly like a farmer if not for his Mao suit. Kaunda, to the right, who after various sufferings is still alive to witness history. In the middle is Mao Tse-dong, who in the eyes of many Africans is what “China” means. A blackboard under the portraits bears the railroad statistics written in chalks.

Passenger traffic (person): target: 82875; real volume: 59122

Freight traffic (ton): target: 828750; real volume: 639386

Tazara’s brilliant history is represented by the portraits of the great men. Yet, the statistical gaps indicate the ongoing struggle the rail authority is facing.

Tazara was completed in 1975 with a planned transport capacity of 20 million tons per year, but this ambition has never been realized. In 1977 the freight traffic of reached 12.7 million tons per year, the all-time high. Between 1983 and 1986, the average annual cargo was 10 million tons and passenger traffic reached 12 million. Then, profits were feasible.

But the good times proved fleeting. After four sessions of technological cooperation, Chinese experts pulled back gradually, preferring limited consulting to comprehensive guidance. China’s whole African strategy was being reformulated. Since China opened up in the 1980s, western countries became China’s top concern and to an extent Africa was neglected by its traditional ally. Political considerations descended while economies in both regions were not strong enough to hold up Sino-African relations. At that time, Chinese were widely thought to be turning their back on Africans in favour of the West. The withdrawing of specialists coincided with the decline of Tazara. From 1986 the railway went downhill and experienced a steep falling in the 1990s to a minimum of 370,000 tons per year, according to memories of several old railway workers. Without freight transport, Tazara was in red for years running.

In recent years, taking advantage of the tailwinds in China’s rising investment and trade with Africa, the railway transport volume has recovered to 640,000 tons per year with growing economies in Tanzania and Zambia. Even that figure was hardly half of record levels.

Sluggishness, unpunctuality, and broken promises are common among officials of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority. They could fail to show up arbitrarily just at the time of the appointment. Besides, workers at Tazara are equipped with a strong sense of confidentiality. In the old times, I was told it served to “prevent the possible damage done by South African spies”. Now, it is more or less covering up for a dilapidated Tazara. Offices of the railway authority are often vacant because quite a number of senior executives prefer business trips and taking advantage of the fat travelling allowances.

It does not take too much to acquire the statistics of management. What really troubles is the disordered internal finance. In the fiscal year of 2007, revenues from Tazara reached about 45 billion shillings. However, the expenditure of the same year was 100 billion, indicating a net loss of 55 billion (0.28 billion yuan at the prevailing exchange rates). According to some estimates, losses at the moment could be as high as 300 billion shillings (1 billion yuan at the prevailing exchange rates).

Although the figures are not definitive, it is clear that the railway is likely to continue to operate at a loss for the time being.

“The authority still has money because they refuse to pay workers for salaries, pensions and other types of debts,” officials from the labor union claimed. Clearly Tazara’s struggles will not easily be resolved.

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