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New Road Paves the Way for Regional Integration in Central Africa

July 16, 2010

N’DJAMENA, July 16, 2010—Heads of state of the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC) met for an extraordinary summit in Brazzaville, Congo Republic, on June 7, 2010, to further cement the spirit of regional integration within the six-nation bloc.

Nearly three months earlier, at a ground-breaking ceremony in Baboua, a town located at the Cameroon-Central African Republic (CAR) border, authorities signaled that the two most isolated countries of the bloc, Chad and CAR, would soon be brought closer to Cameroon.

The ceremony, organized on March 19, 2010, didn’t go unnoticed. With bulldozers lined up on one side of the road, and a long line of local residents on the other, politicians, businesspeople, and development partners took turns at the microphone to echo the same refrain: “This road is a path to development.” CAR President François Bozize addressed the crowd, standing on a bulldozer: “People of Baboua, your suffering is coming to an end!”

Two days later, in the village of Dibi on the other side of the border, Cameroonian authorities shared the good news with thousands of people gathered for the occasion. “Soon, your villages will be linked to the rest of the country and to the world,” a local mayor said.

Both events marked the start of paving works along the Garoua Boulai-Ngaoundéré road, the most eagerly anticipated stretch of the corridor linking Douala, Cameroon to N’Djamena, Chad, and Douala to Bangui, the capital of CAR. The road, 254 kilometers long, is funded by the World Bank’s CEMAC Regional Transport and Transit Facilitation Project. Paving will save a great deal of time and boost productivity for drivers and merchants heading to N’Djamena.

On the CAR side, the most eagerly anticipated stretch is the Bouar-Garoua Boulai road, 157 kilometers long. Site preparation has been completed and work has started on the two-lane bridge which links Logone, Chad to Cameroon, as well as the 7-kilometer road that connects the Cameroonian border to N’Djamena. Truckers are particularly anxious to see the road come to completion, because up to now the countries are linked by a single-lane bridge only, making it difficult for them to cross.

Beyond technical considerations, the CEMAC Transport and Transit Facilitation Project is enhancing the dynamics of commerce in the Central African sub-region. Initially funded to the tune of US$201 million by the International Development Association (IDA) ― the branch of the World Bank Group which funds operations in low-income countries ― the project aims to ease regional trade among countries in the sub-region and improve their access to global markets. It also seeks to strengthen the CEMAC customs union by reducing barriers of all sorts along the Douala-N'Djamena and Douala-Bangui corridors. In 2009, two years after initial funding was approved, the World Bank provided additional IDA financing of US$217 million to help ensure the completion and expansion of critical rail and road links.

The three-nation project is part of a larger infrastructure initiative jointly funded by the IDA, the African Development Bank, and the European Union.

An Emerging Sprit of Integration

On the ground, implementation of the project has started to alter a number of practices. “A new transit culture seems to be taking hold in the region,” noted Idriss Goukouni, a Chadian transport director. “Transport and transit are now being viewed in their regional context,” added Noël Gbeba, adviser to the CAR minister of public works. The project has huge implications, given that it solves a problem unique to the region. “In the history of transport, the most difficult issues have emerged from the Douala-Bangui and Douala-N’Djamena corridors due to all kinds of problems and a string of taxes imposed on the only source of revenue for truckers,” complained Ousmane Ngam, the manager of Transimex, a company based in Douala.

“The most important achievement of this project is that it has fostered dialogue between us and people working in the transit and transport sectors,” said Christian Charles Ossono, a senior Cameroonian customs officer.

Change is indeed underway along these corridors, and citizens are seizing this opportunity to think and organize on a transnational basis. Such was recently the case when various transporters unions joined forces to stage cross-border protests.

“Thanks to the opportunities for interaction that we have had as a result of this project, we have managed to reach consensus among Cameroonians, Chadians, and Central Africans on the various issues that we are advocating,” said Touk François Rève, the regional chair of the National Union of Professional Cameroonian Truckers. “With this project, I must confess that the discipline that was once lacking among truckers and drivers is beginning to return,” added a pleased Laurent Nlemba, chief of operations at the Diabamba weighing station on the Cameroonian side.

Sharing Knowledge for Mutual Enrichment

This regional approach is also evident in the many progress reports, data sheets, and research findings related to regional transit and transport issues that are readily circulating among experts and decision-makers. “The number of high-quality studies conducted in the context of this project provides the region with a wealth of data which, if used effectively, will enable us to successfully address the region’s transit and transport challenges,” Goukouni said.

The effect sought by the CEMAC project is beginning to materialize: a general momentum has been created around dynamics linked to the movement of people, merchandise, and knowledge beyond borders. A perspective that top-ranking politicians are increasingly embracing.

“This project has had the greatest real and immediate impact on our people and on ending the landlocked status of CAR, whose road network was in an advanced state of disrepair,” Sylvain Maliko, the country’s minister of state for economic planning and international cooperation told Obiageli Ezekwesili, the World Bank’s Vice President for the Africa Region, during her recent visit to the country.

According to experts, CAR has 24,000 km of road networks, of which 15,000 are rural roads and 9,000 are impassable. Some 50 years ago, travel along CAR’s Oubangui River was feasible 11 months a year; travel today is only practicable for seven months.

Financial problems also abound: CAR’s Road Maintenance Fund generates slightly less than US$6 million a year, an amount far below what is needed to maintain the country’s roads. This leaves the government entirely dependent on foreign aid for substantial rehabilitation efforts. In that context, it is clear that the multi-donor CEMAC project is crucial for the country.

The momentum generated by the project, as demonstrated by the interest shown by politicians, customs officials, police officers, carriers, and drivers seems to herald a new era of the integration process in Central Africa.

“This has been a long time coming for the World Bank, our partners, and CEMAC, as well as for all the officials who gave the best of themselves to make this project possible,” said Jean-François Marteau, the World Bank’s project leader. “We have been working for nearly four years to see this day.”

CEMAC member countries are Cameroon, CAR, Chad, Congo Republic, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.