The people of Southern Africa fondly refer to it as the Uhuru railway, for it was one of their most effective weapons in the struggle to liberate the region from colonialism and apartheid.
Father of the Nation, Mwalimu Nyerere and Zambia’s founder president Kenneth Kaunda, then leaders of the frontline states, hit on the great idea of building the railway in a bid to give landlocked Zambia more clout in supporting the liberation fighters and greater independence in running its economy.
China which was one of the foremost backers of the struggle was approached and agreed, building the 1,860-kilometre line from Kapiri Mposhi to Dar es Salaam in record time.
While Tazara has thus remained a historic symbol of the region’s struggles to attain Uhuru (liberation), it is also true that its full economic potential, while appreciated, has never been seriously exploited.
If anything Tazara has become a burden on the economies of the two countries, achieving only ten per cent of its designed capacity of moving five million metric tons of goods per year and about a million passengers per year.
Yet the railway line is strategically placed to contribute immensely to the second liberation of the Southern Africa region, spanning as it does through the most resource endowed area in the region, boasting of various minerals, agricultural products and natural resources.
It was the knowledge of this potential for the company to grow and place itself strategically to benefit from the economic changes in the region that prompted Transport minister Dr Harrison Mwakyembe to instruct the Tazara management to come up with a clear plan for rescuing the company.
We applaud the minister for starting early to tackle one of the sleeping economic giants, the others being TRL and Dar es Salaam Port. We know from hindsight what these infrastructural giants can do to drive the economy in terms of direct and indirect revenues.
“The southern regions and Zambia are not supposed to transport their goods through roads but railways,” rightly noted the minister adding that Tazara can improve the country’s economy within a short period of time if managed efficiently.
We hope that his directive will be acted on with utmost speed, for we know that several plans are lying at Tazara, having been floated in a bid to breathe new life into the company.
One of those floated sometime last year was the recommendation to invite operators, who would offer various services for an agreed payment to the Authority and the governments of Tanzania and Zambia who own the rail line.
Such a move would require changing the Tazara Act to allow a private-public partnership with investors stepping in to finance operators who would serve the clients and pay Tazara and the two governments.
Areas other than cargo handling which could be exploited immediately are the operation of special trains for the various tourist attractions along the line.
The expanding city of Dar es Salaam could also exploit the line to reduce its debilitating traffic congestion. Experts could check out whether the line could chip in by allowing city trains to run on its tracks to help reduce jams.