Almost 120 potholes on the four-year road bring the Chinese-built infrastructure into question, JAMES CHAVULA writes.
Travelling to Chitipa, we saw why some Malawians think Chinese goods are not durable: the four-year-old Karonga-Chitipa Road is being ripped to pits like clay.
On the 93-kilometre highway, constructed with a $70 million grant from the Government of the Peoples Republic of China, deepening potholes flashed past not once or twice.
From a front seat, we counted almost 120 potholes on the rapidly cracking finish of the winding road in the north-western hills.
But there are more pitfalls on the eight-kilometre extension to Kanyala border between Malawi and Zambia.
The count waters down optimism of people who cried for a reliable road for over 50 years.
If the potholes were evenly spread, motorists would have to dodge one or two on every kilometre.
Yet they are randomly scattered that travellers on the winding road are at risk of deadly accidents if drivers blink a wink.
Scores dot the white line, on both lanes and some tricky bends.
They sometimes come in quick succession—and it is easier to lose count than to dodge them.
The shattered kilometres, which are either sinking in or scrapped off, worry the road users who have not forgotten a narrow, rocky road that used to split the steep slopes since independence in 1994.
To them, the long-awaited tarmac road marked a third liberation.
In an interview, Chitipa District Council chairperson Isaac Mwape narrated: “When the country attained independence from Britain in 1964, we thought we were free. But we felt forsaken and nothing was done to improve the road even after the historic referendum of 1993, which led to the restoration of democracy.
“When the Chinese came and constructed the road, hard-working Malawians in Chitipa stopped asking each other: ‘what is freedom or democracy without a good road?’ We were happy and grateful, but we are worried that it may not last long.”
The endangered highway splits the account of Chitipa into two eras—before and after the road.
But fears are deepening that the epoch-making road could be short-lived.
They do not want to revert to the detested days a journey of 90 minutes took four hours or more.
To them, the potholes are more than just bumps, wear and tear, breakdowns and accidents that motorists bemoan.
Rather, they are pitfalls in the positive voices the Chinese Embassy described as ‘a story worth telling’.
Mwape suspects the contractors—the State-run China Roads and Bridges Corporation—came short of putting one layer to strengthen the road.
“Four years ago, we got the road we wanted, but the future does not look good as trucks are crushing the road. It needs urgent repairs, and an extra coat,” the said Mwape.
When rims of a wrecked articulated truck ripped a six-kilometre section of the road on February 11 2013, Roads Authority (RA) spokesperson Portia Kajanga assured Malawians that the road is actually “thicker and more durable than most roads” in the country.
But the holes have been deepening and multiplying on the road which traffic police officers described as ‘slippery, tricky and accident-prone’.
The locals on the roadside say the RA’s response has been slow.
When asked about causes and remedies in May, RA did not respond despite Kajanga’s repeated assurances whereas the Chinese Embassy in Lilongwe asked for more time.
But a civil engineer familiar with the making of the road said the contractors were constantly under pressure from politicians anxious to commission the road.
He reckoned “political stakes were very high” as both Bingu wa Mutharika and his successor Joyce Banda (JB) wanted to inaugurate it and “score some marks” ahead of presidential polls in 2014.
Mutharika’s death on April 5 2012 paved the way for Banda’s ascendency to presidency.
The country’s first female president, who was Minister of Foreign Affairs when Malawi cut ties with Taiwan, for Mainland China, hastily opened the road in January 2013.
At the launch, JB spent almost 20 minutes detailing how she brokered the diplomatic switch from Taipei to Beijing.
But the absence of danger-warning signs and road markings in risky spots confirmed the decried haste and shoddy work.
The Nation revealed the hiccup in an expose that earned our reporter George Singini a Construction Sector Transparency Initiative (Cost) award.
His investigation into lack of vital signs in school sections, bends, bridges, drifts and other tricky sections of the road unearthed some shortcuts taken in a rush for quick political gains.
The increasing potholes somewhat reinforce stereotypes that Chinese goods do not last long.
But Francis Kasaila, who headed the Ministry of Transport and Public Works when the road was re-launched, and named Bingu Highway last year, termed the prevailing feeling one of the major fallacies of China-Africa relations.
“It is unfortunate that Africans have been brainwashed that everything Chinese is not durable. Across the globe, I have seen world-class Chinese infrastructure even in Britain and the United States of America,” said the civil engineer-turned politician.
He reckoned no engineering project is “is 100 percent flawless”.
“What we need are remedies to mitigate the defects. Instead of blaming the Chinese, the said potholes could be a wake-up call that we have to maintain the new infrastructure as soon as defects are noted,” he explained.
Minister of Transport and Public Work Jappie Mhango indicated that Roads Authority has engaged contractors to seal the potholes.
But both, Chitipa residents and road users, said the road has gone without repairs for over a year.
Faced with this mark of negligence, Mhango said: “Every road has a lifespan and it wears off as and when you use it.
“We are determined to ensure every road is in good shape. I cannot tell when the potholes were last mended, but we have just identified a contractor. Procurement processes take time.”
He did not name the contractor.
Instead, he pleaded for patience as rehabilitation works will get underway “in no time”.
This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.