Highway Africa

The colonial period: centrifugal infrastructure

We can understand infrastructure as one of the very tools of colonialism to hegemonise and exploit a continent. With the start of colonisation, the French and British but also the Belgian and Portuguese colonisers used infrastructure systems such as harbours, roads and railways to make territories accessible, and to transport valuable resources from the continent’s interior to the coast and then on to the metropoles of Europe. Infrastructure, therefore, was not only a technical device for transport, it was even more a territorial system of control with substantial effect on local societies.

Colonial infrastructure on the African continent had a centrifugal logic that led from the continent’s interior to the coastline, the aim being to transport resources such as ivory, gold, timber, rubber and agricultural produce to the ports and from there to Europe. This was one of the main purposes of colonial train lines such as the Uganda Railway from Lake Victoria to Mombasa on the Indian Ocean,1 or the Dakar–Niger Railway,2 which ran from Mali’s capital, Bamako (on the Niger River), to the newly named capital of Senegal, Dakar, on the Atlantic Ocean.

A map of 19083 is indicative of the colonial thinking behind infrastructure. The African continent is represented as a territory without political borders, without cities, apart from the final train stops, and without cultural indicators. The only marks are the railway lines: from Port Florence (colonial Kisumu) to Mombasa, from Victoria Falls to the coast of Mozambique, parallel to the Congo River to the harbour of Matadi, or a single line connecting the Niger River with the Senegal River close to its delta at the harbour city of St Louis. Mountain ranges, rivers and lakes are represented only in a very abstract way. This map suggests a view of the continent that is open for exploration, where infrastructure is unaffected by geography and borders. It is a representation that seems naïve, while at the same time being technocratically utopian and almost totalitarian.

Fig. 1
Railroad Map of Africa, 1908. The Wells Missionary Map Co. Source: Library of Congress.


Although most existing or project railway lines featured on the map lead from the continent’s interior to its coastline, there is one important connection: shown as dashed lines, and hence indicating a projected railway, it connects the city of Victoria Falls, via the Great Lakes of Central Africa, to Khartoum. From Khartoum, an existing railway leads to Cairo and Alexandria, whereas Victoria Falls is connected to Cape Town. These modest-looking red dashes reference the most audacious project for a colonial infrastructure: Cecil Rhodes’ dream of a continuous road and railway link between Cape Town and Cairo, linking the southern tip of the continent with its very north. Rhodes was not only a passionate believer in British imperialism, a politician who served as prime minister of the Cape Colony in the final years of the nineteenth century. He was also a businessman, heavily involved in mining and trade. His mining endeavours were spread out over most of Southern and Eastern Africa: diamond mining in the Northern Cape, gold and mineral mining in the territories of the Zambezi River, later to be named Rhodesia, as well as further concessions in the area of Lake Mweru (located between today’s Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and in the Great Lakes Region of Central and Eastern Africa. A train line from Cape Town to Cairo would pass through a continuous sequence of British colonies and territories under British influence – while also connecting all of Rhodes’ personal commercial undertakings – and represent the ultimate combination of political and economical imperial interests with a vast infrastructure project. Only German East Africa – today’s Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda – stood in the way of this imperial utopian dream. Even after the end of World War I, when Tanganyika became British, the train line was never completed due to the vast difficulties of the terrain and the continent’s enormous distances. Even if the Cape to Cairo line would have linked various territories across the continent, it was not about connecting the different peoples of Africa. On the contrary, its intention was to support colonial dominance and its logic was nevertheless extractive and centrifugal, aiming to transport minerals, gold and other resources to the coastline.

Fig. 2
The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes after he announced plans for a telegraph line and railroad from Cape Town to Cairo. Originally published in Punch Magazine,1892.


Roads to Independence

Most of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa gained their independence between the late 1950s and the mid-1960s. This opened the opportunity for a new large-scale infrastructural project of a very different kind of logic. Beginning in the late 1960s, a plan for a transcontinental highway system was drawn up. The first of the proposed routes would connect Lagos, in Nigeria, to Mombasa, in Kenya, cutting across the continent from west to east.4 This plan for a single route was quickly extended into a master plan for the Trans-African Highway: a system of nine major highways that would crisscross the entire continent, connecting Cairo with Dakar via Algiers, Dakar with Djibouti via N’Djamena, Tripoli with Kinshasa, and eventually even Cairo with Cape Town via Nairobi. It was the first time that the newly independent countries could themselves decide the location, routing, mode and purpose of large-scale infrastructure. Cutting across the continent, the highways would connect the young nations, allowing for the exchange of people and goods across national borders. The Trans-African Highway was thus an affirmation of their independence and sovereignty, while at the same time being a physical manifestation of Pan-Africanism.

Central to this planning was the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), headed by Robert Kweku Atta Gardiner. Born in 1914, he was a Ghanaian economist and civil servant, who had studied at the Fourah Bay College in Freetown (Sierra Leone), at Cambridge University and at the University of London. After a few years as the head of Ghana’s Civil Service, he became deputy executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa in 1959. He spent the early 1960s shuttling between the ECA headquarter in Addis Ababa and the Congo, where UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld had commissioned him to lead the negotiations concerning the reorganisation of the Congolese army. In 1963 he was named executive secretary of the ECA and returned to Addis Ababa. When Gardiner joined the ECA, most of its staff were non-Africans. ‘Gardiner was a staunch supporter of the “Africanization” policy, whereas he remained aware of the limitations it faced. He advocated “Africanizing” not only UNECA staff, but also the knowledge base on which the work of UNECA was founded. He was convinced that the universalistic knowledge claims of development economics had to be adjusted to African realities.’5 We can expect that this thinking of ‘Africanization’ guided the overall strategy of setting up a transcontinental highway system for Africa. Instead of a highway system with a European and hence, colonial logic, the new highway system was to showcase an African logic. Gardiner must have gained considerable prominence and a reputation that went beyond the circle of international administration, for he was named one of the world’s 100 most important people in 1970.6 Nevertheless, the legacy of his tenure is mixed and not without criticism. ‘… he had not managed to make the Commission the focal point of innovative development thinking many people in Africa and outside had been hoping for. Consequently, appraisals of his tenure tend to be ambiguous. His successor, the Nigerian Adebayo Adedeji, has been critical of his alleged lack of vision: “Robert Gardiner was a conservative economist who didn’t see anything wrong with the extant development paradigm.”’7

The committee meetings of the early 1970s dealt only with the initial route from Lagos to Mombasa. The Trans-African Highway would not be a newly constructed road but would mostly use existing roads, which would be connected and upgraded to become part of the highway. Initially, though, the idea was to complement the roads with oil pipelines and telecommunication systems, thus creating a truly multimodal infrastructure system.8 It was clear to the participating nations that there would be little traffic actually travelling the full length of the highway from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Coast. The main purpose consisted in easing transport across shorter distances and acting as feeder road to other roads. Even though the highway would pass through the six countries of Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Kenya, representatives of many more countries and international organisations participated in these meetings. This was partly due to the fact that the highway allowed for easy future links and connections to the neighbouring countries it passed by at relatively small distances, such as Chad. International interest in the project also indicated the need for financial support by participating countries such as Germany, Japan and the US, as well as by international organisations such as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (part of the World Bank) and the United Nations Development Programme.

The first route also exposed the conflict of interest between national and international agendas. Coming from Nigeria, the highway would pass the border with Cameroon near the city of Mamfe and then traverse the country from west to east. Bypassing the capital, Yaoundé, and going nowhere near the country’s largest city, and main seaport of Douala, the highway served little strategic purpose for Cameroon itself. Similarly, the route through the Democratic Republic of the Congo would cross the north-eastern regions of the country through infamously difficult territory, and several thousand kilometres from the capital, Kinshasa. In a country that had experienced several secession attempts, constructing infrastructure interconnecting the distant regions was not necessarily seen as serving the unity of the nation. This clash of interests between the various national agendas and the continental and Pan-African aspirations would continue to plague the Trans-African Highway.

Fig 3
Map of the Trans-African Highway, Mombasa to Lagos.
Source: UN Economic Commission for Africa, Report of the First Meeting of the Trans-African Highway Committee, 1971.


The Trans-African Highway

In the early 1970s there were already concrete plans to expand the highway system to include additional transcontinental highways, such as the Trans-West African Highway from Dakar to N’Djamena (then called Fort Lamy) and its coastal counterpart from Nouakchott via Dakar to Lagos; the Trans-Saharan Road crossing the Sahara from North Africa to Mali; and the Trans-East African Highway running from Cairo in the very north of the continent to Gaborone, capital of Botswana and located near the border with South Africa. This was further expanded for an ECA African Highway Conference in 1978 in Bangui, where a comprehensive plan was proposed with a total of nine routes connecting most of the African continent.9

But as extensive as this new map seemed, it was not neutral, nor was it independent of politics. A few examples will help to illustrate this. The route along the Moroccan coastline from Rabat towards the south turned off the coast near Agadir, climbed across the Atlas mountain range, crossed briefly into Algeria near the city of Tindouf and then into Mauritania, thereby bypassing the territory of the Western Sahara, where a conflict of decolonisation and occupation by Morocco had just broken out in 1976. Planning a road through the occupied Western Sahara would have forced the ECA to take a position on that inner-African conflict, either in support of the Moroccan occupation or in favour of Sahrawi independence, neither of which the ECA wanted to do.

It is also not by accident that the routes of the highways stopped short of South Africa, whose minority-rule apartheid regime was still in full power at that time. Lusophone Africa, on the other hand, had just gained independence, albeit through bloody wars that would quickly turn into civil wars – in the case of Angola, one that lasted for several decades. Even the end of minority rule in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) was on the horizon, and so the newest routes proposed connecting Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe to Trans-African Highway system. The highway master plan is therefore as much a result of strategic planning as it is of the negotiation of political contingencies.

Furthermore, on a smaller scale, the map suggests a smoothness and seemingly borderless travel that is simply not the case. Overall, border crossings on the African continent can often be cumbersome and painfully slow. But beyond these bureaucratic annoyances, the infrastructure often exhibits gaps or discontinuities which are not just of a developmental or an administrative nature and also are not indicated in the map. The Trans-West African Highway running south from Dakar has to cross the Gambia River in order to traverse the rest of that country – a crossing that must done by ferry, however, as the Gambia has, since independence, refused to construct a bridge over the river. The Gambia perceives the bridge to be of greater interest to Senegal than to itself and has even rejected an offer by its neighbour to fully fund the construction, a refusal that gives the Gambia a bargaining chip. The former British colony, based along both sides of the river, is a finger-like enclave that protrudes deep into Senegal, dividing much of the former French colony in two. Beyond fears of potential disruptions by a bridge to the flow of traffic along the river and to the harbour at Banjul, the Gambia River authorities can use the lack of a bridge to raise crossing fees and taxes, while keeping a large number of people employed in the ferry sector. This conflict between Senegal and the Gambia has at times gone so far that the borders between the two countries were closed for several weeks, with Senegal even threatening to tunnel underneath the enclave with China’s help.10

In that sense, we can identify similar naiveties and a utopian technocratic ideology present in the colonial railway map of 1908, which (minus the colonial intentions) also informs the map of the Trans-African Highway. The map is ignorant of the strategic blockages and discontinuities, political tensions and geographical challenges on the ground. It assumes a smoothness of operation which was never achieved. In fact, much of the transcontinental highway system still awaits completion. A review of the Trans-African Highway in 2003 by the African Development Bank comes to the conclusion that, of the individual routes, more than half of the roads remain unpaved and several major links are still missing.11

Fig 4
Map of the Trans-African Highway.
Source: UN Economic Commission for Africa, 1979.


Cairo Road, Lusaka

Many of the roads that were incorporated into the master plan for the Trans-African Highway where originally constructed during the colonial era. Some of these were based on even earlier paths dating back to pre-colonial times. One such road is the one from Nairobi to Mombasa based on an ancient caravan route used by Swahili traders and linking the East African highlands with the coastal regions. Even if this road was built during colonial times (parallel to the train line connecting the Indian Ocean and Lake Victoria), it is seen as a strategic infrastructure that was crucial for national interest, and its colonial heritage was not an issue. In other instances, however, we can ask if the colonial legacy has had an impact on the way infrastructure was seen after decolonisation.

Cairo Road is the main thoroughfare through the commercial city centre of Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. It is also part of Trans-African Highway No. 4. Its name stems from the fact that it is part of the road connecting Cape Town and Cairo. Lusaka was founded in the 1920s as the new capital of colonial Northern Rhodesia to replace Livingstone in the south, at a time when the colony was transforming towards a resource economy based on copper extraction in the north of the country. Its central location within Northern Rhodesia was seen as strategic in connecting the mines of the so-called copper belt with the infrastructure that ran through the highlands in the middle of the country. But the infrastructure was also a manifestation of Cecil Rhodes’ dream of connecting the very south of the continent to its very north. It was part of the infrastructure that, like no other, stood for the exploitation of the continent. Cairo Road, running north-south through central Lusaka, was the colonial infrastructure if there ever was one. How does a country, after decolonisation, deal with a road that is so symbolically charged? Some of Lusaka’s major institutions, such as the main market, a large department store, one of its principal hotels and even the city’s main train station, were located along or just off that road. Relocating them would have required not only a major investment, but also a complete restructuring of the city.

Unlike nations such as Kenya or Ivory Coast which embraced the capitalist system and aligned quite unambiguously with the Western world after decolonisation, Zambia took a different route with its president Kenneth Kaunda. Immediately upon independence in 1964, Zambia joined the Non-Aligned Movement. This group of nations was – and still is – supposed to represent an alternative world order, independent of the two superpowers. Belonging neither to the capitalist world nor to the Soviet bloc, the Non-Aligned Movement, founded in 1956 by Yugoslavia, India, Indonesia, Ghana and Egypt, represented the interests of the newly independent nations, and of the so-called Third World. It was sceptical of the consumerist focus of the Western world and its imperial and colonial legacy. The Non-Aligned Movement saw itself as the champion of decolonisation12 – a process that should extend beyond the political dimension to encompass the cultural, social and economical dimension as well. Zambia took a central role in the shaping of that organisation by hosting the third summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in its capital, Lusaka, in 1970, with Kenneth Kaunda becoming its secretary-general that same year.

At the time of its independence in 1964, Zambia was – with the exception of South Africa – the strongest economy in sub-Saharan Africa with a GDP per capita similar to that of Portugal. Even after independence, though, the main mines, as well as its banks and insurance companies, were still owned by foreign investors, mainly based in the US, the UK and South Africa. In 1968 President Kenneth Kaunda decided to pursue a policy of nationalisation. Seen as a slap in the face to the Western world, and much to the fury of their British and American investors, ownership of most of the mines, banks and insurance companies was transferred to the Zambian state. Three companies – INDECO (Industrial Development Corporation), MINDECO (Mining Development Corporation) and FINDECO (Financial Development Corporation) – were established to own and operate the newly nationalised key industries. These new state-owned companies needed new headquarters, and hence new buildings.

Fig. 5
Cairo Road, Lusaka, Sambia. Foto: © Manuel Herz.


Having angered Britain and the US, it is perhaps no surprise that new economic links were sought with countries that were also central to the Non-Aligned Movement, notably with Yugoslavia, a founding member. In 1971 planning began for FINDECO House, Lusaka’s tallest building and headquarters for the eponymous state company, which was to be located at a strategic point along the southern stretch of Cairo Road. Dušan Milenković and Branimir Ganovic, the Yugoslavian architects, had previously been involved in projects in Belgrade, including Ušće Tower as headquarters of the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. INDECO House was constructed at the same time just one block north of the iconic FINDECO House. One block further north, the Bank of Zambia was constructed by the local architecture firm Anderson & Anderson. Other major institutions along Cairo Road include the Zambian State Insurance Corporation, and a few hundred metres further north, PROFUND House, which originally housed the Zambia National Provident Fund, the national pension institution, and now accommodates the country’s revenue authorities. That is how the headquarters of the state’s main corporations, many of them recently nationalised, came to be constructed along Cairo Road within a time span of just a few years. A road – part of the Trans-African Highway – that had previously symbolised colonialism and imperialism like no other suddenly became the physical and architectural manifestation of national sovereignty and economic decolonisation, and thus completely reinvented its symbolism.

Public Culture

We can observe how the highway project was celebrated in the official media. Each nation that hosted the regular Trans-African Highway conferences issued a set of stamps, for example, featuring heroic illustrations of a continent united by infrastructure, or of the newest technologies of transport. But beyond the official media, too, we find indications of a changing public understanding. More and more popular magazines, such as the East African edition of Drum Magazine, feature advertisements showing private cars, or publish articles that deal with traffic and individual car ownership. The development of the Trans-African Highway project coincided with a social and economic transformation of societies across the African continent. The comic book series Aya de Yopougon,13 for example, tells the story of Aya and her family and friends in Abidjan during the 1970s. They experience a rapidly modernising society, dance in bars, enjoy romances and see futuristic architecture rise up in the city. Apart from the architecture, it is the car that seems to have the biggest impact on daily life. Aya and her friends are often seen jumping into taxis, driving to other neighbourhoods across the city. Moussa, a spoilt rich son, daydreams of driving a large American convertible, while his father is chauffeured in a large Citroën DS in his daily commute to the office. Society has become mobile. An economic boom has led to a rapidly growing middle class that strives to participate in this culture of mobility.

Several other novels by writers such as Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or V.S. Naipaul look at how societies dealt with notions of modernisation during the era of decolonisation. Naipaul’s book A Bend in the River, for example, describes a new city extension with modern houses and well-paved streets with street lights built by an autocratic president.14 In his novel Petals of Blood, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o gives testimony to the fact that this modernisation and the new infrastructure were not generally welcomed: ‘I remembered the aeroplane, the Landrover and the surveying team that only the day before had planted red pegs in Ilmorog. An International Highway through Ilmorog. I suddenly wanted to laugh at the preposterous idea. Why, I asked myself, had they not built smaller serviceable roads before thinking of international highways? At least my journey to and from Ruwa-ini would have been much quicker and I would have arrived home much less tired and might even have avoided this meeting with a stranger. But as suddenly I became bitter and took the side of the Ilmorog peasant; they would never build a road – not unless money was a flowing river.’15 Even while the advancements of the new infrastructure are celebrated across Africa, the highway remains – at least partially – a project of the ruling class, often with little benefit to the main population, and bringing land speculation and corruption in its wake.

During the 1980s, the economies of most sub-Saharan African countries collapsed, and several nations also experienced internal strife and civil war. The public funding and construction of large-scale infrastructure projects and the Trans-African Highway came to a standstill. The conflicting interests, whether the highways would benefit the capital or the regions, the general population or the privileged classes, and recurring protests against infrastructure projects and the resettlement of population that often came as its consequence, did not help either. The regular African Highway Conferences that had occurred every few years stopped in the mid-1980s with its last iteration taking place in 1986 in Cairo. The map of the highway master plan remained with many gaps and incomplete sections. Infrastructure suffered throughout the 1990s and continental road transport became slower and more expensive.

A new era?

Only after the turn of the millennium did investment into infrastructure pick up again on the African continent. But this time it was driven not by ideas of decolonisation or Pan-Africanism but by private corporations and was often linked to resource extractions. The 2010s in particular have seen major investment in new highway and railway projects in countries such as Senegal, Kenya, Nigeria and Ivory Coast. A new railway line between Nairobi and Mombasa opened in 2017. That same year also saw the inauguration of Senegal’s new international airport, which is linked to the capital, Dakar, by a new, controlled-access highway equipped with tollbooths. And Zambia recently began the construction of a new, two-lane highway linking its capital, Lusaka, with the copperbelt in the north, and beyond into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But most of these projects are funded by foreign consortiums. Senegal’s main airport, for example, is operated by a Turkish firm, while Kenya’s new railway line was financed by the Exim Bank of China, constructed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation and is operated by the China Communications Construction Company. On the other hand, these vast new infrastructure projects are filling some of the important gaps within the African highway and railway networks, or are replacing those that are ageing and decrepit. It remains to be seen, though, whether they represent the completion of the Trans-African Highway project envisioned in the decade after independence or a new chapter of neocolonisation. What the Trans-African Highway project does show, however, is that infrastructure is never neutral, never just a technical device. Its study allows us to gain an understanding of the social and political transformation processes it is embedded in.16


1. For more information on the Uganda Railway, see Henry Gunston, ‘The Planning and Construction of the Uganda Railway’, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, vol. 74, no. 1 (2004), pp. 45–71.

2. For more information on the Dakar–Niger Railway, see Julia Coyner Robinson, ‘Tout Travail Doit Nourrir Son Homme. The Dakar–Niger Railroad and the 1947–1948 Strike in the Political and Labor History of Senegal’, Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection (2007), Paper 189.

3. Wells Missionary Map Co., 1908, Source: Library of Congress.

4. United Nations Economic Commission for Africa: Report of the First Meeting of the Trans-African Highway Committee, Addis Ababa, 14–18 June 1971.

5. Samuel Misteli, ‘Gardiner, Robert Kweku’, in IO BIO, Biographical Dictionary of Secretaries-General of International Organizations, edited by Bob Reinalda, Kent J. Kille and Jaci Eisenberg; www.ru.nl/fm/iobio [accessed 26 January 2018].

6. Donald Robinson, The 100 Most Important People in the World Today, New York: Putnam, 1970.

7. Misteli (see note 5).

8. Economic Commission for Africa (see note 4), p. 3.

9. Rolf Hofmeier, ‘Die Transafrikastraßen: Stand der Planung und Realisierung’, Africa Spectrum, vol. 14, no. 1 (1979), pp. 31–51.

10. “Senegal may tunnel under Gambia”, BBC News, 21 September 2005; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4267846.stm [accessed 29 January 2018].

11. The African Development Bank, Review of the Implementation Status of the Trans-African Highways and the Missing Links, vol. 1: Main Report (2003).

12. Radoslav Stojanovic, ‘The Emergence of the Non-Aligned Movement: A View from Belgrade’, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, vol. 13, no. 3 (1981), pp. 443–50.

13. Marguerite Abouet, Aya de Yopougon, Paris: Gallimard, 2005.

14. V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River, originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.

15. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Petals of Blood, Heinemann, 1977, p. 48.

16. This essay is based on a research project the author is conducting in collaboration with Kenny Cupers (University of Basel) and Prita Meier (New York University).