|A girl walks home from school in Kapiri Mposhi. Picture by Jack Zimba|
THE iconic picture taken of the iconic train back in
the 1970s. PICTURE: WORLD AFFAIRS PRESS|
It connects Zambia to the seaport of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and also provides road and railway inter-connectivity to other parts of southern Africa, and is a vital link for the three regional groupings of SADC, COMESA and the East African Community.
But 43 years down the line, this train has clearly run out of steam, its operations bogged down by a myriad of challenges, including a bad track and locomotives that are constantly breaking down.
Tazara deputy managing director Timothy Kayani says the future of the rail company is very bright, but he makes it clear the rail firm needs help to avoid going under.
He blames the two governments for the company’s current situation.
“The only problem is that the two governments relaxed a lot before realising that they needed to take full charge of this company, and this is what has caused Tazara to be where it is now. Otherwise if these two governments were serious enough to supervise Tazara, we couldn’t be where we are,” he says from his office in Dar es Salaam.
The current state of Tazara has attracted China, like a vulture to a dying animal.
After all, China has always kept its eyes on this railway, now it wants to lay its hands on it.
According to Mr Kayani, in 2012, a Chinese company was engaged to do a survey of the railway in order to establish how it could be refurbished.
But when the report was done, the two governments took too long to act on it, and a few years later, it was taken back for revision.
“Again it has taken too long for the report to be tabled,” says Mr Kayani, before adding: “There is a reason. There is a lot of politics behind.”
According to Mr Kayani, the Chinese came with unrealistic demands to the negotiating table.
“They wanted to take over Tazara under very ridiculous terms,” he says. “Basically they wanted to take it for free and were even asking for more land.”
Mr Kayani says the Chinese wanted to run Tazara for 30 years in a concession deal, and be given a buffer zone – 50km of land on either side of the entire Tazara line.
That deal was rejected, and the Chinese are yet to come back with a new proposal.
Mr Kayani is wary of Chinese deals, and he says they must be avoided.
“We don’t necessarily need the Chinese, as long as we have a bankable business plan – the cargo is all over,” he says.
But what Tazara needs is recapitalisation to rehabilitate its track, and to get more locomotives running and wagons.
Currently the company only has 12 locomotives in operation, 26 less than the required number.
In 2017, both the Tanzanian and Zambian governments agreed to inject US$10 million to help Tazara improve its operations.
The Tanzanian government has already given the rail company US$4.5 million but the Zambian government is yet to fulfil its pledge.
The money is expected to bring to life 10 locomotives.
But other than recapitalisation, Mr Kayani says the way forward for the rail company is to repeal the Tazara Act, the law which governs the rail company, so that it conforms to the current business environment.
Mainly, he wants the company structure to change, and to give it some flexibility to allow private investment.
Clearly, the dual ownership of the company is now a source of problems for Tazara.
In the deputy managing director’s office at the rail company’s headquarters in Dar es Salaam, there are two presidential portraits on a wall behind him, and two flags on his desk – one for Tanzania, and the other for Zambia.
This dualism is emphasised almost at every level of the company.
Back then, it was a way of balancing control of the company, such that, because the headquarters is Tanzania, the CEO of the Tazara is reserved for Zambia.
Akashambatwa Mbikusita- Lewanika, who once served as managing director for Tazara, says Tazara’s structure largely compromises decision-making.
“Given the kind of hostility over the fact that the MD is Zambian, it means that there is suspicion that the Zambian MD is partial and has to be watched, and controlled. This is something that every MD has experienced and tends to paralyse decision-making,” he says.
He says this only tends to raise the consciousness of nationalism.
In the end, he says, the CEO’s team is not 100 percent his own, a situation he says challenges decision-making and authority.
He says the structure also emphasises the representation of the two countries rather than the representation of the corporation at all levels.
“The people go to the board not as board members of one company, but as members of one company representing their own countries and governments,” he says.
He says in the past, there was a lot more mixing in the workforce, not just at its headquarters.
“But increasingly, the nation-consciousness has become dominant,” he says.
He says in essence, Tazara is no longer one rail line from Dar es Salaam to Kapiri, but two rail lines that meet at the border.
Mr Mbikusita-Lewanika adds that because the headquarters of Tazara is located in Tanzania, there is more interest from Dodoma than from Lusaka in its operations.
He says for a long time there has been an assumption that the Tazara Act favours Zambia.
“My proposal is that if the Tazara Act favours Zambia, take the act and wherever it says ‘Zambia, put Tanzania, and wherever it says Tanzania put Zambia,” he says.
Of course that would tilt the tables, but would it work?
But politics has clearly also had an impact on Tazara.
According to Mr Mbikusita-Lewanika, the nature of the relationship between the two governments, especially the heads of state matters.
“The first set of heads of state of Nyerere and Kaunda had been engaged with each other in collaboration and solidarity over the independence movement. Their relationship had that base,” he says.
Back in the days, this train ran not only on diesel, but was also driven by the Pan-African spirit.
That may not be the case now. Africa’s political landscape has changed a lot since the days of colonial oppression, Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) and the Cold War.
Even China’s interest in the continent has changed over the years.
Like one rail official remarked: “The Chinese that we dealt with back then are not the same Chinese we are dealing with now.”
Mr Mbikusita-Lewanika says one of the biggest problems is that there has never been a sense of ownership from the two nations since 1976 when Tazara was launched by Dr Kaunda and Nyerere.
Although both heads of state spoke strongly about the rail line belonging to the two countries, Mr Mbikusita-Lewanika says that those pronouncements were in word only, and were never followed with action.
“I feel that from the very beginning, although it was put in word, in practice and mind, that message never materialised,” he says.
In the subsequent years, Tazara remained dependent on China.
And the two countries were never really committed in repaying the loan, which was supposed to start 10 years after the start of commercial runs on the rail line, in 1986.
“Perhaps they took advantage of the fact that those who were owed money were not pushy. I think that is fault-line number one, not taking responsibility and being unable to start making loan repayment even after 10 years of starting the operations,” he says.
Instead, Tazara continued receiving loans or protocols from China.
According to Mr Mbikusita-Lewanika, the company has received 15 of such loans since 1976, in form of equipment.
Despite the numerous challenges facing Tazara, the rail business is still viable with a lot of potential for growth.
In fact, according to Tazara public relations manager, Conrad Simuchile, the company is failing to satisfy the demand because of its own challenges.
About two years, Kenya had bought 280 metric tonnes of maize from Zambia, and it wanted to ship it by rail, but Tazara failed to do it, and so the Kenyan government decided to ship the consignment by road.
Even the express passenger train is usually fully booked for weeks, according to Mr Simuchile.
“We have limited number of wagons, limited number of coaches and our locomotive are not operating at 100 percent,” he says.
Zambia currently has a law that compels mining companies to transport 30 percent of their cargo by rail, but Mr Simuchile says this has not helped the company because it cannot meet the demand.
For now, the once glorious train continues plodding into an uncertain future.