The Maritime Executive
14 June 2018
At the present time, a group of African governments assisted by China are planning future trans-African transportation corridors. Should some of these plans come to fruition many years into the future, the Port of Djibouti could emerge as an important African trading gateway.
For several decades beginning during in the early 1970’s, the Government of China reached out to several African nations with the purpose of establishing cordial diplomatic relations and especially so with the post-colonial government of the former Tanganyika, renamed Tanzania. At the time, the landlocked region of Northern Rhodesia had achieved independence from England and was renamed Zambia. China provided assistance and expertise to connect railway lines into the Tan-Zam or Tazara Railway that linked the port city of Dar es Salaam with Zambia, Angola and Congo while also providing access into South Africa.
Several decades later, China again provides railway development assistance to the nations of Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti, replacing the old light-duty meter-gauge railway lines with heavy weight international gauge railway lines. The assistance not only provides a market for Chinese built railway technology, it also improves overland transportation connections between major cities across the region. Fast new electric trains now connect the Port of Djibouti to Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa. In Kenya, the former 16.5-hour Mombasa – Nairobi overnight passenger train now does the trip in just over four hours, while longer and heavier freight trains also travel that route.
China has invested in assisting several African nations to develop new businesses and is extending the Port of Mombasa – Nairobi standard gauge railway line westbound into Uganda. North of both Uganda and Ethiopia, discussions have been underway to convert railway lines in Sudan from the meter-gauge and Cape-gauge (3’ 6”) to the international gauge that already exists in Egypt. The Egyptian railway extends south to the northern tip of the Aswan Dam while the Sudanese railway extends north to the southern tip of that dam. A common railway gauge could result in a direct Cairo – Khartoum train service.
A railway line extends south from Khartoum along the Blue Nile and toward the border with Ethiopia and half-way to Addis Ababa. Connecting a standard gauge railway line between Khartoum and Addis Ababa would also provide a direct railway link between the Mediterranean Sea and Gulf of Aden. Egypt is presently Africa’s second largest economy and a direct railway from Alexandria and Cairo to Khartoum and Addis Ababa promises to carry substantial trade. In Southwestern Sudan, a railway line extends west toward the border with Chad while a Northeastern Nigeria railway line extends east toward Chad.
Transportation researchers connected to the Organization of African Unity have discussed the future possibility of a trans-African railway line connecting Gulf of Aden to Gulf of Guinea. Nigeria has converted some railway lines from narrow gauge to international gauge and will continue to do so into the future. Nigeria and Egypt are Africa’s largest economies and a direct railway line across Chad would allow trains to carry trade between these two economies, via Khartoum. Higher priority freight from India and China would transfer to a trans-Equatorial African railway at Djibouti, for the overland journey to Nigeria.
South Red Sea Bridge
About 10 years ago, the CEO of the Arabian based Bin Laden Engineering and Construction Company proposed to build a bridge across the south end of the Red Sea, between the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and the nation of Djibouti. The future prospect of an east-west railway line across Equatorial Africa between Djibouti and Nigeria invited reconsideration of that bridge project and especially in view of the future prospect of rising sea levels. One possible future option would be the combination of a bridge with tunnel sections, dam with hydraulic pumping turbines and maritime navigation locks.
The transportation link would become part of China’s Great Silk Road across Asia and into Africa and especially in view that the nations of Oman and Iran actually discussed a bridge transportation link across the Strait of Hormuz. A substantial Muslim population lives across Equatorial Africa and at the time of the annual Haj, a sizeable percentage of that population could seek railway transportation to Djibouti as part of pilgrimage journey to Mecca. Saudi Arabia is presently expanding their standard gauge railway network, and once the problem in Yemen is resolved, could extend a railway line toward Djibouti.
East Africa Deep Water Ports
At 18 meters (59 feet) water depth, Djibouti is East Africa’s second deep water container terminal, with the other terminal being located at Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Unlike its Southern counterpart, Port of Djibouti has the prospect of becoming the trading gateway for several African nations that will seek faster transit times for containers moving between Equatorial West Africa and Asian economies. As future sea levels slowly rise, Djibouti may be able to berth larger container ships of up to 28,000-TEUs that sail a draft of 18 meters and in the long-term future, be assigned to the East Africa – Asia service.
There is potential for the Kenyan Port of Mombasa to serve as a back-up port to Djibouti for trade between equatorial Africa and Asia, serving smaller ships if standard gauge railway line from Mombasa extends to Uganda’s northwestern region and connects to the southernmost point of Sudan’s railway system. Such a link would provide trans-Africa railway access between Kenya and Nigeria as well as between Kenya and Egypt. While mega-size container ships from China and India will call at Port of Djibouti, smaller container ships from smaller Asian economies might call at Port of Mombasa.
While the Organization of African Unity promotes the idea of an equatorial trans-African railway line to promote domestic and international trade, including trade with Asia, China has already taken the first step by providing assistance to develop standard gauge railway lines the extend inland into Africa, from the Indian Ocean.