Enhancing road, rail infrastructure development

When Malawi attained independence from Britain in 1964, there was only one paved road worth talking about. It was one between Blantyre and Zomba.  A single lane tarred road, just enough to accommodate one car, existed between Blantyre and Mulanje via Thyolo, and between Lilongwe and Salima. There was not a single city in Nyasaland before independence. Blantyre became a city on Independence Day. Lilongwe was to become a city about a decade later.

Massive road construction works were undertaken in the 1960s, 1970s and the 1980s. First was the 288-kilometre stretch between Zomba and Lilongwe. Next was the road between Lilongwe and Mzuzu, covering 351 kilometres. I still remember the earth moving machines busy on that road when I was a student at Robert Blake Secondary School, Dowa, in the 1970s. Later, the road was extended to Karonga—222 kilometres from Mzuzu.

Then the Lakeshore Road project was embarked upon. It was constructed between Chingeni in Balaka and Mzuzu, giving us 492 kilometres of a paved alternative road from the South to the North. This was the backbone of our road infrastructure, to borrow the terminology used in telecommunications. What remained was to connect feeder roads from the backbone to various areas. In telecommunications, the feeders are called the last mile.

Blantyre to Chikwawa, a 53-kilometre road, was later paved, as was the 66-kilometre stretch between Blantyre and Mwanza, with a 61-kilometre stretch connecting Zalewa and Chingeni. The 93-kilometre narrow road between Lilongwe and Salima was replaced by a wider tarmac road. The narrow stretch between Blantyre and Mulanje (89 kilometres) was also replaced by wider tar. The 109-kilometre road between Lilongwe and Mchinji was also paved.

As we got into multiparty democracy, we already had more than 1 820 kilometres of roads paved in the post-independence period. If we add the road networks in our urban centres, we could be talking about 2 000 kilometres of paved roads. What remains now is to work on the last mile. It is sad that often construction of roads is taken politically. I have heard it being asked: ‘What did the government do before, Where did the money they got from donors go?” Such sentiments have been expressed when a new 30 or 40-kilometre road is being inaugurated or inspected. It should never come to this, really. Even if it were a 200-kilometre road being inaugurated, it would not measure up to the nearly 2 000 kilometres paved before.

A great deal was also done to extend the railway. Our colonial masters had done commendable work in this respect, leaving us with a railway line from Beira to Salima. Between the 1970s and 1980, government extended the railway by adding the bit between Nkaya and Cuamba in Mozambique, to connect to the line to Nacala Port, and also between Salima and Lilongwe, then on to Mchinji near the border with Zambia. The idea was to connect to the Zambian railway system, which offered the opportunity to link up with the Tazara line that would connect Malawi to the Dar es Salaam port by rail.

If truth be told, a lot has been done in the development of surface transport infrastructure. All we need to do now is to use the comprehensive backbone laid to connect to unreached areas. And this should not happen to gain political mileage. Rather, the civil service should proceed unimpeded to do all the necessary construction works. This is what we taxpayers want to see happening. Each time I go South Africa I find a number of new roads which had not been there during my previous visit. The President of South Africa would be extremely exhausted if he had to inaugurate every new section of a road.

There must be a blueprint of new construction and this has to be followed regardless of who is in power. There are still a number of roads that need to be paved. The road from Nkando to Namulenga then on to Namitambo is one example. Another example is the road from Chimwaza in Dowa (near Mtengowanthenga) to Nambuma. These are short distance roads but would open up areas that are rich in agricultural activity. The road from Lirangwe to Masaula is thankfully, finally, under construction.

Those charged with the responsibility for roads need to conduct a diligent search within the road and rail infrastructure left by the first republic and come up with five-year, 10-year and longer term plans of how to extend the respective networks. The inactivity in the development of new railway lines is frightening. n

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