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New African accord brings benefits to landlocked states

New potential has just been given to the Northern Corridor Transit Agreement (NCTA), thanks to which three landlocked low-income countries of East Africa - Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi - will gain access to the Port of Mombasa, Kenya, through a 2 000 km corridor linking the heart of Africa with the Indian Ocean.

Signed in Bujumbura, Burundi, on 19 February 1985 and ratified in November 1986, the Agreement did not become effective immediately: a number of problems, not least logistic difficulties, could not be completely resolved owing to both the lack of funds and the absence of an appropriate regional organization, namely the Permanent Secretariat originally envisaged in the Agreement and now soon to be set up in Nairobi.

The Coordination Authority, composed of the transport ministers of the signatory countries, has examined the priority investment proposal for the "northern corridor" and approved the transport improvement projects to be submitted to the Directorate-General for Development of the EEC.

NCTA, which is the outcome of five years of negotiations, is part of a UNDP-UNCTAD technical assistance programme for developing landlocked countries of Africa. It includes projects for the following nine protocols: harbour and maritime facilities, route and transit facilities, customs control, documentation and procedures, freight transport by rail, freight transport by road, handling of dangerous goods, facilities for forwarding agencies and their employees, and compulsory third-party insurance for motorists.

East Africa is the poorest region of the African continent, and its lack of mineral resources - unlike the southern African regions - means that nearly half its GDP comes from the agricultural sector. Uganda is particularly dependent on agriculture (82%); Burundi is too, but to a much lesser degree (56%). Foreign currency revenues in these countries come almost exclusively from agricultural exports: coffee accounts for 90 per cent of the total export value (see Table), the other major exports being tea and cotton fibre.

The improvement of transport facilities via the "northern corridor" is vital for the landlocked countries. The situation of Uganda is especially delicate: 95 per cent of its trade passes through the "corridor", against 80 per cent for Rwanda and 60 per cent for Burundi.

Uganda's coffee exports increased only slightly from 1983 to 1985: in 1984, they dropped by 8 per cent to 133 200 metric tons against 144 274 tons in 1983, and in 1985 they barely exceeded the 1983 level, reaching only 152 300 tons. Rwanda exported 34 259 tons of coffee in 1985, compared with 31 554 tons in 1984 (+8.5 per cent). Burundi, some of whose exports are transported through the port of Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania), exported 33 918 tons of coffee in 1985 against 29 000 tons in 1984 (+16.9 per cent).

Between 1970 and 1982 the picture was even gloomier for the landlocked countries of East Africa: Rwanda's total exports increased at a rate of only 2.4 per cent a year while imports grew by 11.5 per cent a year. During the same period Uganda's total exports and imports dropped by 9.2 per cent and 7.9 per cent a year respectively.

The Northern Corridor Transit Agreement is assumed to be capable of overcoming the numerous obstacles that hinder communication in the subregion. The main problems are caused by: the variety of languages used by the different governments in their foreign trade relations; the lack of transport infrastructures and insufficient or outdated transport equipment; high customs and other duties; the complicated paper work required for authorization to cross state boundaries and the incompetence of some customs officers.

Today, freight transport via the "northern corridor" is carried out mainly by truck, as the railways are on me whole unsatisfactory and lake transport is only just getting under way. Thanks to NCTA measures reducing the obstacles to transport development, and with the improvement of Kenya's road network, it now takes 11 days to travel by road from Mombasa to Uganda, 17 days from Mombasa to Rwanda, and 22 days from Mombasa to Burundi. Before these measures were implemented those trips took 13, 24, and 30 days respectively.

It is estimated that about 500 000 deadweight tons are transported via the "northern corridor". In 1985, however, the volume of goods passing through the port of Mombasa dropped by 20 per cent with respect to 1984 (to 381 000 tons from 478 000 tons). This can be explained mainly by me fact that there was a 43 per cent decline in imports to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Zaire. The sharpest drop is recorded for products exported to Rwanda and Uganda. An acute economic crisis continues to prevail in Uganda, as may be seen by the recent devaluation of its currency imposed by the International Monetary Fund.

In Kenya, the road transport system has developed more than the rail system, as demonstrated by the fact that in 1984, road transport receipts amounted to $12.4 million against $3.9 million for rail transport, according to the 1986 Annual Statistics Bulletin for Kenya. In 1985, the gap widened to $14.3 million for road transport and $3.7 million for rail transport, i.e., almost four times for road transport.

A Kenyan source explains that "users prefer road transport because the same truck makes the trip from start to finish, whereas train freight must be transferred at the Tororo-Malaba frontier post, between Kenya and Uganda." Furthermore, trucks have to pass through Uganda to reach Rwanda and Burundi from Kenya and vice versa.

All things considered, recent highlevel talks in Kigali, the fact that Zaire has joined the "northern corridor", and me creation of a free-trade zone at Eldoret are all tangible signs of the region's awareness of the need for closer collaboration aimed at relaunching traffic along a "corridor" that one African diplomat called a "lifeline" for the region's landlocked countries.

Pierre Antonios