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10 years of Nsanje Port: A decade lost in dreams

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COMMISSIONED NSANJE PORT—Bingu

By Lesson Masiano:

The scorching sun of the Shire Valley greeted the dignitaries as they embarked on a dream economic mission – to launch the Nsanje World Inland Port on October 23, 2010. The late Bingu wa Mutharika led the cast which was a fusion of local and foreign attendees, with the late Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Zambia’s Rupiah Banda hoisting the Southern Africa regional flag.

The occasion was one that filled Nsanje with huge anticipation and every other business came to a standstill. Finally, people thought, with the coming of Nsanje Port, abject poverty would pave way for prosperity, top-notch social services and unprecedented infrastructural development.

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Befittingly, drinks of different type and taste were dispensed generously to all who were eager to go merry on this occasion. After all it was an occasion heralding a brighter future for one of the poorest countries in the world with per capita Gross National Income of about $320.

The opening of the Shire-Zambezi Waterway, described by David Livingstone as “God’s highway to the interior”, was billed as the most significant milestone in turning the economic fortunes of the country. A landlocked country beset by high transportation costs, it was estimated that Malawi would be saving a whopping $175 million on annual import bills once the port was operationalised in December 2010.

In Malawi, goods transportation is largely done by trucks, where the percentage of transportation costs to the total production cost is estimated at 55 percent, compared to 17 percent in other developing countries.

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“Dream in colour”, Bingu kept saying as he sought financial support from the private sector and international lending institutions. “When I close my eyes, I see a city in Nsanje”. With this “dream in colour” mantra, Nsanje dwellers were endeared to Bingu like a bride is to her groom. And Sadc touted the project as a game changer for the region. “When implemented, the waterway would be a key lifeline for Malawi, Zambia and even Zimbabwe,” the Sadc secretariat said.

Bingu’s dream fell within the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (2006-2011) which prioritised the development of transportation infrastructure, including plans to develop the Shire as a waterway to provide direct access to the ports along the Indian Ocean through the Shire-Zambezi Waterway.

At a time the country was supposed to be cerebrating a decade of operating the Nsanje World Inland Port, the country is here doing an inquest on why project miserably failed, draining $20 million in the process.

The problem of Nsanje Port project is another painful reminder of how, as a country, we have been careless with public infrastructure projects that have serious socio-economic ramifications on people’s lives. Interestingly, although the project failed it continued receiving budget allocation in subsequent years.

Navigable but not economically viable

Although the European Union-commissioned pre-feasibility study in 2006 found that Shire-Zambezi waterway is navigable, the study did not ascertain the technical, financial as well as sustainability of the project. Nonetheless, the report by a German consulting company, Hydroplan, condemned the project and inscribed an epitaph on it.

Its report concluded that the project was not viable. Part of the report reads: “The waterway includes a 20 kilometre stretch of marshland on the river Shire, and sections of the Zambezi are characterised by seasonal sandbanks that would require constant dredging”. The report also concluded that Chinde was not suitable for large vessels and that Beira should be the preferred option.

Fractured diplomacy

The politics of the Shire-Zambezi waterway are entrenched in acrimonious diplomatic relations between Malawi and Mozambique spanning decades. In 1986, the Frontline States, independent countries seeking to help other countries attain independence in Southern Africa, were grievously appalled when Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda was not cooperative to help Malawi’s neighbours gain independence.

However, with Dr Banda firmly focused on getting financial support from the Rainbow Nation to finance a new Capital in Lilongwe, Malawi pragmatically chose to side with the white Apartheid government of Botha. Further, Dr Banda supported the capitalist aligned Renamo during Mozambique’s civil war. Since then, the Malawi-Mozambique relations have been sour only to be temporarily bandaged when Malawi hosted thousands of Mozambican refugees affected by the ravaging civil war from 1977 to 1992.

When the Nsanje Port project presented an opportunity to mend diplomatic fences with Maputo, Bingu did not play the cards right. In his measured opinion Professor Happy Kayuni said that “despite making economic sense, the ‘megaphone diplomacy’ that the former Malawian president pursued with Mozambique resulted in the failure of the project.

The Malawian president appeared to overlook the socio-political interests of Mozambique. And rather than using more established and sombre diplomatic approaches, the tactics used by Malawi angered the Mozambicans”. Thus Malawi did not elicit the political will necessary for successful outcome in multinational projects.

The immediate-past president, Peter Mutharika, struck the optimistic chord when he indicated that his brother’s dream, though flickering, was very much alive. “My government is ready to revive the construction work of the Nsanje Port and funds are available for the project, but we are only waiting for our colleagues from Mozambique to grant us permission.”

However, Mozambique is yet to grant Malawi that permission. Apart from demanding a detailed feasibility study, Mozambique has always indicated that her interest lies in reinforcing its railway transport network. These, on paper, are uncontested reasons why the project has stalled for a decade. However, beneath the surface, Maputo has diplomatic scores to settle with Lilongwe as the former feels that Malawi did not come to her aid when she was grappling with the Renamo insurgencies.

Counting the gains, losses

When Nsanje residents roll back the clock, they have mixed feelings about the failure of Nsanje Port. In Bingu’s dream, he was clearly seeing a city with all amenities befitting such a status. “It is Malawi’s desire to develop the Nsanje Port to the standards of Hamburg Port in Germany,” Bingu said that day. To ensure that the activities of Nsanje Port were well serviced, it was imperative that other forms of transport were up and running. In 2008, the bitumen road from Bangula to Nsanje was commissioned and it would connect with the M1 stretch of 140km.

Since the dawn of multiparty, Nsanje had been crying for better roads to easily connect the district to other parts of the Southern Region. However, it was Bingu who finally lived his promise. The tarmac road stands out as a direct beneficiary of the port project. It was also in Bingu’s dream that financial inclusion should be enhanced and to this he “ordered” the opening of the Malawi Savings Bank. Soon, Opportunity Bank, now part of First Merchant Bank, would follow in the footsteps of Malawi Savings Bank with an imposing building as a second bank in Nsanje, easing the banking challenges for the people of the district. Today, Nsanje residents who are unbanked do that by choice.

However, there is a flipside to the tales of Nsanje World Inland Port. Looming large though is the fallacy of regional integration when an individual country and regional interests collide. Whether it was an issue of feasibility study or fractured diplomacy, Mozambique protected and still protects her economic interests at the expense of Southern Africa Development Community’s quest to deepen regional integration.

At a local level, the ‘port’ altered the commercial dynamics as well. The promise of the port led to increase in prices of goods and service as everyone anticipated making a killing out of the impending development. The fact that the project still appears in the development papers at Capital Hill means that residents of Nsanje are restrained to develop land that falls within the planned port activities.

Thus, the very same port that promised unparalleled infrastructure development is now inhibiting the further growth of Nsanje. According to the then District Commissioner for Nsanje, Rodney Simwaka, about 800 plots were applied for and subsequently designated for infrastructure developments meant to support the port activities.

Meanwhile, the port site is now the platform of all kinds of entertainment. As one looks at some mortals paddling their canoes for a living along the Shire River the sight of imbibers and busy bodies catches the eye as well. During festive seasons, year in year out, the abandoned facility is thronged with multitudes as a leisure and partying hub for Nsanje residents. In 2018 the port facility hosted a wedding, a move that angered government as it was a direct affront to government on its failed promises.

Today, as we look back and evaluate how a project rated so highly as the remedy to our economic blues failed, we cannot ignore the importance of having a long term development blueprint to guide large scale development projects. Bingu, as a staunch Pan Africanist, might have had good intentions to wean Malawi from the dependency syndrome. However, it is evident that he was a lone monger, sailing through the uncharted waters without institutionalising his dream.

The coming of the National Planning Commission could check against this pattern. The commission was established with the sole objective of coordinating long and medium-term national development plans for Malawi and to oversee their implementation and to coordinate efforts of different stakeholders in achieving a common goal.

Projects of such scale should be planned and implemented by a nationally instituted body to avoid any developments that are pioneered out of political expediency other than a shared and a well thought vision.

Nsanje Port stands as a colossal monument and a farce to a promise of a better life for Nsanje and Malawi as a whole. Today, ten years on our egos are mortally bruised and our heads bowed in shame as to how a country could embark on such a huge project before sorting out diplomatic standoffs and ascertaining the technical viability of the project.

The author is an analyst of political economy of development.

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