By Andrew Kunambura
In July last year, Transport and Infrastructure Development Minister, Jorum Gumbo, was reassuring in his update on the dualisation of the Beitbridge-Harare-Chirundu highway.
“Things are definitely moving,” he said during a press briefing.
“The contractor and the financier are in the country and they are working on an implementation plan which they will present to us when we begin our meetings with them this week.”
He was speaking soon after sealing a 25-year long US$3 billion Build-Operate-Transfer deal for the construction of the highway, one of southern Africa’s busiest.
The deal was signed between government and a contractor, Chinese firm China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC).
The project is being financed by an Austrian firm, Geiger International.
Gumbo’s highly optimistic speech gave the impression that work on the expansion of the road was, at the time, only a few weeks away from commencing; but 10 months later — and still counting — nothing has happened.
The road, which is narrow and characterised by dangerous potholes, has been a political pedestal for successive transport ministers for a long time as it has become a death highway due to the accidents occurring almost daily.
From Nicholas Goche to Obert Mpofu and now Gumbo, every minister has spoken of imminent site-works that have never been.
Only in February this year, Gumbo said President Robert Mugabe would officially launch the dualisation of the road by mid-March, while the actual construction work would start before the country’s Independence Day commemorations held on Tuesday last week.
The dates have since come and gone without any of the events taking place. Neither has there been any further feedback on a project that would have undoubtedly raised the profile of the ZANU-PF government’s much-celebrated Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation economic blueprint that promised the creation of two million jobs and conducive conditions for both local and foreign investments.
And, as if to remind the powers that be that expansion of the highway is now long overdue, a horrific accident took place along the trunk road last month.
If anything was needed to stir the consciences of those in charge of the project, it should surely be the gruesome images of charred remains of passengers who perished when a South Africa bound cross-border bus side-swiped a haulage truck — now a familiar phenomenon on the road — and veered off the road before bursting into flames near Mvuma, killing 31 people.
Their bodies were burnt beyond recognition.
The accident happened not very far away from the scene of a similar crash involving another bus which ploughed into a truck and caught fire and killed 50 people in 2001.
Yet another bus killed 37 people and injured 48 others when it hit a truck along the same road and overturned before landing on its side.
Last year, another bus collided with a haulage truck 45 kilometres outside Beitbridge town, killing 12 and injuring many others.
These are just a few examples of the deadly crashes that could have been avoided had government expedited the dualisation of the road.
As things stand, many more lives are going to be lost as the region and Africa now top global statistics of road fatalities and injuries.
According to a 2015 World Health Organisation Global Burden of Disease and Injury study, southern Africa is increasingly becoming the most dangerous region to drive on earth.
While road deaths and injuries in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 13 percent between 1990 and 2013, they increased 35 percent in southern Africa during the same period.
In general, Africa tops the world on road fatalities at 26,6 percent, a figure which is three times higher than that of Europe — at 9,3 percent — where there are 40 000 more vehicles per every 100 000 people than Africa.
It is undoubted that the Beitbridge-Harare-Chirundu highway is making a significant contribution to these statistics as a major artery into Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries such as Zambia, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo that rely on it for both cargo and human movement.
Besides the fact that the highway is too narrow to accommodate the heavy traffic flow, the road has long passed its lifespan and is now riddled with huge potholes and sharp edges that make driving an absolute nightmare.
It was designed to last 20 years but, like many other 1970s Rhodesian-era roads, it has been allowed to outlive its span threefold. Critics indicate that they are baffled by the fact that a road of such commercial significance, which is said to carry between 1 000 and 5 000 vehicles daily, is allowed to rot to that extent.
Unusually heavy rains that mercilessly battered the country during the just ended rainfall season further exacerbated the bad state of the road.
That it has been probably the worst maintained major road in the country and yet by far the busiest speaks volumes about State bureaucrats’ commitment to seeing it through its teething stages.
That the country stands to lose considerable business if government continues to dawdle on the project at a time when regional players are busy planning the construction of a trunk road which skirts Zimbabwe, running through Botswana, does not seem to be a good reason to jolt the country into action. Despite having earlier expressed optimism, Gumbo is now not even sure when the project would start. In an interview with this newspaper, he said the project would not be rushed.
Such is the approach to the dualisation project, which has been on the planning table for nearly two decades.
A legal wrangle erupted between government and a consortium of local contractors, ZimHighways, which could not implement the project for over a decade due to an poor economic environment that culminated in a hyperinflationary crisis which ended with dollarization in 2009.
Government revoked the agreement in 2013 after persuading the consortium to withdraw their court case for an undisclosed settlement.
ZimHighways, comprising 14 construction firms that included Murray & Roberts Zimbabwe (now Masimba Holdings), Costain Africa (now ZCL Holdings which is under judicial management), Kuchi Building Construction, Tarcon, Bitumen Construction Services (Bitcon), Joina Development Company and Southland Engineers, is once again reportedly coming back to haunt government by demanding a share of the spoils.
During the decade leading to 2013, the project could not take off amid accusations and counter-accusations between government and the consortium.
Government claimed the consortium lacked the financial wherewithal to do the job, while the consortium claimed that some senior government officials were demanding bribes for them to facilitate the project.
The wrangle only ended in September 2015 when government struck an obscure deal with the consortium, under which it withdrew the case leading to the current arrangement being formulated.
Nonetheless, there has not been any meaningful progress.
The delay has also been very costly, with the project’s cost now hitting US$2,7 billion from the US$984 million quoted in 2002.
Being a signatory to the SADC protocol on transport, communication and meteorology, Zimbabwe is under pressure to not only rehabilitate its roads, but also modernise them.
In terms of that protocol, Zimbabwe agreed to assist in developing an adequate road network that supports the region’s socio-economic growth.
The network needs to provide access to major centres, ports, and harbours, while minimising road transport costs and impacts to the environment.
According to the protocol, roads affect all aspects of development in the region.
“Businesses depend on effective roads for transporting their goods, industry relies on roads for delivery of equipment, and people require roads for travel between home, workplaces, and elsewhere in the region,” the regional body said in a communiqué issued after a regional conference held in Bulawayo last year.
But despite all those commitments government has remained lethargic.
There were reports recently of squabbles on the project, with the Chinese contractor reportedly unwilling to cede the 40 percent stake reserved for local contractors.
This is the same emotive project that was subject of the long running legal wrangle between government and ZimHighways