All aboard for Africa’s heartland – on a train built in China

Inaugural journey on 750km line from Djibouti and the Suez Canal to landlocked Ethiopian capital

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2017, 11:38pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 9:50am

A multibillion-dollar China-built rail line linking the Horn of Africa with the continent's vast interior was officially launched on Tuesday, an important ­milestone for China’s burgeoning influence in the region.

The 750km line connects port city Djibouti and Addis Ababa, the capital of landlocked Ethiopia, the fastest-growing economy in­ Africa. The railway is expected to reduce the travel time between the two cities, from three days by road to just 12 hours by train.

It is also widely seen as the start of a trans-African railway project, in which a 2,000km track will ­connect Djibouti, a gateway to the Suez Canal and one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, with the Atlantic Ocean.

The railway was 70 per cent­ financed by China’s Exim Bank and built by two large Chinese state-owned companies – China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) and China Railway Construction Corporation. It is the latest symbol of China’s growing presence in ­Africa, a continent that has been traditionally under the influence of the West.

The line was the first standard-gauge electrified railroad on the continent built with Chinese standards and technology.

During the inauguration ceremony yesterday morning, Yuan Li, the president of CCECC, said that the launch of the new railway was a “dream come true” and “another symbol of China-Africa friendship”.

He also pledged to increase the company’s investment in Djibouti and Ethiopia.

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China has been putting down roots in Africa over the past decade as part of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road project, an ambitious initiative proposed by President Xi Jinping to revive China’s trade connections with the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

In Tanzania yesterday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China would help African nations boost their infrastructure.

Djibouti alone, a tiny country with a population of less than a million that lies on the Bab El-Mandeb Strait, has hosted several projects by Chinese state-owned companies. These notably include: a US$590 million multi-purpose port; a cross-border pipeline that channels drinking water from Ethiopia; and China’s first overseas naval base, which Beijing insists is only a logistics hub for China’s naval presence in the Gulf of Aden.

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Developments like these have triggered concerns China is following in Western footsteps and pursuing a path of colonial economic development in Africa.

But Aden Ahmed Douale, the counsellor to the president of Djibouti, said that such concerns were “ridiculous”.

“You cannot trade without infrastructure,” Douale said ­yesterday.

“The European countries didn’t want to help the African countries develop their infrastructures and their economies, only the Chinese did,” he added.

“Now it’s too bad for the Europeans, but it is good for China and it is good for Africa.”