New Zambezi bridge to cut out Zimbabwe and cut down time
A 923m bridge, due to be completed in 2019, will link Botswana and Zambia and bypass Zimbabwe.
The Kazungula bridge's construction site across the Zambezi River was unveiled this week. It will be an alternative route for traffic from South Africa.
It will connect the northern corridor of the Southern African Development Community with Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. The bridge will also provide some relief to the often congested Beitbridge, the SADC region's busiest inland border post.
Beitbridge clears an average of 12,000 people a day entering or leaving Zimbabwe during off-peak times. The figure doubles during peak periods such as holidays and at month-ends.
At a cost of $229.62-million and co-financed by the Japanese Development Agency in the form of loans to Zambia and Botswana, there are no readily available statistics on volumes of traffic that the Kazungula bridge will carry.
It will replace a ferry that links Botswana and Zambia over the Zambezi River with a one-stop border post at Kazungula.
Intervention by presidents
In 2014 an impasse between Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe on the construction of the bridge brought about the intervention of the countries' presidents.
Former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe at the time argued that, according to the UN, there was no border linking Botswana and Zambia. He said that for the project to go ahead, Zimbabwe's consent was needed.
Zimbabwe's main concern, however, was potential revenue loss from the construction of an alternative route.
Zambia and other northern countries, on the other hand, found that using Zimbabwe as a transit route was expensive.
Adding greater pressure on Zimbabwe was a 2016 report by Transparency International that indicated corruption in the SADC region was serious, with Botswana the least corrupt country in the bloc.With Botswana as a low-risk option, the proposal to put a route through Kazungula was made. Zambia agreed, even though Zimbabwe had not bought into the idea.
"Zimbabwe pulled out as a result of some dispute at the time about the boundary, but Zambia and Botswana decided to go ahead with the project," said President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe.
The South African Cross-Border Road Transport Agency, in its 2016 operations report, identified inadequate infrastructure on the Zimbabwean side, with bad roads, police roadblocks, high road-access fees and generally rude customs officials as key concerns.
Mnangagwa fears exclusion
"Countries in the north, especially the landlocked, rely on the transport system for exports and imports to international markets," said Stevenson Dhlamini, an economics lecturer at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo. "It makes business sense to use a route with minimal risks and delays."
Fearing exclusion from the region's economic integration, Mnangagwa pleaded with his counterparts to consider bringing Zimbabwe on board for phase two of the project.
"Zimbabwe stood to lose from the move due to lost business being diverted to the new bridge," said Dhlamini."This is compounded by the challenge of smuggling that is already costing government revenue, and the communities that benefited from offering accommodation and hospitality services."
Zimbabwe's problems are compounded by the country's failure to put in place one-stop border posts.
At government planning level, Beitbridge was meant to be a one-stop border post more than a decade ago. The plan, however, was never carried out.
The only one-stop border post between Zimbabwe and Zambia is at Chirundu.
The Zimbabwe ministry of transport said that since its inception in 2012, Chirundu has experienced an increase in traffic of 70%, and an 80% decrease in time spent at the border post.