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China in Africa: The Real Story

China to Build West African Coastal Highway?

Deborah Brautigam

In the mid-1980s, I traveled with a friend by bush plane, bush taxi, canoes, and by foot along the coast of Liberia from Monrovia to Abidjan in Cote d'Ivoire. Anyone going along that same route today would probably have to use the same means: there is no continuous coastal road around the bulge of West Africa. In many places (see map) there is no road at all, and one walks, and fords the brown rivers by ferry or canoe.

About five years ago, I listed to a Chinese bank official tell me that his bank wanted to build a road around the coast of West Africa. The colonialist never built it: such a road makes no sense for trade or grabbing natural resources. Output from mines or forests usually goes from the interior out to the closest port, not along the coast.  But it makes sense in terms of getting from A to B. Think of the great Highway One along the east coast of America (being inundated by Hurricane Sandy, as I write).

I never heard about this road plan again ... until tonight, when Google alerts brought me this story from Ventures' Oluwabusayo Sotunde:
China signed an agreement on infrastructural development and economic cooperation with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Thursday in Abuja, Nigeria. The pact which was signed by the Vice Minister, Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China, Li Jinzao, involves China building a [2000 km] trans-West African highway (which will go through nine states).
This is the fabled coastal highway. Will it happen? As with any of these projects: follow the money. This would be hugely complicated, with nine countries responsible for repayment of any finance. Perhaps it will be tendered as a private-public partnership, with tolls. That's the Chinese model.